Project Canterbury


By James W. Stack

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

Chapter VII. Koro as a Visitor of the Sick

Koro was a diligent visitor of the sick--a service which amongst Maoris was beset with peculiar difficulties, which prevented any but the most earnest Christians amongst them from undertaking it. The visitor never knew how his words might be interpreted, and was always troubled by the fear that words intended to comfort the sufferer, and aid recovery, might on the contrary inspire fear, and cause death.

When weakened by disease, the old heathen belief in omens generally reasserted itself, and the sick Maori would listen intently to every utterance of the Christian minister, to find out whether he was to recover or not. And it sometimes happened that the very words of Holy Scripture chosen to comfort the sufferer proved to be his death-warrant, because some mystic word or phrase had occurred in the passage read which in olden time indicated a fatal termination.

The common belief that all diseases were caused by malignant spirits made the Maoris [60/61] rely far more upon the spiritual ministrations of the clergy for healing than upon the remedies prescribed by doctors. And, whenever the combined efforts of both physicians failed to effect a cure, the "weak-kneed" amongst them would secretly try the efficacy of some heathen charm or incantation.

It was only when ministering by the bedside of a little child, or of an adult who possessed a child-like spirit of trust in God, that the sick-visitor could ever feel confident that he was giving pleasure and doing good to the patient.

The following account of what took place during various interviews held with sick people will serve to illustrate some of the special difficulties to which reference has just been made.


Reuben was on a visit to his widowed sister at Port Levy when I called to see him, and heard from his own lips the strange story of his encounter with his brother-in-law's ghost, who tried, with the assistance of another spirit, to strangle him.

Reuben was so unlike other Maoris in looks, dress, and general bearing when he was well, that I was prepared to hear something strange about his experiences when he was sick.

His face was disfigured by a white swelling, which covered the pupil of his right eye, and [61/62] caused it to project in a most unsightly manner, and in order to conceal this blemish he allowed his hair to fall over his eyebrows. When out-ofrdoors, he wore a broad-brimmed "wide-awake," which for some reason was always greasy and dirty.

His clothes were the most misshapen and tattered garments that he could procure, and if by chance he happened to have a new garment on, or one in a tolerable state of preservation, he took care to put over it the ragged remains of a waterproof or overcoat. I often wondered why the man displayed such a partiality for rags and dirt, and could only account for it by the fact that he was a son of the celebrated sorcerer Te Muru, and the only one of them who inherited the father's talent for dabbling in the "black art!"

Reuben's appearance on a sick-bed was certainly more prepossessing than his appearance when in health, for his brown skin presented something more pleasing to look at than the ragged clothes in which he was usually seen.

I found him lying on a mat by the fireplace in his brother William's house, to which he had been removed at the beginning of his illness.

He was looking very weak, and could hardly speak above a whisper. After we had interchanged greetings he sat up, and leant back against the wall and said:

[63] "I want to tell you about my illness; it is not of the kind we suffer from in common with white people--it is something peculiar to Maoris.

"You will remember that, when you last saw me here, I was in perfect health, and so I continued to be for some weeks after you went away. But about a fortnight ago, shortly after midnight, I had a terrible encounter with the ghost of Abel, my late brother-in-law, who was accompanied by the ghost of my cousin Bennett, who died at Rapaki some years ago. These two spirits appeared at my bedside and fell upon me as I slept, and tried to throttle me. I struggled and wrestled with them all over the floor in my efforts to get free. But they had got such a desperate grip on my throat, that I could not release myself from them. I knew that my only chance of escape from death at their hands was to get out of the house, for it was there Abel died a year ago, and it was evident that his spirit still haunted the spot. I made violent efforts to reach the door and burst it open, and at last I succeeded. And as soon as I rolled out into the open air the spirits released their hold upon my throat, and I breathed freely once more. I knew then that I had escaped.

