Polynesian Resource Center

Dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Polynesian Art and Culture

A Visit from Hongi Hika by Augustus Earle

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A few days after my visit to the missionaries, while we were busily employed in constructing our huts, assisted by about fifty natives, on a sudden a great commotion took place amongst them. Each left his work and ran to his hut, and immediately returned armed with both musket and cartouch box: apparently all the arms in the village were mustered, and all seemed ready for immediate use.


On inquiring into the cause of all these war-like preparations, I was informed that Hongi and his chief men were crossing the bay in several large war canoes; and though he was considered as a friend and ally, yet, as he was a man of such desperate ambition, and consummate cunning, it was considered necessary to receive him under arms, which he might take either as a compliment, or as a proof of how well they were aware of the guest they were receiving.

This man, Hongi, was a most extraordinary character, and a person I had long had a great curiosity to see, his daring and savage deeds having often been the subject of conversation in New South Wales. In his own country he was looked upon as invulnerable and invincible. In the year 1821 he had visited England, during which he had been honoured by having a personal interview with George the Fourth, and had received from His Majesty several valuable presents; amongst others, were a superb suit of chain armour, and a splendid double-barrelled gun. From possessing these arms, so far superior to any of his neighbours, he looked upon himself as impossible to be conquered, and commenced a career of warfare and destruction on all his enemies, and nearly exterminated them. His friends called him "a god," and his enemies feared him as "a devil." Last year, Hongi made war upon, and totally annihilated, the tribe who had fifteen years previously attacked and murdered the crew of the Boyd. He had long determined to take revenge for that treacherous action, as he always styled himself "the friend of the English." After this, he removed his residence, and took possession of the conquered district. But in this his last battle he had to fight without his invulnerable coat of mail, his slaves having stolen it and gone over with it to the enemy. His people were now confirmed in their superstition respecting its being proof against shot, by his having received during the combat a bullet in the breast, from the effects of which he is fast sinking into the grave. His companions related the following extraordinary anecdote concerning him after he received this wound, which proves his great presence of mind.

His party were retreating, and the enemy were charging him vigorously; Hongi stood alone when he received the bullet; he did not fall immediately, and the enemy were eagerly running up to despatch him, when he roused all his energies, and shouted aloud for the two hundred chiefs, who lay concealed, to rush forward and fall on. The foe, hearing this, paused, when about a dozen chiefs, and indeed, as Hongi well knew, all that he had, suddenly made their appearance. This caused a panic; they turned about; the pursued became the pursuers, and nearly the whole tribe were destroyed.

He landed about a mile from the village, and we lost no time in procuring an interpreter, with whom we went instantly to pay our respects to this celebrated conqueror.

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We found him and his party; his slaves preparing their morning repast. The scene altogether was highly interesting. In a beautiful bay, surrounded by high rocks and overhanging trees, the chiefs sat in mute contemplation, their arms piled up in regular order on the beach. Hongi, not only from his high rank (but in consequence of his wound being toboo'd, or rendered holy), sat apart from the rest. Their richly ornamented war canoes were drawn up on the strand; some of the slaves were unlading stores, others were kindling fires. To me it almost seemed to realise some of the passages of Homer, where he describes the wanderer Ulysses and his gallant band of warriors. We approached the chief, and paid our respects to him. He received us kindly, and with a dignified composure, as one accustomed to receive homage. His look was emaciated; but so mild was the expression of his features, that he would have been the last man I should have imagined accustomed to scenes of bloodshed and cruelty. But I soon remarked, that when he became animated in conversation, his eyes sparkled with fire, and their expression changed, demonstrating that it only required his passions to be roused to exhibit him under a very different aspect. His wife and daughter were permitted to sit close to him, to administer to his wants, no others being allowed so to do, on account of his taboo.

He was arrayed in a new blanket, which completely enveloped his figure, leaving exposed his highly-tattooed face, and head profusely covered with long, black, curling hair, adorned with a quantity of white feathers. He was altogether a very fine study; and, with his permission, I made a sketch of him, and also one including the whole group. Finding we were newcomers, he asked us a variety of questions, and, among others, our opinion of his country. His remarks were judicious and sensible, and he seemed much pleased with our admiration of his territory. I produced a bottle of wine that I had brought with me, and his wife supplied him with a few glasses, which seemed to revive and animate him.

