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The Maori Race

Weapons, Etc

Weapons, Etc.

The native weapons (rakau maori) were primitive both in design and construction, but they were not only thoroughly adapted to the fighting genius of the race but were admirable in themselves whether we consider the simplicity of the materials used or the art often page 308 lavished upon their ornamentation and finish. They were sometimes valued by a standard that civilised men, used to seeing arms turned out by the thousand through the agency of machinery, would consider absurdly over-rated, but when it is remembered that the very greatest care and industry were lavished on the construction of a single weapon, and that also a particular character of an almost spiritual nature was associated with it if it had often been used in victorious combat, it will be acknowledged that value may be an entirely individual consideration in respect to such articles.

The principal weapon of a Maori warrior was the spear (tao). A short spear of from four to six feet in length was the almost invariable appurtenance of a chief when he “took his walks abroad” and consummate mastery of the weapon for guard and attack was one of the most important accomplishments. Although only made of a single piece of hard polished wood (manuka or akeake), and little better than a pointed rod, it was a formidable weapon in accustomed hands. A celebrated chief named Te Wahanui is said to have combined such skill with the spear with an almost herculean strength that he would drive his weapon through man after man, tossing each of the victims back over his head to be finished off by his followers. These light spears were used with deadly effect if the opposing force broke and fled, for then a swift runner would overtake one after another of the flying enemy and with a stab so disable the fugitive as to render him an easy prey for those page 309 coming after.3 A short spear (turuhi) or assegai about six feet long having a flattened head of two and a half feet in length resembling a metal spear-head was used by the Urewera but was almost wholly confined to that tribe. Sometimes the short spear was used as a dart and thrown by the hand, but the Maoris never showed the proficiency in this exercise exhibited by the Australian blacks or other savages with whom the spear is a true missile weapon. A very long spear (huata: but this name was given to other kinds of spear) was sometimes used. It was from 12 to 14 feet long but even 40 feet in length has been reached by this weapon, which must not be confounded with the bird-spear although of almost similar construction. It was made by hewing down the bulk of a straight manuka tree to the requisite slender proportion and was cut beautifully true. Sometimes it was handled by two or three men together, who would thrust it through the palisades of a beleagured fort (pa) from inside and drive it through the bodies of some of the attacking party, transfixing two or three. This spear had a round knob (purori) and a plume of dog's hair on the butt end. Some spears of this (huata) kind had the heads barbed with the terrible lacerating spines (hoto) of the stingray, a weapon well known in the Pacific both as spear-head and dagger.4 Another kind of spear (kaniwha) was barbed only on one side. The spear called puraka had three or four points like an eel-spear and was about eight feet in length. The koikoi was a spear about page 310 seven feet long with a double point; this was also called timata. A short spear (tete), the head of which would break off in a wound, was sometimes used in battle. This spear-head, like the tines of the puraka spear, was made of mapara, the resinous heart-wood of white pine (kahikatea). A variety of this spear (tete paraoa) had a head formed from the bone of the sperm-whale. It was deeply barbed and the head was fixed as usual in the tete, so as to break off in the body of a wounded person. The digging stick (ko) and the chief's staff (tokotoko) were also used as arms.5 A dagger (also tete) was a weapon of some tribes. This dagger was of bone, from about 10 inches to a foot long. The beautifully carved handle and rounded blade (like a stiletto) was in one piece. The blade was also carved and was deeply barbed backward towards the hilt. It was carried in a sheath (pukoro) made of closely woven flax. Sometimes one man carried several of these daggers in his waist-mat or girdle (maro).

