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Sketches of Early Colonisation in New Zealand and its Phases of Contact with the Maori Race

A Strange Maori Wager

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A Strange Maori Wager.

It had been arranged amongst a number of my friends to make a fishing and shooting excursion down the Waitemata Harbour, where we anticipated some good sport at that season of the year.

One of our party being possessed of a safe and comfortable little pleasure yacht suitable for the purpose, our arrangements were quickly made and a day selected for the pleasurable event.

Early in the morning of the appointed day we all assembled at the Wynyard Pier, and from there we sailed, with a fair wind, making rapid progress for the place of rendezvous, where we arrived well within the time anticipated.

Having spent the greater part of a most delightful and enjoyable day, with more than usual successful sport, we decided upon returning, having secured full bags and baskets, the result of the day's sporting operations, each and all of us elated at the pleasure and success of our enjoyable outing.

It was whilst on our way homewards that one of our party proposed that we should call at the native settlement of Oraki, which lay convenient on our way back, where we could have a peep at the Maori people in their primative homes, and where also we could purchase some ketes (baskets) of peaches, the settlement having long been famed for the production of that most beautiful and luscious of fruits as well as many others too numerous to mention, which were to be had in abundance at this favoured locality.

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Having run our handy little yacht far up on the sandy beach just opposite the settlement, being favoured by the state of the tide, our party (myself included) moved on shore, and, entering the village we spread ourselves over it, whereupon we commenced to examine this and admire that, the strange or unusual sights and scenes of which would afford some of us ample food for after reflection; but, nevertheless, we met with the greatest courtesy and attention at the hands of all the natives of the settlement.

It was whilst in the course of these wanderings that we came across and were accosted by the chief of the settlement, Paul Tuharoa, or as he was better known amongst the Europeans as Paul of Oraki, a man of great ability and recognised influence amongst the Maori people, the high and distinguished chief of a once powerful and warlike tribe, but who, as such, are now greatly reduced in numbers owing to their country and villages having been the scene of many a sanguinary encounter with enemies during years long past by.

This intelligent chief vied with the rest of his people in showing attention to his visiting Pakeha friends, introducing the most prominent of the villagers by name, whilst pointing out this or explaining that, and altogether making our visit to his settlement an exceedingly pleasurable one to all of us.

Amongst the individuals so introduced was one whose name struck me as being peculiar; but knowing, as I did, that the natives often called or gave to a person a name from possessing some peculiarity in his or her speech, action, or other singularity, or as we whites would term it, a "nickname."

Upon enquiring of the chief the reason of this euphuism, which according to Maori phraseology was He Tangata kakai mo riwai, which, translated into English would mean "a glutton for potatoes."

The chief stated that—"He had acquired this name from his particular liking for riwais (potatoes); also, that he was the best judge and could eat the most of any man to be found throughout the village."

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In support of this strong assertion he appealed to several of the bystanding natives who, one and all, corroborated his statement by decaring—"That there was not one amongst them all who possessed a puku (stomach) that could contain so many potatoes as his."

There was no doubting the strong testimony of so many persons, nevertheless I was just about to make some further enquiries of the chief about this man, whereupon Paul suddenly turned full towards me, with a peculiarly amusing twinkle of the eyes and comical expression in his good humoured face, and there and then offered to—"Wager me a half sovereign that this man and 'his friend' would consume half a bushel of boiled potatoes in twenty minutes."

I expressed my astonisement and doubt of the fact in plain words, but incredulity must have been very apparent in my face, for several of the surrounding natives came forward to support their chief by offering to lay wagers of shillings and half crowns with me also.

I turned the matter over in my mind, rapidly arguing thus:—

Half a bushel of potatoes means twenty-five pounds' weight at least.

Now, that would be a fraction over twelve pounds to each contestant, and, allowing four to the pound, which might be considered as a fair average, that would leave forty-eight potatoes each of the parties in this singular contest would have to swallow before winning.

Divide this again and it will be found that it would require almost two-and-a-half potatoes per minute, or roughly one potato every twenty-three seconds, a feat I considered almost impossible for humanity, from the fact that each potato would require more or less mastication before being swallowed and the whole consumed.

Again, I reckoned it impossible for ordinary humanity to get the outside of twelve pounds' weight of potatoes, considering the size of the heap it would make, and that I was perfectly safe in taking up the wager as offered.

I could not help noticing, and remarking as well, the peculiarly amused appearance of the chief and his friends when I handed over to him the money for the wager.

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I informed Paul that the half-sovereign I had wagered with himself was the sole contents of my purse, whereupon he voluntarily offered to lend me another, so as to wager with others of his people, which I thankfully received and quickly expended in one shilling stakes amongst the chief's supporters.

The hero of this most extraodinary contest stood close by, an observant spectator of all that was taking place around him, and at the same time apparently the most amused of all present.

Be it understood that semi-savage though these people were, there are few aboriginals quicker to observe and appreciate a good joke than the Maori race.

It is an undeniable fact that a true born son of Erin would have to look sharp after his country's laurels were he to be placed side by side with the quick-witted and fun-loving Maori during peaceful times and in his happy forest home.

Meanwhile the chief lost no time in useless palaver, but gave his directions right and left how to proceed, like an old soldier.

One party was ordered to procure the potatoes, and to have them weighed in our presence, whilst another one, but more numerous, and composed principally of women, were directed to clean and scrape the potatoes, which they performed with great rapidity by means of pipi pawas (cockle shells).

