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Legends of the Maori

Utu: The Story of a Polynesian Vendetta

page 197

Utu: The Story of a Polynesian Vendetta.

Motiti Island, the Flat Island of the New Zealand coastwise sailor, lies in the soft blue waters of the Bay of Plenty, eight miles from the coast. It resembles, from a distance, a low, bare table. “Motiti Wahie-Kore” (“Motiti-where-there-is-no-firewood”) it was called of old. Now there are three groves and there are large cultivations, a pakeha farm, as well as Maori fields and gardens; there are rich crops of maize, and fat cattle are raised for the Auckland market. Coasting scows call at the fertile island to load produce and stock. That is Motiti to-day. This is a saga of the far-away past, when bare Motiti wore a very different face, more than five hundred years ago.

* * *

Ngatoro-i-rangi, the high priest of the Arawa, a very aged man, lived in his small palisaded village, with a party of his people, on Matarehua, a cliffy point of Motiti. There he dwelt with his old wife and a few tribesfolk; looking out over the great ocean which he had sailed long before, the tohunga of the Arawa. He gazed out with day-long patience over the heaving sea, scanning the northern quadrant of the horizon for a sail rising over the blue like a seabird’s wing.

* * *

This is the story of Ngatoro-i-rangi’s feud with Manaia, a feud that was Pacific-wide; a truly wonderful story of Polynesian long-sailing voyages, in the days when the ancestors of our Maori were the most skilful and daring sailors in the world. It is the tale of a thoughtless curse and all the trouble it caused. My narrators were two high chiefs of Arawa descent, the late Te Heuheu Tukino, of Taupo, and his venerable uncle, Tokena Kerehi, both of them direct descendants of Ngatoro-i-rangi.

Kuiwai, one of Ngatoro’s sisters—one of the two to whom he addressed his cry in his dire need, when he was all but perishing of cold on Tongariro mountain—was the wife of a chief named Manaia, in the distant Hawaiki—either Tahiti or Raiatea, in the Society Islands. There she and her husband and her sister Haungaroa remained when the Arawa and other canoes sailed for New Zealand. And trouble befell her one day because of an old, old trouble not peculiar to the Maori—bad cookery.

Kuiwai was cooking food for a feast, and when the earth ovens were opened her share of the kai was found to be underdone. Whereupon page 198 her incensed husband gave her a thrashing, and cursed her soundly as well with horrid Maori curses, which have a potency and vigour all their own. He compared the logs of firewood to the bones of her brother, Ngatoro-i-rangi, and vowed that if ever she cooked so badly again he would roast her brother’s flesh on the hot stones of the ovens.

It seemed a safe threat, for by this time Ngatoro’ was two thousand miles away over the ocean. But Kuiwai took her punishment and her cursing very much to heart. And she (another Maori said it was her daughter, who bore the same name) and Haungaroa crossed the great ocean by some supernatural means (that is to say, the name of their canoe is forgotten) and came to New Zealand, and travelled a long way, until at last they found Ngatoro-i-rangi. To him they told the story of the cursing.

Ngatoro’, in his anger, called down the vengeance of the gods on Manaia, and, moreover, he gave orders that a war party should go to Hawaiki and exact utu (revenge) for the kanga, the oven curse, a very frightful one to the Polynesian mind.

Accordingly, the men prepared for their ocean voyage. They made a new canoe from a totara tree which they had found lying fallen, partly buried in the earth, near the pa at Maketu, and in this canoe (called Totara-Keria) they sailed all the way back across the vast Pacific to Hawaiki. There, by stratagem, they defeated Manaia’s people and captured their fortress, and avenged Ngatoro’s grievance to their satisfaction, and then they sailed back to New Zealand.

Manaia himself had escaped from the slaughter, and he now set about continuing the vendetta, even across those countless leagues of ocean. He equipped a fleet of canoes, and, with a large body of sea warriors, set sail for New Zealand.

