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Fighting for your Life in Old New Zealand

From Old New Zealand by Fredrick Maning

This tale by Fredrick Maning gives some idea of the dangers faced by indiviuals in Polynesian Islands where every man was a warrior.

I never yet could get the proper knack of telling a story. Here I am now, a good forty years ahead of where I ought to be, talking of “title deeds” and “land commissioners,” things belonging to the new and deplorable state of affairs which began when this country became “a British colony and possession,” and also “one of the brightest jewels in the British crown.” I must go back.

Having purchased my “estate,” I set up house-keeping. My house was a good commodious raupo building; and as I had a princely income of a few hundred a year “in trade,” I kept house in a very magnificent and hospitable style. I kept always eight stout paid Maori retainers; the pay being one fig of tobacco per week, and their potatoes, which was about as much more. Their duties were not heavy; being chiefly to amuse themselves fishing, wrestling, shooting pigeons, or pig-hunting, with an occasional pull in the boat when I went on a water excursion. Besides these paid retainers, there was always about a dozen hangers on, who considered themselves a part of the establishment, and who, no doubt, managed to live at my expense; but as that expense was merely a few hundredweight of potatoes a week, and an odd pig now and then, it was not perceptible in the good old times.

Indeed these hangers on, as I call them, were necessary; for now and then, in those brave old times, little experiments would be made by certain Maori gentlemen of freebooting propensities, who were in great want of “British manufactures,” to see what could be got by bullying “the pakeha,” and to whom a good display of physical force was the only argument worth notice. These gentry generally came from a long distance, made a sudden appearance, and, thanks to my faithful retainers—who, as a matter of course, were all bound to fight for me, though I should have found it hard to get much work out of them—made as sudden a retreat; though on one or two occasions, when my standing army were accidentally absent, I had to do battle single-handed.

I think I have promised somewhere that I would perform a single combat for the amusement of the ladies, and I may as well do it now as at any other time. I shall, therefore, recount a little affair I had with one of these gentry; as it is indeed quite necessary I should, if I am to give any true idea of “the good old times.” I must, however, protest against the misdeeds of a few ruffians—human wolves—being charged against the whole of their countrymen. At the time I am speaking of, the only restraint on such people was the fear of retaliation, and the consequence was, that often a dare-devil savage would run a long career of murder, robbery, and outrage, before meeting with a check, simply from the terror he inspired, and the “luck” which often accompanies outrageous daring. At a time, however, and in a country like New Zealand, where every man was a fighting man or nothing, these desperadoes, sooner or later, came to grief; being at last invariably shot, or run through the body, by some sturdy freeholder, whose rights they had invaded.

I had two friends staying with me, young men who had come to see me from the neighbouring colonies, and to take a summer tour in New Zealand; and it so happened that no less than three times during my absence from home, and when I had taken almost all my people along with me, my castle had been invaded by one of the most notorious ruffians who had ever been an impersonation of, or lived by, the law of force. This interesting specimen of the genus homo had, on the last of these visits, demanded that my friends should hand over to him one pair of blankets; but as the prospectus he produced, with respect to payment, was not at all satisfactory, my friends declined to enter into the speculation, the more particularly as the blankets were mine. Our freebooting acquaintance then, to explain his views more clearly, knocked both my friends down; threatened to kill them both with his tomahawk; then rushed into the bedroom, dragged out all the bedclothes, and burnt them on the kitchen fire.

This last affair was rather displeasing to me. I held to the theory that every Englishman's house was his castle, and was moreover rather savage at my guests having been so roughly handled. In fact I began to feel that, though I had up to this time managed to hold my own pretty well, I was at last in danger of falling under the imposition of “black mail,” and losing my status as an independent potentate—a rangatira of the first water. I then and there declared loudly that it was well for the offender that I had not been at home, and that if ever he tried his tricks with me he would find out his mistake. These declarations of war, I perceived, were heard by my men in a sort of incredulous silence (silence in New Zealand gives dis-sent), and though the fellows were stout chaps who would not mind a row with any ordinary mortal, I verily believe they would have all run at the first appearance of this redoubted ruffian. Indeed his antecedents had been such as might have almost been their excuse.