The usual native earth ovens were omitted on this occasion, and the old but familiar three legged iron pot was substituted in lieu thereof, as the natives of this village, owing to their close proximity to white settlements, had procured and were constantly using many of the conveniences of civilized life, to the exclusion of some of their old native customs.

Whilst these preparations were taking place, the hero of the coming contest strutted around self-complacently, whilst now and then he would put in a word here or a nod of approval there, and with evident pleasure generally directing the operations.

He now came up to, and accosted me, by requesting as a favour if I would permit him to have a half-a-dozen or so kumeras (sweet potatoes) cooked in the hot embers of the fire, to form, as he stated, a relish to the repast.

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I readily assented to his wish, but was determined I should not be beaten by so liberal a proposition on his part that I offered to have their equivalent in weight taken from the potatoes boiling in the pots upon the fire.

To these exceedingly fair and reasonable terms he would not listen to for one minute, stating—

"That he felt perfectly statisfied his 'friend' and himself were quite equal to the contest, also, that he considered it would be most unfair, in the absence of his 'friend,' to sanction such a proposal as the robbing of him, his 'friend,' of so particularly good and enjoyable a feast."

The time was passing quickly and merrily amidst the jokes, fun, and chaff of the natives, the boiling pots were bubbling and fizzling, an indication that the time was rapidly approaching for the display of a very unusual and extraordinary gastronomic contest, and one that I felt perfectly satisfied in my own mind that no two human beings were ever born who could accomplish the extraordinary feat of swallowing twelve pounds' weight of boiled potatoes each in the given time.

The Chief Paul now approached with watch in hand, which evidently was the signal for nearly the whole village to assemble, the news having flown around like wild-fire, as young and old of both sexes came crowding in from every portion of. the settlement, whereupon they formed a convenient circle around the spot where the contest was to take place, then squatting themselves upon the ground, they remained silent but amused spectators of the proceedings.

Paul now directed that the boiling pots should be taken off the fire, and emptied of their contents upon two flax mats (instead of dishes) which had been prepared for that purpose, this having also a circular band or hoop of twisted supple-jack which was to keep the potatoes in proper heap form.

Here the chief beckoned to one of my companions whom he knew by sight to come forward, and, handing to him his own gold chronometer watch, "requested him, as a special favour, to act as timekeeper on the occasion, and, if so, he Paul would take it as a very great favour," which it is needless to say was most readily complied with.

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He also directed He Tangata kakai mo riwai to call his "friend," and both to take their places before the food there spead out.

The "Glutton" now advanced into the centre of the circle, where he commenced to divest himself of his European garments, which were composed of shirt, trousers, and hat, afterwards wrapping himself in a blanket in lieu thereof, and which, no doubt, he found more accommodating to an extension of his waist than the more closely fitting and less expanding trouser band, after which he passed out and beyond the circle of surrounding natives for a distance of about a hundred and fifty yards, but well within view of all, whereupon placing his hands to his mouth he gave utterance to the well known Maori pig call of "Poi, poi, poi! Porka, porka, porka!" which, in a very few minutes, was answered by the familiar grunt of that well known animal as it made its appearance in response to the call, and which was now to be seen following its master back and within the circle.

In an instant the plot was as clear to me as daylight, and I could not resist the impulse of slapping my thigh with the palm of my hand, whilst at the same time giving expression to my thoughts in the exclamation of—" Sold, by thunder!"

Although the words were understood by a few only, and they the more intelligent of the assembled natives, the action was interpreted correctly by all, and received with loud and prolonguod laughter.

The "Glutton," after picking out of the heap of potatoes several of the nicest looking, commenced to gather together the kumeras from amongst the embers, after which he sat down to enjoy his feast.

His "friend," a most ravenous-looking animal, tall-legged, long-bodied, and gaunt in the extreme, the very personification of one who could not alone swallow half but a whole bushel of the prolific and useful esculent, and feel nothing the worse for it afterwards.

Rapidly did his "friend" reduce the heap of edibles, as one, two, and sometimes three disappeared down his voracious throat in quick succession, his little eyes page 139twinkling brightly the while with evident delight, whilst now and then he would give utterance to a self-satisfied grunt.

Both friends and myself now tried to get away as quickly as possible to save ridicule, it being quite evident that an easy victory would be the result; but the natives surrounding us were as determined that we should remain until the finish, which took place at least five minutes within the time stipulated.

At its completion the natives rose en mass, and commenced to chaff us most unmercifully, but fortunately, I being the only one of our party who fully understood their satire, that fact robbed it in a great measure of its sting.

At last they permitted us to depart, amidst the jeers and mocking laughter of all the Maoris present, and we could still hear their merriment over our discomfiture for some little distance after we had sailed away from the settlement.

The Maoris were not the only ones who enjoyed the joke at our expense, for we had to run the gautlet of the chaff of our friends at home, who kept up the fun, and who had many a hearty laugh afterwards over our discomfiture—my own in particular.

In justice to Chief Paul, I must acknowledge that upon offering to him, some time after, the money I had borrowed to make the extra wagers, he refused to receive it, explaining that—

"All the fun both his people and himself had enjoyed at our expense on that occasion was cheap at the amount; also, that he hoped sincerely that no offence was taken, as none was meant, it being only intended as a—Maori