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Legends of the Maori

Matakite. — A Story of Second Sight

page 165


A Story of Second Sight.

Like the Scottish Highlander and other people of the mountains and the forests whose minds are a blend of the poetic and mystic, the Maori was, and is, a believer in the faculty, or gift, or whatever it may be called, of second sight. Coming events, more particularly events involving death and disaster, were foreshadowed to the seers, those endowed with a kind of clairvoyant sense, the power of matakité*; such was the unshakeable faith of the brown man. Materialists deride such a thing, yet there are many of the pakeha race who cherish an abiding faith in their own species of matakité.

Usually, we only hear of these presentiments, or portents, after the thing they appeared to foreshadow has come to pass; and so we are most of us sceptics. But those who have seen much of primitive races can call to mind genuine instances of matakité or moemoea, or whatever it may be termed. In New Zealand many a New Zealander who has had much to do with the natives, and many a white man in the South Seas who has gained the sympathy of the Island people, can tell of such cases. A Maori woman once told me that she was crossing a stream on her return to her village (Waikanae), after a short journey, when she saw in front of her a thin, trembling mist. In this mist she beheld the dim face of her father. This was in broad daylight. The fog-wraith faded away, and, weeping, she page 166 hurried home to her kainga, to find that her father—whom she had left in perfect health only a few hours previously—had suddenly died, about the very time the misty apparition had appeared to her.

* * *

One quiet autumn night in 1869, a New Zealand Government expeditionary force, composed of white Constabulary and Wanganui and Arawa Maori, lay silently in wait just outside the bush village of Whakamara, in South Taranaki. This was Colonel Whitmore’s column, hunting up the rebel chief Titokowaru and his band of forest fighters, who were not only fanatic Hauhaus but cannibals, and whom they had dispersed a few days before at Otautu, on the Patea River. With the utmost secrecy the Government force took up a position under cover of darkness in front of the forest camp, to which Whitmore had been guided by his Maori scouts. The tall, black forest rose all around; the kainga was a group of thatched huts in a small clearing hacked out of the woods. The column was waiting for daylight; meanwhile the pakeha and Maori soldiers made themselves as comfortable as they could among the fern and flax clumps, and under the lee of fallen trees. They were so close to the Hauhaus that they could hear the Maori talking excitedly on the marae, in the centre of the group of whares, and distinctly the advance guard of Kupapa, or Government Maori, heard Titokowaru addressing his warriors.

In the Kupapa advance guard were a number of Rotorua and Maketu men, who had been enlisted a few months before for service on the East and West Coasts. One of them was Corporal Metara, a man of tried pluck and fighting aptitude. Metara lay in the fern with his comrades. Wrapped in his shawl, he fell asleep, with his rifle ready to his hand; and as he slept he dreamed.

* * *

With the first grey light of dawn the Government column, the Maori riflemen in the lead, rushed the Hauhau village. There was wild work for a few minutes, and when the first sharp attack was over and the smoke of battle cleared away sufficiently to enable the assailants to see that the Hauhaus had abandoned the kainga, a quick pursuit was ordered. Metara and his comrades first fired the village and destroyed the great Niu, the rebels’ sacred pole of worship, which stood in the centre of the settlement, and which was said to have been the original Niu set up by the prophet Te Ua, the founder of the Pai-Marire worship. The flagstaff was about seventy feet in height; it had three yards, each of the upper two crossed at right angles to the one below it, and at the lower yardarms were wooden carved birds, representing the rupé, or dove. From the yardarms, also, dangled flax ropes; these were for the atua or gods and angels to ascend page 167
The Vision

The Vision

page break page 169 and descend by. Round and round this tapu pole the Hauhaus marched in worship, chanting their ritual.

The staff of incantation disposed of, there came a skirmish around the fern-grown walls of an old pa at the rear of Whakamara, which the Taranaki warriors had occupied when they were driven out of their village. Soon they were driven out of these entrenchments also, and then they took to the bush, their resistance broken for good and all, and retreated through the thick and roadless bush to the north, abandoning everything but their arms.

Now, just as the pursuit began, Corporal Metara came to his captain and said he wished to tell him something and make a request. His face and manner showed that he was deeply agitated; and as he had been hanging in the rear all that morning, contrary to his usual habit, it seemed that there was something wrong. The Captain bade him tell his story quickly.

