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Pioneering Reminiscences of Old Wairoa

How We Fought the Maori

page 130

How We Fought the Maori.

It was in July, 1869, during the abortive expedition of Colonel Whitmore into the Urewera country from Tauranga that the following incident occurred. I give it in the words of the late Mr. J. P. Ward, later caretaker at Lake House, and at one time well known to the people of Mohaka:

"We had just climbed the fourth or fifth gully, after leaving the main body, when one of ours, P. Gavin by name, held up his hand—the warning signal—and all of us at once crouched down and steadily advanced to the edge of the gully or ravine where Gavin was. There we saw three Natives wearily climbing the opposite spur by a narrow bush track. Bang! Bang! Bang! A dozen rifles were at once emptied at the trio of men. As I fired I had a very brief chance to notice them. One was an old man, very old indeed; he was unarmed, save for a stick carried after the fashion of a rude taiaha which he carried in his right hand, apparently to assist him while he walked. The other two men, very much younger in comparison to the old man, were each armed with a double-barrelled gun and tomahawk. Why the foolish fellows did not at once slip into the forest—only a foot or so away from them as they walked—was a puzzle to us fellows on the opposite side of the gully. For the noise made by us, though slight, getting into position—experienced bushmen and all as we were—gave our enemy the alarm; for they all looked hurriedly round, but before they could, as I suppose, realize that the hated Pakeha were upon them we had emptied our rifles at point-blank range, straight into them. The first volley of ours had no page 131effect on them, all three men quietly wending their way up the steep hillside. One of the young men hastily turned round and emptied his double-barrelled gun at us without any effect either. But his young chum, with the old man, marched stolidly on. I also noticed that the old man had no clothing on him save a very rough korowai thrown over his left shoulder—indeed, he might as well have roamed his native forest 'mit nodings on.' The younger fellows had more or less European clothing on them but neither hats nor caps, and their cartridge-belts were thrown over their left shoulders. All these details were taken in by us in a moment, as it were, for we were too intent to try and kill the three men to notice much about them. 'Oh, I say, chaps,' remarked T. Jones, 'whatever is the matter that we cannot knock over the Hauhaus yonder?' 'Right, Tom,' replied one of our party nicknamed Te Kooti, 'whatever is up with us? Well, here goes for the centre one anyway,' and bang! went his long Terry breech-loader; over toppled the leading one of the two young fellows nearest to the old man. He gave a wild sort of shriek and rolled down the hillside plop into a pool of water in the creek below. His rear file, seeing his companion thus disposed of, made a side dart off the track and into the bush immediately alongside him, and was safe from our rifle-fire. But not so the old man in front, for on hearing the death-scream of his whilom companion he turned round and gave a long look of agony at him as he rolled down the hillside. Most probably the man shot was the old man's son. He never noticed the third man clearing away into the bush, but at once turned again and wended his way slowly up the hillside. Not for him the shelter of the bush! He never yet fled from an enemy, and most probably he reckoned he was too old to start that game now. Whatever he thinks, he has shown a stolid, a most magnificent page 132indifference to us as death-dealers. Brave old pakira hori—for the old man was bald-headed; his cranium shone like a lump of bronze in the morning sun as odd glints of old Sol's rays gleamed on his head as he walked up the track. Brave, splendid old pakira hori, fit type of your gallant and high-spirited race! And us white braves? Well, we set ourselves, one and all of the dozen Pakehas comprising our party, to bring down that lonely bald-headed man! Shameful! Yes, I think so. I look back throughout the forty odd years intervening since that July morning long ago, and I feel ashamed of myself, my comrades and the glorious traditions of my race, when I see again in my mind's eye our attempt to kill that lonely, unarmed old Maori! Bang! Bang! Bang! All our rifles are emptied at him for three or four volleys, as fast as we can load them, in fact, we can see splashes of earth torn up by our bullets, see leaves ripped off the shrubs and trees around him, sides, front and rear; yet on he plodded, as careless and indifferent as if he were miles distant from any possible enemy. However can he possibly live through a storm of bullets poured into him at less than sixty yards! It's incredible. 'Look here,' remarked one of our fellows, 'Look here, Te Kooti, how is it you cannot pot the old Maori, eh?' 'Hanged if I can make it out, Jack. He must be the Old Boy, himself—perhaps, yet I cannot see his forked tail or hoofs. Yet hang it, it's strange, very strange.' Bang! Bang! Bang! Again rings out the sharp whip-like rifle-fire, each of us doing our best to bring down the old Hauhau, but with no result. Yes, by Jove, he has turned around, facing us, and is doing a Tu Ngarahu, or dance of defiance, at us. Look how his old frame of a body bounds from side to side of the narrow track, right in the line of possible death from rifle-fire. Ha! Bang at him again, brave Pakehas! Bound to bring him down now. Let the page 133old sport have it straight in 'the bread-basket.' Quick, before he turns around again! Whirr! Whirr! Whirr! What a splendid volley that was. It's a case with the old chap now. The rifle smoke hangs around our eyes and faces, we cannot see a yard ahead, and we are so eager, too. 