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The Death of Relation Eater from Old New Zealand by Fredrick Maning

The following is a description of the life and manner of death of an old warrior very much representative of a type in the customs and manners of Old Polynesia.

The chief who claimed me was a good specimen of the Maori rangatira. He was a very old man, and had fought the French when Marion, the French circumnavigator, was killed. He had killed a Frenchman himself, and carried his thighs and legs many miles as a bonne bouche for his friends at home at the pa. This old gentleman was not head of his tribe; but he was a man of good family, related to several high chiefs. He was head of a strong family, or hapu, which mustered a considerable number of fighting men; all his near relations. He had been himself a most celebrated fighting man, and a war chief; and was altogether a highly respectable person, and of great weight in the councils of the tribe. I may say I was fortunate in having been appropriated by this old patrician.

He gave me very little trouble; did not press his rights and privileges too forcibly on my notice; and, in fact behaved in all respects towards me in so liberal and friendly a manner, that before long I began to have a very sincere regard for him, and he to take a sort of paternal interest in me; this was both gratifying to observe, and also extremely comical sometimes, when he, out of real anxiety to see me a perfectly accomplished rangatira, would lecture on good manners, etiquette, and the use of the spear. He was, indeed, a model of a rangatira, and well worth being described.

He was a little man, with a high massive head, and remarkably high square forehead, on which the tattooer had exhausted his art. Though, as I have said, of a great age, he was still nimble and active: he had evidently been one of those tough active men, who though small in stature, are a match for any one. There was in my old friend's eyes a sort of dull fiery appearance, which, when anything excited him, or when he recounted some of those numerous battles, onslaughts, massacres, or stormings, in which all the active part of his life had been spent, actually seemed to blaze up and give forth real fire. His breast was covered with spear wounds, and he also had two very severe spear wounds on his head; but he boasted that no single man had ever been able to touch him with the point of a spear. It was in grand mélées, where he would have sometimes six or eight antagonists, that he had received these wounds. He was a great general, and I have heard him criticise closely the order and conduct of every battle of consequence which had been fought for fifty years before my arrival in the country. On these occasions the old “martialist” would draw on the sand the plan of the battle he was criticising and describing; and, in the course of time I began to perceive that, before the introduction of the musket, the art of war had been brought to great perfection by the natives: when large numbers were engaged in a pitched battle, the order of battle resembled, in a most striking manner, some of the most approved orders of battle of the ancients. Since the introduction of fire-arms the natives have entirely altered their tactics, and adopted a system better adapted to the new weapon and the nature of the country.

My old friend had a great hatred for the musket. He said that in battles fought with the musket there were never so many men killed as when, in his young days, men fought hand to hand with the spear: then a good warrior would kill six, eight, ten, or even twenty men in a single fight. For when once the enemy broke and commenced to run, the combatants being so close together, a fast runner would knock a dozen on the head in a short time; and the great aim of these fast-running warriors, of whom my old friend had been one, was to chase straight on and never stop, only striking one blow at one man, so as to cripple him, in order that those behind should be sure to overtake and finish him. It was not uncommon for one man, strong and swift of foot, when the enemy were fairly routed, to stab with a light spear ten or a dozen men, in such a way as to ensure their being overtaken and killed. On one occasion of this kind my old tutor had the misfortune to stab a running man in the back: he did it of course scientifically, so as to stop his running; and as he passed him by he perceived it was his wife's brother, who was finished immediately by the men close behind. I should have said that the man was a brother of one of my friend's four wives; which being the case, I dare say he had a sufficient number of brothers-in-law to afford to kill one now and then.

A worse mishap, however, occurred to him on another occasion. He was returning from a successful expedition from the south (in the course of which, by-the-by, he and his men killed and cooked in Shortland-crescent, several men of the enemy, and forced three others to jump over a cliff which is, I think, now called Soldier's-point), when off the Mahurangi a smoke was seen rising from amongst the trees near the beach. They at once concluded that it came from the fires of people belonging to that part of the country, and who they considered as game; they therefore waited till night, concealing their canoes behind some rocks, and when it became dark, landed; they then divided into two parties, took the supposed enemy completely by surprise, and attacked, rushing upon them from two opposite directions at once. My rangatira, dashing furiously among them, and—as I can well suppose—those eyes of his flashing fire, had the happiness of once again killing the first man, and being authorized to shout “Ki au te mataika!” A few more blows, and the parties recognize each other: they are friends!—men of the same tribe! Who is the last mataika slain by this famous warrior? Quick, bring a flaming brand—here he lies dead! Ha! It is his father!