He had killed several men in fair fight, and had also—as was well known—committed two most diabolical murders; one of which was on his own wife, a fine young woman, whose brains he blew out at half a second's notice for no further provocation than this:—he was sitting in the verandah of his house, and told her to bring him a light for his pipe. She, being occupied in domestic affairs, said, “Can't you fetch it yourself? I am going for water.” She had the calibash in her hand and their infant child on her back. He snatched up his gun and instantly shot her dead on the spot; and I had heard him afterwards describing quite coolly the comical way in which her brains had been knocked out by the shot with which the gun was loaded. He also had, for some trifling provocation, lopped off the arm of his own brother, or cousin, I forget which; and was, altogether, from his tremendous bodily strength and utter insensibility to danger, about as “ugly a customer” as one would care to meet.

I am now describing a regular Maori ruffian of the good old times; the natural growth of a state of society wherein might was to a very great extent right, and where bodily strength and courage were almost the sole qualities for which a man was respected or valued. He was a bullet-headed, scowling, bow-legged, broad-shouldered, herculean savage, and all these qualifications combined made him unquestionably “a great rangatira;” and, as he had never been defeated, his mana was in full force.

A few weeks after the affair of the blankets, as I was sitting all alone reading a Sydney newspaper (which, being only a year old, was highly interesting), my friends and all my natives having gone on an expedition to haul a large fishing-net, whom should I see enter the room and squat down on the floor, as if taking permanent possession, but the amiable and highly interesting individual I have taken so much trouble to describe. He said nothing, but his posture and countenance spoke whole volumes of defiance and murderous intent. He had heard of the threats I had made against him, and there he was; let me turn him out if I dare. That was his meaning,—there was no mistaking it.

I have all my life been an admirer of the suaviter in modo; though it is quite out of place in New Zealand. If you tell a man—a Maori I mean—in a gentle tone of voice and with a quiet manner that if he continues a given line of conduct you will begin to commence to knock him down, he simply disbelieves you, and thereby forces you to do that which, if you could have persuaded yourself to have spoken very uncivilly at first, there would have been no occasion for. I have seen many proofs of this, and though I have done my best for many years to improve the understanding of my Maori friends in this particular, I find still there are but very few who can understand at all how it is possible that the suaviter in modo can be combined with the fortiter in re. They in fact can't understand it, for some reason perfectly inexplicable to me. It was, however, quite a matter of indifference, I could perceive, how I should open proceedings with my friend; as he evidently meant mischief. “Habit is second nature,” so I instinctively took to the suaviter.

“Friend,” said I, in a very mild tone, and with as amiable a smile as I could get up, in spite of a certain clenching of the teeth which somehow came on me at the moment, “my advice to you is to be off.” He seemed to nestle himself firmer in his seat, and made no answer but a scowl of defiance. “I am thinking, friend, that this is my house,” said I; and springing upon him, I placed my foot to his shoulder and gave a shove which would have sent most people heels over head. Not so, however, with my friend. It shook him, certainly, a little; but in an instant, as quick as lightning, and as it appeared with a single motion, he bounded from the ground, flung his mat away over his head, and struck a furious blow at my head with his tomahawk. I escaped instant death by a quickness equal to or greater than his own. My eye was quick and so was my arm: life was at stake. I caught the tomahawk in full descent: the edge grazed my hand; but my arm, stiffened like a bar of iron, arrested the blow.

He made one furious, but ineffectual, effort to tear the tomahawk from my grasp; and then we seized one another round the middle, and struggled like maniacs in the endeavour to dash each other against the boarded floor; I holding on for dear life to the tomahawk, and making desperate efforts to get it from him, but without a chance of success, as it was fastened to his wrist by a strong thong of leather. He was, as I soon found, somewhat stronger than me, and heavier; but I was as active as a cat, and as long-winded as an emu, and very far from weak. At last he got a wiri round my leg; and had it not been for the table on which we both fell, and which, in smashing to pieces, broke our fall, I might have been disabled, and in that case instantly tomahawked. We now rolled over and over on the floor like two mad bulldogs; he trying to bite, and I trying to stun him by dashing his bullet head against the floor. Up again!—still both holding on to the tomahawk. Another furious struggle, in the course of which both our heads, and half our bodies, were dashed through the two glass windows in the room, and every single article of furniture was reduced to atoms. Down again, rolling like mad, and dancing about amongst the rubbish—the wreck of the house.

