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

Chapter VII

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Chapter VII

Excitement caused by first Contact with Europeans.—The two great Institutions of Maori Land.—The Muru.—The Tapu. Instances of Legal Robbery.—Descriptions and Examples of the Muru.—Profit and Loss.—Explanation of some of the Workings of the Law of Muru.

The natives have been for fifty years or more in a continual state of excitement on one subject or another: this has had a markedly bad effect on their character and physical condition, as I shall by-and-by take occasion to point out. When the first straggling ships came here, the smallest bit of iron was a prize so inestimable that I might be thought to exaggerate were I to tell the bare truth on the subject. The excitement and speculation caused by a ship being seen off the coast were immense. Where would she anchor? What iron could be got from her? Would it be possible to seize her? The oracle was consulted, preparations were made to follow her along the coast, even through an enemy's country, at all risks; and when she disappeared she was not forgotten, but would page 95 continue long to be the subject of anxious expectation and speculation.

After this, regular trading began. The great madness then was for muskets and gunpowder. A furious competition was kept up. Should any tribe fail to procure a stock of these articles as soon as its neighbours, extermination was its probable doom. We may then imagine the excitement, the over-labour, the hardship, the starvation (occasioned by crops neglected whilst labouring to produce flax or other commodity demanded in payment)—I say imagine, but I have seen at least part of it.

After the demand for arms was supplied, came a perfect furor for iron tools, instruments of husbandry, clothing, and all kinds of pakeha manufactures. These things having been quite beyond their means while they were supplying themselves with arms, they were in the most extreme want of them; particularly iron tools. A few years ago the madness ran upon horses and cattle; now, young New Zealand believes in nothing but money, and they are continually tormenting themselves with plans to acquire it in large sums at once, without the trouble of slow and saving industry; which, as applied to the accumulation of money, they neither approve of nor understand: nor will they ever, as a people, take this mode till convinced that money, page 96 like everything else of value, can only be procured as a rule by giving full value for it, either in labour or the produce of labour.

Here I am, I find, again before my story. Right down to the present time, talking of “young New Zealand,” and within a hair's-breadth of settling “the Maori difficulty” without having been paid for it; which would have been a great oversight, and contrary to the customs of New Zealand. I must go back.

There were in the old times two great institutions, which ruled with iron rod in Maori land—the Tapu and the Muru. Pakehas who knew no better called the muru simply “robbery,” because the word muru, in its common signification, means to plunder. But I speak of the regular legalized and established system of plundering, as penalty for offences; which in a rough way resembled our law by which a man is obliged to pay “damages.” Great abuses had, however, crept into this system—so great, indeed, as to render the retention of any sort of movable property almost an impossibility, and in a great measure, too, discourage the inclination to labour for its acquisition. These great inconveniences were, however, met, or in some degree softened, by an expedient of a peculiarly Maori nature, which I shall by-and-by explain.

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The offences for which people were plundered were sometimes of a nature which, to a mere pakeha, would seem curious. A man's child fell in the fire and was almost burnt to death. The father was immediately plundered to an extent that almost left him without the means of subsistence: fishing-nets, canoes, pigs, provisions—all went. His canoe upset, and he and all his family narrowly escaped drowning—some were, perhaps, drowned. He was immediately robbed, and well pummelled with a club into the bargain, if he was not good at the science of self-defence—the club part of the ceremony being always fairly administered one against one, and after fair warning given to defend himself. He might be clearing some land for potatoes, burning off the fern, and the fire spreads farther than he intended, and gets into a wahi tapu or burial-ground. No matter whether any one has been buried in it or no for the last hundred years: he is tremendously robbed. In fact, for ten thousand different causes a man might be robbed; and I can really imagine a case in which a man for scratching his own head might be legally robbed.

