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The Maori Situation

II—The Maori as He Was

page 6

II—The Maori as He Was

To reconstruct ancient Maori life is by no means easy, though there are on record observations of Maori life and custom and general impressions of Maori mind and character dating from the days of the first contact of Europeans with the inhabitants of New Zealand. Some of these observations, though unfortunately not very systematic, were made before there had been much serious alteration in Maori life. This alteration proceeded very rapidly after the coming of Europeans, so that much was soon lost, even as a matter of record. In endeavouring to picture ancient Maori life one gains a deepening impression that it was more rich and complex and well established than has usually been supposed, or than would be gathered from the sketchy attempts which have been made from time to time to reproduce it. Our most complete accounts of it are based on evidence from the latter half of the nineteenth century when it was vastly changed. We have continually to be on our guard against supposing that the Maori as he became is the Maori as he was.

Early observers were shocked at such enormities of custom as cannibalism and intense bloodthirstiness in warfare, and some of them rather disgusted by lack of cleanliness, but the splendid physique of the race, their dignity and grace of bearing, and their general intelligence were so impressive that again and again we find the chiefs, and indeed the people as a whole, described as noble. “They are a noble race,” wrote Samuel Marsden, “vastly superior in understanding to anything you can imagine in a savage nation.”

It is difficult to estimate the Maori population at the time of the first arrival of Europeans in New Zealand. Estimates made during Captain Cook's visits to New Zea- page 7 land vary from one hundred thousand to four hundred thousand. Perhaps the Maori population was a quarter of a million, and it certainly was not long before, through many introduced causes, it began rapidly to decline. The peopling of New Zealand by the Maoris is also largely a matter of speculation. There is a popular belief that the Maori people have been in New Zealand only for some six hundred years, but it seems certain that voyagers from the islands of central Polynesia reached New Zealand before the year 1000, and that the settlement of these islands by Polynesians was spread over several centuries and culminated in an extensive migration from Tahiti and nearby islands about the year 1350. In the Maori population, however it may be accounted for, there is certainly a strong Melanesian strain, more apparently than is to be found in the Polynesians of the islands. The Maori people took and still take great pride in their descent and have always endeavoured to trace ancestry back to someone who came to Ao-tea-Roa in one of the canoes of the famous migration. Thus “coming over in the canoe”—Te Arawa, Tainui, Takitimu, or the others—was and is to the Maori what “coming over with the Conqueror” was in England, and “coming over with the Mayflower” in America. This last migration in the fleet of canoes had much to do with the development and organisation of the various Maori tribes in this country. Interest in one's “canoe” still persists, and every self-respecting Maori can tell you the name of his or her “canoe,” while legendary tales of the canoes and the question of priority of arrival are still matters of argument and jest.

The climate and natural resources of these islands necessitated profound changes in the customs and mode of life of those who came to them from central Polynesia. Life in this country was strenuous and difficult compared with life in the unexacting and indulgent environment of the tropical page 8 islands. Different and more substantial dwellings were required, warmer clothing and new forms of food. Only one of the Polynesian food plants, the kumara, could be extensively grown in New Zealand, and even that not everywhere. The local fern root supplied a new and important, though much less palatable source of food. Pigs and chickens had not been brought to this country, though dogs had, and there were no native mammals in New Zealand to serve as a food supply. Bird life, small and great, was, however, abundant, and the Maori hunted the moa for food and finally exterminated it. Fish was also abundant. The island Polynesians made their clothes from tappa, a flimsy cloth manufactured from the bark of the paper mulberry. This tree was introduced into New Zealand by the Polynesian immigrants, but did not flourish and is now extinct. The New Zealand flax, however, supplied a fibre from which warm garments could be made and the Maoris learned to dress and weave it in skilful and beautiful ways and evolved many handsome types of garment. In place of the flimsy thatched houses of the islands they developed new types better suited to the climate. The ordinary dwellings of the Maoris were small and rather crude; but they were used as little as possible, and the people ate and slept in the open whenever they could. Each village had at least one storehouse raised on posts, a more pretentious structure, usually elaborately and beautifully carved. The village had also a large council house. The Maori council houses, fully decorated with carved and painted and plaited designs, were by far the most beautiful structures in the Pacific. The abundance of fine hard woods in New Zealand led to a truly remarkable development of wood-carving and to the almost complete abandonment of the stone construction found elsewhere in the Pacific. Maori woodwork is good by any standard, as indeed is Maori art in general, and the fact that the artist was held in high page 9 esteem in Maori society and that such work dignified rather than demeaned a chief probably had much to do with the development of such beautiful craftsmanship. The Maoris decorated every object which they used; but their finest efforts were put forth in the decoration of war canoes and the great carved council houses. The most valued Maori implements, weapons and ornaments were made of that variety of jade found in New Zealand which we know as greenstone. This material is exceedingly hard and tough, and tools made from it were scarcely inferior to those of metal. A greenstone club would take a year or more to make, and one is amazed when one realizes the actual number and variety of handsome Maori artifacts so laboriously and skilfully produced, and now for the most part scattered amongst the museums of the world.