The most beautiful of all Maori arms was the battledoor shaped weapon (mere), somewhat resembling a flat club, but which was not handled in the usual manner of a club. It varied from about 12 to 20 inches long, and was often of greenstone (jade or nephrite). A light thong (tau) was passed through a hole in the handle of the mere and looped round the holder's thumb. The blow generally given with the mere was a horizontal thrust straight from the shoulder at the temples of an enemy's fore-head. If the body of the foeman was grasped page 311 by the other hand the mere was driven up under the ribs or jaw; if the hair, the temple-blow was tried. Had the mere been used with the downward stroke a parrying blow might have splintered the edge and the labour of years be lost. The mere was usually carried in the belt and only used at very close quarters. It was highly valued, only as a rule used by chiefs, and some of these weapons had a long and romantic history. Mere of more common stone or of the bone of the whale were often to be seen. On occasions of solemn formality mere were exchanged by chiefs of opposite parties as a pledge of peace or amity.6 One famous mere, the Pahikaure of the chief Te Heuheu, was supposed to have the power of becoming invisible to anyone but its rightful owner. This mere had been taken from an enemy ages ago, and had five times been buried with ancestors. A greenstone adze (hohoupu or toki) with a beautifully carved handle and decked with feathers was also borne by chiefs as a badge of authority.7 The same name (hohoupu) is given to a sacred instrument only used in cutting out the heart from a human sacrifice. A bone or wooden weapon (kotiate), shaped somewhat like the mere but with lobed sides and broader, was sometimes used.8 The shape of the kokoti or patu was somewhat like that of the mere, but it had only one side convex, the outline of the other resembling a billhook; if it had the convex side lobed or notched like a kotiate it was called waha-ika. A short stick (karo) was occasionally carried for parrying spear thrusts.9 page 312 The quarter-staff or sword (taiaha or hani) was made of heavy hard wood. It served also the purpose of a spear, had properly named points and guards,10 and was essentially a chief's weapon of authority as well as of attack and defence. The most common length was about five and a half feet, but the taiaha always took the same pattern, the upper end being carved into the shape of a pointed tongue. Below the tongue and about four inches from the end was a circlet of the bright feathers of the parrot, and also little tufts of dog's hair.11 If the taiaha had no carved tongue it received the name of pou-whenua. Another weapon of authority or direction was the battle - axe (tewha-tewha or paiaka) made of bone or hard wood. It was about four feet long, pointed at one end like a spear, and having at the other a head shaped somewhat like an axe. The blow was not directed to fall with what with us would be the edge of the axe, but contact was made with the part of the head that was straight with the handle, the head merely giving weight to the blow. A large bunch of feathers was fastened to the lower curve of the axe-head, and the weapon (if not used for thrusting with the point) was generally more a baton of office than anything else, the waving of the feathered sceptre being a point of direction or centre of inspiration for the chief's followers. It was sometimes used by the director (hautu) of the time kept in canoe paddling. Wooden swords (ripi or patu-tuna) have been excavated in New Zealand. They were without guards, and with blade and page 312a Take Take, Wanganui. page 313 handle in one piece; shorter than the ordinary sword of an infantry officer. They probably belonged to the tribes dispossessed by the Maoris. Of clubs there are several varieties. One of wood, of a four-sided pattern was called patuki. 12 The club of greenstone was named onewa, and another of black stone okewa or kurutai. After the arrival of the Europeans long - handled tomahawks (kakauroa) and a short hatchet (patiti) became fashionable, but these are not true Maori weapons, the use of iron being formerly unknown.13

The chief cutting tool was a knife (miratuatini or mata-tuatini). It was made of wood and had inserted in the sides or edges the teeth of the Blue-shark (Tuatini: Carcharias brachyurus). The mira-tuatini was generally elaborately carved and its handle perforated to receive a thong.14 Sometimes sharp flakes of obsidian (matā) were inserted instead of shark's teeth, but the weapon was then more generally known as kautete or mata-kautete, and resembled a sword more than a club.

It is difficult to find out if the bow was ever used as a war weapon by the Maori. It was well known as a plaything for children, and the word widely spread as the name for the bow in the South Seas (fana or whana) is also a Maori word. There are very few traditional references to it. The Urewera tribe state that fiery arrows (pere) were thrown among the houses of their enemies by means of the bow (whana). There is a legend to the effect that in a battle between the Ngati-whatua and the Ngati-maru in the Thames Valley, page 314 bows and arrows were used. But it may be inferred from the absence of mention of such weapon in the oldest traditions that the bow was not in general use (if used at all) among the Maoris as a weapon of war.

For throwing spears to a distance the “throw-stick” (kotaha or kopere) was in favour in some districts. The “throw-stick” was a piece of wood from two to three feet in length, carved along its length and generally terminating in the shape of a clenched hand grasping a piece of cord. The arrow or spear (pere) was generally a rough piece of wood (manuka) deeply cut in behind the head so that it might break into a wound. A false head made of the wood of the tree-fern (ponga) sometimes was lashed to the shaft, this wood being poisonous inflicted a festering wound. The arrow was laid on the ground in the proper direction, with its head slightly raised on a piece of wood or stone. The cord of the throw-stick was then placed round the arrow in a half-turn, in such a way that when the throw-stick was jerked forward the line would run clear. A spear could be thrown quite 200 yards by means of this device, and sometimes a sheaf of such spears was thrown into an attacking party or an enemy's fort by two men, who, standing one on each side of the bundle would launch them forward by a synchronous effort.15 It is doubtful if the sling proper was used generally by the Maoris, although it is described as having served the purpose of throwing red hot stones among the inflammable houses of an enemy's village. The Urewera page 315 tribe used the ordinary sling, but they called it by the name (kotaha) usually bestowed on the throw-stick. Among other missile weapons may be mentioned a curious dagger of stone (kotaha-kurutai) which was cast by hand, and which had a cord attached, with which it might be recovered by the thrower.16 The attached cord (taura) for recovering was also sometimes fixed to a curved weapon (hoeroa) shaped somewhat like the sword (taiaha) but chisel-pointed and having the natural bend of the whale-rib of which it was made.17 Among the northern tribes the hoeroa was the cruel weapon used in the impalement of female prisoners. The Urewera hurled a staff (reti) double-pointed and barbed or notched at the sides. It was about three and a half feet long, and also recovered with a cord.18

Large wooden hooks (matau-tangata) each having a bone or stone barb were used as weapons. They were employed when it was desired to break up the solid form of an enemy's war-party. Three or four of the hooks were fastened to a rope and weighted with a stone at the end, then launched as one whirls and casts a fishing-line. Being suddenly jerked back a man or two was probably hooked and drawn out, this serving to break up the opponent's phalanx. A sharp stone (often flint) was tied to a cord and swung round before striking therewith. This was called korepa.

