Some three weeks had elapsed
since we had taken up our abode at Waiomu, and the end of a beautiful autumn
had been followed by the commencement of a mild and lovely winter.
We had been busy every day
for a fortnight in the forest, hewing the skies of the huge pine-tree, which
now began to assume somewhat of its intended shape and form, when one
forenoon, as we were hard at work, we were startled to hear rising from the
valley beneath, the loud long wailing death-cry.
Throwing down our axes we
went to the edge of the forest, from whence we could look down upon the
whole valley and the village, but before we reached it the report from many
muskets began to sound from the village, and soon spread up the whole
On gaining the edge of the
forest we could see the Maories hastening from all quarters towards one
particular spot. We at once knew what had happened, for we recognised the
spot as where young Ngatai's wlzard was, and we were aware he was in the
last stage of consumption. Death had visited a Ngatitamatera chief, and the
wail was taken up at each scattered hut along the valley until it sounded
faintly and mournfully on the ear from the far distance. I had always
brought a gun with me, borrowed from Pama, in the hope of being able to
cater for Mrs. Pama's cuisine by bringing home a brace or two of kukcupas,
so, hastening back for it, I returned again to the edge of the forest, and
fired off a number of minute-guns to show our Maori friends that their
Pakehas sympathised with them in their bereavement. This duty performed we
returned to our work, and continued at it until sunset.
All day we heard the
death-wail, and we could distinguish that the musketry reports became more
and more concentrated towards one point—Ngatai's house.
The sun was sinking behind
the Wairoa ranges when we descended into the valley from our work, and we
were greeted with the same news on all sides—"Kua mate te Ngatai." We knew
of course he was dead, and as we neared his hut the death-wail and
musket-firing became louder and louder; and at last, as we arrived at the
spot, we saw quite a large assemblage of natives standing in a semicircle in
front of the hut going through their accepted and customary rites on such
The Ngatitamateras having
many near neighbours up and down the shores of the Hauraki, we could see
that not a few strangers had already arrived to pay the visit of ceremony in
honour of the dead, and in to the living, of the tribe, and, if the truth
must be told, with the due appreciation of the usual attendant feast.
We stopped to look at the
ceremony, already ill swing, and I performed my part of it in proper Maori
fashion, by discharging some volleys from my gun.
The particular rites in which
we could not, or rather would not, take a part, I must dilate upon shortly.
As the performance was of an altogether novel character, I think it worth
while to try to describe it so that you may have the strange picture before
you. As this picture, however, will contain portions not altogether pleasant
to look upon, I give fair warning, so that if you happen to be in squeamish
mood the next page or two had better be skipped. As I am not inventing, but
simply narrating facts, I absolve myself from all responsibility if you
elect to read what we saw.
I have already stated that we
found the obsequies in full swing, short as had been the time for
preparation since the death-wail had startled us at our work that morning in
the forest. Poor Ngatai, the youngest of the three chiefs who had signed the
deed of sale of the island to us, had indeed passed away to the land of
spirits, but there lay before us in state the frail mortal remains that had
so lately owned. that name.
The body, having the face
uncovered, was wrapped up in blankets and native mats, and was laid out a
short distance in front of a fence which had already been erected—a sort of
small guard-fence, covered with raupo, having a back and two ends sloping
away at an angle, so that an uninterrupted view might. be afforded to the
extended semicircle of mourners in front. On this fence were hung almost the
whole of the deceased's personal effects—his blankets, the highly-valued
kaitaka mat (which has now almost ceased to be made), his musket and
double-barrelled gun, cartouch-box, tomahawk, and many other things—all
destined to hang there for ever, tabooed to the memory of the departed. No
sacrilegious hand, however coveted the articles, will ever disturb
them—there they will hang until the fence rots to the ground, if they have
not first rotted away and fallen down.
At one side of the body sat
old Kanini as chief mourner, muffled up in his flax mat, and looking
And little wonder, poor old
man, considering what was before him, for he well knew the martyrdom he had
to go through whilst others only wept— Maori fashion—and feasted.