Maori social life within the tribe was securely based on the principle of hereditary chieftainship, though the hereditary principle was checked by the requirement of outstanding ability and efficiency in some activity of tribal importance. This gave a most effective form of leadership, and in Maori society almost every undertaking was made a communal one, carried out on the initiative of the chief to which tribesmen gave a willing and proud response. Leadership was a most important co-ordinating force in Maori life, a force which did much to stabilize conduct and to secure order and industry. In addition, conduct was regulated by a most intricate system of tapu, or supernatural prohibition, and no phase of life was without its religious and magical requirements.

Thus in the course of some centuries there was evolved in these islands a well-organized mode of human life possessing values of its own. The Maoris here acquired an energy and a force of character rarely found among their Polynesian relatives. Life in Ao-tea-Roa was less gracious and page 10 pleasing than life in Tahiti or Samoa, but it was more vigorous, resistant and varied. Much labour and much ingenuity were required to secure a sufficiency of food; and the working, with stone tools, of large forest trees for buildings and canoes, and the construction of palisaded hill forts called for much strenuous activity. In this temperate environment the Maori people became not only the best of the Polynesians but in some respects one of the finest peoples in the world.

The main institution round which Maori life was organized was undoubtedly inter-tribal warfare, and this institution, with all its ramifications, to a great extent produced the typical Maori mind and character. Its passing away necessitated profound readjustments. To the ancient Maori to be a successful warrior was the normal and natural career for a man. Apart from those other careers of priest and artist, and apart from primal economic activities in which all were engaged, warfare was the only possible activity in which the Maori male could prove his powers, achieve distinction, or maintain the distinction which was his by birth. Maori warfare, however, must not be judged by what it became in the early half of the nineteenth century, when the equilibrium of life was profoundly disturbed and when new and far more destructive weapons had been introduced. In the nineteenth century warfare became much generalized and freed from all the ceremonial restraints which rightly belonged to it. It would be a great mistake to think that the Maori was a fierce fighter and nothing more. Early observers comment again and again on the absence of ferocity in their countenances, which were said to be “open, composed and pleasing.” They comment further on their industry in work, their sociability in friendly inter-tribal visits, their games and contests, and the strong affection displayed in their family life. War was not waged throughout the year, but page 11 generally only in the summer months, and particularly after the planting of the crops and after the harvest. Campaigns would be planned in the winter and actively prepared for in spring. There is much evidence to show that their wars were not as destructive as might be imagined. In their traditional accounts of them they certainly tended to exaggerate the number killed. It is hardly too much to say that Maori warfare was a dangerous summer pastime, glorified by much ceremonial and intimately linked up with religion and other cultural forms. As to the immediate causes of war, tribes maintained with each other what may be termed a debit and credit account in utu, or revenge. Causes of warfare were deliberately conveyed and sought. Chiefs and people decided on war after the nice weighing of real or fancied insults and on fine points of honour for which the only parallel is the range of actions or expressions which until recently required European gentlemen to “call each other out.” There has been much misunderstanding of Maori cannibalism, as a result of generalizing from the practices of the nineteenth century, when its ritual aspects had been largely destroyed and the traditional restraints on it had disappeared. No early writer describes the Maoris as eating human flesh indiscriminately or altogether for its own sake. Almost exclusively the bodies of enemies, or special portions of them, were eaten in superstitious revenge, in the belief that qualities such as strength and courage could be thus transferred, and as a final and unanswerable insult. Since to be a warrior was his natural career, to die in battle was for the Maori a fit end. He had a developed philosophy of war and death.

Of Maori philosophy in general and of their religion and mythology much could be said. Two versions of these matters were current. One of the most interesting of Maori institutions was the School of Learning, a kind of sacred college of the nobility. In this were handed down to selected page 12 students during a course of three to five years the higher forms of Maori philosophy and religion, especially the cult of Io, the supreme being. All this was unknown to the common people, who possessed only the popular myths and stories. Of poetry and song there was much and it was often surprisingly lyrical, full of sensitivity both to nature and to human relations of a highly developed sort. The Maoris indeed, living in close contact with all the forms of nature, had an extensive and intimate knowledge of them and a deep feeling for them. Out of this knowledge and feeling came a wealth of images to embellish speech and song.

The intelligence of the Maori people was judged by early observers to be equal to that of Europeans, which it certainly was, though it was, of course, very differently exercised. A contrast was however felt and is still apparent between the two races in respect of the manner in which the emotions were permitted to express themselves. The Maoris were for the most part characterised by a spontaneity in regard to the emotions, a readiness to express and display them frankly where the white man would be restrained; though in some circumstances the reverse was practised.

Thus, then, the Maori as he was; healthy and vigorous in his body, keen and alert in his intellect; spontaneous in his emotions; ingenious, skilful and artistic in his crafts; nicely combining the aristocratic and the democratic in his social life; brave and relentless and yet chivalrous in his game of warfare; sensitively aware of his natural environment; affectionate and romantic in his personal relationships; with a satisfying philosophy of life and death; intelligent, proud, sure of himself and his way of life. Thus the Maori as he was, one hundred and fifty years ago.