“Last night,” said Metara, “as we all lay together in the fern outside the kainga, I dreamed a dream, and a portent came to me. I dreamed that I was back in my old home on the East Coast at Maketu. I was walking along the sandy beach there, when I suddenly saw a great fish, like a hapuku, come flapping up out of the surf on to the sand, as if it had been washed on shore by a great wave. It seemed to have a human face. I approached it, and lo! its face was my own! It returned to the surf, and I walked on, and once more it came flapping up on the sand at my feet. Again it bore my face—a fish’s body with a human face! Then it vanished, and with the vanishing I awoke. Now I am pouri indeed, for see the warning from the land of spirits. It is an omen of death. The gods have sent this to me, a warning from the wa kainga, from my ancestral home. I am that fish! I am the mata-ika, the first fish of the coming battle. I shall be the first man killed to-day.”

The Captain tried to talk Metara out of his fears, but the gloomy Maori refused to be comforted. Clearly, he was as good as dead. Only one thing could save him, and that would be to keep out of the coming bush pursuit. Usually Metara was in the advance guard, and went into an engagement with dash and elation. But this was not his fighting day.

Seeing that the Arawa corporal was so funky and superstitionharassed, the Captain decided to shift him from the advance guard—a body of about twenty-five men—and put him back in the main body. This, he told Metara, should make him safe, for the advance guard would be sure to have all the fighting that was going.

The rough march began, the Maori well on ahead with their scouts and advance guard. The march was in single file through the jungly bush. Most of the Hauhaus fled at their top speed, racing like wild pigs through page 170 the roadless and almost trackless forest. But a few picked men remained in the rear to annoy the pursuers and cover the retreat.

In a deep gully in the forest defile, between steep cliffs, thickly hung with shrubs and dangling bush vines, the Hauhaus laid an ambuscade. They allowed the Government advance guard to pass unmolested, and waited until the main body entered the gorge. Then, from both sides, they delivered their fire upon the single-file column, first two or three shots and then a volley, and the thunder of their guns crashed far-echoing through the bush.

The first man shot was Corporal Metara. A bullet took him through one shoulder and another through an arm, and over he went as if killed. But he was not dead, although he gave himself up as a tupapaku, a corpse. He was carried to the rear, his share in the pursuit of Titokowaru ended. He was the mata-ika, the “first fish,” of that day’s fight.

And, curiously, immediately Metara realised that he had been wounded, his spirits rose; his mind was at rest. The portent had been fulfilled; he had fallen as the night apparition had foreshadowed; it was ordained that he should. But had he remained in the advance guard, then the Hauhaus would have fired upon that body instead. The bullets of Fate would have sought him out wherever he might have been. Only his Captain’s forethought in sending him back to the main body had, as it were, half witholden the atua’s arm; in the advance guard he would have been killed as dead as a stranded hapuku.

A curious coincidence, comments the pakeha, just one of those coincidences that happen any day in the week. But nothing so casual to the Maori.

Corporal Metara lived to see his old home in Maketu again. And when he stood up in the crowded meeting-house and told his story to the assembled tribe, squatting there on the flax-matted floor, wrapped in their shawls and blankets, there was but one verdict. “He matakité! He atua ra!” said the people. “A warning from the spirit world—the hand of the gods!”

* Mata—face; kité—to see. “The seen face”; to behold an apparition; to see one’s self in a vision—a portent of death under certain circumstances. Equivalent to the Gaelic taisch, second sight.

A remarkable modern Irish example of what our Maori call matakité was contained in a cable message from London some two years ago, describing a phantom vessel. This was a “ghost-ship” which appeared off Innisbofin Island just before a great hurricane which caused loss of life on the West Coast of Ireland. This phantom craft, a kind of Hibernian Flying Dutchman, followed one fishing boat all night, and did not answer any hail. The fishermen took it as a portent of coming disaster and returned to port just in time to avoid the hurricane. There was a phantom canoe a death-craft, seen on Lake Tarawera a few days before the great eruption of 1886, but in that instance no one profited by the omen.

I was discussing with a native friend the old-time Maori warrior’implicit belief in omens, portents, apparitions and warnings He said he believed one explanation of the celebrated Te Kooti’s extraordinary success in avoiding death or capture during his long pursuit by the Government forces was his clairvoyant power, his gift of ‘matakité.” Certainly Te Kooti possessed in an acutely developed form what may be called a “warpath sense.” He had a preternatural alertness in the bush, on the trail and in camp; some instinctive mental radio gathered the faint sounds that indicated danger and set him on his guard. But above and beyond that he no doubt possessed telepathic powers.