I shall now endeavour to
describe how the mourners went through these respective processes, the first
being compulsory before indulging in the last, for no one feasted until
first having mourned in the orthodox Maori fashion.
About twenty or thirty yards
in front of the fence we saw the semicircle of mourners—men and women —in
all the different stages of the wail in words, and bodily infliction in
deeds, as custom dictated, but to understand how some of them had arrived at
the very grotesque condition in which we then saw them the only way is to
begin with some newly-arrived mourners and watch the process ab inito.
Late though it was in the evening, a fresh canoe-load had just arrived, so
we had an opportunity .of witnessing a Maori wake.
Having taken up their
position in front of poor dead Ngatai, they stood for a minute or two
hanging down their heads, and then the old women of the party broke into a
well-sustained hum-m-m, prolonging the -m- through the nose, a perfect
imitation of a naughty child trying to get up a cry—just exactly what these
old women are aiming at.
The younger of the new
mourners had to take much more frequent breath in doing their hums, which
they gave out very sotto voice, or rather soto naso!
It was perfectly evident how
difficult it was for young human nature to do this wailing hum as it ought
to be done, and was now being done by the older stagers.
After getting into the full
swing of the hum-wail, the next stage was to end this with a short
ejaculatory sentence in eulogy of the deceased, and when they reached the
grand full swing, the hum through the nose had disappeared, and the true
wail-cry was given out loud and strong. When they had exhausted their
sentences of eulogy they then fell back upon a more self-scarifying way of
proving their grief; as I shall describe now.
But first look at those old
women; why they really must have been crying in earnest, as there was proof,
for. they did not use pocket-handkerchiefs—no, nor their fingers instead
either; one wished they would do so to discard that dirty nose-pendant.
What! those old women remove
that emblem of grief! The shades of Ngatai forbid! the very thought is
Know that by the length of
these nasal pendants was measured the depth of feeling for the departed. No,
not until poor human nature is exhausted and can wail no more, and can
increase no more that nasal emblem of great, grief and sorrow, shall it be
shorn of its woe-cried length.
But what did they do next
these old withered hags, with stooping figures, their hands resting on their
knees as they stood, a mat from waist to knee all their attire?
Look! That old hag as she
ended her chanting, wailing moan, gave herself a cut down the cheek from the
eye to the corner of the mouth, it drew blood! Another wailing moan is
followed by another scarification on the opposite check, using a sharp-
edged shell as the instrument of self-torture.
Look at the old woman next
her! She has left nothing more of the face to scarify, and she has now begun
the same pros on her breast and bosom And yet another—now past these two
stages—has taken to her anus, and lo! still another—past all these three
stages, face, bosom, arms—still not content, has begun at her knees, and
only rests content on getting to her ankles!
Well tried, young
chieftaineces! but your novice hand is yet unskilled in these flesh-wounds;
wait awhile, and when the freshness and bloom of youth shall have passed
away, your hand will be bolder and steadier. To you it is only given as yet
to reach a respectably duly mourning face, but be not ashamed, for see, your
younger sister has succumbed to a sitting posture, and, unable to keep up
even the hum-rn-m any longer, is fain to bury her head in her mat and so
hide pretended nasal pendants in silence!
The men made but a very sorry
figure in these exhibitions. They buried their heads and affected the hum-rn-m
wail, but they could not keep it up; and as no dignity was to be got out of
it, they very soon took refuge in firing salutes from their muskets.
The great chiefs of the
different tribes who came to do the visits of mourning seldom took their
places in the circle, but went and sat down beside old Kanini and took a
fearful spell of the genuine lugubrious nose-rubbing out of the poor old
martyr. Squatted on the ground, they would positively keep their noses in
strict contact for half-an-hour at a stretch, and keep a
gradually-increasing moistening hum-m-m until really they were far from
pleasant to look upon. Nasal pendants of the peculiar description engendered
by this process did not constitute "a thing of beauty."
