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Mahoe Leaves; Being a Selection of Sketches of New Zealand and Its Inhabitants, and Other Matters Concerning Them


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In the days of old, ere this delightful Island of New Zealand was visited by war, and the aboriginal inhabitants seized with the desire to have a king to reign over them, this term “runanga” was little known among ordinary folks. But no sooner does agitation commence, and it becomes a matter of necessity, as well as policy, to discover the political bearing of the various tribes, than we hear nothing but “runangas” going on all over the country. Archdeacon Williams translates the word “runanga” “a council,” and illustrates it with the remark “Kei te runanga to tatou hoa;” Anglice: “Our friend is at the Council.” Honorable members of the Colonial Parliament, who profess great sagacity in native matters, term a “runanga” a “conference,” which certainly sounds more imposing if it in reality means no more than the other. A few years back we used to hear a meeting of tribes simply termed a “korero,” a “talk,” or a “ko-miti,” a “committee,” and it is only lately that our ears have been regaled with the high sounding term, “runanga.” Dr. Barth, in his “Africa,” observes, “that the natives of warm climates do everything indolently, but talk,” and his remark most certainly holds good in these Islands, and to page 29 the inhabitants of both colours. Among the Maories nothing can be done without a talk, and not only in ordinary discussion of a topic, but in a systematic churning of the subject over and over again, viewing it in every conceivable light and aspect. A marriage will not unoften cause them two or three nights discussion before they give their consent, the most ordinary commercial transaction involves an amount of talk most extraordinary, while the sale or lease of a small block of land, furnishes such a subject, that it is quite impossible to calculate the amount of wind spent on its consideration. As an old inhabitant of these Islands, I, among others, was somewhat stunned when I met the tremendous account of runangas held over the country, and duly chronicled in the colonial papers; and fully determined that, when an opportunity offered, I would make it my business to attend a runanga, and for the benefit of my friends, who might not have had that pleasure, to duly chronicle an account of the proceedings.

It so happened, that when I was engaged on an inland station, in the only occupation there that I did usually take part, that, the door of the woolshed being suddenly darkened, I was somewhat surprised to see the cause of the obstruction of the light was the familiar form of my old friend Jeremiah, who, as passing that way, deemed it a duty he owed to society to call in a friendly way, and, as a further duty to himself, to beg for some tobacco. These two objects of his visit he expressed by a most comprehensive pantomimic performance; raising his eyebrows to express his salutations, and tapping the bowl of his pipe with his forefinger nail to call attention to its emptiness. I very shortly discovered that he and his brother Ezekiel, with their wives page 30 and children, were all en route for a runanga to be held some thirty miles further on, and in consideration of my supplying him with a few figs of tobacco, he graciously invited me to attend it; as a further inducement observing, that there was to be a great “hakari,” or “feast,” and that hospitality was to be most lavishly bestowed on the visitors. Being fully determined that I would attend a runanga, I accepted the invitation, and promised to be there on the following day; which proposition on my part thunderstruck my old friend, who led me to understand that I should be in plenty of time a week hence, as he had to pass several pahs on the road, at all of which there would be “koreros,” and the journey itself would at least cost him three days travelling, on account of the tamaitis (children), who were not strong enough to walk over ten miles per day, and in further consideration of the old women having heavy loads of provisions to carry. Of this latter fact, I speedily became painfully aware, as I glanced at the procession forming in Indian file, for the poor old creatures were bent almost double between potatoes and years. My old friend of the Horse Shoe had gone so far as to carry a small child on his back; but, with that exception, the men seemed to carry nothing but their clothes, nor is it a point of aboriginal gallantry usually to do otherwise. Promising my friend Jeremiah that I would be duly at the meeting, I not unwillingly got rid of him, as I have not the least doubt that he would have talked for any indefinite period.