Sometimes, but rarely the old weapon of the Roman Retiarius was had recourse to by the Maori. The hand-net would be diverted from its use as a fishing apparatus and cast page 316 over the head of a foeman, who, enmeshed in its folds, would fall an easy victim to the blows of the short club. On one occasion at least in traditional history the large seine fishing-net was brought into play for a similar purpose by the chief Maru-tuahu.19 The war trumpet (pu, putara, putatara, tatara, tetere, putetere, puhaureroa, pukaea, etc.) was either made of wood or of the conch-shell (Triton variegatum). One form was a wooden trumpet with a conch-shell fixed at the end.20 The long war-trumpet made of totara wood was used for sounding alarms in case of war. The South Island Maoris had a trumpet that was worked like a trombone. It was usually made of tutu or mako wood, but sometimes of bone. It was “packed” with scraped flax delicately whipped round the tubing in a tiny flat plait of six strands. The large war-drum or war-gong (pahu) was a log of matai wood struck with a wooden beater, and giving a deep resonant note that sounded to a great distance. It was suspended from posts set high within the pa, and the drummer mounted on a stage to strike it.21

The shield proper was unknown, but a substitute was often used consisting of a pad (whakapuru-tao) worn on the arm as a guard against spear thrusts. Sometimes a garment was wrapped round the arm (this was called puapua), or a mat (pukupuku or puoru) made for the special purpose, this being first wetted. A “tortoise” was sometimes formed when attacking an enemy's pa by making a sapping shield (kahu-papa) to cover the advances of the war-party.

page 317

Speaking of weapons generally, it may be said that they were viewed almost with reverence, and prayers were said over them before a fight. They had, so to speak, a personality, and could be insulted or reverenced as if a part of the owner. No cooked food might be brought near such an arm, unless as a means of destroying its efficacy, for to smear the point or edge of an enemy's weapon with cooked food was to render it innocuous, nay, to make it dangerous to its owner. The reason for this is more fully set out in the chapters on “Tapu,” but there remains a particular quality of a weapon that was called its mana. The word mana itself has no English equivalent, but it may be best rendered in this connection as “prestige,” that is, “influence derived from former achievements and from a confident expectation of future success.” If to this be added a spiritual influence, a kind of awe tinctured with fear of the supernatural power that had endowed the weapon, some idea of the mana it possessed may be acquired. If it had been the favourite weapon of a renowned warrior it had probably gained mana through the number of lives it had taken. It could, however, acquire mana by long descent through the hands of celebrated men (even if not itself famous in battle) and from being considered an ancestral relic; this sort of mana being also shared by antique ornaments and other decorations of famous chiefs. Of such valued descent is the famous axe Te Awhiorangi. This, says the legend, was, when the gods lifted the heavens from the earth, the axe page 318 with which The Props of Heaven were hewn and trimmed. Then through long generations of semi-celestial beings and dim ancestors it passed down to Turi, the chief of the Aotea canoe, who brought it to New Zealand from the Maori cradle-land, Hawaiki. Here again it passed through the hands of many generations, till it was lost, but was recovered again on the 10th December, 1887, its discovery being attended with thunder and lightning and other portents. Neither, however, the respect shown for a weapon because it has been the instrument of much bloodshed and victory nor that conferred by historical or legendary association can be compared with the depth of feeling exhibited towards certain weapons in which mana of a spiritual or divine character resided, such character being a species of “mediumship,” or power of communication with the unseen world. Thus, the taiaha of Te Hinatoka was regarded as having magical or prophetic powers, and the tribe of Ngatiporou was accustomed to consult it before going into battle. After the necessary incantations had been recited the “fore-seeing” sign would be waited for. If the taiaha turned slowly over, then the omen was favourable, and success would follow; if it remained still the expedition was abandoned. This weapon had a fighting mana also; if used in single combat its wielder was invariably the victor. Matuakiore, a taiaha belonging to the Ngati-Maniopoto tribe, also gave omens, the principal of these being a flash from the feather circlet when the enwrapping mats were withdrawn, a page 319 sign of life and success to the invokers; but if the feathers looked dull and sombre it was an omen of defeat.22 The mana possessed by the mere of Te Heuheu has been above mentioned, and consisted in the weapon being invisible to any but the rightful owner.