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

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I. A statement of the celestial signs of Spring being fortunate, or favourable, for their work, according to tokens discerned by the tohunga from over both land and ocean: lines, 1–2.

II. Of their work being begun according to old descended custom; mentioning the names of four of Tinirau’s eight sisters,—who were sent over the sea in their canoe to carry off Ngae (or Kae) for his theft of Tinirau’s pet whale.720 Possibly they were here mentioned, on account of that memorable night of high glee and jollity spent in all manner of games by those women and their assistants, through which plan they also succeeded in detecting and carrying off Ngae;—the bare mention of this always caused pleasing mirthful ideas to the Maoris and was just as politically useful to the working-class among them at the beginning of their heavy annual working-season, as the festival [47] of the Carnival in some countries preceding Lent! “Waeroti and Waerota” are the names of two places out of New Zealand (real or mythical) not unfrequently referred to, in this way, in their old poetry and myths; and often in conjunction with “Hawaiki” lines, 3–7.

III. A direction to the workmen to be ready early; another indication of their industrious agricultural habits: lines, 8–10.

IV. A promise, that what was really necessary, on the part of the owners, or chiefs, should be there, allegorically personified: lines, 11–13.

V. That the work should be throughout regularly performed: lines, 14–15.

VI. A quiet, stately, fitting address, abounding in natural truths, made to the kumara sets, personified,721 about to be planted; reminding them whence their beneficial growth, etc., were to be obtained: (1) from nature, the sea-breezes or summer-winds, and rains; and (2) from their own action,—growing and holding-on to the soil; great need of this advice, as they were always planted in the tops of raised light gravelly hillocks:722 lines, 16–24.

VII. The question proposed,—Whence the crop, or future increase? (Carefully note the response, made by the tohunga (priest),—the old, old, story! semper idem): lines, 25–28.

VIII. The invocation proper to Pani; note its great simplicity, its gradations, and its recurring refrain, repeated regularly six times: lines, 29–42. (The tubers were to be placed “carefully and loosely, one by one,” into the seed-baskets, because they had commenced sprouting, and the sprouts were of slender and delicate growth.)

IX. A premonition to the working-party: here are two statements made to the workmen, as if from a pilot, or master, occupying a more commanding situation, each one pregnant with suitable meaning: (1) the doors not yet being closed, and (2) the bare floors not yet exposed to view; meaning, the seed not all planted, the work not yet finished: lines, 43–46.

X. The command to the working-party, to act on the favourable moment: lines, 47–48.

XI. Again an address to the kumara sets, still personified; as if mollifying the command just given (somewhat of a lowering nature), and reminding them of their ancient heavenly origin:723 lines, 49–50.

XII. Another admonition to the working-party: lines, 51–53.

XIII. The work (viewed as) done: lines, 54–55.

XIV. A remark as to Pani’s residence in the sky, out of sight: line, 16.

XV. A reminder to Pani, to reward them after the manner of their own readily believing her,—or the ancient legend, etc.,—and, of their having acted upon it: lines, 57–60. (N.B. This is the earliest meaning, in this sense, of the word whakapono, that I have ever met with. It is now, and for the last 60 years, similarly used by the missionaries and others (also, in the Maori translation of the Scriptures), for faith;—the believing the matter spoken of, or taught;—the making-it-to-be-a-reality. A word, however, extremely rarely used in their ancient recitals.) [48]

And here we should also bear in mind, that all this eminently peaceful industrious and pleasing agricultural work was the common yearly occupation of this people,—of the whole Maori nation throughout the North Island, by whom it was heartily loved and passionately followed.724 To me, the consideration of the manifold useful patient and ornamental industry of the ancient New Zealanders,—their untiring interest, the pains, the love, formerly bestowed upon the scrupulous selecting, the perfecting, carving and decorating of almost all objects of daily use, even when the service itself was most common and material (including their wooden spades and axe handles, their canoe paddles and balers!), was truly wonderful; and all done without tools of iron or any metal, and ever without thought of pay or reward! And all that, too, amid the frequent disturbing and contrary heavy labours arising from fratricidal and murderous wars, building of forts, storming of towns, and general desolating violence, in which their strong natural and uncontrolled passions were too often wholly engaged.