Punctual to the time, I and my friend Harry Briggs, who (in consequence of his domestic arrangements, which I need not more particularly enter into) talks Maori like a native, saddled our horses, page 31 and made for the rendezvous. “Halloa,” cried Harry, as we pulled up our horses about a mile from the pah, “there go a string of darkies a-head, we are in plenty of time it seems.” It was not long before we came up with them, and sure enough it was Jeremiah and his troop, who had in the the course of their wayside bivouacs been joined by a score or more of their acquaintances, and what between “koreros” and “ko-mitis” had not made any further progress on their journey than where we found them. Of course, the whole corps fraternised with us at once, and the high spirits of the party seemed to promise rather a happy “hakari” than otherwise. The old men jabbered, the old women chattered, and the small fry gabbled away at a great rate, the burden being all respecting the “hakari” and the “runanga.” I remarked some very agreeable costumes amongst them, primœval and unique. One old man was habited in a beaver hat, considerably worse for wear, and an old shirt; an old woman had nothing on but a tattered chemise and a rusty black handkerchief tied round her head, her withered skinny limbs and weazen face appearing to great advantage. The children were habited in various cast off garments of the older people, ingeniously shortened to meet the smaller proportions of the youth, by tearing off the bottoms of the legs of the trousers and the sleeves off shirts, but as the seats of the former and the shoulders of the latter were not affected by this curtailing, and as rarely one child owned both garments, the effect was very diversified and lively. The old women, who had for some time appeared in excellent health and spirits, and with whom I had been endeavouring to hold an animated conversation, no sooner arrived within about four hundred yards of the pah, than they ap-page 32 peared to me to be all suddenly seized with colic or some similar internal disorder. Their faces assumed one of the most hideous expressions I ever beheld, and twinge followed twinge in such rapid succession, that I said to Briggs “Bless my soul Briggs, what’s the matter with these old wretches, look what horrible unearthly faces they are pulling!” “Why man!” said he, “don’t you know? they are only getting ready for a “tangi!”

As the reader may not know what a “tangi” is, I may briefly say, that when Maories meet after a long absence, they invariably have a good cry for an hour or so, and that the same “tangi” is likewise held over their dead, whether man or beast. It is usually performed, by the parties sitting in a circle, and commencing a noise, which, without being a groan, or a howl, or a whine, partakes of the properties of all three.

I do not know what these old people had to cry about, but I may safely assert, that they pumped up tears from some hidden recess in about five minutes, and by the time we arrived at the pah, presented one of the most perfect pictures of wretchedness that it was possible to conceive humanity could be brought to. “My word,” said I to Harry, “If one of those old women could keep that face up, and kick up that horrid row for a few days on London Bridge, she’d draw more money than all the pavement artists, sore legs, and blind men since the days of Adam. Why they’d be bankrupt in a week.” “I believe you, my boy!” replied my friend. “Why I once poisoned an old woman’s cat that used to prowl about my hen roost, and pitched it into a ditch, and can tell you, that horrid old hag came ‘tangi-ing’ away by the side of that ditch for days; she nearly drove me mad. I had page 33 to give her a pound of tobacco, and a lot of print, to get rid of her.” Having arrived at the pah, we found about a couple of hundred natives assembled, who greeted our party with shouts of welcome, firing of guns, and an amount of yelling that was over-powering. Whatever their opinions might be respecting us as Europeans, I know not; but they professed to be very glad to see us. Jeremiah, who had kindly undertaken to act as my chaperone, if I may use the term, gave me a hand to tether out my horse, and during the operation, gave me confidentially to understand that he had taken a slight survey of the preparations for the feast, and that they were splendid. “Ka-nui, ka-nui, ka-nui te kai” said he, which I may interpret, “Lots, lots, l-o-ots of food.” The pork was remarkable for “pata” (butter or fat), and there was rice, sugar, and flour in abundance. In fact, the extraordinary and almost frantic delight of my old friend at the prospect of this feast was one of the pleasantest pictures I saw that day; more amusing perhaps, by his winding up with the singular enquiry as to whether I had a spoon in my pocket, and receiving an answer in the negative, stated his regrets as he should not be maro-ro (strong) at the rice; but, however, he would make shift with a muscle shell. During this time, the tangi was going on at a great rate, and my friend Jeremiah deemed it, I suppose, a matter of duty to join it; and seating himself in the group, he in one moment changed his face so completely, and set up such an unearthly howl, that I could stand it no longer, and made off to some distance; but as I got to about twenty yards from him, and cast my eyes back, I saw the tears running down his face, and he a model of abject misery. Jeremiah was evidently an old hand at a “tangi.”

