Animated, for all one knows, by mere lust of strife, the men of Waikato
on the west soon after their arrival in New Zealand marched across the
North Island to Maketu on the Bay of Plenty, and burned the Arawa canoe.
From this outrage arose a war, the end of which was not until
generations later, and from which, as a forest conflagration from a
spark, arose other wars between tribe and tribe, until from end to end
of Te Ika A Maui men were in arms against one another.
Peace there was, but more often war; and by the time Captain Cook
visited the Islands the village was deserted and the _pa_ predominant.
Later, peace again prevailed; then wars again; and, as the quarrel with
the Pakeha developed, strife filled the land till matters were adjusted
at the end of the long struggle between Maori and colonist.
The conditions under which the Maori lived furnished them with plenty
of excuses to appeal to arms. There was always that burning question
of animal food, and no more flagrant outrage could be perpetrated by
one tribe than to poach upon the hunting or fishing-grounds of another.
A man might insult one of another tribe by rude word or inconsiderate
deed, and the aggrieved party might wipe out the injury by means of
_utu_–payment or revenge–which was more or less the _lex talionis_ of
the Romans. But the individual usually carried his wrongs to his chief,
when the matter became a tribal affair and, unless compensation were
quickly forthcoming, war resulted between the disputants. Thus, what
originated in a petty difference between two hot-headed fellows, might,
and often did, result in a quarrel which brought hundreds–perhaps
thousands–into the field.
The Maori were a military race in which every able-bodied man became a
warrior because he possessed an arm strong enough to strike. To lack
courage to deliver the blow was to expose himself to the pointing
finger of scorn. The man who shirked his military duties could not
escape exposure. His face betrayed him. If that were bare of designs,
he had small chance to establish his claim to be a man of valour, and
smaller still to live in honour among his fellows.
Few were courageous enough to be cowards in a race so uniformly brave.
Few, however much they might prefer peace, ventured to skulk at home
when the war-gong clattered and the huge trumpet brayed its summons.
The man who remained deaf to the call to arms incurred the contempt
of his fellow-men, and knew that the meanest slave would not change
places with him. A solitary life, an unlamented death, his lonely
passage to Reinga “unwept, unhonoured, and unsung”–such was the lot of
the Maori who dared to be a coward.
The Maori fought with frightful ferocity when once the battle was
joined, but went to work leisurely enough over the preliminaries,
occupying the time with councils, dances, orations and embassies from
one set of contestants to the other.
The council was presided over by the principal chief, or by the
paramount chief when a tribe’s interests were involved. If age or
physical infirmity prevented him from leading in the day of battle, his
place would be filled by one of the “fighting chiefs,” men of little
use in the Maori “War Office,” but terrible in the field.
The council over, the _tohunga_ was sought and requested to ascertain
whether success would attend the arms of the inquirers. As this was
a very important function, the rules of Maori etiquette were rigidly
observed in dress and demeanour.
The high chief was splendidly arrayed. His fine, Roman face, scarred
with records of his daring, was set and stern; his dark hair, combed
and oiled, supported a coronet of _huia_ plumes, and from the lobe of
each ear dangled a gleaming tooth of the tiger-shark. Around his loins
he wore the customary _katika_, or kilt, while a vest of closely woven
flax covered as with mail the upper part of his body.
A collar of sharks’ teeth, or of the teeth of slain foes, encircled
the massive column of his neck, and from the former was suspended his
household _heitiki_, which lay like a locket upon his broad chest.
In his hand he held a long spear, elaborately carved, like the rest
of his wooden weapons, and from his right wrist dangled his favourite
_mere_, or war-club, of purest greenstone. Upon his shoulders, fastened
so as to leave the right arm free, he wore the _kaitaka_, the valuable
robe of flax already referred to.
But no matter how sumptuously garbed before the fight began, every
particle of clothing was usually discarded at the moment of onset, and
the Maori rushed into the fray naked and unashamed.
The war-dance usually followed a favourable augury, and was heralded
by a terrific commotion, which drew every inhabitant of the village to
the _marae_, in the midst of which a cleared space was occupied by a
hundred or more lusty warriors.
Stripped to the skin, their brown, muscular bodies gleaming, their
scarred faces aglow with excitement, the warriors stand in two
long lines awaiting the signal. Suddenly the long-drawn wail of a
_tetere_ sounds, and a hush falls upon the crowd. A moment, and
with a wild yell a magnificent savage rushes from the rear of the
column to the front, brandishing his spear and hideously contorting his
face. For a short minute he leaps and capers at the head of the column;
then, abruptly coming to rest, sings in a rich bass the first words of
Another short pause and the warriors behind him leap from the ground
with a pealing shout, flourish their weapons and set off at the double
round the court, while from their open throats comes the roaring chorus
of the chant.
Twice they circle the _marae_; then, forming once more in column, with,
or without, the soloist for fugleman, they dance in perfect time, but
with furious energy, gesticulating, rolling their eyes and protruding
their tongues, while the ground trembles under the heavy tread of so
many strong men.
