Poenamo Book the Third - Chapter VI.
A Gunpowder Explosion.—The Doctor Wanted
The following morning was
ushered in with a repetition of the Maori minute-guns, indeed, stray shots
and a strong death-wail had been breaking on our ears throughout the night,
but with the sun the salute-firing had set in again in full force.
We had just finished our
breakfast, and were on the point of starting to our work in the forest, when
we heard a tremendous report, far beyond anything any musket could give
forth—much more like a cannon. We stood for a moment wondering what could
have happened, when two natives, perfectly nude, rushed past where we were
standing and precipitated themselves into the rivulet which flowed close
past our door; then came rushing after a perfect crowd .of natives, howling
furiously, in wild despair, the most concentrated, agonising death-wail
What had happened? What awful
catastrophe had befallen the tribe?
They stood at the river-side
rending the air with cries of "Kua mate te Rite!—kua mate te Pirete!"
What did they mean? In those
two chiefs we now recognised the men who had just rushed past us and jumped
into a pool in the river—there they were alive fast enough, nothing kua mate
dead about them.
They were certainly looking
awfully scared, but. they might well be so on being bowled over in that
fearful way, and told that they were dead!
Had a stranger been present
he would have imagined it was a case of evil spirits causing honest people
to rush down steep places, for Pama had no sooner found out the reason of
all this row than he communicated it to me, and we were seen suddenly
rushing into the pool beside the two chiefs. We turned them about and all
round, examining their shiny black skins with eager haste, and then we
re-consigned them to their self-sought bath, and betook ourselves on to dry
The loud report we had heard
was the explosion of some gunpowder; the two chiefs had got burnt by it and
had rushed into the river, and as I found the wounds were hardly skin-deep,
and extended over a very small surface, I allowed them to indulge in the
cold-water cure which they had sought.
The accident had come about
in this way a fresh distribution of powder had to be made to supply the
wants of the salute-firers over Ngatai, and it was being served out from an
open keg of gunpowder. A slave-boy was sitting on the ground with the keg
between his legs doling out the loose powder, and no doubt in a very loose
way. The two chiefs (whom I have left in the river all this time) had been
adjusting a new flint to one of their old muskets, and must needs try how it
acted, but they tried it just a little too close to the open keg of powder,
and a spark fell into it—hence the explosion. The result to the slave- boy
was, that he was about split in two, and killed there and then, the chiefs
getting off with a few superficial burns. Of course there was great dread
that the two chiefs were done for; as for the slave-boy, the tribe could not
spare time to wail over him when they had two big chiefs demanding their
sympathies, and Ngatai also in hand.
My little tent was still
standing, not having been struck since we moved out of it into Pama's where,
so I converted it into all for the two patients, and being speedily spread
with fresh fern and covered with mats, the chiefs found themselves, within
half-an-hour of the accident, installed in most comfortable, though
certainly, unexpected quarters. Their burns were of a very superficial kind,
and only in one or two small patches, and really required nothing to be
done, or I should not have allowed them to continue in their self-sought
cold bath. The application of outward sympathy was the only salve wanted,
and this was being supplied in such a wholesale manner by all the old women
of the settlement howling in front of the tent-door that "All, their chiefs
would die," and such cheering remarks, that I came to the conclusion the
sooner my patients were relieved of the doleful row outside the better.
Moreover, we did not want a gang of tangi-ing old women quite so close to
our own quarters, So I caused Pama to intimate in very serious language—
translating mine and also the solemnity of my countenance into his own when
delivering the announcement—that absolute quiet was essential to the
recovery of their chiefs, and that they must do no tangi-ing nearer than
where poor Ngatai lay in state.
This order had the effect of
directing back to its original channel the flow of tears which had been
diverted from their legitimate source by the gun powder explosion. It is
very doubtful, however, if my injunction of.quietness would have been
respected but for the fact that the old women had got poor Ngatai to fall
back upon, for being now so thoroughly up to mourning pitch they felt they
could "suffer and be strong" on rather easy conditions to themselves.
However, they betook themselves to there original occupation in front of
Ngatai, and quiet reigned around the tent and our whare—thus two
birds were killed with one stone!
As this catastrophe had so
completely broken in upon our day we did not go to our forest work, but made
a holiday of it, watching all the ceremonies and observances connected with
the deceased chief. A continued stream of arrivals kept pouring in from all
quarters, the semicircle of mourners was kept well filled, and poor old
Kanini had to maintain his post of honour against all corners. His was no
sinecure, every arrival brought a given number of chiefs of note, and of
such aristocratic standing that they were entitled to the seat of honour
beside Kanini and a personal rub of the old man's nose.
Whilst others came and went
the old man had to remain like a sentinel beside the corpse—he was the
victim upon whom all the stringers of sufficient rank bore down with the
inevitable and not-to-be-denied salutation of rubbing the lugubrious nose.