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Out of such of a motely crew as were gathered about the pah, I should have difficulty in individualising the groups, consisting of old and young, male and female, in every kind of dress from the most select slop fashions of Messrs. Moses and Son, to the normal kaitaka (bordered mat) and pihe-pihe of the fig leaf simplicity. My friend Harry, with true English gallantry, had fraternized with a bevy of Kotiro’s (or young girls) with whom he was flirting prodigiously, doling them out pieces of tobacco, with a degree of generosity that seemed to evoke the greatest contempt from a lot of conceited young fellows that lounged about him.

In the meantime, great preparations were going on for cooking the feast, all the pots in the neighbourhood, I think, had been pressed into the service, round which, numbers of old men and women hovered like so many vultures, poking bits of sticks underneath the legs of the tripods to expedite the cooking, and blowing and puffing away out of their asthmatic chests, till a violent fit of coughing threatened to burst all the blood vessels they had in their superannuated old carcases. Things, however, were got ready at last, and served up in baskets made of flax, known as kits, calabashes, pots and kettles; and a roar of “kai-kai! haeremai,” created a sudden sensation amongst the outsiders. The girls vanished like a lot of columbines in a pantomime, leaving my friend Briggs to the care of a mangy old dog, who, I have reasons for believing, was deaf, as every other dog about the place seemed to be perfectly aware of the cause of the commotion. The “tangi” ceased instantaneously, and Jeremiah showed more agility on that occasion in making for the pots, than I should ever have given his old limbs credit for. Harry and I, as manawhiri’s, page 35 (strangers) were not forgotten, and to do old Jeremiah credit, and give him his due, he dived in among the hot food with his skinny fingers and rummaged about the mess for the choicest morsels he could discover to give us. It is true that the heat of the fish and pork caused him to withdraw his hands rather suddenly, and to carry his fingers convulsively to his mouth to ease the pain, but one must not be particular on these occasions, and seeing an old man half scalding his fingers off to do the duties of host, increases one’s respect for him.

It was a great sight! I cannot say that knives and forks rattled, but those natural tools as the old saying goes, had their origin before them, certainly went at an awful pace. I could not look at it very much, the scene was too overpowering, but when I did, I was sure to catch the eye of old Jeremiah, who invariably jerked up his eyelids and tremulously pointed with his greasy finger or the shank of some defunct porker, at the mess, as if he would say, “Isn’t it prime old fellow. Did I overdraw the picture when I told you what a great lot of food there would be,” and motioning to us to fall to again.

But his ectasies became perfectly indescribable when the rice was served up. Having no dish fit to hold enough, they cleaned out a canoe some thirty feet long, two feet and a half wide, and about the same depth, and emptying, I imagine, about two bags of boiled rice into it, they tilted in a bag of sugar, and mixing up the whole lot with a spade, they crowded round the steaming mess with oyster and mussel shells in their hands, and set to in earnest. And now I saw the advantage old Ezekiel had over a great number of his fellow guests, for that artful old man had hoarded up a fragment of an old gravy spoon in the corner of his blanket which he now page 36 produced, and by the systematic way in which he tackled the rice, however the younger ones might be qualified to teach him to suck eggs, he certainly shewed them what rice-eating was.

Perhaps as singular a sight, was that of an old fellow who was tabooed or sacred. I don’t know what for, but so it was, and as such, was forbidden to touch food with his own hands. It fell to the lot of a young woman to feed him, and she certainly lost no time about it. There the old fellow sat with his mouth wide open like an unfledged pigeon, while she crammed him with large lumps of meat, fish, potatoes, and such solids as she could lay hands on. Briggs’ gallantry, however, would not permit him long to look on at this exhibition, and he very kindly undertook to relieve her. At the first mouthful, Harry, not being very expert, had his fingers sharply bitten by the old man, who invariably shut his eyes when he opened his mouth. Knowing Briggs’ weakness for practical jokes, I fully expected to see a bit of mud or some similar substance thrust in, as the old fellow never looked at the morsel, but put implicit confidence in his jackal. Harry, however, did not do so, but when he came to feed the old man with rice, he got the loan of Ezekial’s spoon, (that worthy having arrived at as near a pitch of suffocation as he well could without choking on the spot), and with this tool he ladled the hottest mouthfulls he could find, diving to the very bottom of the canoe, into the old man’s mouth. In vain the old fellow jabbered and sputtered with the tears streaming down his tattoed cheeks, Harry paid no attention, and the other natives were too intent on their own private gorgings to pay any heed to anybody or anything else; and the exhibition finally ended, by the old man making off somewhat hurriedly and page 37 Harry rolling on his back and laughing till he was nearly black in the face.

