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Maori Wars of the Nineteenth Century:

Visit to Te Reinga, 1834

Visit to Te Reinga, 1834.

In December, 1834, Mr. W. G. Puckey visited Te Reinga, near the North Cape, the place where the departed spirits descend to the nether world, on their way to far distant Hawaiki-nui, where is the general gathering place of all spirits, at Te Hono-i-wairua. As his account is interesting in touching on some of the old customs, the following is extracted from his notes published in the “Church Missionary Record” for 1835. “I set out on the 4th December to” visit a remnant of the vanquished tribe, the Au-pouri, taking with me six of my natives and Paerata, an old chief and guide. This once page 461 bloodthirsty warrior and superstitious heathen, who was partly the means of annihilating this once powerful tribe, is, we hope, through the grace of God, become as gentle as a lamb.”…The party proceeded from Kaitaia to the west coast, and thence went along the magnificent beach that extends northwards to Cape Maria Van Diemen.* “We brought up at night at Hukatere, an old fortified place where Paerata once fought and was wounded.…At 5 o’clock next morning we started on our way across the island for Houhora on Mount Camel, as we intended to pass the sabbath there.”…And they experienced much fatigue in crossing the six miles of sand which there covers the island from coast to coast. “At this place we were cordially received by Whiti, an old and venerable chief, one of the principal heads of Te Rarawa tribe. This old man on learning where we were going, said, ‘Of what use is your going there; for the people are very few and they have nothing for you to eat.’

“On the 6th December, Whiti on learning that we intended to explore Te Reinga, communicated the news to a chief of another village, who immediately came and said to

* There is an amusing story told of the Rev. Mr. Puckey and this beach. Having frequently to travel along the hard, sandy beach, he conceived the idea of making a small fourwheeled car, to which he added a mast and sail. It answered admirably, until one day, the steering apparatus went wrong during a high wind, and the car “took charge” and carried the reverend gentleman into the breakers where, but for the help of his natives, he would have been drowned.

page 462 Paerata: ‘I am come to send you and your white companion back; for if you cut away the aka, or roots of Te Reinga, the whole island will be destroyed, but your white friend will not. Do not suffer your friend to cut away the ladder by which the souls of our forefathers were conveyed to the other world.’ The whole body of New Zealanders, although composed of numerous tribes who for the greater part are living in malice, hateful and hating one another, yet firmly believe in the Reinga–which is at the North Cape—as the only place for their departed spirits. It is their belief, that as soon as the soul leaves the body, it makes its way with all speed to the western coast. If it be the spirit of one who resided in the interior, it takes with it a small bundle of the branches of the palm tree (nikau) as a token of a place whence it came; if one who lived on the coast, the spirit takes with it a kind of grass that grows by the seaside (? pingao) which it leaves at different resting places on its road to the Reinga.” On the 7th December, they returned to the west coast, and in travelling along the beach saw many fragments of wrecked vessels and whale bones, and at night reached Wai-mahuru, a small stream where there were a few houses that are considered sacred. On the 8th—“At break of day we proceeded on our way about three miles, when we came to one of the resting places of the spirits, where we were told we should know if any native had lately died, as there would be page 463 a green whakaau, or token of his spirit having rested there on its way to the Reinga, but we found none.…About three o’clock we arrived at the end of the beach at Kahu-kawa, where resided all the natives of the North Cape, not exceeding twenty-five in number.”

“December 9th—We proceeded to explore the Reinga. After proceeding about half-anhour we came to another and the last restingplace of the spirits, which is on a hill called Haumu, from whence they can look back on the country where their friends are still living, and the thought of them causes the spirits to cry and cut themselves. Here we saw many dry whakaau which, as our guide said, were the tokens of the spirits who had rested there. I asked him if it were not possible for strangers who passed this way to do as my natives were then doing, namely, twisting green branches and depositing them there as a sign that they had stopped at that notable place—a general custom with the natives whenever they pass any remarkable place. After this we went on over sandhills and sandy beaches till we came to a fresh water river. Here we took breakfast, after which we ascended a very high hill composed of craggy rocks on which were growing patches of slippery grass, over which it was very difficult to walk, and the precipice over which the road lay, hanging over the sea, made travelling very dangerous. When we reached the summit, we descended to the water’s edge. Here there is a hole through the rock into page 464 which the spirits are said to descend by the aka, which is a branch of a tree (a pohutukawa tree according to the Maoris) growing out of the rock, inclining downwards, with part of it broken off by the violence of the wind, but said to have been broken off by a number of spirits which went down by the aka to the Reinga, some years ago, when a great number were killed in a fight. After a while, our new guide took us about one hundred yards farther along, where he directed our attention to a large lump of seaweed washed to and fro by the waves of the sea, which he said was the door that closed in spirits of the Reinga. This latter place is called Motatau,* where, our guide remarked, they caught fish, which are always quite red from the kokowai, or red ochre, that the natives bedaub their bodies and mats with —the natives believe that the painted garments go with departed spirits.”

“The scenery round the place where I stood was most uninviting; not only so, but calculated to inspire the soul with horror. The place has a most barren appearance, while the screaming of the numerous sea-fowl and the sea roaring in the pride of might, dashing against the dismal black rocks, would suggest to the reflecting mind that it must have been the dreary aspect of the place that led the New Zealanders to choose such situations as this for

* Motatau, or Motau, is frequently mentioned in Maori laments— “i te rimu e mawe ra ki Motau.” “Where the seaweed swirls at Motau”; and is emblematical for death.

page 465 their Hell. We now returned to Kahu-kawa, and reached home on the 12th.”