Ngatoro’, now a very old man, was living with his followers on Motiti; most of the tribe lived on the mainland at Maketu. At last Manaia and his canoe fleet hove in sight. The Island ships sailed down on the island before the north-east breeze, and rounded the point at Matarehua. Ngatoro’, when they had come close in shore, was challenged by his brother-in-law, Manaia, to “come down and fight.” But the wise old man cried in reply: “Anchor off the shore for the night, because it is now nearly dark; it is perfectly calm; and we shall fight in the morning.”

This the seafarers did, dropping their stone anchors in the quiet water near the white sands of Motiti.

Then the wizard of Motiti set to work. He betook him to his prayers, and he recited his most powerful karakia to Tawhiri-matea, the god of storms, and to the gods of thunder and lightning; to all his atua of sea and land and air. And in the black midnight, when Manaia’s weary sailor- page 199 warriors lay asleep in their canoes, the storm burst forth—a fearful storm, with a hurricane of wind and rain, and dreadful lightning. And in that midnight hurricane, with its terrible surf, the canoe-fleet was utterly destroyed.

Next morning the old ariki and his people went forth to see what had befallen their foes. All, all had perished! Not one escaped. Manaia’s body they found on the sands; of the others many had been partly eaten by the sharks and the barracouta and other fish, so that the remains lay upon the sands in variously mutilated shapes. Some had one side of the face eaten away, some had hands and feet bitten off, and others lay there with their tongues lolling grotesquely out of their sand-filled mouths. And when the Maketu people came paddling and sailing across—in response to a signal fire kindled by Ngatoro-i-rangi—they were so amused at the appearance of these distorted corpses that their wood-carving artists perpetuated the memory of Manaia’s rout by imitating the attitudes of the dead in their carved figures. So it came that the Arawa—the fathers of artistic wood-carving in New Zealand—carved images and effigies with out-lolling tongues and grotesque and variously distorted shapes, with heads on one side. When you behold some of the more grotesque figures on the carved houses of the Maori, know that in this way is memorised the miraculous avengement of Manaia’s curse. And Manaia himself—his body, the people saw, was wonderfully carved, beautifully adorned from head to foot in scrolls and bars and all manner of handsome designs; some of these are preserved to-day in our wood-carving patterns.

* * *

“Ha!” said Tokena the tattooed—an old man indeed, for he had fought in the long-ago cannibal wars—”that was a good story! Truly Ngatoro’, our priestly ancestor, was a god in himself! Little have I to say as a tail to my mokopuna Heuheu’s narrative; only this: Ngatoro-i-rangi died in New Zealand—I have heard of Motiti. But he had a younger brother called Tangihia, who sailed away from these shores for Hawaiki, and we never heard of him again. Perhaps he reached that distant isle of perpetual summer; perhaps he perished in the vast ocean. Who can say? But when he sailed from Maketu, he left a wife there, and she was at that time with child. When the canoe sailed out into the ocean, the wife climbed to the top of a hill and there she watched her husband’s canoe-sails fade out of sight, and as she watched she bitterly lamented, and wept many tears and chanted sad songs of sorrow. Presently her child, a boy, was born, and to commemorate the last hill-top view and her great sorrow, she gave him the name of Tangi-moana, meaning ‘Ocean-Weeping.’ And that man, Tangi-moana, was one of our ancestors.”

page 200

The voyager, who never returned, probably reached Rarotonga Island, and there settled. Tangihia is in the Rarotongan tongue Tangiia—the “h” is dropped by the Islanders—and there is a Ngati-Tangiia tribe there to-day. Rarotongan traditions show that the great progenitor of this clan was the far-voyaged South Sea warrior-chief Tangiia, who flourished and conquered, and made daring canoe cruises about the middle of the thirteenth century. But the coincidence of names is interesting; and it is quite possible that our Maori Tangihia reached the tropic home of his name-clan on high-peaked Rarotonga.

Sketch of a New Zealand Maori