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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 70

Answers of the Rev. J. F. H. Wohlers, Missionary at Ruapuke, Foveaux Strait

Answers of the Rev. J. F. H. Wohlers, Missionary at Ruapuke, Foveaux Strait.

Ruapuke, Southland,

Dear Sir,—

Yours of 20th October, asking for information about the art of working in pounamu or greenstone among the Maoris, has come to haul I will try and write you about my observations as far as they go, I will also enclose a paper on the same subject in German, which I think you might like to send to Professor Fischer at Freiburg.

I think that the ancestors of the Maoris long ago were in the possession of some culture, which they had lost during their migration to the South Sea islands, where they sank down to what is called the period of stone implements [This, of course, must be regarded as impossible—F. R. C.]; and that the noble bearing among the chiefs' families and the sense of art are remains of that culture. But the greenstone ornaments, weapons, and figures are the results of long persevering Iabour with stone tools. Many of the old Maoris could make simple ornaments, hut only a few could produce the high and peculiar works of art. The figures or images were never worshipped The Maoris as long as they have resided in New Zealand never worshipped idols, as their mythology and traditions show. Neither were their hei-tikis representatives of ancestors. They were simply works of art, and as such were highly prized. They went as heirlooms from generation to generation in the families in whose possession they were, and on this account only were they considered as sacred family treasures. It has happened that when families were dying out the last possessors of such works of art buried them secretly in the earth, so that they should not come into other hands.

There is an old tale of a mad Maori woman who long ago wandered from the West Coast, where greenstone is found, into the high mountains, carrying a greenstone axe with her. By good luck she found a passage over and through the mountains, and wandered on to the East Coast, where, south of Banks Peninsula, near one of the large rivers, she came upon Maoris who were chipping with axes made of inferior stones. She said to them, "Your axes are not good: try mine." Then the woman was questioned about the greenstone place (wahi pounamu); and, having listened to her description about the road thereto, it was resolved to visit that place. Two large parties were formed for that purpose. One party perished in the snow and ice on the high mountains; the other reached the West Coast, and returned with greenstone.

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My observations are limited to the Maoris on the shores and islands of Foveaux Strait. The pieces of greenstone in the taw state came, and still some times come, from the West Coast, where it is broken out of the rocks; but how it is imbedded there I cannot tell. When, forty or fifty years ago, the South Island was frequented by European whalers and sealers, some young Maori men went with them in their vessels to the West Coast and brought pieces of raw greens bone back. A Captain Anglem, of that time, who lived in retirement on Stewart Island, told me that he had blasted greenstone rocks with, gunpowder on the West Coast. But before that greenstone had been brought here, very likely, both over-land and by sea, in canoes.

When I came among the Maoris here in 1844 there were still some tohungas (wise men) living among them. Some men were learned in old tales; some were skilful in works of art; but such very high art as has been found in the North was never produced here in the South, Let as now look at one of those old artists such as I observed thirty-seven years ago. He is advanced in years, and hard labour no longer agrees with him. Sitting and doing nothing, his nerves will not be quiet; so he takes in hand a piece of raw greenstone, looks at it, and thinks what can be made of it. By-and-by he begins to rub it on a suitable stone. It takes a long time before a bright smoothness appears; but even a very Blew progress cheers his mind, and the monotonous rubbing quietens his nerves. When he feels tired he ceases rubbing and enjoys rest. So it goes on through, perhaps, many years. By-and-by the idea which had been conceived in his mind begins to gain shape in the greenstone. Then fresh ideas about detail come into his mind, and he has to work with different stone tools—large and small, thin, and pointed. To bore a hole or to make fine depressions he has a wooden staff about 18in. or 2ft. long; at the lower end is fastened a sharp splinter of a hard stone; in the middle of the staff is fastened a small fly-wheel; round the upper end he winds a cord, and holds the two ends of the same one in each hand. Now, while comfortably sitting, and the greenstone being fastened below him with the sharp end of the bore upon it, he skilfully balances the latter in an upright position, and as he draws alternately with his bands the tool revolves in fast motions forwards and backwards. Formerly time was not considered among the Maoris—no one knew how old he was. Many old Maoris were engaged in similar hobbies, which, as they had no literature, were blessings to them.

The old Maoris were good judges of the quality of greenstone. They also showed and explained to mo the goodness and defects thereof; but I did not learn enough of that science to be able to give a description of the same. All those old Maoris are now dead, and the present generation has adopted the ideas and fashions of the Europeans. They therefore leave the polishing of beautiful stones to European artificers. Some raw greenstone may still be in the possession of Maoris here, but I think very little is left of works of art.

You ask, "Was greenstone really the object of Te Rauparaha's invasion?" My answer is that very likely Te Rauparaha may have boasted that he would conquer the Wahi Pounamu, but 1 think he and his people were only continuing the savage history of the South Island, Long ago there came from the North a tribe called Ngatimamoe. They killed and are of the Maoris found by them in the South. After them came the Ngatitahu Tribe from the North Island, and began to kill and eat the Ngatimamoe on the South Island. They had nearly finished them when Te Rauparaba and his people came to kill and eat the Ngatitahu, but were stopped by Christianity and by European immigration and civilised government.

Yours, &c.,

F. R. Chapman, Esq., Dunedin.

J. F. H. Wohlers.