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Old New Zealand: Being Incidents of Native Customs and Character in the Old Times by A Pakeha Maori

Chapter XI

page 151

Chapter XI

The Local Tapu.—The Taniwha.—The Battle on Motiti.—The Death of Tiki Whenua.—Reflections.—Brutus, Marcus Antonius, and Tiki Whenua.—Suicide.

A story-teller, like a poet or a pugilist, must be born, and not made, and I begin to fancy I have not been born under a story-telling planet, for by no effort that I can make can I hold on to the thread of my story, and I am conscious the whole affair is fast becoming one great parenthesis. If I could only get clear of this tapu I would “try back.” I believe I ought to be just now completing the purchase of my estate. I am sure I have been keeping house a long time before it is built, which is I believe clear against the rules; so I must get rid of this talk about the tapu the best way I can, after which I will start fair and try not to get before my story.

Besides these different forms of the tapu which I have mentioned, there were endless others; but the temporary local tapus were the most tormenting to a pakeha: as well they might, seeing that even page 152 a native could not steer clear of them always. A place not tapu yesterday might be most horribly tapu to-day, and the consequences of trespassing thereon proportionately troublesome.

Thus, sailing along a coast or a river bank, the most inviting landing-place would be almost to a certainty the freehold property of the Taniwha, a terrific sea monster, who would to a certainty, if his landed property was trespassed on, upset the canoe of the trespassers and devour them all the very next time they put to sea. The place was tapu, and let the weather be as bad as it might, it was better to keep to sea at all risks than to land there. Even pakeha, though in some cases invulnerable, could not escape the fangs of the terrible Taniwha. “Was not little Jackey-poto, the sailor, drowned by the Taniwha? He would go on shore, in spite of every warning, to get some water to mix with his waipiro; and was not his canoe found next day floating about with his paddle and two empty case-bottles in it?—a sure sign that the Taniwha had lifted him out bodily. And was not the body of the said Jackey found some days after with the Taniwha's mark on it,—one eye taken out?”

These Taniwha would, however, sometimes attach themselves to a chief or warrior, and in the shape of a huge sea monster, a bird, or a fish, page 153 gambol round his canoe, and by their motions give presage of good or evil fortune.

When the Ngati Kuri sailed on their last and fated expedition to the south, a huge Taniwha attached to the famous warrior, Tiki Whenua, accompanied the expedition, playing about continually amongst the canoes; often coming close to the canoe of Tiki Whenua, so that the warrior could reach to pat him approvingly with his paddle, at which he seemed much pleased; and when they came in sight of the island of Tuhua, this Taniwha chief called up the legions of the deep! The sea was blackened by an army of monsters, who, with uncouth and awful floundering and wallowing, performed before the chief and his companions a hideous tu ngarahu, and then disappeared. The Nagati Kuri, elated, and accepting this as a presage of victory, landed on Tuhua, stormed the pa, and massacred its defenders.

But they had mistaken the meaning of the monster review of the Taniwha. It was a leave-taking of his favourite warrior; for the Ngati Kuri were fated to die to a man on the next land they trod. A hundred and fifty men were they—the pick and prime of their tribe. All rangatira, all warriors of name, few in number, but desperately resolute, they thought it little to defeat the thousands of the south, and take page 154 the women and children as a prey! Having feasted and rejoiced at Tuhua, they sail for Motiti. This world was too small for them. They were impatient for battle. They thought to make the name of Kuri strike against the skies; but in the morning the sea is covered with war canoes. The thousands of the south are upon them! Ngati Awa, with many an allied band, mad for revenge, come on. Fight now, O Ngati Kuri!—not for victory, no, nor for life. Thìnk only now of utu!—for your time is come. That which you have dealt to many, you shall now receive. Fight!—fight! Your tribe shall be exterminated, but you must leave a name! Now came the tug of war on “bare Motiti.” From early morning till the sun had well declined, that ruthless battle raged. Twice their own number had the Ngati Kuri slain; and then Tiki Whenua, still living, saw around him his dead and dying tribe. A handful of bleeding warriors still resisted—a last and momentary struggle. He thought of the utu; it was great. He thought of the ruined remnant of the tribe at home, and then he remembered—horrid thought—that ere next day's setting sun, he and all the warriors of his tribe would be baked and eaten. (Tiki, my friend, thou art in trouble.) A cannon was close at hand—a nine-pound carronade. They had brought it page 155 in the canoes. Hurriedly he filled it half full of powder, seized a long firebrand, placed his breast to the cannon's mouth, and fired it with his own hand. Tiki Whenua, good-night!

