The Maori of old had two habitations–the _kainga_, or village, wherein
they dwelt in “piping time of peace,” and the _pa_, or fortress,
in which they shut themselves up when harassed by war’s alarms.
Fire-eaters though they were, they had their moons of peace, during
which they accomplished some astonishing results, considering their
ignorance of iron, and that their tools were fashioned out of hard wood
and yet harder stone. With incredible patience they ground and rubbed
and sand-polished, until from lumps of greenstone, jasper, or granite
they produced bevelled edge and rounded back. The head was drilled
and fitted to a hardwood handle, and there was axe or adze. Imagine
the labour of it, you who put down a piece of money and receive the
perfected tool of iron!
Axe and adze were blunt enough; yet with them the Maori hewed through
the mighty bole of the _kauri_-pine; and it was with tools of stone
that they chopped and gouged and scooped, until there lay before them
the shell of a canoe, eighty feet in length, and capable of holding
close upon a hundred men.
To work again with knife and awl and chisel, each of stone, and
presently the stern-post, ornately carved, rises in an elegant curve to
a height of fifteen feet. The prow, too, rises in a curve, but not so
high, and is adorned by a huge, grinning head, correctly tattooed, with
goggle eyes and defiantly protruded tongue.
Paddles are shaped from the tough wood of the _ti_-tree, one for each
of the rowers, who kneel in equal numbers on each side, facing the
prow, while the steersman wields an oar nine feet in length.
The canoe is finished–begun, wrought at and completed with never an
iron tool, with not one iron bolt to stay or strengthen. Yet it is
beautiful and strong and serviceable, and will skim the stormiest sea
as safely as would a gull.
The _whare_ was often rendered attractive on the outside by elaborate
carving, and quaint by the grotesque figures surmounting the gables.
It was within only a wide, low room, with roof of _raupo_-thatch
and eaves within three feet of the ground. A stone-lined hole served
as a fireplace, the floor was strewn with fern upon which were thrown
the sleeping-mats, and a sliding panel formed a door, which was blocked
when privacy or warmth was desired. Furniture there was none; but this
mattered little, since the house was rarely used save as a dormitory,
or a shelter during cold or wet weather.
Within the village a piece of ground was set apart for the _marae_,
or public square, whither folk repaired for gossip or recreation when
the work of the day was done. Without the enclosure were home fields of
_kumara_ and _taro_, where the women laboured as many women labour in
the potato and turnip-fields in Scotland.
The heavy tasks as a rule fell to the men, and were undertaken
cheerfully enough, though the Maori became less careful in this respect
after years of intercourse with the Pakeha. To the men also belonged
the duty of supplying the commissariat and, while some hunted or
fished, others cleared the forest trails, upon which the undergrowth
reproduced itself with extraordinary rapidity. The question of animal
food was always a vital one in the days before the _poaka_, or pig,
rioted through the bush, and there were many days on which the Maori
were forced to content themselves with fern-root and _kanini_ berries
for the two meals in which they daily indulged.
Though they had neither books nor writings upon parchment, stone or
papyrus, the Maori were not without a literature of their own. Great
deeds of heroic ancestors, notable events of the past were immortalised
in song and story, and handed down from generation to generation. On
summer nights an eager audience thronged the _marae_, listening, rapt,
to some “divine-voiced singer,” or to some other, who told with every
trick and charm of the finished orator the story of “the brave days of
old,” when Ngahue fought in far Hawaiki, or sailed the sea with Te Turi
to find the land of Maui.
Always decorous, the listeners applauded discreetly, and chewed
incessantly the hardened juice of the sow-thistle, the precious gum of
the _kauri_, or the _mimiha_, bitumen from the under-sea springs of the
west. None of these was harmful like the opium of the Chinaman or the
_kava_ of the Polynesian. The Maori chewed his gum much as the fair
American chews hers, or as the youthful Scot surreptitiously sucks his
peppermint during the Sunday sermon in the kirk.
As night fell quiet reigned for a time, for night is the council-time
of the Maori. Encircled by pineknot torches, chiefs and _rangatira_ sat
together, gravely discussing the common weal, or planning great schemes
of attack or defence. One after another, each stern-visaged councillor
arose, and with dignified gesture and speech rich in metaphor
expressed his views, his fellows hearkening with respectful attention,
expecting, and receiving, the same when their own turn came to speak.
So the discussion went on until the council broke up and the senators
dispersed, stalking through the double row of armed guards who,
themselves out of earshot, had stood like bronze statues throughout the
When the need for quiet had passed, the warriors gathered together and
fought their battles o’er again, while those more peacefully inclined
applauded the efforts of a flautist and a trumpeter, whose instruments
were limited to five and two notes respectively.
Careless youth sat here and there, asking and guessing riddles or
playing that most ancient game, familiar alike to the English child and
the aboriginal of Australia, “cat’s cradle.” Youngsters stalked upon
stilts, played at “knuckle-bones,” or gambled at “odd or even,” and, in
strong contrast, a group of philosophers discussed abstruse questions
with a keenness and cleverness which amply proved the capacity of the
Maori brain. Some, too, there were who wandered off, as young folks
will, youth and maid together, to whisper of matters unconcerned with
logic or philosophy.
The fires burnt low, the torches sputtered towards extinction, the
various groups dissolved and, as a last good-night, the warriors
raised their voices in a swelling chant, and from a thousand throats
the chorus of triumph or defiance rose and rolled from hill to distant
hill. A few short moments later the village was hushed and still, only
the vigilant sentries giving evidence of the life which slumbered
within its crowded _whare_.
So the Maori rose and toiled and played and fought, until at last came
the time, inevitable for all, when must “the silver cord be loosed and
the golden bowl be broken,” and potent chief, in common with meanest
slave, yield up his life to God who gave it.
No _tangi_ was raised for the slave; but how different when the chief
set his face to the north and walked with slow and solemn step towards
the gates of Reinga. Even as their muffled clang resounded and the
breath went out of the chieftain’s body, the crowd of mourners who had
till then been repeating with fervour the “last words” of the dying
man, burst into noisy lamentations, many of the women gashing their
arms and breasts. In some instances slaves were immediately slain, so
that the dead man might not plunge alone into the waters of Reinga, or
go unattended in the next world.
The dead body was exorcised by the priests, dressed in its best, and
allowed to sit in state. The dried heads and skulls of ancestors
grinned from their pedestals at the latest addition to their ranks,
who, with face painted, head befeathered, his costly ornaments upon
him, his clubs and spears set ready to his hand, stared back at them
with unseeing eyes, a lifelike figure enough among those musty relics
of the long-ago dead.
The _pihe_, or dirge, was sung, the choir standing before the body, and
days went by, during which the long procession of relatives, friends,
subjects and delegates from other tribes paid their respects to the
mighty dead, grasping his cold hand, talking to him as though he were
alive, speaking panegyrics and chanting laments, often of singular
beauty, in his honour.
Then followed the last act but one in the drama of death. “No useless
coffin enclosed the breast” of the dead man, whose body, wrapped in
flax mats, was either buried beneath the floor of his house, or hoisted
to a high stage in the vicinity of the village and allowed to remain
there for a twelvemonth.
The year of mourning over, the dead man’s effects, his valuable
greenstone clubs, other weapons and ornaments were distributed amongst
his heirs. A great feast was also arranged and, while the
attention of all was occupied with eating and drinking, the priests
stole away, bearing the remains with them, to hide them for ever in
some solitary sepulchre within the scarred bosom of the hills, or deep
in the green twilight of the silent forests.