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Murihiku: A History of the South Island of New Zealand and the Islands Adjacent and Lying to the South, from 1642 to 1835

CHAPTER XXII. — The Natives, 1823

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The Natives, 1823.

IN addition to the work done by Captain Edwardson in developing the flax trade in Foveaux Strait that gentleman has also provided a most complete and interesting account of the natives of the south of New Zealand. Beyond the few scraps of information regarding the natives, which came under public notice in connection with their cannibal assaults upon sealing gangs, Captain Edwardson's information is the sole contribution made to science on the subject of the South Island natives. Like the rest of the Captain's information it comes down to us through the Coquille expeditionary officers, in the shape of an Essay published in the “Nouvelles Annales des Voyages” (Paris 1826). Tome XXIX., p. 161. The author subjoins a translation of this interesting and instructive contribution to New Zealand Ethnology.

Essay on the Manners and Customs of the Inhabitants of the Southern Part of Tavai-Poenammou (Te Wai Pounamu).

“As up to the present we have had no definite information concerning the southern tribes of New Zealand, this sketch of their manners should be of interest. It will show that these savage people are in no way less cruel nor less warlike than the natives of the North Island and that generally they very much resemble them. The natives of Ika-na-Mauwi have been very truthfully described by travellers as being mendacious, superstitious, slanderous, proud, cruel, dirty and greedy, but at the same time brave, cautious, respectful to the aged, kind parents and faithful page 322 friends; these vices and good qualities are also the characteristics of the inhabitants of Tavai-Poenammou (Te Wai Pounamu).

“The natives who inhabit the shores of Foveaux Strait are of medium height, well proportioned, stout and robust; in colour they are darker than mulattoes, but the shade is changed by the diagrams and the deeply cut designs which they tattoo on their skins. The women are generally short and there is nothing conspicuous about their appearance; they consider tattooing as a prerogative of the nobility. These people, in their savage state, are treacherous, cunning and vindictive and push these vices to extremes. The greatest kindness and the longest friendship are counted as nothing when compared with some slight momentary offence. They are cannibals to the full extent of the word, and far from making any mystery of it they describe with complaisance their odious practices. Addicted alike to theft and lying they live in a condition of perpetual mistrust. Each has his own special retreat in the forests, where he hides everything he possesses. Their perversity is carried to such a degree that any idea of crime is foreign to them, and the guilty receive no punishment. If a chief pilfers anything from another, war breaks out at once between the two tribes, but if the larceny is committed on one of the common people, this latter can only indemnify himself by retaliating upon individuals of his own rank; he has no recourse against a well born thief. War is the ruling passion of these pillage-loving tribes; it is to their system of destruction that must be attributed the smallness of the population. They only attack openly when they feel assured of their superior strength and of a rich booty. In this case the loss of a few warriors of the lower class is not taken into account; but, on the contrary, if a chief be killed, his party gathers together his friends and his relatives and when victory rewards the band, death becomes the inevitable fate of the whole tribe of the murderers. If, on the contrary, the band does not feel itself strong enough, trickery comes to its assistance; it tries to surprise and page 323 capture a few of its enemies and appeases its wrath in devouring them. The death of these unfortunates is seldom avenged. All the prisoners are adopted by the victorious chiefs, or else killed and devoured; their heads are preserved by a very simple process. The person who prepares these heads must not eat during the first twenty-four hours. During the second day he must not even touch any provisions, his food is given him by a slave. These men are armed with a spear about 20 to 30 feet in length, one of from 10 to 14 feet, and the pattou-pattou, which is to the natives of New Zealand what the dagger and the knife are to the Italians and the Spaniards. They never throw the larger spear, and seldom the shorter one, but they rush up at once and fight with the pattou-pattou, which is made out of a whale bone or a piece of the green stone which they call poenammou (pounamu).

“The children are very mirthful and display great friendship for each other. They display a remarkable agility in their exercises. They amuse themselves by making kites, whips, and other playthings and little canoes; they dance together and use slings. The young men are not considered to have reached full manhood until they have attained the age of twenty; then, if they have learned how to use the spear and the pattou-pattou and if they are of a certain development they are tattooed all over and are declared warriors. The operation of tattooing round the eyes often causes them frightful sufferings of which the result is sometimes blindness.