At last, with a shout so horrible and menacing that the hearts of the
watchers beat faster as they hear it, the dance comes to an end as
abruptly as it began, and on all sides are heard prophecies of success,
since no one among the dancers has fallen under the exhausting strain.
For some time after the opposing forces had come within striking
distance of one another, jeers and insults were freely exchanged. The
chiefs on either side would harangue their men; but rarely were the
initial speeches so inflammatory, the early gibes so stinging as to
precipitate the conflict. It was almost a point of etiquette to measure
the stabbing power of that unruly member, the tongue, before proceeding
to test the keenness of spear-point, the smashing capacity of club.
But the tongue was put to another use; for, while eyes were rolled
and faces contorted in hideous grimaces, _Arero_, The Little, was
poked farther and farther out of the mouth with telescopic power of
elongation, till it rested almost upon the broad, scarred chest below
its proper frontier, the lips. The visage of a Maori at such a moment
was indescribably hideous, and would probably have scared away the
enemy, had it not been that _their_ faces were equally appalling.
_Arero_, the tongue, having played its part in facial distortion,
was now drawn back into its proper territory and again put to its
legitimate use, abuse of the enemy. Once more the wordy war raged,
till some taunt too savage, some sneer too biting, some gesture too
insulting, brought the long preliminaries to a sudden, dreadful close,
and the men of war with startling swiftness broke ranks, and with howls
of fury clashed together in mortal combat.
For a few moments all other sounds were drowned by the rattle of
spear-shafts and the crash and crack of stone axes and clubs, mingled
with a ferocious roaring; but a yell of triumph soon rang high above
the din, “_Ki au te Mataika! Mataika! Mataika!_” The combatants
for a single instant held back, while hundreds of envious eyes glared
towards the spot whence came the cry. The next, as a huge warrior,
seizing his opponent’s hair with his left hand, dragged back the head
and with one shrewd blow clubbed out the brains, the roar of battle
swelled again, and the fight raged with redoubled fury.
“_Vae victis!_” growled the old Roman, and these brown men with the
stern, Roman faces made good the sinister words. A defeat meant not a
rout, but a slaughter of those who fled and were overtaken, a massacre
of those who lay wounded, awaiting the death-stroke with a composure
not less superb than that of the stricken gladiators in Rome’s arena.
The lives of the wounded were too often taken to the accompaniment of
shocking barbarities and, when the breath was out of their bodies,
their heads were hacked off and borne away in triumph, to grin from
spiked palisades at the foe who refused to respect them even in death.
The victors were careful to decapitate their own dead, whose heads were
carried home with every mark of respect and handed over to the nearest
relatives of the deceased. It was no disgrace to be slain in battle;
but if your head were not returned to the bosom of your family, then
your own, and with it the family _mana_, or honour, was gone.
Were a man forced to flee, it was considered an act of the greatest
friendship if he delayed to decapitate a dead or wounded comrade, so
that, though the latter’s body might be rent in pieces, and very likely
swallowed, his head might suffer no dishonour, and the family _mana_ be
The heads thus rescued were subjected to prolonged exposure to air and
steam and smoke, after which they underwent treatment at the hands of
experts. The final result was that the head retained a wonderfully
lifelike appearance, the _moko_ marks remaining plainly visible. The
heads were set up in places of honour, with that ceremony which these
paladins of the South Seas invariably observed, to be handed down from
generation to generation along with stirring tales of the valorous
warriors upon whose shoulders they had once sat.
We are learning that our brown hero was by no means faultless. He was
not above insulting his vanquished foe, and saw no reason why he should
not do a brave and helpless man to death with revolting tortures. The
extinction of life did not satisfy him; he must mutilate the bodies of
the slain and spurn the dishonoured corpse.
Surely his appetite for revenge must now be glutted; his ingenuity can
suggest nothing more in the way of _utu_; his passion-inflamed mind
devise no further stroke of insolent hate.
Alas! The violent climax is yet to be reached; the abysmal depth of
degradation to be plumbed; the savage nature to be laid bare in all its
The pity of it! This man, so strong, so brave, so keen of intelligence;
this man with brain so clever and hand so deft that he can fashion that
wonderful thing, a war-canoe, with nought but tools wrenched from the
unwilling earth; this man who is a loving husband, a fond father; who
in future years is destined to take his place beside the white invader
of his dominion; this man can sink to the level of the beast, which,
having slain, must fall to and eat. Lower, indeed, he descends; for the
brute kills that it may satisfy its hunger, but the Maori that he may
inflict the crowning dishonour upon his dead foe and upon the children
of the slain.
