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Legends of the Maori


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A sorrowful interest attaches to this volume of Legends of the Maori, for in it are assembled the historical traditions and the stories of Maori life that came from the lips and the pen of the late Sir Maui Pomare. Some of the material indeed was only dictated to a member of his family a few days before he was carried on board the mail-steamer for California, in May, 1930, on the health-seeking cruise from which he never returned. Practically he concluded his work on the death-bed. He left New Zealand, alas! too late. With fervent hopes for his recovery we bade farewell to him on the eve of his departure; awaiting good news we heard only with profound sorrow the message of his death. Tragic was his going; tragic the return of Lady Pomare with the ashes; heart-moving beyond expression the final scene when the relics of the well-loved son of New Zealand were laid in the sacred ancestral ground at Manukorihi, on Waitara’s banks, amidst the wailing laments, the farewell chants and the tears of thousands of his fellow-countrypeople.

“You will find something here that no one else has got,” said Sir Maui when handing me his notes of Tainui tribal history to be edited for this volume, shortly before he left New Zealand on the last voyage. His description of the narrative was justified, for his story of the Tainui migration from Tahiti to this country and the doings of the Polynesian sailors’ descendants is more complete than any account previously published, and contains details that the tribal sages had revealed only to Pomare. It forms the most valuable portion of the volume. Sir Maui’s story, which I have called the Saga of Tainui, covers the history of the West Coast people, whose headquarters were Kawhia Harbour, from the arrival of their sailing canoe there to the era just before the coming of the pakeha, a period of five centuries. Not only is this section of the book a history of the ancestors from whom Sir Maui was descended; it also gives us a series of perfect pictures of ancient Maori life, in peace and war.

The second section reveals our old friend as an artist in short stories of Maori life—pakeha and Maori life, too—little tales of New Zealand ancient and modern; a story-teller with a lively appreciation of dramatic values. The pity is that he did not write more, from his limitless mind-store of contes, sometimes tragic but more often strongly tinged with that acute sense of humour, those chuckling fun-loving ways that were so page x characteristic of his kindly nature even when he lay suffering almost constant pain.

But Pomare’s book now presented will speak for itself. Here I, who knew Maui for the greater part of his life, would say something about his character and career, his qualities of heart and brain, his steadfastness as a friend, his courage and perseverance as a champion of his people’s rights and welfare. At a later day an adequate biography, it is hoped, will appear. In the meantime this brief sketch of his life and work may fittingly preface the book in which his stories are collected.

* * * *

A little barefoot Maori boy marched along singing a chant of welcome in line with a band of other children, carrying gifts of food to the invading pakeha army at Parihaka, one morning in 1881. He carried a loaf of bread; some of his companions bore plaited-flax round baskets of boiled potatoes. “We must return good for evil” was the word of their revered hereditary chief and spiritual leader, Te Whiti-o-Rongomai. It was the morning of John Bryce’s march on the Maori town on the fringe of the Taranaki bush that green-blanketed the base of Mount Egmont. Bryce’s armed force was 1,500 strong. Parihaka’s Maori populace were unarmed; Te Whiti’s orders were: “Peace, peace! Do not resist, even if the bayonet is put to your breasts.” So the Armed Constabulary and the Volunteers, horse, foot and artillery, marching on Parihaka prepared for a renewal of the Maori War, were met, not with volleys from ambush, but by children and women chanting songs of peace and goodwill.

That little boy, who was in the thick of the political and military turmoil of that troubled period in Taranaki, and who witnessed Te Whiti’s surrender to the captain of a company of Constabulary with fixed bayonets, was Maui Pomare. The prophet of Parihaka was his kinsman. The events of that day of 1881—it was November 5, Guy Fawke’s Day, a not inappropriate date!—were burned in upon his memory. (Indeed he had a toe cut off by the trampling of a trooper’s horse.) He lived to see a complete reversal of the old feeling of enmity between pakeha and Maori, to see the peaceful attitude of his chief recognised and appreciated, and the patriotic sentiment of the native people justified and vindicated. More than that, he returned to his country, after training abroad, as a medical apostle and saviour; he became the Maori’s successful political champion, their representative in Parliament, a man honoured alike by his fellow-countrymen and by Britons abroad, and knighted by his King for his services to his people and to the Empire—Sir Maui Pomare, K.B.E., C.M.G., member of the Executive representing the Maori race, and Minister administering the South Sea Island dependencies under New Zealand’s flag.

