W hat I believe to be genuine and authentic the collected publications of William Colenso


I.—Of Plants Formerly Cultivated for Food



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I.—Of Plants Formerly Cultivated for Food.

1. Of their Plantations.


Before however I speak of the plants themselves, their plantations should be considered. These, as it has already been observed, were, for wise political reasons, scattered, and often some were situated in half-concealed out-of-the-way places; this was done on account of the danger the Maoris were continually exposed to, namely the sudden visit of a taua—war party (often from their own friends and relatives), to demand satisfaction for some offence,—generally an insult, or a breach of tapu = taboo restrictions; at which times the crops, being almost the only available personal property, were sure to suffer, often being wantonly rooted up, [8] etc.512 Notwithstanding, they had large plantations also, which might be called tribal, or communal; and sometimes these were a few acres in extent.

For the kumara—Ipomœa chrysorrhiza—a dry and light sandy, or rather gravelly soil, was selected; and if it were not so naturally, it would be sure to become such, as every year they laboriously carried on to it many a weary back-load of fine gravel, obtained from pits or river beds in the neighbourhood, and borne away in large and peculiarly close-woven baskets specially prepared for that purpose only. This labour, however, was the principal heavy one attending their cultivations; as, before they knew the Europeans and for some time after, they never strongly fenced their plantations, not having any need to do so; the highly laborious and additional work of making wooden fences around their cultivations in after years arose from the introduction of the pig. They did, however, put up fences and screens of reeds, etc.; this was done to break the force of the winds which blow strongly in the early summer, the young kumara plant being tender, and the taro possessing large semi-pendulous leaves. Cook also noticed this; he says, “Each district” (qu. plantation, or division of a plantation) “was fenced in, generally with reeds, which were placed so close together that there was scarcely room for a mouse to creep between.” (loc. cit.)

For the taro — Colocasia antiquorum, or Caladium esculenta — a very different soil and damp situation was required; light and deep yet loamy, or alluvial, often on the banks of streams or lagoons, and sometimes at the foot of high cliffs near the sea.

For their valuable gourd the hue—Cucurbita sp.—a damp rich soil, with warmth to bring it to perfection, was required; this was often sown in, and [9] near to their taro plantations, and sometimes on the outsides of woods and thickets.

In those plantations all worked alike: the chief, the lady and the slave; and all, while so engaged, were under a rigid law of minute ceremonial restrictions, or taboo, which were invariably observed. Fortunately for them, the modern unnecessary and expensive indulgence, or evil, of tobacco was wholly unknown! And there was nothing of a similar time-consuming nature known to them to have taken its place. It was a pretty sight to see a chief and his followers at work in preparing the ground for the planting of the kumara. They worked together, naked, (save a small mat or fragment of one about their loins), in a regular line or band, each armed with a long-handled narrow wooden spade (koo), and like ourselves in performing spade labour, worked backwards, keeping rank and time in all their movements, often enlivening their labour with a suitable chaunt or song, in the chorus of which all joined.

If it were a pleasing sight to notice the regularity of their working, it was a still more charming one to inspect their plantations of growing crops: 1. The kumara plants, springing each separately from its own little hemispherical hillock—just the size and shape of a small neat mole-hill. 2. The taro plants (each one beautiful in itself) rising from the plain carefully levelled surface, which was sometimes even strewed with white sand brought from a distance, and patted smooth with their hand;513 and 3. the hue, in its convex bowl-shaped pits, or “dishes,” as Cook calls them. The whole tout ensemble was really admirable! The extreme regularity of their planting, the kumara and the taro being generally set about two feet apart, in true quincunx order, with no deviation from a straight line when viewed in any direction, (to effect this they carefully use a line or cord for every row of kumara in making up the little hillocks into which the seed-tuber was afterwards warily set with its sprouting end towards the north); the total absence of weeds, the care in which all was kept—even to the sticking into the ground, when required, leafy and yielding branches of manuka—Leptospermum scoparium, (owing to the high westerly winds, or to the situation being rather exposed), and last, though in their eyes by no means the least, [10] were spells, and charms, and invocations, recited by their priests—tohungas—to ensure a good crop; for this purpose alone a priest of renown was often fetched from a distance and at a high price. Instances, too, are known, in their ancient history, of some of such tohungas having been killed by the chiefs, through some alleged, or real, oversight or fault, or omission, in the performance of their ceremonial taboo. All, however, clearly showed much forethought, and that no amount of pains, both natural and supernatural, had been spared, and that their agricultural work was truly with them a labour of love!

Nor did their labour end here: there was still the kumara barn, or store, to be built, and this was almost universally the well made, handsome house of the village; the one sure to catch the eye of the European visitor, from its size, shape, neatness, and profusion of ornamental carved works inlaid with pearl shell (Haliotis) and stained red. Its walls were made of yellow reeds of the Arundo, placed neatly together, with a squared plinth of the dark stems of the fern tree set at the base to keep out the rats and wet, while its roof was well secured with loosely twisted ropes, composed of the airy, elastic, climbing stems of the durable mangemange fern (Lygodium articulatum), and a drain cut round it, to throw off the rain and other waters. Sometimes those stores were also elevated on squared and dubbed and ornamented posts; and sometimes even built up in the forks of the main branches of a dead tree. All those storehouses were rigidly tabooed, as were also those few persons who were allowed to visit them for any purpose; all visits being formal and necessary. The labour bestowed in those early times, before the use of iron, was immense, and they were mostly renewed as to the reed work every year.

I have already alluded to the large amount of extra heavy labour imposed upon the Maori cultivators of the soil through the introduction of the pig; much also arose from the coming among them of the unwelcome European rat! their own little indigenous animal not doing them any harm. I remember when at the Rotorua Lakes, nearly forty-five years ago, visiting a very large kumara plantation (that neighbourhood being a principal and noted one of all New Zealand for its fine and prolific kumara crops, said to be owing to the extra warmth of its heated volcanic soil). In the midst of the cultivation was a little hut (reminding one forcibly of “a lodge in a garden of cucumbers”), and this by night was inhabited by two old men, watchers, who had a great number of flax lines extending all over the plantation in all directions, to which lines shells of the fresh-water mussel (Unio (?) menziesii) were thickly strung in bunches; these lines were all tied firmly together into one handle of knotted rope, which those two old men had to pull vigorously, every few minutes throughout the night, to cause a jingling [11] noise, and so frighten and scare away the thievish rats from gnawing and injuring the growing kumara roots.



One striking peculiarity, however, should not be omitted—in which, too, I think, they differed from all agricultural races—their national non-usage of all and every kind of manure; unless, indeed, their fresh annual layers of dry gravel in their kumara plantations may be classed under this head. But their whole inner-man revolted at such a thing; and when the early missionaries first used such substances in their kitchen-gardens it was brought against them as a charge of high opprobrium.514 And even in their own potato planting in after years they would not use anything of the kind, although they saw in the gardens of the missionaries the beneficial effects arising from the use of manure; and, as the potato loves a virgin, or a strongly manured, soil, the Maoris chose rather to prepare fresh ground every year, generally by felling and burning on the outskirts of forests, with all the extra labour of fencing against the pigs, rather than to use the abominated manure. They also never watered their plants, not even in times of great drought, with their plantations close to a river, when by doing so they might have saved their crops.


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