By this time we were both covered with blood from various wounds, received I don't know how. I had been all this time fighting under a great disadvantage, for my friend was trying to kill me, and I was only trying to disarm and tie him up—a much harder thing than to kill. My reason for going to this trouble was, that as there were no witnesses to the row, if I killed him, I might have had serious difficulties with his tribe.

Up again; another terrific tussle for the tomahawk; down again with a crash: and so this life or death battle went on, down and up, up and down, for a full hour. At last I perceived that my friend was getting weaker, and felt that victory was only now a question of time. I, so far from being fatigued, was even stronger. We had another desperate wrestling match. I lifted my friend high in my arms, and dashed him, panting, furious, foaming at the mouth—but beaten—against the ground. There he lies: the worshipper of force. His God has deserted him.

But no, not yet. He has one more chance; and a fatal one it nearly proved to me. I began to unfasten the tomahawk from his wrist. An odd expression came over his countenance. He spoke for the first time. “Enough! I am beaten; let me rise.” Now I had often witnessed the manly and becoming manner in which some Maoris can take defeat, when they have been defeated in what they consider fair play. I had also ceased to fear my friend, and so incautiously let go his left arm. Quick as lightning, he snatched at a large carving fork, which, unperceived by me, was lying on the floor amongst the smashed furniture and débris of my household effects; his fingers touched the handle and it rolled away out of his reach: my life was saved. He then struck me with all his remaining force on the side of the head, causing the blood to flow out of my mouth. One more short struggle, and he was conquered.

But now I had at last got angry: the drunkenness, the exhilaration of fight, which comes on some constitutions, was fairly on me. I had also a consciousness that now I must kill my man, or, sooner or later, he would kill me. I thought of the place I would bury him; how I would stun him first with the back of the tomahawk, to prevent too much blood being seen; how I would then carry him off (I could carry two such men now, easy): I would murder him and cover him up. I unwound the tomahawk from his wrist: he was passive and helpless now. I wished he was stronger, and told him to get up and “die standing,” as his countrymen say. I clutched the tomahawk for the coup-de-grace (I can't help it, young ladies, the devil is in me);—at this instant a thundering sound of feet is heard—a whole tribe are coming!

Now am I either lost or saved!—saved from doing that which I should afterwards repent, though constrained by necessity to do it. The rush of charging feet comes closer, and in an instant comes dashing and smashing through doors and windows, in breathless haste and alarm, a whole tribe of friends. Small ceremony now with my antagonist. He was dragged by the heels, stamped on, kicked, and thrown half-dead, or nearly quite dead, into his canoe.

All the time we had been fighting, a little slave imp of a boy belonging to my antagonist had been loading the canoe with my goods and chattels, and had managed to make a very fair plunder of it. These were all now brought back by my friends, except one cloth jacket, which happened to be concealed under the whariki; and which I only mention because I remember that the attempt to recover it some time afterwards cost one of my friends his life. The savage scoundrel, who had so nearly done for me, broke two of his ribs, and so otherwise injured him that he never recovered, and died after lingering about a year. My friends were going on a journey, and had called to see me as they passed. They saw the slave boy employed as I have stated, and knowing to whom he belonged had rushed at once to the rescue, little expecting to find me alive.