Cannibalism, if not a respectable, is a very ancient practice, for
Homer and Herodotus mention the _anthropophagi_; but it is impossible
to say when it originated, and the why and wherefore of the horrid
custom can be still less easily come at. Some have argued that it began
in a craving for animal food; but these seem to have lost sight of the
fact that there are in Africa cannibals who live in regions teeming
with game, just as in the South Sea Islands there are cannibals who
till modern times were forced to content themselves with an almost
purely vegetable diet. If the same motive animated both of these in
their adoption of the practice, that motive can obviously not have been
a hankering after animal food.
Neither does the name throw any light upon the origin of the custom;
for the word “cannibal” is presumed to be a corruption of “Caribal,”
that is, “pertaining to the Caribs,” a West Indian tribe of man-eaters,
discovered by Columbus in 1493.
The Malays, or some of them, were cannibals, and the Maori offshoots
of that race indulged in the habit in those far-off days before
they adventured to New Zealand. Their traditions shew that they had
abandoned the practice before, and that they did not resume it for
several generations after their emigration. Even then they were
cannibals side by side with the fact that they were warriors and, in
the beginning at least, consumed their species less from appetite than
from a desire to humiliate the kindred of the vanquished.
The Zulus, who used to eat but little meat, were accustomed when
in view of war to gorge themselves with the flesh of beeves. Then,
intoxicated, as it were, with the unaccustomed nitrogenous food, they
swung into battle, careless of disaster or death. The Maori, on the
other hand, after days of preparation, during which their rule of life
was ascetic, urged on the battle fever by rhetoric and oratory of a
very high order. They showed so far only their intellectual side; when
once the fight was over, cramming themselves with loathsome food, they
sank below the level of the ravening brute.
It must be granted, then, that the Maori did not wholly abstain from
human flesh. Against this–save for some notable exceptions–they were
not habitually cannibals when at peace. After the shock of war they
swallowed portions of their dead foes, as much to incorporate the
others’ courage with their own as from any radical hankering after the
ghastly dish. Let it go at that.
There is at length a lull in the strife. The stronger are weary of
dealing blows, the weaker faint with taking them. The time is come when
both may rest awhile, if only to husband their strength, so that some
day they may fight again. After all, one cannot be for ever upon the
war-path. The fern-root is maturing, the _kumara_ are ripening in the
fields, the eels fattening in the creeks. Home-voices are calling, and
fierce men of war grow sick with longing for sight of wife and child.
Yes; there has been enough of war. Let peace prevail; if not for ever,
at least until rage, cool now, has had time to blaze up once more;
until arms, stiff and sore with hammering skulls and splitting hearts,
again renew their strength. Yes, peace is good. Let us have peace.
So a herald went forth, bearing a leafy bough, a sign that his mission
was _Hohou i te rongo_–to make peace. _Takawaenga_, or “go-betweens,”
had been busily engaged over the matter for some days past, and the
herald’s very presence proved that the result of his visit was a
Still, the Maori must always be dramatic, so the herald was met with
great respect and ceremony, and his argument seriously considered
with much show of dissent. Then, when the orator had listened with
becoming patience to numerous speakers on the other side, and exhausted
every trick of voice and gesture on his own, all opposition suddenly
collapsed, and peace was concluded amid general rejoicing.
Not many captives were taken in war as a general rule; but, if a man’s
life were spared, he became a slave. Save that such a man lost all
social status, and was set to tasks to which he had been unaccustomed,
his lot was not necessarily very hard. He might, perhaps, be exchanged
for some captive taken by his own tribe; but, having once become a
slave, he usually preferred to remain one; for he was treated with
rough kindness and consideration. Curiously enough, if he returned to
his own tribe, he was invariably slighted because of the experience it
had been his misfortune to undergo.
Peace ratified, preparations were made for returning home and, as they
had left their village with ceremony, so the victors marched into it
again with all the pomp and circumstance of war.
Some few paces in front of the column a single Maori banged lustily
with a heavy stick upon a very small drum, while immediately in his
rear another evoked a succession of jerky notes from a flute formed
from a human thigh-bone. Next in order marched a grim company, who bore
aloft upon rough-hewn pikes the severed heads of foemen. Close behind
this grisly vanguard stalked, with heads erect and dignified bearing,
the “Fighting Chiefs,” their stern, Roman faces heavily scored with
records of their valour, and after them strode the Captain-general,
“pride in his port, defiance in his eye,” a very “lord of human-kind”
as he “passed by.” Behind the great leader swaggered the warriors,
marching not in step, but with a firm tread and swinging gait,
impressive enough. Last of all, laden with spoil, or carrying the arms
of their masters, the _tutua_ and slaves brought up the rear.
As the army came within sight of the village, the men broke into a
roaring chorus anent the land of their birth, that dearly loved land
which they fondly prophesied would be theirs till the end of time.
The battle-scarred veteran who has led them in so many victorious
campaigns turns at the sound, and with a single proud gesture indicates
the village. It is enough. The buglers blow discordant blasts, the
garrison yell shrilly, and with a thunderous roar of triumph the
impatient warriors surge forward, breast the slope and charge furiously
into the _marae_. They have returned victorious; they are once more at
peace–and at home.