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It was as an evangel of new life, of hygienic living as well as a revival of the olden industrious habits, that Maui Pomare should ever be remembered. He was the scientific pioneer of health for the race, the first doctor of Maori blood to preach from kainga to kainga the gospel of sanitation and the laws of physical well-being from the stage of infancy onward. The story of how Maui Pomare came to be a saviour of his people in their extremity, when the Maori was wavering, when the race was regarded as doomed in the long run to disappear, deserves a record more full than can be attempted in this Preface.

Pomare, when at Te Aute College, started the Young Maori Party, and with several like-minded spirits toured the country enlisting the sympathies of the tribes in a movement for the general betterment of the race. He determined to become a doctor to his people, and, assisted by a near relative, he went to the United States to graduate. Medicine and surgery were fascinating studies, and the science of bacteriology tremendously engrossed him. He bent all his energies to the task and graduated with honours.

When the brilliant young doctor returned to New Zealand the Government had just instituted a vigorous health campaign. Dr. Pomare, then about twenty-five years old, was gladly engaged by the Government to carry the gospel of health to the Maori. It was then, in 1901, in Auckland, that I first met him, and well I remember with what earnestness and enthusiasm he discussed the heavy task before him. He was the first of his race in the field, and this fact created vast interest among the native people. This interest was not exactly a helpful interest in some districts, for the old conservative folk greatly disliked having their easy-going insanitary habits upset. Gradually he won them over. He left not the smallest village unvisited, he made long bush journeys. He wore down opposition from the often suspicious people; he overcame official hindrances. His reports to the Government in those days make quite fascinating reading to-day. They are an eloquent sociological as well as medical review of the condition of his people, covering that ten years’ period, 1901–11.

Inevitably the young Maori health officer was drawn into the world of politics. He saw that the land troubles and other grievances of the native people had a serious reflex action on the mental and physical well-being of the race. He found also that his usefulness was cramped and hampered by official interference, and if he was to advance the well-being of his race in the broadest sense, he must become an advocate of the Maori cause in Parliament. He stood against the sitting member for the Western Maori seat, Henare Kaihau, and defeated him in 1911. Thenceforward to the day of his death he occupied that seat in Parliament, the district extending page xii from Auckland to Wellington and inland from the West Coast to Lake Taupo. In 1912 Pomare was appointed by the Massey Government a member of the executive representing the Maori race, and he filled the same position in Mr. Coates’ Cabinet. He was also appointed Minister in Charge of the Cook and other islands in the South Seas under New Zealand’s flag; and he was also Minister for Health and for Internal Affairs for a period. In 1920 he was made C.M.G., and in 1922 he was knighted by the King.

For sixteen years Sir Maui was the Minister in complete control of the administration of the Cook and other Islands, the South Pacific dependencies of New Zealand. He had already gained experience of conditions in the Maori islands of Polynesia on his visits as doctor to Rarotonga and other parts of our little South Sea Dominion. It was not easy to travel among the outlying islands in those days. The only means of reaching the more remote places was a small schooner. One of Pomare’s professional problems in the Islands was the question of how best to deal with the numerous sufferers from leprosy. Up at Penrhyn, the northernmost of our coral islands, he found many lepers who had been segregated by their people on one of the small islands on the atoll reef. In the end, through his influence, New Zealand joined with the Fiji Government in the Makogai leper station, established on an island in the Fiji group, and there all Maori-Polynesian sufferers from the terrible disease are sent to-day. The system of treatment there has proved the most successful method of dealing with leprosy. All the sick people in this category are collected from the various islands and maintained on Makogai, and already a number have been returned to their homes cured. This result, and the fact that the island populations generally are increasing by every census, is a happy condition that had its beginning in Pomare’s first Pacific cruise.

As Minister in charge of the Islands, he exhibited a truly statesmanlike skill in the administration of those small and scattered but strategically and commercially valuable dependencies of ours. The Islanders loved him; they remember him with a touching devotion when they meet and discuss the affairs of their coral homes. Lady Pomare, too, and Miss Ana Pomare won the hearts of the Islanders on their visits with Sir Maui; they were claimed as kinswomen and chieftainesses.

