Old New Zealand: Being Incidents of Native Customs and Character in the Old Times


Show Summary

There were in the old times two great institutions, which ruled with iron rod in Maori land—the tapu and the muru. Pakehas [white men] who knew no better called the muru simply "robbery," because the word muru, in its common signification, means to plunder. But I speak of the regular legalized and established system of plundering, as penalty for offenses; which in a rough way resembled our law by which a man is obliged to pay "damages." Great abuses had, however, crept into this system—so great, indeed, as to render the retention of any sort of movable property almost an impossibility, and in a great measure, too, discourage the inclination to labor for its acquisition. These great inconveniences were, however, met, or in some degree softened, by an expedient of a peculiarly Maori nature, which I shall by-and-by explain.

The offenses for which people were plundered were sometimes of a nature which, to a mere pakeha, would seem curious. A man’s child fell in the fire and was almost burnt to death. The father was immediately plundered to an extent that almost left him without the means of subsistence: fishing nets, canoes, pigs, provisions—all went; his canoe upset, and he and all his family narrowly escaped drowning—some were, perhaps, drowned. He was immediately robbed, and well pummeled with a club into the bargain, if he was not good at the science of self-defense— the club part of the ceremony being always fairly administered one against one, and after fair warning given to defend himself. He might be clearing some land for potatoes, burning off the fern, and the fire spreads further than he intended and gets into a wahi tapu or burying ground. No matter whether anyone has been buried in it for the last hundred years, he is tremendously robbed. In fact, for ten thousand different causes a man might be robbed; and I can really imagine a case in which a man for scratching his own head might be legally robbed.

Now as the enforcers of this law were also the parties who received the damages, as well as the judges of the amount—which in many cases (such as that of the burnt child) would be everything they could by any means lay hands on—it is easy to perceive that under such a system, personal property was an evanescent sort of thing altogether. These executions or distraints were never resisted. Indeed in many cases (as I shall explain by-and-by), it would have been felt as a slight, and even an insult, not to be robbed; the sacking of a man’s establishment being often taken as a high compliment, especially if his head was broken into the bargain: and to resist the execution would not only have been looked upon as mean and disgraceful in the highest degree, but it would have debarred the comtemptible individual from the privilege of robbing his neighbors; which was the compensating expedient I have alluded to. All this may seem a waste of words to my pakeha Maori readers, to whom these things have become such matters of course as to be no longer remarkable; but I have remembered that there are so many new people in the country who don’t understand the beauty of being knocked down and robbed, that I shall say a few more words on the subject.

The tract of country inhabited by a single tribe might be, say, from forty to a hundred miles square, and the different villages of the different sections of the tribe would be scattered over this area at different distances from each other. We will by way of illustrating the working of the muru system, take the case of the burnt child. Soon after the accident it would be heard of in the neighboring villages; the family of the mother are probably the inhabitants of one of them, and have, according to the law of muru, the first and greatest right to clean out the afflicted father; a child being considered to belong to the family of the mother more than to that of the father—in fact, it is their child, which the father has the rearing of. The child was, moreover, a promising lump of a boy, the makings of a future warrior, and consequently very valuable to the whole tribe in general; but to the mother’s family in particular. "A pretty thing to let him get spoiled." Then he is a boy of good family, a rangatira by birth, and it would never do to let the thing pass without making a noise about it: that would be an insult to the dignity of the families of both father and mother. Decidedly, besides being robbed, the father must be assaulted with a spear. True, he is a famous spears-man, and for his own credit must "hurt" someone or another if attacked. But this is of no consequence: a flesh wound more or less deep is to be counted on; and then think of the plunder! It is against the law of mum that anyone should be killed, and first blood ends the duel. Then the natural affection of all the child’s relations is great. They are all in a great state of excitement, and trying to remember how many canoes, and pigs, and other valuable articles, the father has got: for this must be a clean sweep.

A strong party is now mustered, headed probably by the brother of the mother of the child. He is a stout chap, and carries a long tough spear. A messenger is sent to the father, to say that the taua muru is coming, and may be expected tomorrow, or the next day. He asks, "Is it a great taua [party]?" "Yes; it is a very great taua indeed." The victim smiles, he feels highly complimented; he is then a man of consequence. His child is also of great consideration; he is thought worthy of a large force being sent to rob him! Now he sets all in motion to prepare a huge feast for the friendly robbers, his relations. He may as well be liberal, for his provisions are sure to go, whether or no. Pigs are killed and baked whole, potatoes are piled up in great heaps, all is made ready; he looks out his best spear, and keeps it always ready in his hand. At last the taua appears on a hill half a mile off; then the whole fighting men of the section of the tribe of which he is an important member, collect at his back, all armed with spear and club, to show that they could resist, if they would: a thing, however, not to be thought of under the circumstances.

