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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 commencing my biography of this individual, I may be permitted in justice to myself, to observe, that I am probably selecting one of the most favorble specimens of the genus Maori, and that my remarks are not founded upon a casual acquaintance, but on one of some years standing, during which time I had ample opportunity of considering his character. Of Parnapa’s infancy, I know little or nothing; he might have been born “of poor but industrious parents” for aught I know, though I think the latter epithet an extremely doubtful one. It appears, however, that at an early age he had attended missionary schools, and had there got a smattering of reading and writing, of which accomplishments he was particularly vain, and never let occasion slip for parading them. Having mixed a great deal among the more respectable order of Europeans, he had imbibed most contemptuous opinions of his fellow Maories, and could not be offended more deeply than by being alluded to as one of them. He was of an extremely ubiquitous turn of character, and very rarely resided amongst the natives when he could help it, and a friend of mine who owned a sheep station in the immediate vicinity of this locality, kept Parnapa about his place for some years. page 41 This was an extremely gratifying arrangement to Parnapa’s feelings, as he was within hailing distance of the pah, ready to be summoned to all runangas, committees, and “koreros,” while at the same time he sustained his character as an exclusionist. My friend also who dealt a good deal with the natives in produce, employed Parnapa as his man of business in all negotiations, on occasions when he employed native labour. Parnapa looked after them at their work, kept the accounts, and acted the part of overseer, which position was one of great honor to him, and one which he was not slow to exhibit the power of, when he had occasion to do so. In person he stood about six feet high, and stout in proportion, with a fat good natured face, and the most enormous legs and feet that I ever saw attached to any human being. His boots were perfect curiosities in their way, more especially as they were rarely in an efficient state of repair, but cobbled up with flax and nails in the most extraordinary style; and as usually he dressed tolerably respectably upwards, the figure he cut on most occasions was most lndicrous. To see him at his toilet was one of the most absurd spectacles that one could witness. Having washed himself, and cased his nether man in the usual habiliments, which were uncommonly tight strained, he very commonly met with the same fate as Humphrey Clinker, and a good deal of stitching and mending generally ensued about those articles which were constantly giving way. Having proceeded so far, he would take a seat and examine the state of his great boots like a magpie and a marrow-bone, and used to soliloquise on their dilapidated condition in this style “Dear! Dear! my boots are burst again! too much of this work! no good that shoemaker! presently I shall go to town, and talk page 42 to him about these bad boots,” and so on; but the way he gave these remarks in half Maori half English, made the matter much more comical. The hammer and a few tacks would then be ferreted out, and he would set to work to patch them up. The boots at last fixed for the time being, he would commence at the glass to arrange his hair, which outwardly presented the appearance of a boar’s mane, and required no small tact to assort it. As to putting a parting into it, that was out of the question, as no sooner did the comb draw it to one side, such was its strength than it flew back into its old form like a bit of watch spring. He would then commence dabbing it all over with hair oil, (which he was very fond of getting) applying the same to his face, and at every dab he would pull the most horrible grimaces at himself. This performance would often last a good half-hour, and mounting a white shirt collar, and tying his neckerchief, the rest of his clothes were thrown on any how; and the addition of one of the most wretched beaver hats that I ever beheld, announced Parnapa ready for town, and away he went in blissful ignorance of the extraordinary spectacle he presented.

The predominant feature in Parnapa’s character was his extraordinary love of imitation. Whatever he saw any body get or do, that must Parnapa set his brains in steep to imitate. When my friend first settled in Parnapa’s neighbourhood, he brought up most of his goods in boxes which were locked. This necessitated his carrying about a bunch of keys, and Parnapa must also have a bunch of keys forthwith. He, I believe, on that occasion went into town and bought a great box, which he carried out on his back, a distance of some thirteen miles. What he had to put in it, I know not, and I do not think page 43 he cared much about it so long as he could carry the key about his neck. Whatever my friend bought in the clothing way, Parnapa must have, and my friend’s counterpart was perpetually appearing in all sorts of strange places.

When the militia and volunteers were first enrolled, he adopted a long peaked cap and a sort of blue serge sac. Nothing would suit Parnapa because he saw me wearing them, but he must invest in similar uniform, and I believe would have been lettered and striped as we were, had I not put the notion out of his head by telling him that such insignia were only worn by the rank and file. In fact, it made no matter what one adopted, Parnapa was never satisfied until he had the same.

No one could possibly have the acquaintance of Parnapa without liking him. He was the model of good nature, and his faults, the chief of which was his inordinate conceit, were so excessively comical that it was impossible to help liking the fellow.

