Project Canterbury


By James W. Stack

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

Chapter VI. Koro Sent on a Mission to the West Coast

Koro's term of office was brought to an end in a very unexpected way. Some of our natives, who preferred their own simple way of living to that which Europeans were persuading their countrymen to adopt, went to reside on their lands on the West Coast, where, cut off by lofty mountain ranges and forests and rapid rivers from intercourse with the outside world, they hoped to escape from being pestered by Pakeha innovations.

But they were not left long in the enjoyment of their seclusion. Some one found gold in their neighbourhood, and very soon white men and Maoris in search of it began to arrive, in ever-increasing numbers, who at once changed the whole aspect and character of the place. The result was the complete disorganisation of the local Maori community, who, under the influence of the gold craze, imitated amongst themselves the wild revelries of the mining camp. The few who retained their senses, finding their efforts to restore order fruitless, sent a deputation [49/50] over to St. Stephen's to ask that an experienced lay-reader might be sent to their assistance.

Koro was unanimously chosen, as being the most suitable man for the post. But, willing as he was to do the work assigned to him, he dreaded the journey of one hundred and seventy miles to the West Coast, which he was now too old and stiff to accomplish on foot, and too poor to do by coach. If he went, it must be on horseback, where he felt himself quite helpless, never having learnt to ride.

After much persuasion, he consented to attempt the journey. To make his seat secure he was placed between two bundles fastened to the back and front of the saddle, and his horse was guided by his friends, George and Simon, who rode on either side of him.

He felt so giddy at starting that he said, "I quite expect to fall off and be drowned in the first rapid river we come to." But his zealous spirit nerved him to encounter the dangers he dreaded, and so he went forward to do what he believed was God's bidding, at his own cost, and without hope or expectation of reward in this life beyond the testimony of an approving conscience. After a toilsome and adventurous journey he safely reached his destination, and at once began the work of reforming the manners of his countrymen, in which he was so successful that in a short time the Maoris became as noted for their [50/51] good behaviour as they had before been for their bad. Inspired by his enthusiasm, they built a pretty wooden church, capable of holding a hundred people, which was consecrated shortly after its erection by Bishop Harper. There, daily services were conducted by licensed lay-readers, and the Holy Communion celebrated at regular intervals by Archdeacon Harper, who took the deepest interest in the spiritual welfare of the Maoris, and did all in his power to promote their improvement.

Although Koro was an inmate of the Chief Tainui's house and treated like one of his family during his stay on the West Coast, he was so short of money that he could not procure the most necessary articles of clothing. This was found out in rather an amusing way. The archdeacon paid an unexpected visit on one occasion to the chief's house, and, as he entered it, he saw Koro disappearing round the corner of the building. After waiting some time for the old man to come in, he went out in search of him, and found him standing with his back to the wall and looking very confused.

"Why are you hiding from me?" said the archdeacon.

"Well--because my trousers are in such a ragged state behind, I did not like you to see me till I had patched them."

During Koro's absence on the West Coast the peace of our Native Church was disturbed [51/52] by the claim set up by Tamaiharoa--a chief residing in South Canterbury--that he was inspired by God to raise the standard of Christian living by supplementing the teaching of the English clergy, "who did not understand or know how to supply all the spiritual needs of the Maori."

This man's novel doctrines and practices became very popular, and were accepted everywhere except at Kaiapoi.

The reason for this was that the old heathen notion that disembodied spirits injured the living who trespassed upon their haunts, still troubled the majority of the people, and kept them in a state of nervous apprehension when moving about the country, and they welcomed the man who came to them in God's name with the assurance that he could discern the haunts of the spirits of the dead, and disarm them of their power to injure the living.

Another reason for the popularity of the new teaching was the fact that, unconsciously, the Southern Maoris were affected by the currents of thought which were then agitating the minds of their countrymen in the North, where the dreams of a national government and a national religion had to a certain extent been realised.

Hauhauism in the North, and Tamaiharoaism in the South, were attempts to cast the Christian faith in a native mould, and our people approved of the attempt, because it united to Christianity rites and ceremonies [52/53] that accorded with their own superstitious ideas and national prejudices. Koro was greatly concerned when he heard what was happening amongst us in Canterbury, and came back at once, to do what he could to dissuade our natives from joining a movement which he denounced as a revival of heathenism.

Several public meetings were held to discuss the question, and finally it was unanimously resolved to prohibit the introduction of Tamaiharoa's teaching into Kaiapoi, and we were never afterwards troubled by it there.

Having accomplished what he came for, Koro returned to the West Coast, where he was preparing a number of candidates for confirmation, the terrors of the journey having been removed by his friend Simon, who had purchased with part of the proceeds of his successful labours on the goldfield an old coach and team of horses to bring him over the ranges and take him back.

After Koro finished his mission-work on the West Coast and came back to St. Stephen's, he had the satisfaction of witnessing the baptism of an old chief named Muru, in whose spiritual welfare he had for many years taken the deepest interest.

Muru was the only man of rank amongst the Canterbury Maoris who refused to forsake the "old ways" when the rest of his people embraced Christianity and adopted civilised dress and manner of living. He clung to [53/54] his heathen creed, to which he attributed his continued health, and to his picturesque native costume, which he said he would never exchange for garments which hampered the movements of his limbs.

