A Legend of Kawhia Harbour
TRANSLATED FROM THE MAORI BY ARTHUR DESMOND
ZEALANDIA, MArch 1, 1890.
The highway through the King Country to Kawhia. A long, sultry summer’s day slowly drawing to a close. Black shadows of the gigantic trees lengthening across the road, and the hoarse, piercing cry of the weka (a sure sign of approaching darkness) rising from the bush-clad gullies that stretch away below; the road winding in and out around the spurs and off-shoots of Mount Pirongia, carved for many miles out of the hillside, through a dense and tangled forest. My horse was very tired, having come a long journey that day and the day before; and reaching a spot where the cocksfoot and clover grew in wild luxuriance by the roadside (evidently a good place to camp), I determined to halt till daybreak next morning.
Just as I had tethered my horse and made myself comfortable in a bunch of fern by the edge and in shelter of the bush, a party of ten Ngatimaniapotos rode up. After mutual salutations of the “who? —where?? —when?” style, so characteristic of the Maoris, they unanimously resolved, as our destination was the same, to camp with the pakeha. A heap of dry firewood was soon gathered and piled against the trunk of a fallen rata, and the blaze of a big fire soon shot up on the sheltered side of the road. They had tea, sugar, a billy, and some potatoes, whilst I possessed a saddle-bag full of biscuits. We “nationalised” the whole lot, and we partook of rough plenty to our hearts’ content. After tea we all sat down in front of the fire, and one of the Maoris—a very old, wrinkled man—began talking of the “good old times” before the pakeha became a power in the land. For the first half of the night he kept me wholly fascinated by his wild and wonderful tales of lust and murder—cannibalism and war: by accounts of battle-banquets that made my blood run cold with horror, and by side-splitting farcical anecdotes in connection with the advent of the pakehas. He was a born story-teller, and if he had had the gift of putting his words in writing, our Rider Haggards and Jules Vernes would have to look to their laurels.
After he had ceased talking, and the others were snoring contentedly, I lay awake thinking of what he had told us. Dark clouds from the westward began to scud across the sky, and a wind-storm moaned overhead among the tree-limbs. Sometimes it rose into a succession of rattling volleys like unto a battle-cannonade, as if some aerial general were marshalling his hosts of war, “so wildly throbbed the tempest s drums, so loud its bugles blew.” To use the old Maori’s comparison, it seemed as if the spirits of the dead were holding a war-dance in the sky. There we lay with our feet at the fire, wrapped in rugs, gazing upwards at the swaying branches, and at the watery clouds careering along as if driven by the pulsing throb of some titanic bellows. All night long this atmospheric battle of the giants thundered aloft, yet its dull reverberations among the hills and gullies only acted as a lullaby. With the earth for a bed, and fern for a pillow, I slept as soundly as if I had lain within palace walls on a curtained couch of down.
Next morning, by the light of the early sunrays, I noted down from memory some of the old man’s reminiscences and traditions. One account of a decisive battle, fought by the shores of Kawhia, was so graphically told, that I determined to render it into English at the first opportunity. It calls to memory Caesar’s landing in England, when his iron legionaries trampled through the surf and over the bodies of our own painted ancestors; but it had a different ending. I have done my very best to translate the rugged force and terrific imagery by which it was rehearsed to me, yet am conscious of the tameness of the translation whenever I call to memory the voice of the old Maori by the camp fire on the roadside.
For a man of any European nationality to idiomatically translate one of the European languages into another is a feat that few have successfully accomplished, yet it is a mere nothing when compared with the difficulty of rendering into a European tongue the enigmatic thoughts and fierce, untamed feelings of a people whose language is so different in construction, and whose style of thinking is so fundamentally anti-European. In the Maori language, handed down mostly by oral tradition, are numerous striking, rhymeless poems—terrible tales of war, love, and murder—wild, romantic stories, like those that charmed and delighted our own barbaric forefathers of the long, long ago. If I have succeeded in rendering one of these traditionary tales interesting to the readers of ZEALANDIA, I shall consider myself handsomely repaid.