It would be hardly consistent to term Parnapa an industrious man, but he was always doing something and making a great fuss about it. But as a race-horse is all the more valuable when he can be effectually pushed out at the right moment, so Parnapa was always “all there” when his energies were suddenly called upon. If cattle or sheep got away into the bush, once find them and there was no vile gully full of vines, brambles, and brushwood, that Parnapa would not rush into like a great bull to get them out. Should it so happen the station ran out of meat, Parnapa would load the gun, and taking a sheep dog with hint, would hunt through the bush after pigs, day after day, caring little where he went, what sort of brutes of pigs he came across or how far he had to carry them home.

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He would set to work in the summer hunting eels, sinking a kit in some narrow part of a creek, imbedding it in the mud, and then wading down the stream some distance from this trap, chase great eels before him, rousing them out of their holes with his great hoofs and plunging his arms under the roots of the trees growing by the edge, till he presented such a mass of mud, that it was difficult to tell what color he was, and from the figure he presented, I would not have given much for his life had M. de Chaillu, the gorilla hunter, met with him. Once raise his conceit, and there was scarcely anything he would not try at. Let him get any foolish crotchet into his head, and you might hammer away long enough before you could beat it out of him by abusing him about it, but once tell him that “that was the way the foolish Maories did” and his dislike to being coupled with them, would in all probability make him abandon all idea of it at once.

He had great ideas of himself as a scribe, and considering his education, it was wonderful the way he managed his accounts; when natives were employed on the station for any length of time, what with the papers on which he kept their time, the number of sticks of tobacco they got, and other matters, he amassed such a pile of documents, that it was most bewildering to look at. To keep things regularly ship-shape, he purchased some very smart pens with long holders to them, (with one of which I am now writing this episode on him), and of an evening would sit down, stick these long pens at the back of his ears, and with a face in which pride, importance, and anxiety were most oddly blended, he would purse up his lips, knit his brows, and taking them up, (the papers) one by one, would pause and sigh over their contents, occasionally mut-page 45tering, if he saw anybody looking at him, “Aue! ka nui te puka puka ahau!” (“Dear me, what a lot of papers I have got here.”) We, who were in the secret, knew well enough that all he had to do was to put down that two men had worked that day, and one of them had bought a stick of tobacco. His duties as clerk of the Bench, I believe, were more onerous, and involved a fearful amount of correspondence, at least, so Parnapa stated, and indeed if it fell to his lot to copy one half of the jargon usually talked at the runangas, I really pitied Parnapa.

His plan of keeping accounts to, was, though extremely perfect in its way, somewhat cumbrous.

To give an instance, my friend on one occasion bought three or four pigs from the natives. Parnapa, as major domo, saw them weighed, and that part of the business concluded, came into the house in a state of great importance and fuss, and brought out all his batch of papers, and his long shanked pens. Down he sat to enter them, but instead of putting the sum total in one line in his book, and putting a paid to it, he first presented each individual owner of the pigs with the account of the weight of his pig, and the price of it; he then entered the matter in his station book thus:—one pig, fifteen shillings—one pig, one pound, and so on. He then put down in another book he had, the memorandum of sale under the head of each individual whose names he had written on the top of each page, and lastly he entered the account on another paper for his own satisfaction, and folding all his documents up, returned his pens to their place and observed “that it was all right.” As, however, his papers were somewhat loosely put together, and a puff of wind coming in at the door, page 46 would not unfrequently blow them off on the floor, where they were victimised for pipe lights, the next time he went over the accounts, I don’t think he knew what those that were left meant, for he would frown, and mutter, and drone over them, apparently in the greatest perplexity.

