The various Maori tribes were not bound by any common tie save that
of race, nor did they own allegiance to a chief chosen by all to rule
over the whole nation. Their laws and customs were for the most part
similar; but cohesion between them gradually dissolved as each tribe
realised its ability to stand alone.
The tribes (_iwi_) took origin in the family, and were subdivided
into sub-tribes (_hapu_), and, if the latter were large, into family
groups, also termed _hapu_. Every division had its acknowledged chief,
and the _ariki_, or chief of the highest class, who by right of birth
stood at the head of the whole, was styled the Paramount Chief.
Powerful though such a man was, his actions did not go unchecked; for
that ancient principle, _noblesse oblige_, was strongly implanted in
Maori of rank. For a chief to be convicted of lying, of cowardice, of
tyranny was black disgrace, and were these vices proved against a lord
paramount or the head of a sub-tribe or _hapu_, action was at once
taken. The offender was not deposed, but another man of rank quietly
took his place for all practical purposes, save one.
A second check upon the chiefs was that mighty power which has been
styled “the voice of God,” namely, the voice of the people. General
assemblies were from time to time convened, at which every man, and
woman too, had the right to express opinions. So, if only to escape
the shame of exposure, the chiefs strove to conform to the established
code of honour; but it is fair to say that they seem to have been
animated by higher motives than concern for public opinion.
Each tribe was thus practically a republic, governed by a perpetual
President, whose dignity and office were hereditary, but who was obeyed
by the people only so long as he continued to deserve their allegiance.
The _ariki_ was hereditary chief priest as well as chief citizen, and
was a man apart. His back was not bent, nor his hands gnarled with
toil, his person was inviolable, his sanctity great, and he was all
in all to his people. He helped and consoled them in time of trouble,
read their fate in the stars, their future in a host of natural
objects, and interpreted their dreams. On one day he saw visions and
prophesied; on the next he was busy with the work of a Lord Lyon or
Garter King-of-Arms, instructing the Master of the _Moko_ on behalf of
some lusty warrior desirous of commemorating his own doughty deeds;
while he selected on a third a name for an infant, or presided at the
obsequies of some notable chief or _rangatira_.
In Maori mythology _Rangi_, Heaven, and _Papa_, Earth, long ago
dwelt in happiness with their six children, but the brothers, with
the exception of the god of winds and storms, rebelled against their
parents, and cruelly dragged them apart.
Yet their love remains unshaken, and Earth’s sighs of longing, draped
in clinging mist, every day ascend to Heaven; while Heaven’s tears,
a rain of refreshing dew, fall all night long upon Earth’s sorrowful
Rangi and Papa were in part avenged. Their dutiful son, Tawhiri-ma-tea,
rushed against the rebels, thunder rolling, lightning flashing,
hailstones rattling and hurricanes raging in his van. Scared by this
stupendous manifestation of wrathful force, Tangaroa hurled himself
into the sea, Rongomatane and Haumiatikitiki buried themselves under
the earth they had insulted, and Tane Mahuta called upon his forests to
cover him. Only Tumatauenga, father of men and god of war, stood firm,
scowling defiance at his brother of the storm.
So has it been ever since, and Tawhiri-ma-tea, unable to overthrow
his brother, continues to take a bitter vengeance upon the war-god’s
children. Men, whom he pursues on sea and land with tempest and
tornado, ever seeking to slay and make an end.
Under the collective name of _Atua_, the above were the principal gods
of the Maori. Every tribe possessed an honoured _tohunga-whakairo_,
or woodcarver; but the quaint finial figures upon the gables of their
houses were not adored as gods, the Children of Maui never having been
The Maori looked forward to a future existence wherein their state and
condition would remain very much as they had been in this world. A
slave in life continued a slave after death, and, when a great chief
died, several of his slaves were slain, that he might not go unattended
among his fellow shades.
The abodes of the departed were Rangi, occupied on different planes by
gods and men of heroic type, and Reinga, under the sea at the extreme
north of the North Island, where dwelt only the spirits of men.
There was no question of reward or punishment. The dead simply
continued to exist in spirit form, occasionally revisiting the scenes
of their former life. These visitors preferably occupied the bodies
of lizards, which explains the abhorrence in which these reptiles
were held by the Maori, who, though they revered and prayed to their
ancestors, were terribly afraid of meeting their pale ghosts, or
The _tohunga_, or sorcerers, exercised unbounded influence over the
minds of the Maori. Their duties on occasion coincided with those of
the _ariki_, and their position, too, was hereditary; but, while men
revered, and often loved their chief, their respect for the _tohunga_
was tinctured with fear and, not seldom, with hate. The chief could
lay _tapu_ upon a man, which was bad enough; but the _tohunga_ could
bewitch him outright, condemning the poor wretch to loss of worldly
gear, aches and pains, and even to death itself. The _ariki_ thought it
no shame to go in dread of the _tohunga_, while, let the _tutua_, or
common fellow, be once convinced that the malign eye of the wizard had
bewitched him, and he not infrequently laid him down and died.