“All these islanders, men and women alike, are modest. They observe upon this point most scrupulous strictness and are always completely covered by their clothes which consist of a rude mat made of flax and daubed with red ochre. Over this, in cold and rainy weather, they wear a second one made out of the bark of a tree named the ohe; the first mat is the work of the woman, the other is made by the men. Their hair is gathered in a knot on the top of the head; on special occasions the men deck themselves with large white feathers which they fix horizontally in the page 324 knot and attach others at the same time to their ears. The women also adorn themselves with garlands of red and white flowers and with greenery which they arrange with distinct taste. Red is their favourite colour and shares with green branches the honour of being the emblem of peace. These leafy ornaments are not worn from any religious ideas, they are simply adornments. These savages cannot endure either the white or black colours; they cover themselves with paint and ornament themselves with flowers on the approach of a stranger whom they greet with these words, miti arowi, at the same time rubbing their noses against his, a very disagreeable ceremony for the visitor, but the only proof of his safety. Polygamy is permitted; during the absence of their husbands the wives are prodigal of their favours without distinction; the husband indeed considers himself flattered by all the attentions which a white man may pay his wife.

“Old age is the object of profound respect: even a chief gives food to a man of low rank whom old age has deprived of his faculties, but no sentiment of affection is the motive of these good deeds. Nevertheless nowhere are the laws of friendship and the ties of relationship more respected. The men live generally to the age of eighty, and the women from 85 to 90. Upon the death of a chief, his tribe assembles and delivers itself up to joy. Birds, eels, potatoes are eaten, but no entrails or raw meat. Half an hour after death the head is cut off and preparations are made for preserving it. The body, placed in a box which is stood upright in a hut built on purpose, remains there for two years; after which the bones are taken out and burned and the coffin receives a new occupant. Common people and the slaves are enveloped after death, in their own mats, and thrown, like dogs, into a hole dug behind the huts; sometimes, but very rarely the friends of the defunct come and weep over his tomb for about half an hour; after which no one troubles about him for a long time. It frequently happens that the body of a defunct of this class is taken away and eaten during the night, but this is a crime punishable by death. If this page 325 body remains buried, the bones are taken out after a certain time and are burnt. The bones of vanquished enemies are not consumed by fire; fish hooks, flutes and other objects are made from them and are worn as trophies. Death preys severely upon children of two years of age; the same ceremonials are observed for them as for their chiefs; women also are treated in the same way; with the exception of slaves whose bodies are immediately burned.

“The principal diseases of these islanders appear to be elephantiasis and pian (the yaws) a malady very common in the Antilles; it appears to be caused by extreme indolence and the habit of remaining seated upon the ashes in the huts. Natives can be seen who have lost their feet and hands; their bodies are frightfully thin and their extremities rot away. Many of them also suffer from scrofula. Although diseases of the eyes are common amongst them as a result of tattooing and of the smoke in their huts, blindness is rare before old age and generally it is the women who are attacked. Diseases of the teeth and deafness are unknown. When a limb is broken or dislocated it is placed back again in its natural position and is fastened with splints and palm leaves and exposed twice a day to the steam from dampened herbs thrown on the fire.

“In building their villages the natives select the slope of a hillock facing a point on the beach where they can land and remove everything which could prevent their seeing the canoes and ships arrive. Their houses are neat and substantial; they are sixteen feet in height, ten in width and thirteen in length. The floor, which is raised a foot above the ground, is covered with a kind of wattling bound together with creepers; small openings are left in which they light fires when the weather is cold and wet. When a native falls ill, or a woman is about to bear a child, a small hut is built specially, a few fathoms away from the other houses; it is set fire to when it is no longer occupied. As a rule the gardens are situated a certain distance from the houses. Potatoes, cabbages and other kitchen vegetables page 326 introduced by the Europeans are cultivated. During the winter season the potatoes are preserved by the same process as that employed by the Irish.

“The men hunt, fish, build the houses, construct canoes and work in the garden; but they would rather die than carry their provisions; the women carry all the burdens. During the fine weather season, they kill the albatross, wild fowl, seals and rats, etc., etc. They smoke these animals and preserve them whole, closed up in bags, for several months. These winter provisions are sheltered from the rats on a platform on the top of a smooth post to which they ascend by means of a movable ladder. They make fire by rubbing quickly a pointed stick in the groove of the same kind of wood, the dust of which ignites in an instant. Their manner of cooking food consists in roasting meat or fish on the fire, or else they scoop out a hole in the ground, heat therein a large number of stones, wrap up what they wish to cook in green leaves and then cover up the whole with earth. The crew of the Snapper adopted this method in baking their bread by means of red hot stones. Their canoes, which are well constructed and decorated with carvings, do not well resist a heavy sea, but when the sea is calm and smooth the rowers can send them along at a great speed. The war canoes are generally plain, and are from 70 to 100 feet in length; this is also the number of warriors and rowers; they travel with an extraordinary swiftness. The large fishing nets are from one to two miles in length and between ten to twelve feet in width; they are made of the fibres of the phormium without any preparation. The sea is full of fish.

“Fresh water is found almost everywhere but it is not always of a pleasant taste. The country is infested by rats; no venomous reptile is to be met with. Small bats, iguanas, lizards, mosquitoes in great numbers, large flies, bees, crickets and grasshoppers are all plentiful. The sight of a lizard frightens the islanders although they often eat more unclean animals. These people had no pigs at the time of the Snapper's visit. Captain Edwardson gave them several, page 327 of which they have taken the greatest care. They appear to have fully understood the importance of this gift.

