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

Chapter XIV

page 193

Chapter XIV

Trading in the Old Times.—The Native Difficulty.—Virtue its own Reward.—Rule, Britannia.—Death of my Chief.—His Dying Speech.—Rescue.—How the World goes round.

From the years 1822 to 1826, the vessels trading for flax had, when at anchor, boarding nettings up to the tops; all the crew were armed, and, as a standing rule, not more than five natives, on any pretence, allowed on board at one time. Trading for flax in those days was to be undertaken by a man who had his wits about him; and an old flax trader of those days, with his 150 ton schooner “out of Sydney,” cruising all round the coast of New Zealand, picking up his five tons at one port, ten at another, twenty at another, and so on, had questions, commercial, diplomatic, and military, to solve every day, that would drive all the “native department,” with the minister at their head, clean out of their senses.

Talk to me of the “native difficulty”—pooh! I think it was in 1822 that an old friend of mine bought, at Kawhia, a woman who was just going to be baked. He gave a cartridge-box full of page 194 cartridges for her; which was a great deal more than she was really worth: but humanity does not stick at trifles. He took her back to her friends at Taranaki, whence she had been taken, and her friends there gave him at once two tons of flax and eighteen pigs, and asked him to remain a few days longer till they should collect a still larger present in return for his kindness; but, as he found out their intention was to take the schooner, and knock himself and crew on the head, he made off in the night. Yet he maintains, to this day, that “virtue is its own reward:” “at least 'tis so at Taranaki.” Virtue, however, must have been on a visit to some other country (she does go out sometimes), when I saw and heard a British subject, a slave to some natives on the West Coast, begging hard for somebody to buy him. The price asked was one musket; but the only person on board the vessel possessing those articles, preferred to invest in a different commodity. The consequence was, that the above-mentioned unit of the great British nation lived, and (“Rule, Britannia” to the contrary notwithstanding) died a slave: but whether he was buried, deponent sayeth not.

My old rangatira at last began to show signs that his time to leave this world of care was approaching. He had arrived at a great age, and page 195 a rapid and general breaking up of his strength became plainly observable. He often grumbled that men should grow old, and oftener that no great war broke out in which he might make a final display, and die with éclat. The last two years of his life were spent almost entirely at my house; which, however, he never entered. He would sit whole days on a fallen puriri near the house, with his spear sticking up beside him, and speaking to no one, but sometimes humming in a low droning tone some old ditty which no one knew the meaning of but himself, and at night he would disappear to some of the numerous nests, or little sheds, he had around the place. In summer, he would roll himself in his blanket and sleep anywhere; but no one could tell exactly where.

In the hot days of summer, when his blood, I suppose, got a little warm, he would sometimes become talkative, and recount the exploits of his youth. As he warmed to the subject, he would seize his spear and go through all the incidents of some famous combat, repeating every thrust, blow, and parry as they actually occurred, and going through as much exertion as if he was really and truly fighting for his life. He used to go through these pantomimic labours as a duty whenever he had an assemblage of the young men of the tribe page 196 around him; to whom, as well as to myself, he was most anxious to communicate that which he considered the most valuable of all knowledge, a correct idea of the uses of the spear, a weapon he really used in a most graceful and scientific manner; but he would ignore the fact that “Young New Zealand” had laid down the weapon for ever, and already matured a new system of warfare adapted to their new weapons, and only listened to his lectures out of respect to himself, and not for his science.

At last this old lion was taken seriously ill, and removed permanently to the village; and one evening a smart, handsome lad, of about twelve years of age, came to tell me that his tupuna was dying, and had said he would “go” to-morrow, and had sent for me to see him before he died. The boy also added that the tribe were ka poto, or assembled, to the last man, around the dying chief. I must here mention that, though this old rangatira was not the head of his tribe, he had been for about half a century the recognized war chief of almost all the sections, or hapu, of a very numerous and warlike iwi, or tribe, who had now assembled from all their distant villages and pas to see him die. I could not, of course, neglect the invitation, so at daylight next morning I started on foot for the native village. On my arrival about mid-day, page 197 I found it crowded by a great assemblage of natives. I was saluted by the usual haere mai! and a volley of musketry. I at once perceived that, out of respect to my old owner, the whole tribe from far and near, hundreds of whom I had never seen, considered it necessary to make much of me,—at least for that day,—and I found myself consequently at once in the position of a “personage.” “Here comes the pakeha !—his pakeha! —make way for the pakeha !—kill those dogs that are barking at the pakeha!” Bang! bang! Here a double barrel nearly blew my cap off, by way of salute: I did for a moment think my head was off. However, being quite au fait in Maori etiquette by this time, thanks to the instructions and example of my old friend, I fixed my eyes with a vacant expression, looking only straight before me, recognized nobody, and took notice of nothing; not even the muskets fired under my nose or close to my back at every step, and each, from having four or five charges of powder, making a report like a cannon. On I stalked, looking neither to the right or the left, with my spear walking-staff in my hand, to where I saw a great crowd, and where I of course knew the dying man was. I walked straight on, not even pretending to see the crowd: as was “correct” under the circumstances; I being supposed to be entranced by the one absorbing page 198 thought of seeing “mataora,” or once more in life my rangatira.