There did not exist among the Maori a middle class as we understand
the term. Every Maori whose birth placed him in a position between the
aristocracy and the _tutua_ class was a warrior by choice. Among such
were men of property, poets, philosophers, literary men who did not
write, but told their stories to eager audiences–in a word, gentlemen
of leisure until the need for fighting arose. In the infrequent
intervals of peace these, if you will, represented the middle class;
but, once “let slip the dogs of war,” and they cried “havoc” with the
best of them. The Maori warrior, or _toa_, unlike the Japanese Samurai,
did not live for war alone, but was ever ready when it came.
When speaking of the conduct and character of the high chiefs, it
was mentioned that they were rarely deposed. The reason why, may be
expressed in one word–_land_. Bad or good, the chief had a fuller
knowledge with regard to land than any other person concerned.
It is necessary clearly to comprehend what follows; for the
misunderstandings which arose between the Maori and the colonists over
the tenure of land had much to do with the origin of the long strife
When the canoes from Hawaiki had discharged their passengers at the
various spots selected by the chiefs in command, each one of the latter
took possession of a district which became his property, and the
property of all his followers, every free male and female among them
being part proprietor. In other words, the land was common to the tribe.
In consequence of this community of ownership every additional person
born claimed ownership by right of descent. As time went on only the
few could have told exactly what their rights were; but every Maori was
assured that the land belonged to him and that it could not be disposed
of without his sanction.
The chiefs share was the largest, because of his direct descent from
the chief who originally took possession of the district; but even in
this distinguished instance the voice of the people made itself heard,
and the chief himself could not part absolutely with the land unless by
common consent. The land might be leased to strangers, but the only way
in which the owners could be dispossessed was by conquest.
As with chiefs, so with humbler folk. The land held by a family was
not theirs to dispose of without the consent of the tribe. A family of
one tribe might lease to a family of another tribe; or an entire tribe
might transfer its holding; but the land was not given away for ever,
and could be reclaimed at a future date.
The colonists could never understand this principle; nor could the
Maori comprehend that land, once exchanged for money or goods, had for
ever passed away from them. Endless difficulties arose with the Pakeha,
because every descendant of the original possessor of land claimed a
share of the property and of the price. It is indubitable that this
conflict of the laws of one race with the law of another caused much of
the bitter strife which arose later.
The position of the chief thus rendered him the person of most
importance with regard to land. In his family were kept records, such
as they were; in his memory were stored facts concerning the district,
which he had received from his father, who, in his day, had received
them from his father.
Who, then, so well fitted to decide an argument, adjust disputes,
settle the right and wrong of any questions concerning land? The
deposition of such a man might have been followed by his withdrawal
from the _hapu_, perhaps from the tribe itself, an irreparable loss
to those who relied upon him for correct information respecting their
The origin of _tapu_, that tremendous engine of power, that law above
the law, is lost in obscurity, so very ancient is the custom, and all
that we know about its curious working is derived from observations
made in the South Sea Islands, where alone it is now found in anything
like its old power.
The law of _tapu_ served as a fairly efficient, if vexatious,
promoter of law and order. Broadly stated, _tapu_ stood for two
principles–protection and punishment, and the person or thing affected
by it was a person or thing apart, not even to be touched under pains
and penalties the most severe.
Chiefs were permanently _tapu_, as it was necessary that their exalted
state should be clearly recognisable; so they were placed upon a
pinnacle of isolation which extended to their property as well as to
Food of many kinds was permanently _tapu_; for animal food was always
scarce, and choice vegetables could be cultivated only after a tough
struggle with the land. Therefore, since one tribe frequently infringed
the rights of another it became necessary to render the common stock of
provisions secure against depredators from within. Ordinary food which
happened to come in contact with anything _tapu_, was instantly thrown
away, lest by touching or eating it some innocent person should himself
Swift retribution fell on him who with greed in his heart stole, or
even touched with itching fingers, the succulent _kumara_, if the
mark of _tapu_ were upon them. Such a fellow was stripped of his
possessions, cast out, perhaps, of the tribe, or, for the worst offence
of all, had his brains deftly scattered by order of his chief.
The plight of the poor wretch who touched the dead, accidentally or
in the way of business, was dismal in the extreme. For the dead were
_tapu_ in an extraordinary degree, and who touched a corpse became as a
leper, shunned by all, lest they, too, should be tainted. Among other
disabilities, such an one must not touch food with his hands. Did he
so, the food became _tapu_, and was thrown away from the very jaws of
the hungry one, who was consequently obliged to put his mouth to the
platter and eat like a dog, or else submit to be fed with a very long
spoon by some friend more sympathetic, or less timid than the majority.
This principle of _noli me tangere_ was also applied temporarily.
Trees from which canoes could be made were _tapu_, while stretches
of coast abounding in shell-fish, the haunts of sea-birds and rich
fishing-grounds were preserved for the common good. Many customs,
related to _tapu_, were followed in time of war by the warriors,
while non-combatants by prayer, fasting, and the practice of severe
austerities, proved how closely the idea of _tapu_ was allied with that
_Tapu_ was simply imposed, but its removal was a serious business.
