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The Maori Race

Chapter XXIII. The Moriori

page 575

Chapter XXIII. The Moriori.

A description of the New Zealand people may perhaps be considered incomplete without a few words of comment on the inhabitants of the Chatham Islands. These islands are included in the colony of New Zealand, although they constitute a small group lying about four hundred and eighty miles south-east of Wellington. They were a few years ago inhabited by a very interesting people, the Moriori, now, alas! almost extinct. Only a half-dozen or so of full-blooded Moriori remain, although there are several half-caste and quarter-caste blendings with Europeans and Maoris. It has not yet been absolutely settled whether the ancestors of the Moriori were ever in New Zealand or whether they are of a separate migration from the Maoris, but there is strong reason to believe that some of them, at all events, visited the main island, either en route or in temporary settlement. One thing, however, is almost certain, viz, that they are an off-shoot of the same Polynesian race as the Maori, and that the language, though differing greatly as a dialect, is Maori in substance and essential from. There is sufficient unlikeness in custom and temperament to make the study of the subject worth attention.

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The Morioris resembled the Maori in appearance, but the nose was more hooked and Jewish in the former. Two types were recognisable, the dark brown and the fair brown, although as a rule they were both slightly darker than the corresponding dark and fair Maori type. The man wore a fan-shaped plume of red paroquet feathers in front of the head, the hair being gathered into a bunch on the top of the crown. The women wore their hair hanging on the neck. The Moriori did not use ear-pendants; the ear not being pierced, an unusual thing among savages. Their only ornaments were a necklace of shells or of albatross feathers, with a sperm-whale's tooth as a costly jewel. Their clothing mats were of flax (Phormium), scraped and woven in a fine texture, but of late years they took to seal-skin garments until the ruthless destruction of the animals by the crews of sealing ships removed the source of material.

The Moriori were a very unwarlike people, differing in this respect very greatly from their fierce neighbours, the Maoris. They quarrelled at times among themselves, but their disputes were mostly conducted with the brawling tongue, and all weapons were forbidden to be used in such quarrels with the exception of the quarter-staff. A broken head was generally the worst wound received, and, however slight the injury, if the person hurt remarked, “My head is broken,” that ended the fray. They had traditional knowledge of more serious fighting, and possessed, as burial relics, stone clubs, wooden spears, stone axes, etc.

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The Moriori lived in small unfortified villages, the houses of which were thatched with long grass and rushes. Their residences were generally built on the sheltered borders of the forest, but also near the sea because they were a fish-eating people. Two meals a day were partaken of, the cooking being done in sheds set apart for the purpose, and the sexes eating separately. Beside the fresh and salt water fish, birds formed a staple of food, viz, pigeons, ducks, gulls, shags, and two large birds now extinct, the Mehonui and Mehoriki, wingless birds, the former the size of a goose, the latter that of a hen. Seals often formed an article of diet. Vegetable foods were few; fern-root and the steeped kernels of the karaka forming the principal supplies. Fire was procured in the usual primitive manner, by the friction of two pieces of wood (one rubbed longititudinally on the other) and good fire-sticks were treasured carefully by the women, who were adepts at raising fire.

The Chatham Islanders were clever in making their sea-craft from most unpromising materials. There was no timber on the islands fit for making canoes, and so they constructed extraordinary-looking vessels from the flower-stems of the New Zealand flax (Phormium). Shaped somewhat like a canoe, with high bow and stern, the craft was just like a large crate through which the water freely washed, but which was kept afloat by the buoyancy of the flax-stems of which it was composed, and by inflated bladders of sea-kelp placed within its basket-work frame. Never page 578 was there a vessel of such apparent frailty, and yet in these weak boats or rafts the natives dared the mighty rollers of the South Pacific, often fifteen or twenty miles away from the main land. Some of these raft-canoes (waka-pahī) were large enough to carry sixty or seventy people; they were without sails, but were propelled with paddles. Strange to say, they used the paddle in a way no other people of their race (or in the same barbaric stage otherwise) ever did, they used a tholepin, and the paddle was treated as an oar, the back of the rower being turned to his destination, European-fashion. In their canoes they carried fishing nets of different sizes, but had difficulty in the conveyance of fresh water, for, not having any gourd plants, they were without the useful calabash, so manufactured a hornshaped vessel of green flax-leaves in which to carry their drinking-water.