“The inhabitants of Tavai-Poenammou (Te Wai Pounamu) believe that a Supreme Being has created everything, except that which is the work of their hands, and that he will do them no harm, they call him Maaouha. Rockou-noui-etoua is a good spirit whom they supplicate night and day to preserve them from all evil. Kowkoula is the Spirit, or Etoua who rules the world during the day, from sunrise to sunset. They call upon Rockou-noui-etoua and Kowkoula to come to their aid. Rockiola is the Spirit of night, the cause of death, of diseases and of all the accidents which may happen during the hours of his reign. It is for this reason that the natives call upon him and Rockounoui-etoua during the night. There exist fabulous traditions on the subject of a man or a woman who dwells in the moon. The beautiful and curious articles which they see in the hands of the Europeans make them regard the latter as a species of devils or spirits, heetouas. They watch the white men with the closest attention and spy upon their doings. Dissimulation, which amongst these people, spoils some good-natured inclinations, their vindictive character and their crafty spirit make them sensitive to the slightest offence; it then becomes most difficult to pacify them. If one chief receives a less valuable present than that given to another or if a present be made to one of the common people, the anger of the first knows no bounds. This touchiness makes the position of a stranger, who negotiates with these people and who, whatever happens, must try to please everybody, most awkward. The deaths of several white people may be attributed to the lack of prudent conduct. Amongst the numerous victims of the ferocity of the islanders may be mentioned Captain Tucker and the crew of his cutter; five men from the cutter of the Sydney Cove, a whaling vessel, killed by Hunneghi, chief of Oouai on the coast of Foveaux Strait; four men from the schooner The Brothers massacred at Molyneux Harbour; several sailors from the General page 328 Gates, and finally, three lascars of the brig Matilda who had deserted on account of ill treatment. Three others, who were spared, taught the natives the manner of attacking the Europeans during the heavy rains when their guns could not be used and also how to dive in order to cut the cables of the vessels during the night.

“James Coddell, an ex-sailor on the Sydney Cove, was captured at the age of sixteen years and had spent as many more years amongst the natives of Tavai-Poenammou (Te Wai Pounamu) when the Snapper took him to Port Jackson, where the officers of the Coquille saw him. The man, who had married a young native woman, named Tougghi-Touci, had so fallen into the manner of life of these savages that he had become quite as open a cannibal as any of them. He had embraced their ideas and beliefs, accepted with faith their fables, had yielded to all their customs, so much so that one might have believed that New Zealand was his true native country. His vicious and crafty nature had caused him to be favourably received by the natives. In the first interviews he had with Captain Edwardson he had some trouble to make himself understood, and had so greatly forgotten his mother tongue that it was difficult for him to act as interpreter. He was considered a very dangerous man, but by not placing too great a confidence in him they found him of considerable assistance.”

The author is indebted to Mr. J. Cowan of Wellington for the following notes on obscure points in the Essay.


“A tree named the Ohe” from the bark of which the natives made mats. This is evidently the whauwhi or houhi, the ribbonwood or “lacebark,” from which the Maoris in some parts, at the present day, make waist-mats for use in ceremonial dances. I have seen a dancing party of Taupo Maoris wearing these rough maro made from the inner bark of the whauwhi.

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Names of Maori Gods.

“Maaouha”. This is probably meant for Maui.

“Rockou-nui-etoua” “a good spirit.” This is, I think, meant for Rongo one of the few beneficient Polynesian deities. The South Island dialectical variation of “K” for “ng”, accounts for the change of pronunciation to “Roko”. “Nui” is great, and “atua”, god or spirit.

“Kowkoula”, a spirit or Atua.

This is Kahukura (lit., “Rainbow”), the principal national deity and war-god of the South Island people. In the North Island Uenuku is one of the great war-deities; Uenuku and Kahukura are both classic Polynesian names for the rainbow, which was the visible sign or incarnation (aria) of the god.

There are numerous places in the South Island, on the sites of the old Maoris pas, pointed out to this day as the shrines (tuahu) of Kahukura; an image carved in wood and tattooed, representing the god, was kept in this sacred place and consulted by the priests. On the summit of Te Pa-a-Te Wera, the historic peninsula-pa commonly known as Karitane, at Puketiraki (near Waikouaiti) Otago, the Te Irika-o-Kahukura is still pointed out by Mr. T. Parata, M.P., as the atua of his mother's people.

“Rockiola” a god, “the cause of death, of diseases”, etc.

This must be Rakiora (or Rakeiora) one of the ancient Maori atua. Some authorities say Rakiora was the son of Rongo.