In conclusion, another curious superstition relating to Pani, sometimes observed on the harvesting of the crop of kumara, may also be mentioned. At such seasons, a peculiarly shaped abnormal and rather large kumara root was met with, though by no means frequently (sometimes not one such in the whole cultivation), this was called “Pani’s canoe” = Pani’s medium, between her and the priest and the crop; and was consequently highly sacred, and never eaten by the people. To do so would be to insult Pani, and sure to cause the rotting of the whole crop when stowed away for keeping and winter use in the kumara store-house (a thing to be greatly dreaded); besides other serious visitations on the people. It, therefore, became the peculiar property of the priest, and was set aside to be cooked at a sacred fire as a kind of offering of first-fruits. The finding such a root was matter of great gratulation, for now it was made evident that Pani had heard and visited and blessed them. And as (from what I could learn) such a kumara root was chiefly, if not only, to be found when the crop was a very prolific one (which, indeed, was highly natural); this fertility was also taken as another proof of Pani’s gracious visit, and, of course, placed to the account of the knowing and fortunate priest, who had initiated all things so well as to bring it to pass, and so to secure a good crop!


1881 On the fine Perception of Colours possessed by the ancient Maoris. Transactions of the New Zealand Institute 14: 49-76.

[Read before the Hawke’s Bay Philosophical Institute, 10th October, 1881.]

In a paper which I had the honour of reading here before you last year, (“On a better Knowledge of the Maori Race,”) I alluded to the surprisingly powerful natural faculties of the Maoris; particularly instancing those of Memory, Sight, and Hearing; and ending my remarks in that place by saying,—“their fine discrimination of the various shades and hues of colours—particularly of blacks, browns, reds, greens, etc.,—was truly wonderful. On this subject and its relatives I hope to write a paper.”725

I should not, however, have chosen to do so at the present time, (for I had desired to finish a paper on. “Hawaiki,” which I had been preparing), had I not seen a paper by Mr. Stack, of Christchurch,—“On the Colour Sense of the Maoris,”726 in which, according to my certain knowledge and long experience, there is no small amount of error; and believing this, though reluctant to suspend other work, I have deemed it to be my duty to lose no time in bringing my promised paper before you.

And here I would briefly remark, that what I shall now bring forward in this paper is from my own individual experience only; derived, not merely during an extra long period of dwelling among the Maoris, and that before the country became settled, (for others have resided in New Zealand as long, or even longer than I have), but mainly from my having travelled so very much among them; very frequently in parts where no white man had ever been before me; sometimes on the battle-field, both during and after the fight; and always in the additional capacity of a “doctor” or medical man, and ever on foot and with them; always having, also, several of their best head men (chiefs and priests) voluntarily and heartily travelling with me as companions from their own pa, or village, to the next pa, or halting place, or bounds of their tribe (as the case might be); and all this, too, at a period in their history when they had no extraneous foreign matters to trouble them or to talk about. And so I have had very many fine and profitable opportunities of hearing and observing many things that naturally and spontaneously occurred, which otherwise, probably, I should never have known; and which (as far as I know) no other European has ever had so many advantages and opportunities of knowing. Moreover, owing to Mr. Stack’s paper, and to do the old Maoris justice, I shall have to relate many pleasing [50] little confirmatory incidents,—more, in number, than I had originally intended to do,—as there is nothing like a concrete example for testing an abstract theory.

(1.) Of their universal national taste concerning colour.