The crowd divided as I came up, and closed again behind me as I stood in the front rank before the old chief, motionless; and, as in duty bound, trying to look the image of mute despair: which I flatter myself I did, to the satisfaction of all parties. The old man I saw at once was at his last hour. He had dwindled to a mere skeleton. No food of any kind had been prepared for or offered to him for three days: as he was dying it was of course considered unnecessary. At his right side lay his spear, tomahawk, and musket. (I never saw him with the musket in his hand all the time I knew him.) Over him was hanging his greenstone mere, and at his left side, close, and touching him, sat a stout, athletic savage, with a countenance disgustingly expressive of cunning and ferocity; and who, as he stealthily marked me from the corner of his eye, I recognized as one of those limbs of Satan, a Maori tohunga. The old man was propped up in a reclining position, his face towards the assembled tribe, who were all there waiting to catch his last words. I stood before him and I thought I perceived he recognized me. Still all was silence, and for a full half hour we all stood there, waiting patiently for the closing scene. Once or twice the tohunga said to page 199 him in a very loud voice, “The tribe are assembled, you won't die silent?”

At last, after about half an hour, he became restless, his eyes rolled from side to side, and he tried to speak; but failed. The circle of men closed nearer, and there was evidence of anxiety and expectation amongst them; but a dead silence was maintained. Then suddenly, without any apparent effort, and in a manner which startled me, the old man spoke clearly out, in the ringing metallic tone of voice for which he had been formerly so remarkable, particularly when excited. He spoke, “Hide my bones quickly where the enemy may not find them: hide them at once.” He spoke again—“Oh my tribe, be brave! be brave that you may live. Listen to the words of my pakeha; he will unfold the designs of his tribe.” This was in allusion to a very general belief amongst the natives at the time, that the Europeans designed sooner or later to exterminate them and take the country; a thing the old fellow had cross-questioned me about a thousand times: and the only way I could find to ease his mind was to tell him that if ever I heard any such proposal I would let him know, protesting at the same time that no such intention existed. This notion of the natives has since that time done much harm, and will do more, for it is not yet quite given up.

page 200

He continued—“I give my mere to my pakeha,” —“my two old wives will hang themselves,”—(here a howl of assent from the two old women in the rear rank)—“I am going; be brave after I am gone.” Here he began to rave; he fancied himself in some desperate battle, for he began to call to celebrated comrades who had been dead forty or fifty years. I remember every word—“Charge!” shouted he—“Charge! Wata, charge! Tara, charge! charge!” Then after a short pause— “Rescue! rescue! to my rescue! ahau! ahau! rescue!” The last cry for “rescue” was in such a piercing tone of anguish and utter desperation, that involuntarily I advanced a foot and hand, as if starting to his assistance; a movement, as I found afterwards, not unnoticed by the superstitious tribe. At the same instant that he gave the last despairing and most agonizing cry for “rescue,” I saw his eyes actually blaze, his square jaw locked, he set his teeth, and rose nearly to a sitting position, and them fell back dying. He only murmured—“How sweet is man's flesh,” and then the gasping breath and upturned eye announced the last moment.

The tohunga now, bending close to the dying man's ear, roared out, “Kia kotahi ki te ao! Kia kotahi ki te ao! Kia kotahi ki te po!” The poor savage was now, as I believe, past hearing, and page 201 gasping his last. “Kia kotahi ki te ao!”—shouted the devil priest again in his ear, and shaking his shoulder roughly with his hand—“Kia kotahi ki te ao!—Kia kotahi ki te po!” Then giving a significant look to the surrounding hundreds of natives, a roar of musketry burst forth. Kia kotahi ki te ao! Thus in a din like pandemonium, guns firing, women screaming, and the accursed tohunga shouting in his ear, died “Lizard Skin,” as good a fighting man as ever worshipped force or trusted in the spear. His death on the whole was thought happy; for his last words were full of good omen:—“How sweet is man's flesh.”

Next morning the body had disappeared. This was contrary to ordinary custom, but in accordance with the request of the old warrior. No one, even of his own tribe, knows where his body is concealed, but the two men who carried it off in the night. All I know is that it lies in a cave, with the spear and tomahawk beside it.

The two old wives were hanging by the neck from a scaffold at a short distance, which had been made to place potatoes on out of the reach of rats. The shrivelled old creatures were quite dead. I was for a moment forgetful of the “correct” thing, and called to an old chief, who was near, to cut them down. He said, in answer to my hurried call, “By-and-by; it is too soon yet: they might page 202 recover.” “Oh,” said I, at once recalled to my sense of propriety, “I thought they had been hanging all night,” and thus escaped the great risk of being thought a mere meddling pakeha. I now perceived the old chief was employed making a stretcher, or kauhoa, to carry the bodies on. At a short distance also were five old creatures of women sitting in a row, crying, with their eyes fixed on the hanging objects, and everything was evidently going on selon les règles. I walked on. “E tika ana,” said I, to myself. “It's all right, I dare say.”

The two young wives had also made a desperate attempt in the night to hang themselves, but had been prevented by two young men, who, by some unaccountable accident, had come upon them just as they were stringing themselves up; and who, seeing that they were not actually “ordered for execution,” by great exertion, and with the assistance of several female relations, whom they called to their assistance, prevented them from killing themselves out of respect for their old lord. Perhaps it was to revenge themselves for this meddling interference that these two young women married the two young men before the year was out; in consequence of which, and as a matter of course, the husbands were robbed by the tribe of everything they had in the world (which was page 203 not much), except their arms. They also had to fight some half-dozen duels each with spears; in which, however, no one was killed, and no more blood drawn than could be well spared. All this they went through with commendable resignation; and so, due respect having been paid to the memory of the old chief, and the appropriators of his widows duly punished according to law, further proceedings were stayed, and everything went on comfortably. And so the world goes round.