"But when my soul came back into my body I found that I was still in Abel's house, and my wife and my sister and all my friends were seated round me, and Simon the catechist [63/64] was reading from his Prayer Book, and about to commend my soul to God; but I stopped him, for I knew that I had won the struggle against the spirits who tried to take my life, and I said, ' Take me out of this house, for it is the spirit who dwells here who desires to injure me.' Simon closed his Prayer Book and said, ' Yes, we will do what you ask.' So they lifted up the mats on which I was lying and carried me outside, and brought me here. But, before I got here, I fainted. I do not know how long I was insensible--my friends tell me for many hours--but during that faint I had a vision, in which I saw the Rev. Te Koti, Wesleyan Minister at Rapaki, and the Rev. Samuel Williams, who came to preach to us at St. Stephen's during the last General Synod. I saw these two ministers standing beside me.

"Te Koti held an empty wineglass in his hand; this I saw Mr. Williams take from him and pour some liquid into. Both the look and smell of the liquid were revolting to me, and, when he held it to my lips, I refused to drink it. Then I heard him say:

"'If you take this, your days will be prolonged, but if not they will be shortened.'

"Then I swallowed the contents of the wineglass, and, on waking up, found myself here in this house. I told the vision to my wife and sister, but it did not stop their weeping, for they said I must die, as I had eaten nothing for ten days. Presently Simon [64/65] came to see me, and I told him the vision, and he comforted me, and said my vision was a good one; although I could not eat ordinary food, I might still gain strength by feeding my spirit upon the words of God, brought to me by His ministers.

"And what do you think--shall I live or shall I die?"

To have told the man bluntly that he was the victim of nightmare or indigestion, and only required a dose of medicine to cure him, would have killed him. His only chance of recovery was to get rid of the fears which oppressed him regarding the spirits who tried to take his life. And so I said all I could to strengthen his conviction that, in his encounter with them, he had gained a final victory, and that I agreed with Simon that God had indicated to him that he would live.

The sick man brightened up at once as soon as I had spoken, and said, "Now I will explain to you how it was I incurred the enmity of the two spirits.

"It was all owing to my sister Rachel; she was the cause of all the ill-will manifested by her late husband towards me.

"Rachel went to Rapaki to take part in the mourning for her husband's cousin, and brought back a great coat belonging to him, and emptied the pockets, and placed their contents on a shelf, where long afterwards I found a piece of tobacco, and, not knowing that it once belonged to a dead man, I cut [65/66] it up and put it into my pipe and smoked it. This was my offence. Bennett's spirit resented my appropriating his tobacco, and got Abel to help him punish me for taking it."

Having relieved his mind by this statement, and his confidence in the efficacy of Christian prayer being restored, Reuben rapidly improved in health, and in a short time was quite well again.


Another typical case was that of an old chief at Wainui, who was said to be suffering from a Maori disease caused by the "pinches of an evil spirit," which produced running ulcers all over the body.

On reaching his house I found it deserted, which was a sure indication that he dreaded a fatal termination to his illness--for Maoris always tried to avoid dying in a permanent dwelling, for fear it should afterwards get the reputation of being haunted. On looking round, I saw a tent a short way off, and, going to it, I found old "Bowline" crouching in a corner beside a small fire, and squatting close to him were four half-naked children between three and eight years of age.

The old man welcomed me very warmly, and in answer to my inquiries said:

"I have just returned from the gates of the 'Underworld.' A few days ago I felt that I was dying. I had not taken food for some [66/67] days, and the discharge from my sores was very great. I was sinking fast from weakness. While I was hovering between life and death, my eyes caught sight of my little motherless children, seated on the ground around me, and I thought how desolate their condition would be, if left alone in the world.

"So I lifted up my heart to God and prayed Him to give me back my life, and He granted my prayer, for I felt at once a desire for food. I heard the ducks quacking outside, and thought it a sign of what was best suited for me to eat. So I told my little girl to call her cousin Charles, and ask him to kill and prepare one for me. He did so, and after awhile brought me the roasted duck; but I could not eat it. Then Charles, thinking chicken broth would be better for me, without saying a word, went off and prepared some with leeks and brought it to me, and when I smelt the savoury odour of the broth, I felt a desire for it, and I sat up and made a good meal; and from that time I have been getting stronger and better, and I feel sure now that I shall soon be quite healed of my disease.