Some of the very great
chiefs, however, were compelled to wipe away, not a "tear," but a pendant,
and then came forward to deliver a funeral oration. Very graceful was the
manner in this was commenced; most exciting generally was the manner in
which it was concluded.
Rising from the old Kanini's
side a chief with glistening kaitaka mat folded around him like a Roman
toga, paces quietly and sedately forward until he reaches the circle of
mourners, when he suddenly stops, faces about, and with slightly-quickened
step paces back towards Kanini and the body lying in state and delivers a
sentence of his oration, arresting his further advance close to the chief.
He now again turns round and walks deliberately back in silence to the
starting point of the mourners, when again he suddenly faces Kanini, and,
advancing this time more quickly than the last, he delivers another short
sentence—never more than eight or ten words. Gradually, as he warms in his
theme, he makes his advance and delivers his sentence at all rapidity. And
soon the dignified toga-draped orator begins to look a little wild; the flax
mat now flies loosely about him, for he almost runs forward, and ends with a
jump in the air almost at Kanini's feet, and looking rather as if he had
intended to go clear over him. But the turning round and pacing back is
always most sedately performed to give due breathing and composing time to
arrange his next sentence.
Wonderfully strange is the
effect that this at last produces when the speaker has worked himself up to
the highest stage of intense action, when he rushes forward, his mat flying
wildly around him, brandishing with a peculiar quivering motion a taioha
wooden broad sword—or a tomahawk, rushing forward with high-toned voice and
hastily-spoken words ending his advance with a sudden jump in the air, and
in a moment assuming the most statuesque repose, and in time most quiet and
dignified manner again pacing back.
A hurricane and a calm—most
profound calm; But see now he can no longer hear the restraint of his long
toga about his body; he has flung it aside; he is no calm, dignified
toga-robed orator now, but a savage, nude, save a short mat hanging from
waist to knee, which is sometimes conspicuous by its absence, he is all
fiery gesticulation, and as he rushes forward he gives his bare leg a great
slap with one hand, with the other brandishing his taioha high in the air.
At last the hurricane has
expended itself, all the warlike deeds and acts of prowess of the dead chief
have been held up for emulation, and suddenly changing to the statuesque
repose he ends with a dirge chanted in a low monotonous tone. To give sonic
idea of what were the virtues most held in estimation amongst Maories, the
following is a free translation of a dirge chanted over Ngatai :-
* Mere, a
highly-prized small hand-weapon made from the green stone, used in close
After each new arrival had
performed the proper amount of tangi-ing wailing at the semicircle they
retired to feast, and to gossip—the latter I believe a greater treat than
The Maori wake in the days of
which I write was in eVery way most decorous; intoxicating liquids never
passed the Maories' lips; there were no toasts "to the memory of the
deceased," and the "health of the living relatives;" no draining of
inebriating cups at Hraionu.
Cold spring-water left no
imbibers prostrate, but if the wake lacked the drinking element, certainly
it did not the eating power, for the quantity of the Ngatitarnatera
provisions which were consumed was a caution, and compelled the tribe to
fall back upon fern-root before their new crop of potatoes came to their
relief in the spring.
You may remember that when I
began the description of this funeral we had just returned from our forest
work. We stood watching the strange scene until sunset, when the deepening
gloom sent us home to our evening meal of Erangi's preparing.
The good housewife—for such
indeed she was to us in her own quiet way—told us how the minute- guns I had
fired at the opening of the forest had pleased old Kanini and his people.
During the evening, and now
and again throughout the night, a sudden burst of the death-wail would break
upon the stillness as some old devotee, awakening from the feeling strong
upon her that she was still in the funereal harness, would start off quite
unrestrainable at the full wailing pace.
Spare yourself, yes, old
women—spare youselves: much is still in store for you, you have a long, long
journey before you reach the last stage of the Ngatitaniateras' obsequies,
wailing enough you will have—scarifying to your hearts' content. Spare