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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 conceivable.

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 land again.

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 man!

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 their dogmas.

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 replied—

"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 Pakeha tobacco!

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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