A year among the Maoris: study of their arts and customs
Chapter XII — War Weapons and Methods of Use
War Weapons and Methods of Use
Associated in our minds as the Maoris are with warfare, it seems strange that so few members of the race should have a knowledge of the correct use of their weapons of war. Mr. Elsdon Best, my ever-helpful friend throughout my investigations, knew where to find the one man who had studied the old methods and zealously guarded the knowledge. This was the high chief Kahotea Te Heu Heu, son of the great chief Te Heu Heu of the Tuwharetoa tribe, and grandson of Te Heu Heu Tukino, who in 1887 gave the magnificent Tongariro National Park to the Government of New Zealand to be held as a scenic reserve for all time. There is a tradition that the mere of Te Heu Heu was invisible to his enemies, and hid itself and reappeared at his will.
But that he could improvise a shield for single combat in the event of expediency was demonstrated by our visitor. In many of the native villages I have heard the same remark: "My father or my grandfather, he knew how to use taiaha or mere or koikoi, but no good against pakeha gun."
Chief Kahotea Te Heu Heu, who I regret to say has since passed away, a victim of the influenza epidemic, very kindly came to the Dominion Museum in Wellington to assist us in our work, and a record was made in quick sketches and photographs. We were assisted by Mr. J. McDonald, the acting-director of the museum, and himself an artist and a master photographer.
We first took up the question of the shield, or rather the substitute for one. This the warrior made by removing his mat and winding it tightly around his left hand and arm, which then appeared to be enveloped in a large muff. A similar practice is found to this day among the peasants of Spain, who remove their jackets and wind them around the left hand while the attack is made with a knife held in the right hand. The illustration (No. 1) showing the improvised shield also shows the manner of holding the mere in attack.
With true Maori spirit, Kahotea Te Heu Heu felt the incongruity of handling the old weapons clothed in the modern garments of the white man, so he partially changed them, donning the old Maori mat or page 152kilt, and leaving the upper part of the body and arms bare and free.
Before beginning our researches, the chief reminded us that invocations were commonly said over weapons, and many tales were told of deeds which could only have been accomplished with a mere possessing magic powers. The loop threaded through the hole in the handle of the mere was passed loosely around the thumb or wrist. A blow was delivered with an upward thrust, so that the top of the skull was forced up. When not in use, the mere was carried in the belt. It was the smallest of their weapons, employed at close quarters, and it was deemed advisable to have it always near at hand. Essentially a weapon used by the chiefs, it had a ceremonial purpose, and its presentation and exchange were taken as a solemn pledge. All the best meres were made of greenstone, but in later days they were made of bone or hard wood, and there is one in the Salem Museum made from the jawbone of an ass.
In the defence of their pas the Maoris were masters, and their engineering skill has been acknowledged to be of a high order. Indeed, it is said that it was from the Maoris in their warfare of the 'sixties that the British learned trench warfare. Some of their old trenches are still to be seen overgrown with vegetation, and sometimes a fine old tree is found with its roots in the bottom of the trench. The excavations seem to have been from six to ten feet deep, and sometimes more.
The Maori has won the reputation of having played the game fairly, if there is fairness in war. Tales are told of how they stopped firing when the British ran short of ammunition, and waited for additional supplies to come up, for why fight a man upon such uneven terms? they asked. They have never understood why the people they sent out of their citadels for water should have been shot, for was not water a necessity? page 154It was said that amongst themselves a pretext was constantly being sought for a combat, and they would frequently give a cause for quarrel by a direct insult.
The taiaha varies from five to six feet in length. One end is decorated with an elongated carved head with the invariable protruding tongue which terminates in a spear-head form. That this is a tongue is made evident by the teeth and lips from which it emanates. Immediately above these there is a diminutive nose, and above up-slanting and elongated eyes. The other end of the weapon is thin and flattened to the width of a couple of inches. At the junction of the shaft or blade and the carved portion is a binding of stripped flax in which is smoothly braided the scarlet under-wing feathers of the kaka and a fringe of white dog's hair. In contrast to the mere with its single stroke, the taiaha has several well-defined guard and attack movements. The tongue end of the taiaha was never used for a piercing thrust. The wide point was used principally for feinting, but occasionally the warrior delivered the point so as to gain time to recover arms, reverse, and deliver a blow with the blade end (rau). In delivering the point the weapon was passed swiftly through the left hand.
In the first position of the second movement the taiaha is raised to the right shoulder and the left hand raised to the right breast. (Illustration No. 4.) In the second position of the second movement the left hand is raised to the weapon, one hand with the thumb up and the other with the thumb down. (Illustration No. 5.)
The first position of the third movement shows the taiaha with the lower carved end held downwards. (Illustration No. 6.) The second position of the third movement is a parry to a hit on the side, a parry to the second position of the second movement. (Illustration No. 7.)
Later, the late T. F. Cheeseman, Director of the Auckland Museum, very kindly permitted me to make some sketches from some photographs he had of Maoris using their weapons, and these supplement the demonstrations of Kahotea Te Heu Heu. One shows an active guard position (illustration No. 8), and the other demonstrates a hit to the head. The hand is held in front to resist a parry, and evidently is violently thrust back for an attack. (Illustration No. 9.)page 156
We next took up the study of the tewhatewha, a picturesque weapon about four feet in length. One end terminates in a hatchet-shaped blade and the other in a point. The blow is struck with the straight edge of the hatchet-shaped end. (Illustration No. 10.) Decorations of hanging white feathers were used to cause dismay to the adversary by flicking them in his face. The tewhatewha is said to have been the weapon of a leader, and because of its ornamentation of feathers it was more easily seen when a leader was directing his men in battle or when carried by a song leader in a long war canoe. (Illustration No. 11.)
The first movement in a preparation for an attack shows the tewhatewha being held above the right shoulder. (Illustration No. 12.) In the second movement a blow is being delivered or the feathers are being flicked before the eyes of the enemy to cause him to flinch. (Illustration No. 13.)
In the drawings from Mr. Cheeseman's photographs there is an attack to the head and a parry to the same. (Illustrations Nos. 14 and 15.)
The next weapon to be studied was the koikoi, or spear, which varies in length from six feet to eight feet, and was pointed at both ends. It was the weapon most commonly used, and served in many places and under many conditions. The long spears were called huata, the ordinary short spear with one point was the tao.
From Mr. Cheeseman's photographs I have made a drawing showing another guard position, and another one showing a thrust from side to backwards. (Illustrations Nos. 18 and 19.)
Upon submitting my notes to Mr. Best, he said:
"The points to be emphasised are that the art of karo, generally called parrying with us, consists largely of avoidance. Most boys' games were in the form of military exercises. From childhood they practised dodging reeds levelled at them. The Maori was never still while fighting, always jumping about or on the move in some way. In ordeals, when a number of spears were cast at him, he would ward off some with bare hands, avoid others by swift movements of head, limbs, or body, and probably wind up by catching the last two, one in either hand. Ceaseless practice alone enabled him to do so. Again, in single combat a young man was taught to keep his gaze fixed on the big toe of the advanced foot of his adversary. When that adversary was about to deliver a blow or point, the observer would see that toe a fraction of a second before action was taken clinch downwards to grip the earth.
"Feinting was one of the principal arts of the fighter. It was done even with weapons like the taiaha, pouwhenua, tewhatewha, and kakau-rea that have no sharp points. Always the aim was a lightning-page 158like reversal and a knock-out blow. The Maoris say that the European fighter is much too stolid and inactive, that he karos with his weapon instead of with his legs—that is, that avoidance of a blow or point is the best defence, not parrying."page break