'What? Eh? Isn't he stretched out? No, but he has finished his tu Ngarahu, and slowly resumes his journey up the hillside. We all look at each other in wonder and amazement. This is altogether out of the common. No man—not anything living—should be able to live under such rifle fire, for we are all good shots, and our whole fire, too, is concentrated on such a small object. It is uncanny! Unreal! And who is the old geyser, anyway? we ask one another. 'Te Kooti, old man, how is it you cannot bring yon chap down?' 'Oh, Te Kooti be bothered,' remarked rollicking Paddy Taylor, 'he cannot shoot for sour apples this morning. Bet this will knock the old fellow over, for I've spit on the bullet and that would kill Old Nick himself, let alone the old chap yonder.' So we all looked on breathlessly. Paddy Taylor is about the best shot amongst us. Bang! went Taylor's rifle. Did the old Maori yonder fall, or even swerve to one side? Not he; up the hill he still kept plodding, as if the accursed Pakehas and all their belongings had never been. 'Well, I never! That bangs Old Nick, anyway. It does, Paddy avic. It bates Bannagher right enough an' that purty little town bates the Ould Boy himself, so 'tis said!' 'Come, chaps, he will soon be up to the top of the hill and in the bush, and then it's goodbye to him, whatever he is.' 'Oh, never mind; he's an old brick, end deserves to get off, so he does.' 'That's true, Jones. It looks like murder to keep popping at him this way; let the old boy go.' 'Let him be! Not me! What will the rest say to us at not being able to knock over an old Hauhau,' 'They cannot say page 134anything to us, Todd, we knocked one of them over—he's in the creek down there.' 'Well, here's at the old Maori again, and if I miss him again I'll give shooting best and go and join the awkward squad.' It was Sutherland who spoke this time, and his last word was instantly followed by the crack of his rifle. The gallant old human target yonder pauses. The eyes of us all are fixed on him intently, for Sutherland's rifle-fire is deadly at all times. The old Maori is almost at the top of the hill—within a few paces of it, in fact. 'Ha! He is stooping down! He is falling! No, he's not! Sutherland's bullet has struck his wooden staff—his rakau turora—out of his hand, and he merely stooped down to pick it up! He's safe! unhurt! Brave splendid old man! Let's give him a rattling British cheer! Few have more deserved one. But before we could make up our minds to this the old man is on the top of the spur he has been climbing. Ha! He's running away now, and none of us dare fire on him: we couldn't allow it. The old Maori is running along the track on the hilltop yonder, running with a little of his old-time fire. Does he at last recognize that we, his implacable foes, who for the last four or five minutes have been trying so hard and so determinedly to kill him, have at last recognized his splendid courage, his grand indifference to death? Perhaps he does. Anyhow, we Pakehas, with rifles now on the ground, watch the old fellow, spell-bound as it were. Watch him running away? Ha! Did I say running away? What a gross libel on that brave old pakira. Apparently he has never yet run from a foe. Never! Never! And he will die, brave old warrior that he is, the proud possessor of that spotless record! For as he reaches the forest a few yards distant along the track he stops. If he enters the forest he is safe. The bullets of the hated Pakeha cannot reach him within its protecting shades. But he does not choose page 135the forest just then, anyhow, for he has again turned round facing us, and rapidly runs back towards us! By Jove! He is at another ngarahu whakahihi! A regular jeering dance of defiance! Listen to his yells! How the echoes of them roll in and out from one gully to another! Look at his grimaces, each more hideous and revolting than its predecessors! How frightful in their monstrosity! Whoever would think that the human face could be made such a veritable 'death's head'? See the lolling tongue, the rolling eyeballs, turned completely until nothing but the whites are seen, The thump! thump! thump! of his feet as they reach the ground after each vault he gives in the air! The quivering muscles, trembling flanks and shaking hands! Aye, it is a veritable ngarahu of defiant scorn and soul-hatred of us, the hated palefaced invaders of sacred Tuhoeland! Finally, with one discordant yell, if anything, more terrific than the other, the echoes of which rose and fell with a sort of derisive distinctness, and then died away reluctantly in the far-off mountain fastnesses, the old man came down on the ground with a gesture or series of gestures altogether indescribable. He then turned his back upon us, walked slowly up the track, entered the forest and was lost to view. But his last yell, however, or the echoes of it rather, still clung around our ears. It was a frightful yell, and to me it seemed not only a yell of defiance but the dying wail of a doomed people. And us white braves, who couldn't hit the bald-headed old warrior? Did we feel small and dreadfully mean? I know I did. Brave old pakira hori! Fit type, after all, of your gallant race. You were no demon or representative of the Evil One. Nothing more than a sterling old warrior as staunch and brave as Dame Nature builds such rare men. Had you fallen that far-away morning to our rifle-lire, methinks that the Goddess of Fame would eagerly have page 136snapped you up, as one of the unknown and uncared for braves who live and die the world over, yet fit to rank with Ajax defying the lightning, or Leonidas before the hosts of Persia; and the goddess would have given you a niche in her Temple of Fame with far more zest than she would to many of those other mortals for whom she is sometimes forced to make room."

(The old man was Paraone Te Tuhi, long since departed to the Reinga of Maori spirits.)