The New Zealand Reader
Some of the forms of the tapu were not to be played with, and were of a most virulent kind. Such was the tapu of those who handled the dead, or conveyed the body to its last resting-place. This tapu was like the uncleanness of the old Mosaic law. It lasted about the same time, and was removed in almost the same way. It was a most serious affair. The person who came under this form of the tapu was cut off from all contact, and almost all communication, with the human race. He could not enter any house, or come in contact with any person or thing, without utterly bewitching them. He could not even touch food with his hands, which had become so frightfully tapu or unclean as to be quite useless. Food would be placed for him on the ground, and be would then sit or kneel down, and, with his hands carefully held behind his back, would gnaw it in the best way he could. In some cases he would be fed by another person, who, with outstretched arm, would manage to do it without touching the tapu'd individual; but this feeder was subjected to many and severe restrictions, not much less onerous than those to which the other was subject.
In almost every populous Native village there was a person who, probably for the sake of immunity from labour, or through being good for nothing else, took up the undertaking business as a regular profession, and in consequence, for years together, was never for a moment clear of the page 91horrid inconvenience of the tapu, as well as its dangers. One of these people might easily be recognised, after a little experience, even by a pakeha. Old, withered, haggard, clothed in the most miserable rags, daubed all over from head to foot with stinking shark-oil and red ochre, silent and solitary, often half insane, he might be seen sitting motionless all day at a distance of forty or fifty yards from the common path or thoroughfare of the village. There, under the lee of a bush or tuft of flax, he would gaze with lack-lustre eye on the busy doings of the Maori world, of which he was hardly to be called a member. Twice a day some food would be thrown on the ground before him, to gnaw as best he could without the use of hands; and at night, tightening his greasy rags around him, he would crawl into some miserable lair of leaves and rubbish to sleep.
What will my kind reader say when I tell him that I myself once got tapu'd with this same horrible style of tapu? There is not one man in New Zealand but myself who has a clear understanding of what is meant by the word "excommunication," and I did not understand it myself till I got tapu'd.
I was returning with about sixty men from a journey along the West Coast. I was a short distance in advance of the party when I came to where the side of a hill had fallen down on to the beach; and exposed a number of human bones. There was a large skull rolling about in the water. I took up this skull without consideration, carried it to the side of the hill, scraped a hole, and covered it up. Just as I had finished burying ib, up came my friends, and I saw at once, by the astonishment and dismay depicted on their countenances, that I had committed some most unfortunate act. They soon let me know that the hill had been a burying-place of their tribe, and jumped at once bo the conclusion that the skull was the skull of one of their most famous chiefs, whose name they told me. They informed me, also, that I was no longer fit company for human beings, and begged me to fall to the rear, and keep my distance. They told me all this from a very respectful distance, and if I made a step towards them they all ran as if I had been infected by the plague. This was an awkward state of things, but, as it could not be helped, I kept clear of my friends for the rest of the day.page 92
At night, when they camped, I was obliged bo make my solitary abode at a distance, under shelter of a rock. When the evening meal was cooked they brought me a fair allowance, and set it down at a respectful distance from where I sat, fully expecting, I suppose, that I should bob at it as Maori kai tango atua,* or undertakers, are wont to do. I had, however, no idea of any such proceeding; and, pulling out ray knife, began to operate in the usual manner. I was checked by an exclamation of horror and surprise from the whole band. "Oh, what are you about? You are not going to touch food with your hands?" "Indeed, but I am," said I, and stretched out my hand. Here another scream: "You must not do that, it's the worst of all things; one of us will feed you; it's wrong, wrong, very wrong!" "Oh, bother," said I, and fell to at once.
I had no sooner done so than I felt sorry. The expression of horror, contempt, and pity observable in their faces convinced me that I had not only offended and hurt their feelings, but that I had lowered myself greatly in their estimation. Certainly I was a pakeha, and pakehas will do most unaccountable things, and may be in ordinary cases excused. But this I saw at once was an act which seemed to roy friends the ne plus ultra of abomination. I now can well understand how, sitting there eating my potatoes, I mast have appeared to them a ghoul, a vampire—worse than even one of their own dreadful atua,† who, at the command of a witch, or to avenge some breach of the tapu, enters into a man's body, and slowly eats away his vitals. I can see it now, and understand what a frightful object I must have appeared.
* [The words appear to mean one that handles an object of dread.]
The instinct of a hungry man sent me into the kitchen; there was nothing eatable to be seen but a raw leg of pork, and the fire was out. I now began to suspect that this attempt of mine to look down upon the tapu would fail, and that I should remain excommunicated for some frightfully indefinite period. I began to think of Robinson Crusoe, and to wonder if I could hold out as well as he did. Then I looked at the leg of pork. The idea that I must cook for myself brought home to me the fact more forcibly than anything else how I had fallen from my high estate—cooking being the very last thing a rangatira can turn his hand to.
But why should I have anything more to do with cooking? Was I not east off and repudiated by the human race? A horrible misanthropy was fast taking hold of me. Why should I not tear my leg of pork raw like a wolf? "I will run amuck,"* said I. "I wonder how many I can kill before they bag me? I will kill, kill, kill! but—I must have some supper."
