Project Canterbury


By James W. Stack

Christchurch, Wellington and Dunedin, N.Z.
Melbourne and London: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1909.

Chapter I. Who was Koro?

"What a strange-looking man!" exclaimed a voice beside me, as the garden gate opened and a queer-looking figure entered, surrounded by a giggling crowd of English children who watched his movements with noisy interest.

The comical object was Te Koro, an old Maori man, of small stature and ungainly figure, attired after a very fantastic fashion in a variety of garments, which all seemed too big for him.

His head was surmounted by no less than three felt hats, stuck one over the other, a thick woollen muffler enveloped his neck, while his feet were wrapped in rags, kept together by native flax sandals.

On entering the gate he commenced shouting my Maori name, "Tarkah, eh! Tarkah!" at the top of his voice, which soon brought our neighbours to their windows to ascertain the cause of the commotion.

[2] Though broad daylight, the old man appeared to be feeling his way, with his long arms stretched out before him, as he shuffled up the pathway towards the house. He gave a delighted shout when he recognised me standing on the doorstep ready to receive him.

Taking off the pile of hats, he disclosed a bald, well-greased head, which bent forward as he grasped my outstretched hand. The loss of one eye rather spoilt the expression of his face, which, though plain, was intelligent, and bore a striking resemblance to a Chinese type of countenance.

My queer-looking visitor, despite his odd appearance, was a most estimable man, and one of my most valued friends; and those whose laughter his scarecrow appearance provoked would doubtless have been very much surprised had they been told that the object of their merriment was one of the best of men, and that within his ungainly and misshapen body dwelt a pure and noble spirit, full of goodness and divine love.

Our acquaintance with each other began in 1859, during my first visit to the Maoris residing on Banks Peninsula. Church life at that time was at a very low ebb amongst the Maoris. Drunkenness and immorality had almost obliterated every distinguishing mark of their Christianity. The standard of life adopted by them when they first embraced the Christian faith had been exchanged for [2/3] the standard which prevailed amongst the Europeans with whom they associated while employed on the whaling-stations, or on board the whaling-ships cruising in the South Pacific. The deteriorating effect of this intercourse was very apparent, particularly amongst the women, and it was increased by the presence amongst them of bands of disorderly men, composed of South Sea Islanders who had run away from whaling-ships, and North Island natives, who instead of return-to their own part of the country when the roads which they were brought over by the English Government to make were finished, planted themselves down, without the leave of the owners, upon the nearest Maori reserve, and claimed their right, under Maori rules of hospitality, to become permanent inmates of any house they chose to enter. The vicious conduct of these strangers disturbed the peace of every family, and quarrels and acts of violence were of daily occurrence. General dissatisfaction with the existing state of things prevailed, and the majority of people were ready to welcome any remedy which seeme likely to afford relief from the intolerable evils from which they were suffering.

During my stay at Port Levy public meetings were held daily, for the purpose of devising some scheme for the reformation of manners; and the decision ultimately arrived at was that Church discipline for moral offences should be revived, and that for the [3/4] maintenance of social order a village council should be constituted under regulations to be approved of by the English magistrates of the district.

All felt that the first step towards improving the existing state of things must be the revival amongst them of reverence for God's Majesty, and the daily acknowledgment by them of His right to govern their conduct. They had allowed the church erected upon the site chosen by Bishop Selwyn during his first visit to the place, and consecrated by his subsequent ministrations within its walls, to become unusable. Through large holes in the roof the greater portion of the thatching had fallen on to the floor below, and there, in the heaps formed by it, the pigs of the neighbourhood nestled together every night.

The desire to do something to atone for this past neglect found expression in the resolve to replace the old church with one built of sawn timber. Those who possessed forest trees promised to give a sufficient number of them to furnish the necessary building materials; while skilled sawyers, amongst the unwelcome North Islanders, volunteered to cut them up into boards. And every grownup person in the community promised to give a contribution in money, which was to be obtained by setting apart for the purpose a portion of what they received by the sale of firewood. The inhabitants of Lyttelton were at the time largely dependent upon the Maoris [4/5] for what firewood they used, especially those who lived where no roads existed on the steep hillsides. The firewood was carried up from the beach upon the backs of men and women, who took their loads to all parts of the town, and sold them at the rate of one shilling each backload.

When the time came for the payment of their promised contributions, they paid in a sum of £100 to the Church Building Fund, which represented no less than two thousand backloads of firewood.

Owing to the ruinous condition of the church the practice had grown up of holding divine service in any suitable dwelling-house which might be lent for the purpose, and it was probably due to this, that the attendance at the services had dwindled down to almost the vanishing-point, and that the behaviour of the few who did attend was so wanting in reverence.

All grown-up Maoris were once heathens, who knew nothing of Christianity until their religious ideas and habits of thought were already fixed in a heathen mould. One of the most deeply rooted of their heathen ideas was that any place devoted to the cooking of food was polluting, and that no greater insult could be offered to the Unseen Powers whom they worshipped, than to connect their rites with any place in which food was cooked and eaten.

It was not enough to be told that the true [5/6] God might be worshipped anywhere. Acts of worship had always been associated in their minds with some particular enclosure or building, or thicket, or rock, or mountain peak, and violence was done to their cherished feelings of reverence when they were encouraged to worship God in polluted places.

It was too much to expect that a people who did not possess any words in their language for expressing abstract ideas should, without external aids to the production of reverential feeling, experience and exhibit such feeling in their acts of public worship.

As might be expected under such circumstances, the Maoris' sense of reverence broke down under the strain to which it was subjected, and they lost their respect for a Deity who, according to their ideas, did not respect Himself or punish those who dishonoured Him.

As it seemed imperative in the interests of their faith that the public services of religion should no longer be performed in common dwelling-houses, the Maoris were induced to put the old church into a sufficient state of repair to allow of its being used on the following Sunday. Willing hands were found among the men to clear away the accumulated heaps of rubbish, whilst equally willing hands were found amongst the women to scrub the floor, and to cover it and the inner walls of the building with new mats. Forms for seating the people were furnished by the [6/7] North Island men, who had already promised to provide the sawn timber for the new church.

On Sunday, at the three services held, the church was filled from end to end with an attentive congregation, all dressed in their best clothes. But I noted with surprise the absence of one man, who, in spite of his insignificant appearance and halting speech, had, during the late discussions, by his persistent demand for reform, done more than any one else to bring about this beginning of an improved state of things.

On inquiry I learnt that the man's name was Koro; that two years before, in a fit of remorse for having uttered a violent threat during a dispute with another Maori, he had resigned the office of lay-reader in the church, and that ever since then, in acknowledgment of his wrong-doing, he had absented himself from the religious gatherings of the people.

Early in the week, while strolling outside the village, I met Koro, who had been watching, ever since I came to Port Levy, for an opportunity of seeing me alone. He told me how rejoiced he was that his long-cherished wish to "lift the worship of God from the kitchen to its proper place in the church" was at last accomplished, and how he longed to be restored to the church privileges he had forfeited by his display of unchristian temper. He was in a very contrite [7/8] frame of mind, and free from any spark of resentment against the man who had. provoked his anger by employing the most exasperating language in disparagement of his claim to a certain piece of bush-land at Kaiapoi.

Shortly after this interview I held a formal inquiry--with the assistance of two native magistrates--into the circumstances which led to Koro's resignation, the result of which was that he was reinstated as lay-reader, greatly to the satisfaction of the Maori community.

Project Canterbury