I have already slightly touched upon this in a former paper;727 notwithstanding, I may again state, that the colours of black, white, red, and brown, were the prized and favourite ones,—the purer states especially of each of those colours were highly valued,—to which may also be added yellow and green. Those several colours, and their differing shades, comprised nearly all that pertained to their dresses and personal decorations, to their (principal) houses and canoes, and moveable property generally. Indeed, a chief’s house, in the olden time, might truly be called a house “of many colours;”728 which, within, were artistically and laboriously displayed. Of course, there were very many shades of each colour; as, for instance, of white,—from pure white (candidus) to whitish-brown; of yellow,—from bright yellow (gamboge, almost orange) to a faint tint of that colour; and of green,—in its many hues exhibited in the several varying specimens of [51] pounamu (jade), etc. Each tint or shade of colour bore its own peculiar name plainly and naturally, or figuratively, and sometimes both. Their love, or great desire, for the possession of those colours, is best shown in their zealous and heavy labours in seeking and obtaining them (infra).

(2.) Of their fine general discrimination of the various shades and hues and tints of colours.

This, with me, was always a very pleasing subject. The bare present writing of what I have seen and heard serves to conjure up a host of pleasant reminiscences of the long past! indeed, I find it difficult to make a selection from many an interesting narration and discussion,—by night around our bivouac fires in the forest and in the wilderness; by day in travelling, and in resting, and (sometimes) when shut up for days together in their pas through rains and storms and swollen rivers. Foremost, here, I would mention their accurate description of a rainbow, of all its various colours, and of the difference between a bright and a faint one,—of the cause of its being so shown, and of its meaning, too (in their estimation),—and of the animated discussion that would sometimes arise upon it; not unfrequently proved by me to be correct (as to its colours) when a double rainbow appeared,—as then the colours were inverted. Their quick discernment of the iridescent hues of the feathers of a pigeon’s neck glancing in the sunshine, when snugly ensconced aloft among the foliage of a tall white pine tree; and their subsequent accurate description of them, and their comparison of those changing tints (as to colours) with the ever-varying nacreous ones of the mother-of-pearl of shells (particularly Haliotidæ729 and some Trochidæ), and with the delicate evanescent hues of the bellies of several fishes when first caught,—as the mackerel, the scad, and the elephant-fish; and also with the prismatic bubbles and scum of coal-tar floating away on the calm surface of the tide,—which, on a few occasions, some of my own domestic travelling Maoris had early seen at the Bay of Islands. Also, when sitting, resting on the edge of a cliff near the sea, to note their observations on the changes in the colours of its surface caused by a [52] passing cloud; and then to hear of how, in former days, the proper skilled scout730 perched on a cliff would descry the approaching shoal of mackerel, or kahawai, or other annual summer fish, from the change in the colour of the sea, and would direct accordingly the takers with the big seine nets in their canoes.731 From similar positions, too, we ourselves, when perched on the cliffy heights overlooking the deeply-embayed tidal arms and reaches of the sea,—whether at the Bay of Islands, on the many inlets and branches of the Kawakawa, Waikare, Waitangi, or Kerikeri rivers,—or at Rangaunu,—or at Whangaruru, or at Ngunguru,—or at Kaipara!—or at Whangarei, with its multitude of inlets, creeks and branches,—we ourselves have often received great benefits from their accurate sight, well-knowing, even from a distance, the precise state of the tide on those muddy flats and in those mouths of rivers below, and that solely from the hue of the water there; and, in so-doing we were often saved a considerable part of what was always a disagreeable job. For, in all those places, owing to there being no beaches, and the banks clothed with dense vegetation to the water’s edge, with a belt, or thicket, of close-growing outlying mangroves, the usual rise and fall of the tide could not be seen.