Not having crops of roots (such as kumara and taro) that could be stored, the time of the Moriori was continuously taken up in the unceasing struggle for fresh food, in fishing, bird-snaring, etc. Their feeble axes were unequal to the task of maintaining a plentiful supply of firewood, so by preference trees and branches were “ringed” and left to die. These, when dry, were broken off, and the ends put to a fire, the logs being pushed together as they burnt away. If anyone took wood “ringed” by another the wronged person had no remedy but witchcraft wherewith to revenge himself. This witchcraft in their hands was dangerous, for whether used against a person page 579 who had stolen, or who had made them jealous, the object was reflective on the bewitcher, and after a soul had been sent by sorcery to Hades it could return and slay the user of magic arts.

Their religion resembled that of the Maori, the principal gods being known to both people. Tu, the god of war; Tane, the Forest Lord; Tangaroa, the god of fishes, etc.; are the well-known Polynesian deities, but Rongo became here the god of the Blackfish and not a divinity associated with cultivation—natural perhaps as the sea was their harvest-field. There were many lesser and local deities to whom incantations were recited, and the images of these gods were generally hidden in caves and secret places for fear lest they be stolen. To Pou, a god of fish, offerings were made of the first fish caught, and these were placed on the altar (tuāhu) of that god, but eels had their heads cut off and were deposited on a lump of pumice roughly carved into the shape of a human head in honour of Pou and Tangaroa; there the fish were left to rot. Tapu was an institution of the Moriori. Fishing parties were tapu, and might not eat till the first fruit of the expedition had been offered in sacrifice. Ceremonies took place on the birth of a child at the time of the severance of the umbilical cord, and the mother was tapu until the hour of the baptism (tohi) of the infant. This was only insisted on in the case of the first born, as sometimes the other children were allowed to grow to the age of four or six years before the baptism was proceeded with. Rites on this occasion were rigidly observed; the face page 580 of the child was sprinkled with water, and the infant's movements anxiously watched for omens of good or ill. If the baby laughed or crowed it was regarded as a very favourable sign. Sometimes a tree was planted for the little one, as among the Maoris.

Marriage with the Moriori took place when a girl was about from thirteen to sixteen years old, and they were usually prolific; but chastity of married women was not so rigidly enforced as on the mainland, there not being the same fear of punishment as among the more combative people. Marriages were arranged by the relatives of the bride and bridegroom, and a feast prepared by these elders. In the darkness of evening the young pair were set together in the centre of a house that had been swept and garnished, and their friends formed a circle about them, holding a thin rope of plaited grass, which was placed round the shoulders of the wedded pair and knotted into a ring (henga) binding them together. The marriage song was then sung and followed by other songs until late at night, and sometimes till the dawn of the next day, when feasting commenced and lasted over some days. The marriage of relatives, even to second and third cousins, was frowned upon, and, indeed, held to be incestuous. There was no divorce, its place being taken by neglect of an unfavoured wife in polygamous households.

They were divided into tribes, to each of which was a chief (ariki), the eldest born of the principal family. The priests (tohunga) exercised functions similar to those of the page 581 Maori priest. There were no slaves, probably because war was practically unknown. The salutation on meeting was the nose-pressing (hongi), general everywhere in the South Seas. They had no musical instruments, but performed the posture-dance (kapa): two rows of people swinging from side to side in rhythm to an accompaniment of voices. The children had few amusements, the principal being skipping with a rope, high-jumping, and cats-cradle (whai).

At death the bodies of chiefs were laced up in small canoes or coffins having a lid, but now and then the corpse of a common person was only partially interred: the body, having been bound in a crouching position with firm lashings, was buried only up to the knees, the face looking seaward. Sometimes this would be done with the upper part of the body fastened to a tree. If the deceased had been a noted fisherman, the corpse would be fastened to a canoe and launched into the sea. Generally, however, the bodies of ordinary persons were wrapped in fern leaves and buried, while the chiefs were interred in coffins, the face to the west, as toward the path to Hawaiki. One tribe burned their dead, stirring up the charred remains in the fire with a stick so as to make the sparks fly; this to cause the spirit to pass to “the great happy land of Tane.” Such spirits never come back as troublesome ghosts.*

* Mr. A. Shand, of the Chatham Islands, Native Interpreter, is the only recognised authority upon the subject of the history, legends, customs, etc., of the Moriori.