I soon made a fire, and after a little rummaging found the matériel for a good meal. My cooking was not so bad either, I thought; but certainly hunger is not hard to please in this respect, and I had eaten nothing since the diabolical meal of the preceding eveniug, and had travelled more than twenty miles. I washed my hands six or seven times, scrubbing away and muttering, with an intonation that would have been a fortune to a tragic actor,—
Out, damned spot!
* [Malay word, amok—insanely wild and murderous.]
Four days passed somehow or another, and on the morning of the fifth, to my extreme delight, I saw a small canoe, pulled by one man, landing on the beach before the house. He fastened his canoe and advanced towards the kitchen, which was detached from the house, and which, in the late deplorable state of affairs, had become my regular residence, I sat in the doorway, and soon perceived that my visitor was a famous tohunga, or priest, who also had the reputation of being a wizard of no ordinary dimensions. He was an old, grave, stolid-looking savage, with one eye—the other had been knocked out long ago in a fight before he turned priest. On he came, with a slow, measured step, slightly gesticulating with one hand, and holding in the other a very small basket, not more than nine or ten inches long. He came on, mumbling and grumbling a perfectly unintelligible karakia, or incantation.
I guessed at once he was corning to disenchant me, and prepared my mind to submit to any conditions or ceremonial he should think fit to impose. My old friend came gravely up, and putting his hand into the little basket pulled out a baked kumara, saying, "He kai mau."*
I of course accepted the offered food, and took a bite; and as I ate he mumbled his incantation over me. I remember I felt a curious sensation at the time, like what I fancied a man must feel who had just sold himself, body and bones, to the devil.
* [Some food for you.]
"Blacken his remaining eye! knock him over and run the country!" whispered quite plainly in my ear my guardian angel, or else a little impulsive sprite who often made suggestions to me in those days. For a couple of seconds the sorcerer's eye was in desperate danger, but just in those moments the ceremony, or at least this most objectionable part of it, came to an end.
He stood back and said, "Have you been in the house?" I said "No." "Throw out all those pots and kettles!" I saw it was no use to resist, so out they went. "Fling out those dishes!" was the next command. "The dishes?—they will break." "I am going to break them all." Capital fun this—out go the dishes. "Fling out those knives, and those things with sharp points"—the old villain did not know what to call the forks—"and those shella with handles to them"—(spoons)—"out with everything!" The last sweeping order is obeyed, and the kitchen is fairly empty. "The worst is over now at last, thank goodness," said I to myself. "Strip off all your clothes!" "What! strip naked, you desperate old thief? Mind your eye!" Human patience could endure no more. Out I jumped. I did strip. Off came my jacket. "How would you prefer being killed, old ruffian? Can you do anything in this way?" (here a pugilistic demonstration.) "Strip! he doesn't mean to give me five dozen, does he?" said I, rather bewildered, and looking sharp to see if he had anything like an instrument of flagellation in his possession. "Come on! what are you waiting for?" said I.
In those days, when labouring under what Dickens calls the "description of temporary insanity which arises from a sense of injury," I always involuntarily fell back upon my mother tongue; and in this case it was perhaps fortunate that my necromantic old friend did not understand the full force of my eloquence. He could not, however, mistake my warlike and rebellious attitude, and could see clearly that I was going into one of those most unaccountable rages that pakehas were liable to fly into without any imaginable cause.
"Boy," said he, gravely and quietly, and without seeming to notice my very noticeable declaration of war and in-page 96dependence, "don't act foolishly; don't go mad. No one will ever come near you while you have those clothes. You will be miserable here by yourself. And what is the use of being angry? What will anger do for you?"
The perfect eoolness of my old friend, the complete disregard he paid to my explosion of wrath, as well as his reasoning, began to make me feel that, looking at the affair from his point of view, I was just possibly not making a very respectable figure; and then, if I understood him rightly, there would be no flogging.
"Well," said I, at last, "fate compels; to fate, and not to old Hurlothrumbo there, I yield—so here goes."
Let me not dwell upon the humiliating concession to the powers of tapu. Suffice it to say, I disrobed, and received permission to enter my own house in search of other garments. When I came out again my old friend was sitting down with a stone in his hand, battering the last pot to pieces, and looking as if he was performing a very meritorious action. He carried away all the smashed kitchen utensils and my clothes in baskets, and deposited them in a thicket at a considerable distance from the house. (I stole the knives, forks, and spoons back agaiu some time after, as he had not broken them.)
He then bade me good-bye, and the same evening all my household came flocking back; but years passed away before any one but myself would go into the kitchen, and I had to build another.
And for several years also I could observe, by the respectful distance kept by young Natives and servants, and the nervous manner in which they avoided my pipe in particular, that they considered I had not been as completely purified from the tapu tango atua* as I might have been. 1 now am aware that, in consideration of my being a pakeha, and also, perhaps, lest, driven to desperation, I should run away entirely, which would have been looked upon as a great misfortune to the tribe, I had been let off very easy, and might therefore be supposed to retain some tinge of the dreadful infection.("Old New Zealand").
* [Tapu arising from the handling of an object of dread.]