Their quickness of vision also instantaneously and correctly detected what kind of fish it was that had fleetly passed us at sea, when out together in our boat or canoe, and that more from its peculiar colour, than from its form and manner of swimming. And so with their small fresh-water fishes, many of which closely resemble each other (including not only the various species, but, also, the differing varieties of those species, some of which also change their colours with age, as well as before and after the spawning season); these were all respectively known by their hues and mottlings, and each kind and variety bore its proper distinctive name. More than once, in my early travelling, has some kind Maori with me (either before or behind, in the long straggling single file), gathered a flowering branch of Solanum aviculare, and of Wahlenbergia gracilis, and of W. saxicola, and kept it for me; because his quick eye had noticed the change of colour in their flowers, from blue, and from lilac to white; which change in those two genera is not unfrequently the case: and not unfrequently was my attention loudly called to a large spider (of the species so very common and unpleasant in the open shrubby wilderness) whose main colouring and markings were different from others. Sometimes, also, in our journeyings, we should find a few large stray tail or wing feathers (generally one at a time), all more or less of a common brown colour, but with different light [53] or dark markings; these would be collected and preserved, and talked over, and decided by the older men to belong to the parrot, sparrow-hawk, common hawk, long-tailed cuckoo, wood-hen, bittern, etc., etc. And here I may mention (as being probably but little known), that each separate feather (primaries) of the wing, and also of the tail, bore its own distinct and proper name. Distant trees, whether standing alone, or in clumps and thickets, or growing with others in the forests, were also accurately known by their colour—their peculiar and specific hue of green. So were distant plains, and marshes, and open hills of a country wholly unknown to us; which, sometimes, lay before us, stretching out some miles away! Such would be sure to form an interesting theme to all of us; particularly to my Maori companions, who (poor fellows) always had to traverse those unknown and trackless wilds,—hills, plains, and marshes,—with bare feet and legs; not to mention our often not knowing where sunset would find us travelling, and so compel us to halt for the night. From their general hues alone the Maoris could accurately tell whether those far-off unknown places were covered with a vegetation of fern732 or flax,733—dwarf kahikatoa734 or mangrove,—toetoe735 or raupo,736wiwi737 (species) or toetoeupokotangata,738—or, if of grasses, whether patiti739 or raumoa.740

A remarkable instance of their detection of a change of colour in the distant and unknown landscape, I may briefly relate,—especially as it completely bothered us all at first sight! It happened in 1845, when I first visited the South Taupo country from Hawke’s Bay. On this occasion we were without a guide; we had advanced some way into the interior, and had just sighted the high open lands of Taruarau, when the strange general hue of their vegetation bearing a slightly reddish cast immediately attracted our attention. That country was then wholly unknown to all of us, and so was its vegetation; moreover, it was trackless. Among my party were some Maoris who had travelled much with me throughout the island, but we had never before noticed anything like that. Some of the party said one thing, and some another, and there was a long and earnest discussion carried on, while we were slowly journeying thither, as to what it could possibly be. Arriving there we found the reddish colour to be caused by a low red sedgy Cyperaceous plant, with long narrow grass-like leaves, a species of Uncinia,741 which gave the prevailing reddish hue to the vegetation round about. [54]

But, far above all, their fine discrimination of delicate hues and shades was correctly shown in their nice distinction of the various tints of the flesh of the several kinds of kumara and of taro when cooked; also, of the varieties (in colour) of the koroi berry (fruit of the kahikatea—white pine tree), and of the karaka berry (Corynocarpus lævigata) in their stages of ripening; and of the several shades and hues of their dressed flax during the drying and bleaching process; for all of which colours, or fine shades of colour, they had distinctive names. And here I may relate a notable incident which once happened; it pleasingly surprised me at the time, and often since on recollection. I was travelling, as usual, in 1845, on the coast, and was staying at Mataikona, near Castle Point, then a populous village. In talking with one of the oldest chiefs of the place about the taro plant, and its varieties, he said that he had long ago seen and cultivated the sort called Wairuaarangi,742 but that it had long been lost to them. Now I had also known that peculiar sort when residing at the north, and I had more than once noticed the delicate and curious pinkish hue of its flesh, so different to the other sorts; and wishing to test my old friend’s knowledge, I enquired particularly of him its colour, and his answer was a beautiful one, so clearly expressive; he replied,—“I tu-a-kowhewhero tona kiko.” A phrase exceedingly difficult to render as briefly into English; but meaning, that its flesh had a pinkish appearance.743

(3.) Of their names for colours, and their various shades.