I may as well now dispose of this friend of mine, by giving his after history. He for a long time after our fight went continually armed with a double gun, and said he would shoot me wherever he met me; he however had had enough of attacking me in my “castle,” and so did not call there any more. I also went continually armed, and took care also to have always some of my people at hand. After this, this fellow committed two more murders, and also killed in fair fight with his own hand the first man in a native battle, in which the numbers on each side were about three hundred, and which I witnessed. The man he killed was a remarkably fine young fellow, a great favourite of mine. At last, having attacked and attempted to murder another native, he was shot through the heart by the person he attempted to murder, and fell dead on the spot, and so there died “a great rangatira.” His tribe quietly buried him and said no more about it, which showed their sense of right. Had he been killed in what they considered an unjust manner, they would have revenged his death at any cost; but I have no doubt they themselves were glad to get rid of him, for he was a terror to all about him. I have been in many a scrape both by sea and land, but I must confess that I never met a more able hand at an argument than this Maori rangatira.

I have not mentioned my friend's name with whom I had this discussion on the rights of Englishmen, because he has left a son, who is a great rangatira, and who might feel displeased if I was too particular; and I am not quite so able now to carry out a “face-to-face” policy as I was a great many years ago: besides there is a sort of “honour-amongst-thieves” feeling between myself and my Maori friends on certain matters which we mutually understand are not for the ears of the “new people.”

Now, ladies, I call that a fairish good fight, considering no one is killed on either side. I promise to be good in future and to keep the peace, if people will let me; and indeed, I may as well mention, that from that day to this I have never had occasion to explain again to a Maori how it is that “every Englishman's house is has castle.”

“Fair play is a jewel;” and I will here, as bound in honour to do, declare that I have met amongst the natives with men who would be a credit to any nation; men on whom nature had plainly stamped the mark of “Noble,” of the finest bodily form, quick and intelligent in mind, polite and brave, and capable of the most self-sacrificing acts for the good of others; patient, forbearing, and affectionate in their families: in a word, gentlemen. These men were the more remarkable as they had grown up surrounded by a set of circumstances of the most unfavourable kind for the development of the qualities of which they were possessed; and I have often looked on with admiration, when I have seen them protesting against, and endeavouring to restrain some of, the dreadful barbarities of their countrymen.

As for the Maori people in general, they are neither so good nor so bad as their friends and enemies have painted them, and I suspect are pretty much like what almost any other people would have become, if subjected for ages to the same external circumstances. For ages they have struggled against necessity in all its shapes. This has given to them a remarkable greediness for gain in every visible and immediately tangible form. It has even left its mark on their language. Without the aid of iron the most trifling tool or utensil could only be procured by an enormously disproportionate outlay of labour in its construction, and, in consequence, it became precious to a degree scarcely conceivable by people of civilized and wealthy countries. This great value attached to personal property of all kinds, increased proportionately the temptation to plunder; and where no law existed, or could exist, of sufficient force to repress the inclination, every man, as a natural consequence, became a soldier; if it were only for the defence of his own property and that of those who were banded with him—his tribe, or family.

From this state of things regular warfare arose, as a matter of course; the military art was studied as a science, and brought to great perfection, as applied to the arms used; and a marked military character was given to the people. The necessity of labour, the necessity of warfare, and a temperate climate, gave them strength of body, accompanied by a perseverance and energy of mind, perfectly astonishing. With rude and blunt stones they felled the giant kauri—toughest of pines; and from it, in process of time, at an expense of labour, perseverance, and ingenuity, perfectly astounding to those who know what it really was, produced, carved, painted, and inlaid, a masterpiece of art, and an object of beauty—the war canoe, capable of carrying a hundred men on a distant expedition, through the boisterous seas surrounding their island.

As a consequence of their warlike habits and character, they are self-possessed and confident in themselves and their own powers, and have much diplomatic finesse and casuistry at command. Their intelligence causes them theoretically to acknowledge the benefits of law, which they see established amongst us; but their hatred of restraint causes them practically to abhor and resist its full enforcement amongst themselves. Doubting our professions of friendship, fearing our ultimate designs, led astray by false friends, possessed of that “little learning” which is, in their case, most emphatically “a dangerous thing,” and divided amongst themselves,—such are the people with whom we are now in contact—such the people to whom, for our own safety and their preservation, we must give new laws and institutions, new habits of life, new ideas, sentiments and information—whom we must either civilize or, by our mere contact, exterminate. How is this to be done? Let me see. I think I shall not answer this question until I am prime minister.

 

 

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