Day after day went by and
still new mourners kept dropping in, keeping Kanini to his post. Then,
besides, to add to his inflictions, he was "tapu," and dare not touch
food with his own hands. These had become tapu from having "laid out" Ngatai,
and an old woman had to come and feed him by putting his food into his
mouth! Sometimes she would be behind time—the fact was, every woman in the
tribe was kept hard at work from morning until night preparing food for the
swarms of mourners, who, like a plague of locusts, threatened to eat every
thing from off the land owned by the Ngathamateras. The old woman, as I was
saying, would sometimes be behind time, or poor Kanini's appetite would be
in advance of it, and then the old man would have to go down upon his knees,
his hands behind his back, as far away as possible from the food, and grub
into a kit of provisions more like a pig than anything else, and catch hold
of a mouthful the best way he could.
Eventually a sort of
provision platform was erected to suit the emergency, so that he could take
occasional snatches when hard put to it without having to wait for woman's
assistance, or descend, knees to the earth and face to the ground, like a
Mussulman saying his prayers.
Perhaps you may be mentally
exclaiming, "And this is the old man you want us to believe to be such a
superior savage," Transplant him to a civilised community and he would do it
honour, and all that sort of highflowen nonsense. If so why does he submit
to such disgusting and stupid customs? No man of sense would." This is
perhaps, what yon are saying to yourselves.
Listen to me, my children.
Are not you in your civilised state the slaves of fashion and of customs as
absurd? Of course you are; and certes, even in these our days of advanced
civilisation, all Irish wake would far outdo in stupid and almost gross
customs all that I have described as taking place at Waiomu. We may not
believe in many of the fashions of the day, but are we not slaves to them?
Kanini did not believe much
in "tapu," as I shall hereafter prove to you. He was only, like you, the
slave to the opinions and fashions of the society in which he was living.
Well! and absurd as many of the fashions of our day are, still there is no
use running a tilt against the accepted manners and customs of our day—at
least, sensible people don't do it.
And Kanini was a sensible
I have already stated that
his tribe had not embraced Christianity—the missionary had not converted
them, or, more properly speaking, he had failed with the old man, for had he
turned "meetinary" his tribe would forthwith have followed suit. They were
all tewaras, which is the nearest approach to the word devils in the
Maori tongue, which was the complimentary name the enlightened early
missionaries gave to all who would not submit to their preachings and accept
Kanini was a tewara. The
missionary had attempted to storm the tapu of the old man, but in vain, he
had been driven forth discomfited one day, so Puma told us.
The "meetmary" had been
trying to terrify the old chief into a more satisfactory belief by
portraying all the terrors of the future punishment that would overtake the
unconverted. "You will be cast forth into outer darkness into a bottomless
pit"—the old man had never heard of a pit without a bottom before—"where all
such as you are consigned to everlasting punishment amongst howling fiends,
to be burnt in brimstone and hell-fire," &c.
"Holaiw! hoiano" ("Enough!
enough!") claimed Kanini, "that won't do. how can there be fire in a place
of utter darkness?"
"But, my friend Kaniui—"
"But me no buts," quoth
Kanini, who thought he had found out the converting "meetinary" and bowled
him over, by having caught him inventing for the nonce. And so Kanini
remained a tewara, but for good sound reasons of his own which I shall tell
yon by-and-by. I think I have already mentioned that the old chief did not
much believe in the tapu, the miseries of which we saw him so
uncomplainingly undergoing. This knowledge of his character came to us at a
period of our sojourn at Wraiomu though I am going to tell you about it now.
Many were the conversations
we had during the winter evenings with the old man, getting Pana to act as
interpreter; and before our canoe was finished we had gained a pretty clear
insight into the native mind and their manners and customs. It was on one of
these evenings we asked Kanini why he did not cease to labour under the
ignominious epithet of "tewara." The old man benignly smiled, as who should
ask whether being called a "devil" made or marred any man, and he calmly
"What would you have me do? I
am now an old man; why change my religion, or allow my people to change
theirs, and so risk my power over my tribe? The tapu has served my
purpose—will serve for my day. Your religion may be good—may be better—but
how know I what my people may learn with it? Perhaps not respect for me and
obedience to their chiefs. No, no; the religion of my fathers is good enough
for me, good enough for my people, and if they only pray to the evil gods to
leave them alone, no fear of the good ones doing them any harm—you don't
require to pray to them. And when I die said, "my spirit will pass away from
Moodiwhanua, [Moodiwhanua, the name of a bold headland on the coast.
The tradition of the origin of the island is, that a canoe fishing off it.
fished up the island. There is also the tradition that on their death the
disembodied spirit wings its flight from oil' this lofty headland into the
world of spirits.] and I shall eat kuineras, and smoke my pipe I hope, and
be happy for ever."
Such was the simple Maori
idea of Paradise; its happiness prospectively increased since the advent of
Yes— a future believed in,
and a world of spirits "And your spirit, Kanini, what is that?"
"The Pakeha asks me, the poor
old Kanini, what is a spirit? Kahore au matau, I dont understand. How can I
tell? Look" he said, as the lamplight threw his shadow on the wall, and
pointing to his shadow, moving as he moved, he said—
"Look! Call Pakelia take hold
of that?" Beautifully answered, old man, even if thou art a savage there is
poetry in thy nature".
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