On comes the taua. The mother begins to cry in proper form; the tribe shout the call of welcome to the approaching robbers; and then with a grand rush, all armed, and looking as if they intended to exterminate all before them, the kai muru appear on the scene. They dance the war dance, which the villagers answer with another. Then the chief’s brother-in-law advances, spear in hand, with the most alarming gestures. "Stand up! Stand up! I will kill you this day." is his cry. The defendant is not slow to answer the challenge. A most exciting, and what to a new pakeha would appear a most desperately dangerous, fencing bout with spears, instantly commences. The attack and defense are in the highest degree scientific; the spear shafts keep up a continuous rattle; the thrust, and parry, and stroke with the spear shaft follow each other with almost incredible rapidity, and are too rapid to be followed by an unpracticed eye. At last the brother-in-law is slightly touched; blood also drops from our chief’s thigh. The fight instantly ceases; leaning on their spears, probably a little badinage takes place between them, and then the brother-in-law roars out, "Murua! Murua! Murua!" Then the new arrivals commence a regular sack, and the two principals sit down quietly with a few others for a friendly chat, in which the child’s name is never mentioned, or the inquiry as to whether he is dead or alive even made.

The case I have just described would, however, be one of more than ordinary importance; slighter "accidents and offenses" would be atoned for by a milder form of operation. But the general effect was to keep personal property circulating from hand to hand pretty briskly, or indeed to convert it into public property; for no man could say who would be the owner of his canoe, or blanket, in a month’s time. Indeed, in that space of time, I once saw a nice coat, which a native had got from the captain of a trading schooner, and which was an article much coveted in those days, pass through the hands, and over the backs, of six different owners, and return, considerably the worse from wear, to the original purchaser; and all these transfers had been made by legal process of muru. I have been often myself paid the compliment of being robbed for little accidents occurring in my family, and have several times also, from a feeling of politeness, robbed my Maori friends; though I can’t say I was a great gainer by these transactions.

I think the greatest haul I ever made was about half a bag of shot, which I thought a famous joke, seeing that I had sold it the day before to the owner for full value. A month after this I was disturbed early in the morning, by a voice shouting "Get up! Get up! I will kill you this day. You have roasted my grandfather. Get up! Stand up!" I, of course, guessed that I had committed some heinous though involuntary offense, and the "stand up" hinted the immediate probable consequences; so out I turned, spear in hand, and who should I see, armed with a bayonet on the end of a long pole, but my friend the late owner of the bag of shot. He came at me with pretended fury; made some smart bangs and thrusts, which I parried, and then explained to me that I had "cooked his grandfather;" and that if I did not come down handsome in the way of damages, deeply as he might regret the necessity, his own credit, and the law of muru, compelled him either to sack my house, or die in the attempt. I was glad enough to prevent either event, by paying him two whole bags of shot, two blankets, divers fishhooks, and certain figs of tobacco, which he demanded. I found that I had really and truly committed a most horrid crime. I had on a journey made my fire at the foot of a tree, in the top of which the bones of my friend’s grandfather had once been deposited, but from which they had been removed ten years before. The tree caught fire and had burnt down: and I, therefore, by a convenient sort of figure of speech, had "roasted his grandfather," and had to pay the penalty accordingly.

It did not require much financial ability on my part, after a few experiences of this nature, to perceive that I had better avail myself of my privileges as a pakeha, and have nothing further to do with the law of muru—a determination I have kept to strictly. If ever I have unwittingly injured any of my neighbors, I have always made what I considered just compensation, and resisted the muru altogether: and I will say this for my friends, that when any of them have done an accidental piece of mischief, they have, in most cases without being asked, offered to pay for it.1

1 [Maning, F.E.n/an/an/an/a,] , by a pakeha Maori, 83–89 (Smith, Elder and Co. By permission).


Related Resources

None available for this document.

Download Options

Title: Old New Zealand: Being Incidents of Native Customs and Character in the Old Times

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: Old New Zealand: Being Incidents of Native Customs and Character in the Old Times

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: "Old New Zealand: Being Incidents of Native Customs and Character in the Old Times," Old New Zealand: Being Incidents of Native Customs and Character in the Old Times in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas, William I. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), Original Sources, accessed December 6, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8U2MK7UYW4VRTCA.

MLA: . "Old New Zealand: Being Incidents of Native Customs and Character in the Old Times." Old New Zealand: Being Incidents of Native Customs and Character in the Old Times, in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, edited by Thomas, William I., New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937, Original Sources. 6 Dec. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8U2MK7UYW4VRTCA.

Harvard: , 'Old New Zealand: Being Incidents of Native Customs and Character in the Old Times' in Old New Zealand: Being Incidents of Native Customs and Character in the Old Times. cited in 1937, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. , McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 6 December 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8U2MK7UYW4VRTCA.