Now as the enforcers of this law were also the parties who received the damages, as well as the judges of the amount—which in many cases (such as that of the burnt child) would be everything page 98 they could by any means lay hands on—it is easy to perceive that under such a system, personal property was an evanescent sort of thing altogether. These executions or distraints were never resisted. Indeed in many cases (as I shall explain by-and-by), it would have been felt as a slight, and even an insult, not to be robbed; the sacking of a man's establishment being often taken as a high compliment, especially if his head was broken into the bargain: and to resist the execution would not only have been looked upon as mean and disgraceful in the highest degree, but it would have debarred the contemptible individual from the privilege of robbing his neighbours; which was the compensating expedient I have alluded to. All this may seem a waste of words to my pakeha Maori readers, to whom these things have become such matters of course as to be no longer remarkable; but I have remembered that there are so many new people in the country who don't understand the beauty of being knocked down and robbed, that I shall say a few more words on the subject.

The tract of country inhabited by a single tribe might be, say, from forty to a hundred miles square, and the different villages of the different sections of the tribe would be scattered over this area at different distances from each other. We page 99 will by way of illustrating the working of the muru system, take the case of the burnt child. Soon after the accident it would be heard of in the neighbouring villages; the family of the mother are probably the inhabitants of one of them, and have, according to the law of muru, the first and greatest right to clean out the afflicted father; a child being considered to belong to the family of the mother more than to that of the father—in fact, it is their child, which the father has the rearing of. The child was, moreover, a promising lump of a boy, the makings of a future warrior, and consequently very valuable to the whole tribe in general; but to the mother's family in particular. “A pretty thing to let him get spoiled.” Then he is a boy of good family, a rangatira by birth, and it would never do to let the thing pass without making a noise about it: that would be an insult to the dignity of the families of both father and mother. Decidedly, besides being robbed, the father must be assaulted with a spear. True, he is a famous spearsman, and for his own credit must “hurt” some one or another if attacked. But this is of no consequence: a flesh wound more or less deep is to be counted on; and then think of the plunder! It is against the law of muru that any one should be killed, and first blood ends the duel. Then the natural affection of all the page 100 child's relations is great. They are all in a great state of excitement, and trying to remember how many canoes, and pigs, and other valuable articles, the father has got: for this must be a clean sweep.

A strong party is now mustered, headed probably by the brother of the mother of the child. He is a stout chap, and carries a long tough spear. A messenger is sent to the father, to say that the taua muru is coming, and may be expected tomorrow, or the next day. He asks, “Is it a great taua?” “Yes; it is a very great taua indeed.” The victim smiles, he feels highly complimented; he is then a man of consequence. His child is also of great consideration; he is thought worthy of a large force being sent to rob him! Now he sets all in motion to prepare a huge feast for the friendly robbers, his relations. He may as well be liberal, for his provisions are sure to go, whether or no. Pigs are killed and baked whole, potatoes are piled up in great heaps, all is made ready; he looks out his best spear, and keeps it always ready in his hand. At last the taua appears on a hill half a mile off; then the whole fighting men of the section of the tribe of which he is an important member, collect at his back, all armed with spear and club, to show that they could resist, if they would: a thing, however, not to be thought of under the circumstances.

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On comes the taua. The mother begins to cry in proper form; the tribe shout the call of welcome to the approaching robbers; and then with a grand rush, all armed, and looking as if they intended to exterminate all before them, the kai muru appear on the scene. They dance the war dance, which the villagers answer with another. Then the chief's brother-in-law advances, spear in hand, with the most alarming gestures. “Stand up!—stand up!—I will kill you this day,” is his cry. The defendant is not slow to answer the challenge. A most exciting, and what to a new pakeha would appear a most desperately dangerous, fencing bout with spears, instantly commences. The attack and defence are in the highest degree scientific; the spear shafts keep up a continuous rattle; the thrust, and parry, and stroke with the spear shaft follow each other with almost incredible rapidity, and are too rapid to be followed by an unpractised eye. At last the brother-in-law is slightly touched; blood also drops from our chief's thigh. The fight instantly ceases; learning on their spears, probably a little badinage takes place between them, and then the brother-in-law roars out, “Murua! murua! murua!” Then the new arrivals commence a regular sack, and the two principals sit down quietly with a few others for a friendly chat, in which the child's name is never page 102 mentioned, or the inquiry as to whether he is dead or alive even made.