The two tribes who engaged in this battle are better known as the Ngatitoas and the Waikatos.
Brightly shine the slanting sunrays, over Kawhia’s flashing waters.
Canoes of war come stately sweeping, around the cliff where hangs the rata—
Sons of warriors from the Southward, coming here to give us battle,
Coming here to eat our bodies, seize our lands, and seize our women.
A paddling-song the rowers chant in stately cadence rolling,
And in the prows upstanding, chiefs to noble deeds inspiring.
The war party of the “rolling waters” watched from the sandy beach, and this is the song they sang as the canoes of their foemen advanced on the tide:—
Float over the waters of Kawhia, O ye canoes of war.
Sing your chant of battle, O chiefs and warriors from the South.
Bend forward, O sons of the brave, and grasp your polished paddles.
Soon shall ye taste the bitterness of death—soon shall the geeenstone crash
through the bone of your skulls.
Soon shall your livers be food for little children.
Soon shall the spear-head twist your entrails asunder.
Soon shall your hearts hiss and splutter on the flames of the fire.
Float on, O great war-canoes—float on, 0 ye sons of the brave—
Float on—float on—to death.
Slowly still advance the canoe of the “sons of valour.” Their chiefs pour forth invocations to their god of war, and with fiery words urge their warriors to work works of endless fame. They also sang a song of defiance, and these are the words of that song that sounded across the water:—
We will meet you and eat you in the swirl of the tide,
And our great god of battle will fight by our side.
Ha! Ha! how you dance, shrieking wild as you tread,
How lordly you glance going down to the dead:
Going down to the dead, going down to the dead.
How lordly you glance going down to the dead.
We will meet you and eat you where the shore joins the tide,
And our great god of battle will fight by our side.
Ha! Ha!—the canoes swerve off to the left, propelled through the shining water by the dripping blades of a thousand paddles. Strong are the “sons of valour”—brave are the warriors of Taranaki. The sweat-drops pour off their bending brows, and their muscles stand out like the hardened knots on a kauri tree. The blades leap in and out like lightning-flashes in the gloom—they gleam in the glowing eye of the rising sun. In curving line of battle the canoes sweep into “the cove of sea-shells.” Their keels crunch the white shells of the shore. The “sons of valour” leap into the shallow water, and shout a great shout. It reverberates among the hills, and challenges the very rocks. The hands that grasped the paddle now grasp the spear. Grimly stand the “sons of valour” to meet the charge of the “rolling waters.” The soft breeze dries the sweat-drops on their red painted faces. With his back to the root of a mighty tree, the wild boar grinds his tusks in defiance—so, red and masterful, stood the “sons of valour.”
Then up came the sons of “the rolling water” and form in rank, chanting their ancient song of battle. The red cliffs rock and tremble with the might of their tramping. They brandish their weapons and shout their battle cry; they dash forward to meet their
enemies. In fluid swirl the murmuring waves wash around their feet. As the hound at his master’s signal leaps upon the hunted boar, so fiercely dashed the furious sons of the “rolling water.” Spears cross each other with a terrible rattle, and bring death to many a proud warrior. Fierce shouts of hatred—wild yells of triumph— deep groans of anguish. Warrior looks into the eye of warrior across the rattling of the spears. Fire-flashes leap from blood-shot eye-balls. Ha! ha! the grim parry—the opportune stroke. Battle-axes rise and fall; they crunch through the skulls of men, and he who quailed for a moment became food for a spear. Some fell in the waves, and the salt waters gurgled across their
faces or floated them among the legs of the combatants. Marvellous were the mighty deeds performed that day. They gave each other great and ghastly wounds, and blood ran down in a flood. Kangitoto, the man-eater, slew Kahanui, the famous chief of the “sons of valour.” With wonderful strength he drove his spear through Kahanui’s temple. When Kahanui fell his warriors were disheartened. Rangitoto placed his foot on the neck of his fallen enemy, but as he bent to pull out the spear, a younger brother of Kahanui killed him with a great blow on the back of the neck. His head fell to the ground before his body, and the veins of his neck spurted forth blood. Terrible were the blows given, and every man had great and ghastly wounds.
