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A year among the Maoris: study of their arts and customs


page 7


When, by force of circumstances, Great Britain was induced to add New Zealand to the Imperial territories, the settlers in the young colony accepted the guardianship of a race which had attained to the highest degree of culture among the inhabitants of the islands of the Pacific. Here was a branch of the human family which had lived in complete isolation for six hundred years or more, but they were not mere savages who had forgotten their origin. They knew that their ancestors had made their way down through a series of island homes from a land the identity of which can only be conjectured. They carried with them traditions and arts which seem to indicate that far back in the dawn of history they were part of a nation whose other branches founded the civilisations of the West. Cut off from continental influences by reason of their eastward and southward migration, the Maoris retained a strict conservatism, and we may be sure that when Europeans first came into touch with them their manner of living and their mentality had changed but little throughout very many centuries. In making a study of the Maori arts and customs which are still free from European influences, therefore, we gain an insight into the life of one of the dominant races of prehistoric times.

It is true that the Maoris were cannibals. It is true that war was their chief occupation and recreation, but they retained a measure of culture which has never been equalled by any primitive dark race of the world. Their mythology regarding the creation of the world, light, darkness, heaven, and the manifestations of Nature is comparable with that of any of the civilised nations. Their aristocracy could trace their page 8lineage through twenty-five generations to the time of the great migration. Their method of education for the chiefs and priests was a complex one, and for the rank and file admirably fitted to the stern necessities of life. Their laws of Tapu, Utu, and Muru were responsible for a high moral MarYear on the part of the ruling class and strict discipline amongst the community. Poetry was interwoven with every branch of their daily life, and oratory was an accomplishment practised and loved by all.

When the natives came into contact with European civilisation they were quick to see its advantages. They began well as agriculturists, whalers, and traders. They built themselves churches and embraced Christianity with fervour, and they were glad to avail themselves of the educative influence of the missionaries. Their leaders immediately proved themselves the intellectual equals of the European people, and it is for this reason and because the cult of nobility had been developed to a high art that there has never been what is known as the "colour question" in New Zealand. Intermarriage took place freely in the early days of settlement, and the half-caste race is an excellent one. Strange to say, the people of mixed blood are prouder of their Maori lineage than their European.

By the Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840, the British guaranteed "to the chiefs and tribes of New Zealand, and to their respective families, and individuals thereof, the full, exclusive, and undisputed possession of their lands and estates, forests, fisheries, and other properties which they may collectively or individually possess, as long as it is their wish and desire to retain the same in their possession." Although this treaty was honoured, and has been honoured up to the present day, misunderstandings page 9arose over the sale and occupation of land. Wars followed, but in the end the two races settled down to live amicably together, and no subjects of the British sovereign have proved themselves more loyal and more jealous of the honour of their Empire.

Internecine wars and massacres in the early decades of last century, when firearms were substituted for stone weapons, accounted for a substantial decrease in the Maori population. Then followed the period when the diseases of modern civilisation, without the protective measures and immunity of that civilisation, took their toll; so that by 1896 the number of pureblooded natives had fallen to 39,854. At the beginning of this century it was the custom to speak of the Maoris as a dying race, but since the census of 1896 the numbers have been steadily increasing, the population in 1923 being estimated at 53,364. During the past twenty-five years particular attention has been paid by the Government to the health of the race, and a school of educated and progressive young men have tried to inspire their fellow-tribesmen with higher ideals of life and hygiene. These, and the fact that immunity from such diseases as tuberculosis develops in the course of years, may account for the numerical increase, but the problem of the future of the race has still to be solved.

Communal ownership of land has been one of the factors which has deterred the Maoris from making a full scientific use of the soil. The majority have been content to lease certain areas to Europeans and live upon the rents. For some reason the original enthusiasm displayed in adopting the industrial life of the Europeans was never renewed after the wars, except by a few of the tribes. The majority of the native race have been content to remain isolated in page 10their own villages. Deprived of the necessity for effort, without the watchfulness and preparation which the old tribal wars entailed, they have drifted into idle ways. Nevertheless, there is hope. Where natives hold land of their own, they have proved their industry and enterprise, have become prosperous, and in some cases rich, and are living the ordinary life of successful farmers. Certain tribes of the east coast, although holding their acres communally, have proved themselves equal to the occasion, and are farming their lands scientifically and profitably with the aid of competent European managers. In this direction, therefore, the future of the race seems to lie.

It has not been my purpose in this volume, however, to describe the life of the average Maori of to-day, nor to suggest what the future of the race may be. My investigations have not been amongst that section of the people who have almost entirely adopted the European manner of work and living. The fact that the majority of the North Island tribes have retained a comparative isolation has meant that a great many of the old customs and some of the ancient arts are not altogether lost, and it has been my object to investigate these before it is too late. The studies and experiences of which this work is a record have been acquired during a period of field work and sketching carried out on behalf of certain museums. It was my second voyage amongst the Polynesian Islands, and the knowledge gained in the first voyage was the basis for the research work in New Zealand.

To transpose the result of observations made with the purpose of a pictorial representation to that of a written one is not altogether a congenial task for an artist. Should the representation be historical or ethnographical, however, it is necessary to master the subject before attempting to depict it in line and page 11colour. Hence a great deal of research work was necessary before I was justified in preparing a series of sketches and paintings intended to be typical of the occupations, ceremonies, arts, and habitations of the natives of New Zealand. In this volume I attempt to record the incidents of my field work amongst this interesting people.

It was my good fortune to be most ably assisted in my work by New Zealand scholars who have spent a lifetime in studying the Maori race. Among these was the late S. Percy Smith (President of the Polynesian Society), the late T. F. Cheeseman (Curator of the Auckland Museum), Mr. J. McDonald (of the Dominion Museum in Wellington), and, above all, Mr. Elsdon Best, a most noted authority on Maori lore, whose interest in my work and able assistance were ever most generous. For the interest and cooperation of the Maori chiefs I also wish to express my appreciation and acknowledgments.

Finally, I am indebted to Mr. T. J. Pemberton (a New Zealand journalist in London), who has moulded my sentences into more seemly shape and prepared my manuscript for the press, and to Sir Wyndham Dunstan for his kindness in contributing a Foreword.


October, 1924.
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