To pass over Parnapa without alluding to him as parish clerk, if I may so term his sacred office, would not be doing justice to this remarkable individual. I never attended the church to hear him, but I saw him go through part of his rolé. On one occasion, which impressed me very strongly, we happened to be sheep shearing at the time, and not having a woolshed built we had a wool bale tacked up in a frame in the kitchen, and carried the fleeces into the house, while Parnapa got into the bale and tramped them in with his ponderous feet. Things were progressing, when I had occasion to go to the house and stopped outside at hearing one of the most melancholy wailing sounds issuing therefrom. I went sharply in and there stood Parnapa in the wool bale with his body about half out and a book in his hand, pretending to sing a hymn out of a pulpit, while half a dozen old men, women, and children, were squatted on the ground with their eyes fixed on him with wonder and admiration. Those who may have observed the local capabilities of the itinerant order of Primitive Methodist preachers at home, may have remarked a peculiar manner they have of introducing a turn shake after prolonging a key note, and may not improbably have considered it not only an extraneous and unnecessary display of vocal execution, but a trifle ridiculous; but had they heard Parnapa’s imitation of it, and the utter lack of any tune whatever in his performance, they would have exploded with laughter. So page 47 comical indeed was the recollection, that upon a subsequent occasion, when I happened to spend a rough night in Parnapa’s hut, upon his informing me that he was going to say his prayers, I requested him to omit the musical portion of it, lest I should give way to unseemly mirth, and as he was reading away the scene I had witnessed before, came so vividly back to my remembrance, that it was all I could do to restrain my laughter at its bare recollection. Parnapa had been educated among the Wesleyans, and I suppose he had there learnt this musical feat. I do not know that ever he attended any of their tea meetings, but I rather suspect a few, with Parnapa’s immense powers of eating, would not have rendered the affair very profitable to the contractors.

Parnapa occasionally used to cook, but beyond boiling a bit of meat or a few potatoes, his efforts were not generally crowned with very great success. He had a nephew, a small boy of a most precocious nature, who was termed “Tua Tara,” from a horrid sort of lizard that the natives abhor. I have not space to describe him more particularly, I regret to say. But on one occasion, when he happened to be in the house, Parnapa was cooking, and being left to his own devices, had mixed up a thick kind of batter, and putting on the fire a frying pan half full of lard, was frizzling away at a sort of pancakes. Tua Tara sat crouched up in the corner of the fire place, his little dark eyes watching the frizzling and spluttering away, in great anxiety and delight; when at last his feelings would not allow him to restrain his ecstacies at such a greasy mess any longer, and slapping his dirty little leg with if possibly a still dirtier little hand, he burst out, “Kaore te kamana ote mahi Parnapa,”—(there is no gammon about the cookery of Parnapa”),—and so far as grease was concerned there certainly was not!

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Many anecdotes I might introduce of my friend Parnapa, but I must make my story short, and the last trait I may mention about him, was the good natured way that he would tell tales about himself. In spite of our remonstrances, he would persist in going into town with his great beaver hat on his head; a hat utterly napless, brown in color, and of most antique build. In country towns—few people wear them in the colonies,—the fact of wearing one at all is sufficient to attract attention. Parnapa in passing along the street, fell in with a company of volunteers returning in marching order, bayonets fixed, from their parade, and drew up against a house to see them pass. Colonial volunteers are not as a body the most indisposed for a joke, and spying Parnapa and his great hat, they edged into the wall, till they forced him to stick straight up with his arms to his side. No sooner was he in this position, than one jutted out his elbow and caught Parnapa in the stomach, thus causing him to stumble forward; another got a crack at his hat and knocked it off; as he stooped to pick it up, he got a push behind, and turning sharply to confront his assailant, off went his hat from the rear; he was now set on like a bull by a lot of dogs, and as file after file passed him, he got so many buffs and pokes, ending with a bayonet going right through his hat, that on the whole he returned rather the worse for wear. He, nevertheless, told the tale with a smile on his face, and though there was no doubt that he had been too hardly treated, the air of simplicity and sheepish good nature, with which he told the tale against himself, left one no alternative but to join in the laugh against him. He, however, never wore his hat again. “To much o taku potae,” he would say with a snigger, as he gazed on its battered form, “Too much of my hat.”

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And the reader may not improbably now say, “Too much of Parnapa.” I have perhaps entered at too great length into his character, but as I glance back at what I have written, I barely think I have done the old fellow justice. He was without exception the best Maori I ever met. In sickness he was a careful and considerate nurse. In moments of petulance and anger he overlooked many an angry word; obliging to a degree, he was always ready to do a good turn. It is true he was never forgotten, and on the whole passed an easy indolent, life, free from care and anxiety, at the same time he was utterly destitute of that cunning, overreaching trickery, that so particularly is the failing of most of the Maories, and is the only one that I ever put the slightest confidence in. In money matters he was scrupulously honest, and if entrusted with money would account for every penny. But like all Maories, he would run into debt if he could. I believe, however, he paid his debts as soon as he was able, but like all good natured men, it was very rarely he had a penny. He was not free from faults, but I believe he had no vices, and I can but regret that in the numerous acquaintances I have had with aborigines, I have had few opportunities of meeting any, who, if they laid claim to less eccentricity than he, were still utterly destitute of his principle.