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

Chapter XII

page 160

Chapter XII

The Tapa.—Instances of.—The Storming of Mokoia.—Pomare.—Hongi Ika.—Tareha.—Honour amongst Thieves.

There was a kind of variation on the tapu, called tapa, of this nature. For instance, if a chief said, “That axe is my head,” the axe became his to all intents and purposes; except, indeed, the owner of the axe was able to break his “head,” in which case, I have reason to believe, the tapa would fall to the ground. It was, however, in a certain degree necessary to have some legal reason, or excuse, for making the tapa; but to give some idea of what constituted the circumstances under which a man could fairly tapa anything, I must needs quote a case in point.

When the Ngapuhi attacked the tribe of Ngati Wakawe, at Rotorua, the Ngati Wakawe retired to the island of Mokoia in the lake of Rotorua, which they fortified; thinking that, as the Ngapuhi canoes could not come nearer than Kaituna on the east coast, about thirty miles distant, that they in their island position would be safe. But in this page 161 they were fatally deceived, for the Ngapuhi dragged a whole fleet of war canoes over land. When, however, the advanced division of the Ngapuhi arrived at Rotorua, and encamped on the shore of the lake, the Ngati Wakawe were not aware that the canoes of the enemy were coming, so every morning they manned their large canoes, and leaving the island fort, would come dashing along the shore deriding the Ngapuhi, and crying, “Ma wai koe e kawe mai ki Rangitiki?”—“Who shall bring you, or how shall you arrive, at Rangitiki?” Rangitiki was the name of one of their hill forts.

The canoes were fine large ornamented totara canoes, very valuable, capable of carrying from fifty to seventy men each, and much coveted by the Ngapuhi. The Ngapuhi of course considered all these canoes as their own already; but the different chiefs and leaders, anxious to secure one or more of these fine canoes for themselves and people, and not knowing who might be the first to lay hands on them in the confusion of the storming of Mokoia, which would take place when their own canoes arrived, each tapa'd one or more for himself, or—as the native expression is—to himself. Up jumped Pomare, and standing on the lake shore in front of the encampment of the division of which he was leader, he shouts— point- page 162 ing at the same time to a particular canoe at the time carrying about sixty men—“That canoe is my back-bone.” Then Tareha, in bulk like a sea elephant, and sinking to the ankles in the shore of the lake, with a hoarse croaking voice roars out, “That canoe! my scull shall be the bailer to bail it out.” This was a horribly strong tapa. Then the soft voice of the famous Hongi Ika, surnamed “The eater of men,” of Hongi kai tangata, was heard, “Those two canoes are my two thighs.” And so the whole flotilla was appropriated by the different chiefs.

Now it followed from this, that in the storming and plunder of Mokoia, when a warrior clapped his hand on a canoe and shouted, “This canoe is mine,” the seizure would not stand good, if it was one of the canoes which were tapa-tapa; for it would be a frightful insult to Pomare to claim to be the owner of his “back-bone,” or to Tareha to go on board a canoe which had been made sacred by the bare supposition that his “scull” should be a vessel to bail it with. Of course the first man laying his hand on any other canoe and claiming it secured it for himself and tribe; always provided that the number of men there present representing his tribe or hapu were sufficient to back his claim and render it dangerous to dispossess him. I have seen men shamefully robbed, for want of sufficient page 163 support, of their honest lawful gains; after all the trouble and risk they had gone to in killing the owners, of their plunder. But dishonest people are to be found almost everywhere; and I will say this, that my friends the Maoris seldom act against law, and always try to be able to say that what they do is “correct”—(tika).

This tapu is a bore, even to write about, and I fear the reader is beginning to think it a bore to read about. It began long before the time of Moses, and I think that steam navigation will be the death of it; but lest it should kill my reader I will have done with it for the present, and “try back,” for I have left my story behind completely.