Prayers were chanted, water freely sprinkled over the person or thing
to be released, and the ovens were busy cooking food during the whole
time of the proceedings. Here it seems possible to trace a connection
between _tapu_ and parts of the Jewish ceremonial law. As sacrifices
and burnt-offerings were required before an unclean Jew could be
pronounced clean, so among the Maori it was impossible to lift _tapu_
without the simultaneous cooking of food. How, if ever, the Jews
influenced the Malays, Polynesians, and Maori, antiquaries may be able
some day to determine.
When the Pakeha first came to New Zealand, they often ignorantly
violated _tapu_, and how much they suffered in consequence depended
upon the character and temper of the community. The Maori were not
ungenerous, and in cases of inadvertence frequently made allowances
and spared accordingly. On the other hand, two great navigators,
Captain Cook and Marion du Fresne, were slain because of their trespass
on ground which was _tapu_, and sacred in the eyes of the South Sea
_Tapa_–to command–was in effect the law of might against right, that
Good old rule, the simple plan,
That they should take who have the power,
And they should keep who can.
In practice it consisted in commanding, or, as we might say,
“commandeering” anything one fancied to one’s own use.
Indicating the desired object, the claimant would observe, “That
club”–or tree, or canoe, or whatever it happened to be, “is _tapa_
to me. It is my skull,” or “my eye,” or “my backbone. I command it to
The article thus denominated was held to belong to the claimant, since
no one could justly urge that a man’s skull, eye or backbone was not
his own. Yet, if the practice were abused, an appeal could be made,
and a chief had power to undo the _tapa_ and order restitution of the
property claimed. After a battle, disputes frequently arose between
those who claimed priority in having applied the _tapa_ to articles in
possession of a foe whom they had then still to vanquish.
This was the law of _muru_, which the Maori accepted philosophically
enough, because, though vexatious, it fell with equal severity upon all.
If a man committed an offence against the community, he was punished by
the community, his fellow-tribesmen adjusting the fine and collecting
it with a generous appreciation of their individual requirements.
For example, if one accidentally killed another, he was punished for
depriving the community of a useful member. If a man carelessly damaged
public property, he was punished by the loss of his own. Even if the
damage done merely affected another private person, compensation was
assessed by means of _muru_, and, as no money circulated in those days,
the fine was exacted in goods.
The victim of his own indiscretion, sighing at the crookedness of fate,
always made provision against the day of reckoning and, having politely
inquired on what day _muru_ was to be enforced, issued instructions to
the ladies of his family to prepare the best feast possible in the time
at their command.
On the appointed day the avengers arrived, yelling “_Murua! Murua!_” An
idea of the justice of what followed may be gathered when it is stated
that _muru_ means “plunder.”
Each member of the party is armed, and so is the rueful sinner who
awaits developments with sensations much resembling those of the Jew in
presence of King John and his rough-and-ready dentists.
A lull occurs in the yelling, and the dolorous knight inquires
ingenuously, “What is this, O my friends? Why do you brandish spear and
club as though to point the road to Reinga?”
“You killed my brother!” a tall fellow shouts in return. “Now I am
going to kill you. Step forward at once to be killed!”
With horrid grimaces the bereaved gentleman capers before the doomed
one, who divests himself of his mat, flourishes his spear, and replies
with great fervour, “Since you so greatly desire to be made mince-meat
of, you shall not be disappointed. I am for you!”
With that the two fall upon one another with frightful ferocity–or so
it seems. Blows are dealt and thrusts exchanged amid the continuous
howling of the champion’s bodyguard, who, singularly enough, make no
offer to rush his antagonist.
Why not? Because it is point of honour that no great harm is to be
done. A gentleman is to receive punishment at the hands of his peers,
but life must be left him, though almost everything which makes it
worth the living is to be snatched from him. So, after a few bruises
and scratches have been given and taken, the mimic combat ceases.
There is a short pause while the champion recovers his breath. Then
he shouts at the top of his voice, “_Murua! Murua!_” which, freely
translated, means “Loot! Loot!”–advice which is promptly followed.
As the sack proceeds the principals chat cheerfully, the plundered
taking no notice whatever of the plunderers; for to betray the disgust
he feels would be the height of ill-breeding.
At last, when every article which their unwilling host has thought it
injudicious to conceal has been secured, the “collectors” reappear,
laughing and eagerly expectant of an invitation to dinner.
It comes. The stricken gentleman courteously expresses his delight at
this “unexpected” visit. Had he but known earlier he would have made
adequate preparation. As it is–he waves his hand in the direction of
the feast–there it is; and he bids his “dear friends” fall to.
Gorged and happy, the myrmidons of this queer law depart by and by,
having carried out the _muru_, and left behind them a sorrowful
gentleman, stripped of worldly gear. However, the unfortunate has
the consoling knowledge that he has comported himself under trying
circumstances as a man of breeding should, and also that, when
opportunity shall arise, he will be entitled to go and do unto others
as they have just done unto him.