Now an ancient knight of romance, under similar awkward circumstances, would probably have retired from public life, sought out some forest cave, where he would have hung up his armour, let his beard grow, flogged himself twice a day “regular,” and lived on “pulse”—which I suppose means pea-soup—for the rest of his life. But my old rangatira and his companions had not a morsel of that sort of romance about them. The killing of my friend's father was looked upon as a very clever exploit in itself; though a very unlucky one. So after having scolded one another for some time—one party telling the other they were served right for not keeping a better look out, and the other answering that they should have been sure who they were going to attack before making the onset—they all held a tangi or lamentation for the old warrior who had just received his mittimus; and then killing a prisoner, whom they had brought in the canoes for fresh provisions, they had a good feast; after which they returned all together to their own country, taking the body of their lamented relative along with them. This happened many years before I came to the country, and when my rangatira was one of the most famous fighting-men in his tribe.

This Maori rangatira I am describing had passed his whole life, with but little intermission, in scenes of battle, murder, and bloodthirsty atrocities of the most terrific description; mixed with actions of the most heroic courage, self-sacrifice, and chivalric daring, as leaves one perfectly astounded to find them the deeds of one and the same people: one day doing acts which, had they been performed in ancient Greece, would have immortalized the actors, and the next committing barbarities too horrible for relation, and almost incredible.

The effect of a life of this kind was observable plainly enough, in my friend. He was utterly devoid of what weak mortals call “compassion.” He seemed to have no more feeling for the pain, tortures, or death of others than a stone. Should one of his family be dying or wounded, he merely felt it as the loss of one fighting man. As for the death of a woman, or any non-combatant, he did not feel it at all; though the person might have suffered horrid tortures: indeed I have seen him scolding severely a fine young man, his near relative, when actually expiring, for being such a fool as to blow himself up by accident, and deprive his family of a fighting man. The last words the dying man heard were these:—“It serves you right. There you are, looking very like a burnt stick! It serves you right—a burnt stick! Serves you right!” It really was vexatious. A fine stout young fellow to be wasted in that way.

As for fear, I saw one or two instances to prove he knew very little about it: indeed, to be killed in battle seemed to him a natural death. He was always grumbling that the young men thought of nothing but trading; and whenever he proposed to them to take him where he might have a final battle (he riri wakamutunga), where he might escape dying of old age, they always kept saying, “Wait till we get more muskets,” or “more gunpowder,” or more something or another: “as if men could not be killed without muskets!” He was not cruel either; he was only unfeeling. He had been guilty, it is true, in his time, of what we should call terrific atrocities to his prisoners; which he calmly and calculatingly perpetrated as utu, or retaliation for similar barbarities committed by them or their tribe.

And here I must retract the word guilty, which I see I have written inadvertently; for—according to the morals and principles of the people of whom he was one, and of the time to which he belonged, and the training he had received—so far from being guilty, he did a praiseworthy, glorious, and public-spirited action when he opened the jugular vein of a bound captive and sucked huge draughts of his blood.

To say the truth, he was a very nice old man, and I liked him very much. it would not, however, be advisable to put him in a passion; not much good would be likely to arise from it: as, indeed, I could show by one or two very striking instances which came under my notice; though, to say the truth, he was not easily put out of temper. He had one great moral rule,—it was, indeed, his rule of life: he held that every man had a right to do everything and anything he chose, provided he was able and willing to stand the consequences; though he thought some men fools for trying to do things which they could not carry out pleasantly, and which ended in getting them baked.

I once hinted to him that, should every one reduce these principles to practice, he himself might find it awkward; particularly as he had so many mortal enemies. To which he replied, with a look which seemed to pity my ignorance, that every one did practise this rule to the best of their abilities, but that some were not so able as others; and that as for his enemies, he should take care they never surprised him: a surprise being, indeed, the only thing he seemed to have any fear at all of. In truth, he had occasion to look out sharp. He never was known to sleep more than three or four nights in the same place, and often, when there were ill omens, he would not sleep in a house at all, or two nights following in one place, for a month together. I never saw him without both spear and tomahawk, and ready to defend himself at a second's notice: a state of preparation perfectly necessary, for though in his own country and surrounded by his tribe, his death would have been such a triumph for hundreds, not of distant enemies, but of people within a day's journey, that none could tell at what moment some stout young fellow in search of utu and a “ingoa toa” (a warlike reputation) might rush upon him, determined to have his head or leave his own.

The old buck himself had, indeed, performed several exploits of this nature; the last of which occurred just at the time I came into the country, but before I had the advantage of his acquaintance. His tribe were at war with some people at the distance of about a day's journey. One of their villages was on the border of a dense forest. My rangatira, then a very old man, started off alone, and without saying a word to any one, took his way through the forest, which extended the whole way between his village and the enemy, crept like a lizard into the enemy's village, and then, shouting his war cry, dashed amongst a number of people he saw sitting together on the ground, and who little expected such a salute. In a minute he had run three men and one woman through the body, received five dangerous spear-wounds himself, and escaped to the forest; and finally he got safe home to his own country and people. Truly my old rangatira was a man of a thousand,—a model rangatira. This exploit, if possible, added to his reputation, and every one said his mana would never decline. The enemy had been panic, stricken, thinking a whole tribe were upon them, and fled like a flock of sheep: except the three men who were killed. They all attacked my old chief at once, and were all disposed of in less than a minute, after, as I have said, giving him five desperate wounds. The woman was just “stuck,” as a matter of course, as she came in his way.