According to Maori calculations Muru was more than a hundred years old when he was baptized. Grey-headed men testified that he was an old man when their own fathers were still young. But there was nothing in the old man's appearance to indicate any failure of bodily powers. His muscular limbs were perfect models of strength. His step was iirm and his sight strong, and he took his part in everything that younger men were interested in.

In the course of his long life he had acquired a great reputation for courage and skill as a warrior, and for the possession of magical powers and second sight.

Though the advent of the "white man" put an end to his warlike calling, it left him at liberty to pursue the peaceful one of seer, which his countrymen often got him to exercise on their behalf.

However it may be accounted for, the old man certainly possessed some mysterious gift, which enabled him to solve satisfactorily many of the puzzling questions which were put to him. His practice after being consulted was to seek sleep, during which the answer, he said, was revealed to him by his "familiar spirit."

[55] One of my native friends possessed a valuable greenstone ornament, which was lost by one of his children. After searching in vain for it, he consulted Te Muru, who lived thirty miles away, who, after sleeping over the matter, told him that in a dream he had seen the lost ornament in a clump of flax-bushes not far from my friend's house. He returned, and went to the place indicated, and there found his lost treasure.

Te Muru's home at Port Levy afforded a standing object-lesson to passers-by of the uncleanliness fostered by heathenism amongst the Maoris. His house was surrounded by a fence of sharp-pointed stakes, upon which were hung bits of rope, old fishing-nets, baskets, mats, and a ghastly array of fish and animal skeletons, shreds of red and blue blankets and every variety of rags--for here all worn-out garments had for years been hung up. Heaps of shells and discarded cooking utensils lay around the enclosure, and added to its untidy appearance.

The reason why this disgusting assortment of rubbish was preserved was to prevent persons going near the place touching anything that had ever come into contact with Te Muru's body, which was sacred, being the abode of spirits, who would punish any interference with what belonged to them.

Te Muru's appearance when at home was quite in keeping with his weird surroundings. He was generally to be seen at all hours of [55/56] the day reclining under a tree which grew near his "ware," enveloped in a mat or red blanket, or, if the weather was warm, stretched out at full length without any clothing on. When any one approached near to him, he sat up, and rested his chin upon his knees before returning their salutations in his deep bass voice. His great mop of grisly grey hair was tinged with red ochre, and his face smeared with the same colouring matter, which rendered him rather a fearsome object to look upon.

When his wife died, Muru removed to Kaiapoi, to be near his eldest son, who built a small raupo hut for him near his own weather-board dwelling, where the old man lived comfortably as long as he could procure his own food. But sickness overtook him at last, and then he suffered much privation, for nobody dared to go near his sacred person to minister to his needs. The food daily supplied by his son was put down before his hut, but never taken into it.

During one of my visits to the old man I noticed that his finger and toe nails were curving round and growing into the flesh. He said he could no longer trim them himself, and nobody else would, and he gratefully accepted my offer to perform the operation, which proved more difficult than I anticipated, owing to the abnormal thickness of his filbert-shaped nails. When I had finished, Muru collected all the parings and buried them in [56/57] a hole which he scooped in the clay floor of his hut, fearing to leave the smallest bit lying about, lest an enemy should get hold of it and bewitch him.

After the old man took up his residence at Kaiapoi, Koro and other Christian friends tried to induce him to go to church, but without success. Some vague fear that he would endanger his life by doing so kept him back. Though he freely conversed about the Christian faith, and was quite familiar with its doctrines, and joined in open-air services, he was afraid to enter "God's house."

His idea was that if he entered a church he would lose his magical powers, and, not being a baptized Christian, the Christian God would not protect him from the malice of those evil spirits over whom he had lost control.

Several times towards the end of his life he expressed a wish to be baptized, but he was kept back by the fear of committing sin after baptism, and so increasing God's anger against him--not committing sin in the Christian sense, but in the Maori sense of the word, by transgressing, unknowingly, some ceremonial rule, and so falling a victim to his ignorance.

After being under special instruction for a year, Muru's objection to enter the Church was overcome, and it was arranged that his baptism should take place on Easter Sunday, 1873. But when the time arrived he was [57/58] found to be too infirm to attend the service, without disturbing the gravity of the congregation. So the baptism was held in his son's house, to which place the whole congregation marched in procession after the morning service on Easter Sunday. Everything had been cleared out of the front room, where we found Te Muru seated on a new mattress placed in the middle of the floor. And a very striking picture he presented, with his long white hair and beard, and pure white garments--no colour to relieve the whiteness, save the brown intelligent face that watched with eager interest all our movements.

After placing his sponsors and immediate relations around him I proceeded with the Baptismal Service. The adjoining rooms and the front of the house were crowded with interested spectators, who preserved silence during the service. The old man, who was labouring under considerable emotion the whole time, responded in a clear voice to the questions put to him, and received the name of Ezra, which was the name chosen for him by his sons. When the baptism was over, every one came and shook hands with him and congratulated him upon his reception into the Christian Church.

A few months later Bishop Harper, after holding a confirmation at St. Stephen's Church, proceeded in company with the persons he had just confirmed, to Ezra's house, and [58/59] confirmed him; and on the following Sunday he made his first communion, an event which caused great joy, not only to himself, but to all those who had been in any way instrumental in bringing him into the Fold of Christ. Te Muru did not long survive the change in his habits of life, necessitated by his advancing years, and died within twelve months of his baptism. His death severed the last link with the generation of Maoris who, in the eighteenth century, welcomed the first English whalers who settled on the South Coast of New Zealand.

Project Canterbury