Now I wonder if Brutus had had such a thing as a nine-pounder about him at Philippi, whether he would have thought of using it in this way. I really don't think he would. I have never looked upon Brutus as anything of an original genius; but Tiki Whenua most certainly was. I don't think there is another instance of a man blowing himself from a gun. Of course there are many examples of people blowing others from cannon; but that is quite a different thing; any blockhead can do that. But the exit of Tiki Whenua has a smack of originality about it which I like, and so I have mentioned it here.

But all this is digression on digression: however, I suppose the reader is getting used to it, and I cannot help it. Besides, I wanted to show them how poor Tiki “took arms against a sea of troubles,” and for the want of a “bare bodkin” made shift with a carronade. I shall never cease to lament those nice lads who met with that little accident (poor fellows!) on Motiti. A fine, strapping, stalwart set of fellows, who believed in force. We don't see many such men now-a-days. The present generation of Maori are a stunted, tobacco- page 156 smoking, grog-drinking, psalm-singing, special-pleading, shilling-hunting set of wretches: not above one in a dozen of them would know how to cut up a man secundum artem. 'Pshaw! I am ashamed of them.

I am getting tired of this tapu, so will give only one or two more instances of the local temporary tapu. In the autumn, when the great crop of kumera was gathered, all the paths leading to the village and cultivated lands were made tapu, and any one coming along them would have notice of this by finding a rope stretched across the road about breast-high; when he saw this, his business must be very urgent indeed or he would go back: indeed, it would have been taken as a very serious affront, even in a near relation, supposing his ordinary residence was not in the village, to disregard the hint given by the rope,—that for the present there was “no thoroughfare.”

Now, the reason of this blockade of the roads was this. The report of an unusually fine crop of kumera had often cost its cultivators and the whole tribe their lives. The news would spread about that Ngati so-and-so, living at so-and-so, had housed so many thousands of baskets of kumera. Exaggeration would multiply the truth by ten, the fertile land would be coveted, and very probably its owners, or rather its holders, would have to page 157 fight both for it and for their lives before the year was out. For this reason strangers were not welcome at the Maori harvest home. The kumera were dug hurriedly by the whole strengh of the working hands, thrown in scattered heaps, and concealed from the casual observation of strangers by being covered over with the leaves of the plants: when all were dug, then all hands set to work, at night, to fill the baskets and carry off the crop to the storehouse or rua; and every effort was made to get all stored and out of sight before daylight, lest any one should be able to from any idea of the extent of the crop. When the digging of one field was completed another would be done in the same manner, and so on till the whole crop was housed in this stealthy manner. I have been at several of these midnight labours, and have admired the immense amount of work one family would do in a single night; working as it were for life and death. In consequence of this mode of proceeding, even the families inhabiting the same village did not know what sort of a crop their neighbours had, and if a question was asked (to do which was thought impertinent and very improper), the invariable answer was “Nothing at all; barely got back the seed: hardly that; we shall be starved; we shall have to eat fern root this year,” &c. The last time I observed this custom was about twenty- page 158 seven years ago, and even then it was nearly discontinued and no longer general.

Talking of bygone habits and customs of the natives, I remember I have mentioned two cases of suicide. I shall, therefore, now take occasion to state that no more marked alteration in the habits of the natives has taken place than in the great decrease of cases of suicide. In the first years of my residence in the country, it was of almost daily occurrence. When a man died, it was almost a matter of course that his wife, or wives, hung themselves. When the wife died, the man very commonly shot himself. I have known young men, often on the most trifling affront or vexation, shoot themselves; and I was acquainted with a man who, having been for two days plagued with the toothache, cut his throat with a very blunt razor, without a handle: which certainly was a radical cure. I do not believe that one case of suicide occurs now, for twenty when I first came into the country. Indeed, the last case I have heard of in a populous district, occurred several years ago. It was rather a remarkable one. A native owed another a few shillings; the creditor kept continually asking for it; but the debtor, somehow or other, never could raise the cash. At last being out of patience, and not knowing anything of the Insolvent Court, he loaded his gun, page 159 went to the creditor's house, and called him out. Out came the creditor and his wife. The debtor then placed the gun to his own breast, and saying, “Here is your payment,” pulled the trigger with his foot, and fell dead before them. I think the reason suicide has become so comparatively unfrequent is, that the minds of the natives are now filled and agitated by a flood of new ideas, new wants and ambitions, which they knew not formerly, and which prevents them, from one single loss or disappointment, feeling as if there was nothing more to live for.