My old rangatira at last began to show signs that his time to leave this world of care was approaching. He had arrived at a great age, and a rapid and general breaking up of his strength became plainly observable. He often grumbled that men should grow old, and oftener that no great war broke out in which he might make a final display, and die with éclat. The last two years of his life were spent almost entirely at my house; which, however, he never entered. He would sit whole days on a fallen puriri near the house, with his spear sticking up beside him, and speaking to no one, but sometimes humming in a low droning tone some old ditty which no one knew the meaning of but himself, and at night he would disappear to some of the numerous nests, or little sheds, he had around the place. In summer, he would roll himself in his blanket and sleep anywhere; but no one could tell exactly where.

In the hot days of summer, when his blood, I suppose, got a little warm, he would sometimes become talkative, and recount the exploits of his youth. As he warmed to the subject, he would seize his spear and go through all the incidents of some famous combat, repeating every thrust, blow, and parry as they actually occurred, and going through as much exertion as if he was really and truly fighting for his life. He used to go through these pantomimic labours as a duty whenever he had an assemblage of the young men of the tribe around him; to whom, as well as to myself, he was most anxious to communicate that which he considered the most valuable of all knowledge, a correct idea of the uses of the spear, a weapon he really used in a most graceful and scientific manner; but he would ignore the fact that “Young New Zealand” had laid down the weapon for ever, and already matured a new system of warfare adapted to their new weapons, and only listened to his lectures out of respect to himself, and not for his science.

At last this old lion was taken seriously ill, and removed permanently to the village; and one evening a smart, handsome lad, of about twelve years of age, came to tell me that his tupuna was dying, and had said he would “go” to-morrow, and had sent for me to see him before he died. The boy also added that the tribe were ka poto, or assembled, to the last man, around the dying chief. I must here mention that, though this old rangatira was not the head of his tribe, he had been for about half a century the recognized war chief of almost all the sections, or hapu, of a very numerous and warlike iwi, or tribe, who had now assembled from all their distant villages and pas to see him die. I could not, of course, neglect the invitation, so at daylight next morning I started on foot for the native village. On my arrival about mid-day, I found it crowded by a great assemblage of natives. I was saluted by the usual haere mai! and a volley of musketry. I at once perceived that, out of respect to my old owner, the whole tribe from far and near, hundreds of whom I had never seen, considered it necessary to make much of me,—at least for that day,—and I found myself consequently at once in the position of a “personage.” “Here comes the pakeha !—his pakeha! —make way for the pakeha !—kill those dogs that are barking at the pakeha!” Bang! bang! Here a double barrel nearly blew my cap off, by way of salute: I did for a moment think my head was off. However, being quite au fait in Maori etiquette by this time, thanks to the instructions and example of my old friend, I fixed my eyes with a vacant expression, looking only straight before me, recognized nobody, and took notice of nothing; not even the muskets fired under my nose or close to my back at every step, and each, from having four or five charges of powder, making a report like a cannon. On I stalked, looking neither to the right or the left, with my spear walking-staff in my hand, to where I saw a great crowd, and where I of course knew the dying man was. I walked straight on, not even pretending to see the crowd: as was “correct” under the circumstances; I being supposed to be entranced by the one absorbing thought of seeing “mataora,” or once more in life my rangatira.

The crowd divided as I came up, and closed again behind me as I stood in the front rank before the old chief, motionless; and, as in duty bound, trying to look the image of mute despair: which I flatter myself I did, to the satisfaction of all parties. The old man I saw at once was at his last hour. He had dwindled to a mere skeleton. No food of any kind had been prepared for or offered to him for three days: as he was dying it was of course considered unnecessary. At his right side lay his spear, tomahawk, and musket. (I never saw him with the musket in his hand all the time I knew him.) Over him was hanging his greenstone mere, and at his left side, close, and touching him, sat a stout, athletic savage, with a countenance disgustingly expressive of cunning and ferocity; and who, as he stealthily marked me from the corner of his eye, I recognized as one of those limbs of Satan, a Maori tohunga. The old man was propped up in a reclining position, his face towards the assembled tribe, who were all there waiting to catch his last words. I stood before him and I thought I perceived he recognized me. Still all was silence, and for a full half hour we all stood there, waiting patiently for the closing scene. Once or twice the tohunga said to him in a very loud voice, “The tribe are assembled, you won't die silent?”