“During the time I was absent, great rumours spread among the tribes that I had gone to cut away the aka (or root) of Te Reinga. Many angry speeches were made, and some said they would go and waylay us as we were returning. It, in fact, roused all the old affections of those who had any, for their old Dagon, while numbers who were beginning to be a little enlightened would say, ‘And what of it, if the ladder be cut away? it is a thing of lies; no spirits ever went there.’ On being asked, ‘What, are you afraid of having no place of torment to go to?’ Some of the old men touchingly replied, ‘It is very well for you to go to the Rangi (heaven), but leave us our old Reinga, and let us have something to hold on by as we descend, or we shall break our necks over the precipice.’ Many, however, threatened to fight with Paerata, as they laid the blame on him. About forty men came to inquire into the truth, as well as Kuku, a notable chief. After much talk, however, Paerata was able to convince them that their old road to spirit land was still intact.”

Forty years ago I had a native of the Aupouri tribe of the North Cape in my employ for several years. He has often described the Reinga to me, and stated that in travelling southward along the long beach mentioned by Mr. Puckey, he has seen at a distance page 466 companies of spirits approaching him on their way northwards to Te Reinga. But they always disappeared before they drew near; and if he looked back after a time the same party would be seen hastening along to their destination. He told me that in the north the doors of the kumara stores were always turned to the north, for fear the spirits travelling from the south should enter and thereby tapu the kumaras, and therefore unfit them for food. By this we may suppose the spirits could not turn back after once starting.

Mr. Puckey’s idea as to Te Reinga having been chosen as the entrance to Hades from its weird and uninviting appearance, is not correct. It was the nearest part of New Zealand to the Ancient Fatherland of Hawaiki whence the race originated, and to which all spirits were supposed to return after life. There are Reingas in most of the islands—if not all—occupied by the Polynesians, and they are generally to be found at the western end of the islands—in other words towards the direction of Hawaiki, the Fatherland. The spirits were always supposed to travel along the mountains from where ever the body died, to the western end of the islands, and there “jumped off,” hence Reinga-wairua, the Spirits’ Leap, the name applied to most of these points of departure.

The following from the “Church Missionary Record” for 1835, illustrates the manners of the early years of the nineteenth century. It page 467 is supplied by the Rev. Mr. Davis of the Bay, a very competent Maori scholar. “June 30th, 1834, several natives here for instruction. This evening one of the young men from Kaikohe, who has lived with me from the first, gave the following interesting account of himself:–.…While I was yet in my mother’s womb, my father devoted me to the Powers of Darkness. As soon after my birth as I was able to struggle for my mother’s breast, I was kept therefrom and teased by my father in order that angry passions might be deeply rooted in me; the stronger I grew the more was I teased by my father and the harder was I obliged to fight for the nourishment of my mother’s breast. This was done in order that my angry passions might be fostered in their growth, and ultimately become matured in desperate wickedness. All this was done (to use his own words) before I had seen the plants which are produced by the earth.”

“As soon as I saw the world and was able to run about, the work of preparation went on more rapidly; and my father kept me without food in order that I might learn the art of stealing, and so at length become an adept, not forgetting at the same time to stir up the spirit of revenge and anger.…My father also taught me the Black Art (i.e., witchcraft in which his father was a great priest and an adept) so that I might be able to bewitch or destroy people at pleasure.”

page 468

“My father told me that in order to be a great man, I must be a murdering warrior, a desperate and expert thief, and be able to do all kinds of wickedness effectually.”

“I recollect that when a child, my father went to kill (hunt) pigs. After they were dead I tried to get a leg or a limb; but my father beat me away, and did not allow me to eat any part thereof because I had not shown myself desperate in endeavouring to catch and kill the pigs.”

“When the tribe went to war, and I was able to join them, I endeavoured in all things to fulfil my father’s wishes, by committing acts of wickedness, and considered that I was quite right in so doing. When I became a man and capable of committing acts of violence, catching slaves for myself, &c., my father was pleased, and said, now I will feed you, because you deserve it; now you shall not want for good things.”

This young man subsequently came under the teaching of the Missionaries, and abandoned his old life, which caused a separation between him and his old father who removed from Kaikohe to be away from Missionary influence.

The “Missionary Record” for the years following 1833 are full of interesting matter relating to the Maoris, and more especially with respect to the Thames and Waikato people, who came under the Missionary teachings by the founding of new stations at Puriri page 469 on the Thames river in 1834, and at Mangapouri between the Waikato and Waipa rivers, also in the same year, but they no longer deal with the subject of this paper, but rather with the state of the Maoris of the north central districts of the colony; and a melancholy tale of war, treachery, murder and barbarism it is, illustrating what was said at the beginning of this narrative, that in the early years of the nineteenth century the whole of the North Island was one vast camp of armed men seeking each other’s destruction.

In January, 1836, Rev. H. Williams, Messrs. Fairburn and Hamlin, succeeded in bringing about a peace between Waikato and Nga-Puhi, at Otahuhu, near Auckland, and since that time these two great tribes have not been at enmity; but wars still flourished amongst most of the other tribes, only one of which, however, did Nga-Puhi take any part in, and that was: