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Legends of the Maori

The Importance of a Comb

page 113

The Importance of a Comb

THE story I am about to tell you, my pakeha, was first told to me many years ago when the white man’s coming and his domination of our territories was still a topic for earnest converse around the whare fires. Not then had we begun to understand that, not in conflict with the white intruder, but in co-operation with him, lay our salvation. True it is that among the early settlers were many unscrupulous men. As a consequence the true British pakeha was misunderstood and his ideals of fair government treated as the petty hypocrisies of a thieving invader until, one by one, there arose your strong but sympathetic leaders; and so now we stand the happiest people in bondage on the face of the good earth. But is it bondage? True, some of my old ancestors would have fought to the death rather than dwell under the laws of an alien people. But even they, wise people, would have at last given way to the inevitable and surrendered to the pakeha with his machinery for tilling the fields and cutting down the forests, and his weapons that dealt out sudden death from a distance. Perhaps they, too, realised that there was a power greater than themselves and their gods in the world, for there is the old oracular utterance:

“Kei muri i te awe kapara
E tu ana he tangata ke,
Mana te ao, he ma.”

which means:

“Shadowed behind the tattooed face
A stranger stands.
He owns the earth; and he is white.”

* * *

It happened in Rarotonga twenty-four generations ago, when Uenukurakei-ora was chief of those islands.

Now there dwelt at that time a family of rangatira rank whose history was mixed, as shall appear. There were two sons of this family who were great comrades, always sharing each other’s pleasures and troubles, and even their weapons and garments. They were fine lads and favourites in the village. The eldest boy was a famous athlete who carried off all the page 114 prizes at swimming and other aquatic sports, and he was generally looked on as his father’s heir.

I would have you know that, in those days, yes, and even up to early pakeha days, my warrior ancestors wore their hair in a knob on the top of their head. This was usually fastened with a comb. It chanced that one day the elder boy was sitting by the seashore tying up his hair, and, being unable to find his own comb, took his brother’s and put it in his hair. Just then the mother came by and noticed him. Here it may be as well to mention that the comb was a sacred comb, carved by skilled hands from the bone of a whale, and might be worn only by people of the highest rank. The mother came over to him and took the comb from his hair, saying, “How dare you use my son’s sacred comb?”

The boy was astounded. “But, mother,” he said, “we are brothers. I have as much right to use that comb as he.”

“No,” replied the mother. “I will tell you why.”

It may seem strange to you, my friend, that the boy did not know his true history, but I would ask you to remember that those were free-and-easy times. Either you were one of the family or you were not. This is what the mother told him.

“I am your father’s second wife. Your mother died at your birth. She was a beautiful woman of rangatira rank, but she had been captured by your father in war and so I, a free rangatira, claim precedence over your mother and for my son over you. You are not a true rangatira; you were not born on the sacred mat, the takapau-wharanui; and you must not use the sacred comb of my child.”

Imagine, if you can, the effect this would have on the proud youth. Brought up to believe that he was the elder son and the heir to his father, he had always acted as such. And now. To be subordinate to his younger brother; and one who was not nearly so good at games and fighting as he was. It was an unbearable position for the boy and he sought a way to re-establish his mana in the land. And this is how he did it.

Shortly after this episode the elder son arranged a canoe party to go out fishing, and he chose as his companions every one of the young chiefs in the village. Far out to sea they went towards a favourite fishing ground. Suddenly one of the boys cried out that the canoe was filling. And so it was, for before leaving the elder son had removed the plug in the bottom of the canoe and kept his heel over the hole until they were out of sight of land. He, alone among them, was a sufficiently strong swimmer to reach page 115 the shore from that distance. As the canoe sank he taunted them and laughed at their feeble struggles to reach the land. Presently he started homewards. He had strange powers, this boy, for, when he began to feel tired, he called upon the denizens of the deep to assist him. And lo! suddenly there appeared a whale who carried him on his back safely to the shore.

It might seem a little matter to cause such a great circumstance; but, my friend, I have known friendships, even among the pakeha, that were broken for less.