We were then invited to join him in a trip in one of his canoes, in which was placed a bed for him to recline upon; his wife seated herself close to him, while his daughter, a very pretty, interesting girl about fifteen years of age, took a paddle in her hand, which she used with the greatest dexterity. I took the liberty of presenting her with a bracelet, with which she seemed highly delighted; when Hongi, perceiving that I was in a giving mood, pointed to his beard, and asked me for a razor. Fortunately, I had put one in my pocket on setting out, and I now presented it to him, by which gifts we continued on terms of great sociability and friendship. After a pleasant cruise with this (to us) extraordinary family, and contriving to make ourselves pretty well understood, we returned about the close of the day, and landed at the bay. All the natives were much delighted at our confidence in them, and we were equally gratified by their hospitality.

I was much amused with the punctilios used in the visit of ceremony paid to King George. Hongi, accompanied by about a dozen of his chiefs, advanced towards our settlement, leaving their guns and hatchets behind them; as they approached, all our tribe discharged their pieces in the air. When they met, all rubbed noses (a ceremony never to be dispensed with on formal occasions). They were then conducted by King George to his huts on the beach, and in the enclosure in front of them the warriors squatted on the ground. Hongi, being tabooed, or under the immediate protection of their Atua, or God, still sat apart. Then the mother of George, called Tururo, or the Queen, and who is regarded quite as a sybil by the whole tribe, approached Hongi with the greatest respect and caution, and seated herself some paces from his feet. She then began, with a most melancholy cadence (her eyes streaming with tears and fixed upon the ground), the song of welcome. All their meetings of ceremony or friendship begin with the shedding of copious floods of tears; and as Hongi's visit was such an unhoped for and unexpected honour, so much greater in proportion was the necessity for their lamentations. This woeful song lasted half an hour, and all the assembly were soon in tears; and though at first I was inclined to turn it into ridicule, I was soon in the same state myself. The pathetic strain, and the scene altogether, was most impressive. As the song proceeded, I was informed of the nature of the subject, which was a theme highly calculated to affect all present. She began by complimenting the wounded warrior, deploring the incurable state of his wound, and regretting that God was wanting him, and was about so soon to take him from his friends! Then she recounted some of his most celebrated deeds of valour, naming and deploring the number of his friends who had fallen bravely in the wars, and lamenting that the enemies who had killed them were still living! This part seemed to affect them powerfully; and when Tururo ceased her song (being quite exhausted) they all rose, thus demonstrating their respect and approbation.

This was followed by a general attack upon the good things King George had prepared for them. The slaves came flocking in, bearing baskets of hot kumaras, potatoes, and fish. I observed their tears had not spoiled their appetites; they ate voraciously. After having done great honour to the feast, they all started on their feet for a dance, which lasted a long while, and with which they concluded the evening.

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The dances of all savage nations are beautiful, but those of the New Zealanders partake also of the horrible. The regularity of their movements is truly astonishing; and the song, which always accompanies a dance, is most harmonious. They soon work themselves up to a pitch of frenzy; the distortions of their face and body are truly dreadful, and fill the mind with horror. Love and war are the subjects of their songs and dances; but the details of the latter passion are by far the most popular among them. I was astonished to find that their women mixed in the dance indiscriminately with the men, and went through all those horrid gestures with seemingly as much pleasure as the warriors themselves.

The next morning I was awakened, at daybreak, by the most dismal sounds I had ever heard. I started up, and found it proceeded from the tribes parting with each other. They had divided themselves into little parties, each forming a circle, and were crying most piteously, and cutting their flesh as a cook would score pork for roasting. On such occasions each is armed with a sharp shell, or, if he can possibly obtain so valuable a prize, a piece of a broken glass bottle. All were streaming with tears and blood, while Hongi and his friends embarked in their large and richly-ornamented canoes, and sailed from our beach. After his departure, I soon discovered that, notwithstanding their apparent affection, King George and his friends were most happy their visitors had left them; and that it was more the dread of Hongi's power, than love for him, that induced them to treat him with such respect and homage.


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