"It is not one of your imported European diseases, but a real Maori disease, brought on by my own folly. It was caused in this way. I had an ordinary boil, and when I removed the matter from it I threw the rag with which I cleansed it upon the kitchen fire, and [67/68] afterwards cooked food for myself upon the same fire. It was a wrong thing to do, according to the teaching of our ancestors, and I was punished for it by ulcers breaking out all over my body. No remedy I tried availed to heal me, neither English doctors' medicines nor Maori remedies--all failed. It was our God who gave me back my life, out of pity for my little children. He delivered me from the old heathen gods of this country, who were trying to regain their power over me, because I was not serving the true God as faithfully as I ought to have done."

This poor man had passed through many weeks of suffering, with nothing but a thin calico tent to protect him from the severity of the weather during the coldest months of winter, and nothing between his body and the damp ground but a piece of thin matting and nothing to cover him but one old blanket, and no one to wait upon him but his half-starved little children. But, though upwards of seventy years of age, he made a good recovery and lived for many years afterwards.


How sensitive Maoris are to mental impressions, and how fatal they may prove, is seen by the fact that death results from the use of words in the "Visitation of the Sick," which the sufferer thinks forbid recovery.

A young half-caste woman, brought up [68/69] from infancy in a Christian family, fell ill. She had nothing very seriously the matter with her, and I had no doubt that in a few days she would be perfectly well.

I had occasion to go away from the place for a week, and on my return I was surprised to find the young woman in a dying state. She had refused food for several days, and continued to moan out, "I am ruined, I am dying."

On inquiry I found that during my absence Koro had visited her daily, and on one occasion, instead of making the usual selection of prayers, he read the whole of the Visitation Service, including the prayer commending the dying soul to God.

It was this which had terrified the poor young woman. She believed that the Christian minister, instead of bringing her back to life, had dismissed her from it. All efforts to reassure her were unavailing, and she died denouncing the folly of the old man who had made the fatal blunder.

In another case I read the 46th Psalm to a sick chief, who was suffering from some very slight ailment, and shortly afterwards heard of his death. On expressing my surprise, his friends remarked: "How could it be otherwise? He told us himself that you had given him up, for you read out of God's Word 'that the mountains would be removed.'" The "removal of a mountain" meant the destruction of a chief, when the expression [69/70] was used in a religious rite in ancient times; and the man, though a Christian, could not in his weakened condition disabuse his mind of the heathen ideas associated with the expression, and they proved fatal to him.


The Maoris were firm believers in the efficacy of prayers for the sick, whether employed to prolong life, or to shorten suffering.

I can never forget the touching appeal once made to me to entreat God to take the life of a little child who had been severely scalded.

The mother was a delicate, half-caste woman, who was often too ill to move. And this little girl of eight years of age was her only child. The father was often away from home working on some distant sheep-station. During his absence the poor woman had no one but her little daughter to wait upon her.

The child was delicately formed and remarkably pretty, and devotedly attached to her mother, and we became great friends. She evidently put great faith in my ministrations, and always welcomed my approach to her mother's bedside, and behaved most devoutly while I read and prayed with her.

I was shocked one day to hear that my little friend had met with a terrible accident. She was lifting a large iron pot of boiling water [70/71] off the fire when it fell over her, scalding the greater part of her body. I hurried to the house and found the little girl wrapped up in a large flour-bag and in great pain. Her father was fortunately within call when the accident happened, having come home for Sunday, and he carried out most carefully the doctor's instructions.

I visited the child day after day, and tried to cheer and encourage her. She always greeted me with a bright smile, and watched my every movement with her sparkling black eyes, but as the days passed she grew weaker and weaker, owing to the copious discharge from the scalded parts of her body, and, though she made no complaints, she evidently suffered great pain when her wounds were dressed.

About ten days after the accident the father came to me in sore distress, having been sent by the child to bid me come and release her from her sufferings, which had become unendurable.

"It is you who have kept her alive so long by your prayers," the father said, "and she does not wish to be detained any longer in this world, and she implores you to let her go."

I went at once with the poor man, and found the child moaning piteously. She looked earnestly at me as I knelt beside her, and said: "Oh, let me go! Let me go!"

[72] I told her that all we wished on her behalf was that God's will might be done, and that I would ask Him, if it was His will, to release her at once from her sufferings.

She smiled so sweetly in response to my words and, as I prayed, sank into a peaceful sleep, from which she never woke.

Project Canterbury