The contest raged until the going down of the sun. The wizards of the “rolling waters” chanted a powerful spell to the god of the thundering winds, and he sent a whirling storm. It tore up the loose sand, and blew it into the eyes and mouths and nostrils of the “sons of valour.” Fear possessed their hearts, for their chief was slain, and the sand-storm was a powerful warrior. Strength departed from their arms, and victory belonged to the “rolling waters.” Then the prisoners of war were bound with vine-bands and dragged above high water mark. The dead bodies were as numerous as the sea shells that strewed the shore, and the great gashes in their flesh were washed by the salt water of the sea. The tide rose higher and higher, until it covered the place of battle in a deep dark flood. Red was the water with the blood of the slain, and crimson was its spray and foam as the berries of the kareao.
Night came down, dusk and angry. The sea roared as if in rage, and the wind storm wildly blew. The moon rose above Pirongia, and the clouds began to gather in the sky. Fires of drift-wood built by the shore, glared into the gloom of the night. The limbs of the slain were broiled upon the hot embers, and the aroma thereof was sweet as young pork, and its taste was grateful to all those who were weary, and wounded, and sore. Before the biggest fire, around the most eloquent priest, gathered the young men. He rehearsed to them the great deeds of gods and heroes, and composed a song of victory. Then all joined in the song and dance of triumph, and the voices in chorus 1 sounded louder than the ocean rollers that boomed and churned on the harbour bar. The sea listened to the music of their voices, and the ragged cliffs of Puewe shouted back this their victorious song.
Fallen, fallen is your might, O “sons of valour;”
Departed for ever is your strength and glory.
Who shall till our hearts with trembling now?
Whose god is omnipotent—our god or yours?
Lift up, lift up the fame of the “rolling waters;”
Lift it up on high, let it thunder in the sky.
Mighty was your fame, O ye “sons of valour,”
But mightier still are the young men of the “rolling water.”
Then the head chief of the “rolling waters” spoke unto his people, and these are his words:—“This day, O my children, you have proved yourselves to be true descendants of your hero-fathers. The words of your fathers were, ‘Be brave, that ye may live,’ and ye have listened unto these words, for the spirits of your fathers are proud of you. The ‘sons of valour’ came to eat us up, and behold ye have eaten them. They are overwhelmed and borne down by your strength, O young men. They vaunted to possess our lands, and our wives, and our children, and behold! behold! their flesh broils on the flame of the fire. The remnant shall carry earth for our ramparts—they shall dig our trenches—they shall build our bastions—they shall serve us whom they would have enslaved. But the bodies of their dead shall float with the flood tide and ebb with the ebb tide. The shrieking gulls of the sea shall tear out their eyeballs, and the ferocious shark shall feast of their swollen flesh. And their canoes of war shall be unto us a spoil.”
Through the frondage of Pirongia the moon threw out her floods of light, and the bush-crowned cliffs send forth their long streaks of black shadow across the hissing sea. The women gathered from the hill-fortresses to tend the fires and bewail the slain. They crouched by the liquid rim of the wet sands, and their wailing, choking sobs sounded bodeful as the ghosts of the dead. The mother, with visage of woe, bitterly laments for the man-child of her womb. His white brains are floating on the red water. The young girl weeps as if her heart would burst, as she crouches by her lover’s side; a broken spear is in his breast, and he is choked with his own blood. The wife moans for the husband of her youth; his neck is cloven asunder, and his head is rolling in the rippling water.
But the warriors from the Southward stiffen by the shores of Eawhia, and float in the swirl of the rising tide. Their death song is the song of the plashing waves, and the hissing of the drift-wood fire in the shelter of the rock by the shore. So ended the fight known as the “Fight of the Sea-shells.”
Zealandia, March 1, 1890