At last, after about half an hour, he became restless, his eyes rolled from side to side, and he tried to speak; but failed. The circle of men closed nearer, and there was evidence of anxiety and expectation amongst them; but a dead silence was maintained. Then suddenly, without any apparent effort, and in a manner which startled me, the old man spoke clearly out, in the ringing metallic tone of voice for which he had been formerly so remarkable, particularly when excited. He spoke, “Hide my bones quickly where the enemy may not find them: hide them at once.” He spoke again—“Oh my tribe, be brave! be brave that you may live. Listen to the words of my pakeha; he will unfold the designs of his tribe.” This was in allusion to a very general belief amongst the natives at the time, that the Europeans designed sooner or later to exterminate them and take the country; a thing the old fellow had cross-questioned me about a thousand times: and the only way I could find to ease his mind was to tell him that if ever I heard any such proposal I would let him know, protesting at the same time that no such intention existed. This notion of the natives has since that time done much harm, and will do more, for it is not yet quite given up.

He continued—“I give my mere to my pakeha,” —“my two old wives will hang themselves,”—(here a howl of assent from the two old women in the rear rank)—“I am going; be brave after I am gone.” Here he began to rave; he fancied himself in some desperate battle, for he began to call to celebrated comrades who had been dead forty or fifty years. I remember every word—“Charge!” shouted he—“Charge! Wata, charge! Tara, charge! charge!” Then after a short pause— “Rescue! rescue! to my rescue! ahau! ahau! rescue!” The last cry for “rescue” was in such a piercing tone of anguish and utter desperation, that involuntarily I advanced a foot and hand, as if starting to his assistance; a movement, as I found afterwards, not unnoticed by the superstitious tribe. At the same instant that he gave the last despairing and most agonizing cry for “rescue,” I saw his eyes actually blaze, his square jaw locked, he set his teeth, and rose nearly to a sitting position, and them fell back dying. He only murmured—“How sweet is man's flesh,” and then the gasping breath and upturned eye announced the last moment.

The tohunga now, bending close to the dying man's ear, roared out, “Kia kotahi ki te ao! Kia kotahi ki te ao! Kia kotahi ki te po!” The poor savage was now, as I believe, past hearing, and gasping his last. “Kia kotahi ki te ao!”—shouted the devil priest again in his ear, and shaking his shoulder roughly with his hand—“Kia kotahi ki te ao!—Kia kotahi ki te po!” Then giving a significant look to the surrounding hundreds of natives, a roar of musketry burst forth. Kia kotahi ki te ao! Thus in a din like pandemonium, guns firing, women screaming, and the accursed tohunga shouting in his ear, died “Lizard Skin,” as good a fighting man as ever worshipped force or trusted in the spear. His death on the whole was thought happy; for his last words were full of good omen:—“How sweet is man's flesh.”

Next morning the body had disappeared. This was contrary to ordinary custom, but in accordance with the request of the old warrior. No one, even of his own tribe, knows where his body is concealed, but the two men who carried it off in the night. All I know is that it lies in a cave, with the spear and tomahawk beside it.

The two old wives were hanging by the neck from a scaffold at a short distance, which had been made to place potatoes on out of the reach of rats. The shrivelled old creatures were quite dead. I was for a moment forgetful of the “correct” thing, and called to an old chief, who was near, to cut them down. He said, in answer to my hurried call, “By-and-by; it is too soon yet: they might recover.” “Oh,” said I, at once recalled to my sense of propriety, “I thought they had been hanging all night,” and thus escaped the great risk of being thought a mere meddling pakeha. I now perceived the old chief was employed making a stretcher, or kauhoa, to carry the bodies on. At a short distance also were five old creatures of women sitting in a row, crying, with their eyes fixed on the hanging objects, and everything was evidently going on selon les règles. I walked on. “E tika ana,” said I, to myself. “It's all right, I dare say.”

The two young wives had also made a desperate attempt in the night to hang themselves, but had been prevented by two young men, who, by some unaccountable accident, had come upon them just as they were stringing themselves up; and who, seeing that they were not actually “ordered for execution,” by great exertion, and with the assistance of several female relations, whom they called to their assistance, prevented them from killing themselves out of respect for their old lord. Perhaps it was to revenge themselves for this meddling interference that these two young women married the two young men before the year was out; in consequence of which, and as a matter of course, the husbands were robbed by the tribe of everything they had in the world (which was not much), except their arms. They also had to fight some half-dozen duels each with spears; in which, however, no one was killed, and no more blood drawn than could be well spared. All this they went through with commendable resignation; and so, due respect having been paid to the memory of the old chief, and the appropriators of his widows duly punished according to law, further proceedings were stayed, and everything went on comfortably. And so the world goes round.


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