Pomare could recite the list of his chieftain ancestors from a period some eight hundred years ago, long before the historic canoes crossed the ocean from Tahiti and other Eastern Pacific islands to New Zealand. Several lists, in fact, for there were collateral tables of names down through the generations from the far-back Hawaikian days. And not mere shadowy names, but most of them with some definite tradition attached in the orally-preserved history of the tribes. Practically every Maori, not merely those page xiii with claims to high aristocratic descent, can name his forefathers back to the era of the migrations from the South Sea Islands, and many go a few beyond that time. How many of the pakeha race can exhibit the same intimate acquaintance with their ancestral lines?

This pride of pedigree—wickedly vain, no doubt, from the point of view of many of our sturdy democrats—had a certain virtue in it. It made often for a chivalrous spirit, a scorn of mean actions. A rangatira would endeavour to behave as his renowned ancestors had behaved in certain circumstances. Of course, like the pakeha’s ancestors, some of those long-gone rangatiras were great ruffians, but there were the outstanding names that were imperishably associated in their descendants’ minds with deeds of bravery, endurance and generosity.

In another way the constant remembrance of the chiefs of the past influenced the deeds and words of the descendants. It enabled public speakers to give pleasing point to their addresses with traditional allusion, proverb and aphorism, and ancient chant. Sir Maui Pomare was a master of this art of classic speech. I remember a notable speech of his, an address to the assembled people mourning for their dead leader Te Whiti, the prophet of Parihaka. It was a most beautiful oration to Maori ears, a speech which only such an occasion could bring forth, every sentence a poem in itself, a mythological allusion, a proverb, or a calling up of the spirit of some famous forefather of the dead chief. There was another occasion, a dramatic episode, when Sir Maui won his Parliamentary election by means of a certain historical allusion which appealed to his hearers so strongly that it turned a large tribe, hitherto his opponents, into supporters. That story may be told another day.

With mingled pleasure and profound sorrow one casts one’s thoughts back through the memories of long friendship—the pleasure that comes from the recollection of our many unreserved talks on the subjects that interested us most, talks in which Maui revealed his touching pride of race, his patriotic fire—sorrow that, alas! those honest, earnest outpourings of heart and soul will be heard no more. Poignant was his grief, hot his indignation, at anything that touched undesirably the honour and freedom of his Maori-Polynesian peoples. His sympathies with the Samoan people were deep and strong.

How pleasant it was to hear him recall the scenes of his youth; to hear him describe his mentors in Maori lore 1 How well he brought before one, in a deft word-picture, such a man as his old tohunga instructor Tepene, of Ngati-Mutunga, who sent for his mokopuna Maui so that he might pass on to him his tribal history and sacred knowledge; Tepene, grim black-tattooed ancient, who to his last day wore his hair tied up in a top- page xiv knot after the fashion of more primitive times. And another aged instructor with whom he camped alone at the foot of Mt. Egmont while he imbibed from his soon-passing elder the word-of-mouth treasury of the Maori.

A knightly soul was Pomare; chivalrous in his defence and championship of a national cause which needed an advocate; kindly, ever ready with a joke rather than a hard word; generous in the instinctive manner of a true rangatira.

Intensely patriotic in the Maori sense, he was also broadly Imperial in his outlook. The tribes will not forget his eloquent and impassioned appeals in the days of the Great War, when there was necessity for keeping the Maori Pioneer Battalion up to its full strength on the Western Front.

Kindly, gifted, chivalrous Maui, dead at fifty-four, a too-early flickering out of a brilliant life. Dead in a far-away land; yet we cherished the belief, in the Maori way, that with his ashes his spirit returned to his old beloved scenes, to flit to the Rerenga-Wairua of his noble ancestors. His memory is close to us; the New Zealanders, Maori and pakeha, who knew and valued and loved him. To his family one may echo the thoughts in one of the old laments of his race for a high chief and leader:

Pass on, O Sire, along the quiet ways:
The beloved one of my heart, my shelter and defence
Against the bleak south wind.
My speaking-bird that charmed the assembled tribes,
That swayed the people’s councils.
Clothe him, the Father, with the stately garments,
The very fine cloaks Tahu-whenua and Taharangi;
Place in his ear the precious jewel-stone,
The greenstone kahurangi,
Hang on his breast the koko-tangiwai,
Of glistening lucent jade.
Oh, thou wert the main-prop of the house;
At the prow of the canoe thou stood’st,
Ears bent to the splashing sound
Of many paddles.
Our sweetest speaking-bird has gone,
The plumes alone remain.

James Cowan.

Wellington, N.Z., 1934.