The case I have just described would, however, be one of more than ordinary importance; slighter “accidents and offences” would be atoned for by a milder form of operation. But the general effect was to keep personal property circulating from hand to hand pretty briskly, or indeed to convert it into public property; for no man could say who would be the owner of his canoe, or blanket, in a month's time. Indeed, in that space of time, I once saw a nice coat, which a native had got from the captain of a trading schooner, and which was an article much coveted in those days, pass through the hands, and over the backs, of six different owners, and return, considerably the worse for wear, to the original purchaser; and all these transfers had been made by legal process of muru. I have been often myself paid the compliment of being robbed for little accidents occurring in my family, and have several times also, from a feeling of politeness, robbed my Maori friends; though I can't say I was a great gainer by these transactions

I think the greatest haul I ever made was about half a bag of shot, which I thought a famous joke, seeing that I had sold it the day before to the owner for full value. A month after this I was page 103 disturbed early in the morning, by a voice shouting “Get up!—get up! I will kill you this day. You have roasted my grandfather. Get up!—stand up!” I, of course, guessed that I had committed some heinous though involuntary offence, and the “stand up” hinted the immediate probable consequences; so out I turned, spear in hand, and who should I see, armed with a bayonet on the end of a long pole, but my friend the late owner of the bag of shot. He came at me with pretended fury; made some smart bangs and thrusts, which I parried, and then explained to me that I had “cooked his grandfather;” and that if I did not come down handsome in the way of damages, deeply as he might regret the necessity, his own credit, and the law of muru, compelled him either to sack my house, or die in the attempt. I was glad enough to prevent either event, by paying him two whole bags of shot, two blankets, divers fish-hooks, and certain figs of tobacco, which he demanded. I found that I had really and truly committed a most horrid crime. I had on a journey made my fire at the foot of a tree, in the top of which the bones of my friend's grandfather had once been deposited, but from which they had been removed ten years before. The tree caught fire and had burnt down: and I, therefore, by a convenient sort of figure of speech, had “roasted page 104 his grandfather,” and had to pay the penalty accordingly.

It did not require much financial ability on my part, after a few experiences of this nature, to perceive that I had better avail myself of my privileges as a pakeha, and have nothing further to do with the law of muru—a determination I have kept to strictly. If ever I have unwittingly injured any of my neighbours, I have always made what I considered just compensation, and resisted the muru altogether: and I will say this for my friends, that when any of them have done an accidental piece of mischief, they have, in most cases without being asked, offered to pay for it.

The above slight sketch of the penal law of New Zealand I present and dedicate to the Law Lords of England; as it might, perhaps, afford some hints for a reform in our own. The only remark I shall have to add is, that if a man killed another, “malice prepense aforethought,” the act, in nineteen cases out of twenty, would be either a very meritorious one, or of no consequence whatever; in either of which cases the penal code had, of course, nothing to do in the matter. If, however, a man killed another by accident, in the majority of cases the consequences would be most serious; and not only the involuntary homicide, page 105 but every one connected with him, would be plundered of everything they possessed worth taking.

This, however, to an English lawyer, may require some explanation, which is as follows:—If a man thought fit to kill his own slave, it was nobody's affair but his own; the law had nothing to do with it. If he killed a man of another tribe, he had nothing to do but declare it was in revenge or retaliation for some aggression, either recent or traditional, by the other tribe; of which examples were never scarce. In this case, the action became at once highly meritorious, and his whole tribe would support and defend him to the last extremity. If he, however, killed a man by accident, the slain man would be, as a matter of course, in most instances, one of his ordinary companions—i.e., one of his own tribe. The accidental discharge of a gun often caused death in this way. Then, indeed, the law of muru had full swing, and the wholesale plunder of the criminal and family was the penalty. Murder, as the natives understood it: that is to say, the malicious destruction of a man of the same tribe, did not happen so frequently as might be expected; and when it did, went in most cases unpunished: the murderer, in general, managed to escape to some other section of the tribe where he had relations; page 106 who, as he fled to them for protection, were bound to give it, and always ready to do so; or otherwise he would stand his ground and defy all comers, by means of the strength of his own family or section, who all would defend him and protect him as a mere matter of course: and as the law of utu or lex talionis was the only one which applied in this case, and as, unlike the law of muru, nothing was to be got by enforcing it but hard blows, murder in most cases went unpunished.