Nature, however, refused to hold out longer, and the body of feasters being now pretty well filled, the canoe was taken possession of by the prowling curs about, who with their tongues finished off what morsels had escaped the attack of their fingers and mussel shells. I saw old Jeremiah lying down on the ground, his face beaming with smiles, and shining with grease, but that good old man’s heart and stomach were too full to permit him to speak, and when I speak of Jeremiah individually, I may most safely include five sixths of the company about him.

I may here too passingly observe, that however extravagant this sketch of the hakari may seem, it is in reality not a particle overdrawn. On the contrary, I have studiously avoided a great deal of matter of an offensive kind, that I might truthfully have introduced. Gluttony in its coarsest form, greediness and filth that were manifested by not one or two individuals, but the greater portion; and I have merely alluded to these incidents that gave the affair an amusing character. Since I witnessed the above, I have had numerous, and far more convenient opportunities of being present at native feasts, but I have never attended another. I do not say that I had expected the proceedings to have exhibited a more delicate character, nor that all things considered it was a more offensive exhibition than I anticipated; but I do feel myself justified in remarking, that the reader has the most pleasing aspect of a hakari presented to him in this sketch.

This, however, is a digression.

So soon as the digestive organs of the company had so far recovered themselves as to permit any page 38 return to animation, the “runanga” began. It professed to be a general tribal conference respecting the sale of some land to Europeans, a discussion on the king movement, and a variety of other matters relating to marriages and other domestic matters, that I need not here dilate upon. The meeting was summoned by a blowing into the mouth of a “kahaka” (calabash) in the side of which were punctured two or three holes. I think the native name for the instrument is “re-hu.” They succeed in some way peculiar to themselves in extracting a most horrid noise out of the thing at all events, which was not rendered the more melodious by another individual perseveringly banging with a short stick at an iron pot. It had the effect however, of summoning the whole pah, and seating themselves in rows on the ground they left a sort of avenue for the speakers to stand in and spout. Their elocution is, if not of a very high order, of a particularly vehement kind. The first old man who spoke, and who seemed to be a sort of chief among them, commenced by walking up and down between the rows for some time, brandishing his “tai-aha,” or spear, and saying nothing. The spirit, however, moved him very shortly, and with great gesticulation he commenced a long rigmarole about the “waka,” the canoe of his ancestors. He jumped, raved, shouted and roared until I thought he had taken leave of his wits altogether; but what he was talking about I have not the most distant idea. The majority of the conference did not appear to pay much attention, one observing to me that he was talking “nukerau,” (nonsense) and another “that the koroheka (old man) was “porangi” (foolish), from which I gathered that the old fellow was merely bent on giving vent to his feelings, with-page 39out having any other definite object in view. Jeremiah, who spoke shortly after him did not appear to make much better of it, but he gave me confidentially to understand that his “korero” was the most “maroro” (strong) of the lot, and that he had said great things for the pakehas (white men). I subsequently, however, learnt that in private conversations he had done precisely the reverse; and I afterwards discovered that those who may pin their faith on what they hear at these runangas, may not unlikely find themselves most woefully deceived. It is scarcely worth while to enter further into an account of the proceedings, for it was very little I could make out of what the speakers said, their style of oratory becoming so monotonous and so grievously wiredrawn, that one gets very shortly sick of the whole concern. I saw it, however, reported afterwards in one of the public journals; although I can honestly say, that neither Harry nor myself who were the only Europeans present, ever made any report of it: and so far as regards any version that might be rendered by any of the natives present, though I do not say it would be essentially false, I certainly should accept it with great caution. We left them talking, and I believe they kept it up for some two or three days. Jeremiah and his family returned past my door about a week after, and told me that he had stopped till all the provisions were finished, and I subsequently learnt that the parties who had given the feast were nearly starved for some months afterwards, having been nearly eaten out of house and home, in return for their misplaced hospitality.