Here I would first observe:—

(1.) That, according to the genius of their expressive language, many common nouns are as largely used for indicating a single species, or peculiar [55] individual of a family,744 as they are for a stirps, family, or genus; and commonly so by way of laconism, ellipsis, abbreviation, or carelessness; always, however, perfectly well understood among themselves. Hence, owing to this common usage, appellatives and proper names become gradually dropped, and fall into abeyance; though, as the Maoris formerly were, never wholly forgotten.

(2.) That being a truly natural observant race, and fully acquainted with nature, they often, or generally, used her peculiar productions and appearances to express colour, or the exact hue of colour required;—there was no mistake here, among themselves. For in the highest minds a single descriptive word, or sign, is sufficient to evoke crowds of shadowy associations.

(3.) That from the particular shade of colour of a thing, they often gave to other and very opposite things their names,745 as in the foregoing example of the pink-fleshed taro. [56]

(4.) That their principal proper terms for colours were often compounded ingeniously and beautifully, in accordance with the expression and idiom of their language:—

(a.) By reduplication, and by half doubling:

(b.) By adding qualifying adjectival terms for intensifying or lessening; the power of which was further heightened or lowered according to their position;

(c.) By the aid of several apt particles of different degrees:

(d.) By other expressions also adjoined, of admiration, or depreciation. (See Paradigm, Appendix I.)

5. That certain colours took their own proper intensitives, etc., which could not be used with other colours.

(4.) Of their great labour, patience, thoughtfulness, and skill, exhibited in their seeking after and obtaining the various shades of colours; often labouring to a nicety to procure them.

Hence (after many trials) they had succeeded in getting their brilliant black and red dyes; the former, in particular, being often envied by their early discoverers and visitors and their several European peoples. And here (as I have formerly observed when treating on another subject), we [57] must never lose sight of this great, this astonishing fact, namely, that the ancient Maoris knew not of the use of iron nor of any metal, neither had they any vessel which would stand fire!

Nevertheless they knew that by a second or even a third process, as well as by the application of heat in dyeing, they should increase the depth of the colour sought. To me it was really a wonderful sight to see a woman patiently engaged in her work of this kind; (take an instance)—with nothing better at very best than a large paua shell (Haliotis iris), with its natural holes artificially stopped up, as a vessel to hold her dye-liquid (red-brown) and the article to be dyed, but only a very small quantity at a time of yarns of flax (Phormium) scraped and beaten and carefully prepared,—this shell with its contents was warily placed on hot embers to raise it to boiling heat, and to keep it so, and there long and carefully watched and tended, and the few yarns in it taken out and repeatedly tried, until the proper shade of colour sought was obtained! which done, the operation had to be frequently carried out until a sufficient quantity of threads were died. Such always served to remind me of what we are told by Pliny746 and others, respecting the tedious process followed by the women of Tyre in obtaining the famed Tyrian purple dye from the murex shell-fish,—“a tiny drop from each living fish!”

(5.) Of their light colours.

These were various, and were both natural and artificial.

The natural ones were several; namely, of pure white,—the snow, the clouds, and the surf; the large white-leaved pukapuka shrub (Brachyglottis repanda), and the peculiar white-fronded fern-tree (Cyathea dealbata); and, strange to say, such out-of-the-way recondite objects as the white milky sap of the plant Euphorbia glauca, and the white meat (flesh) of the tail of the crayfish when cooked, and, also, the whiteness of living human teeth (all these I have heard used by way of naming, or of comparison); the plumes of the white heron, and of the gannet; the small downy feathers of the albatros, and of several gulls and terns; also, of another shade of white, the very thin and delicate epidermis of the long leaves of the tikumu plant (Celmisia mackaui), and the prized long hair of the tails, and also the skins, of their little white dogs. Of yellows, the long flowering reeds, or culms (kakaho), of the toetoe plant (Arundo conspicua); and the harsh leaves of the gamboge-coloured pingao (Demoschœnus spiralis).

The artificial ones were also many, and were obtained in various ways, mostly by washing and beetling, and by bleaching; namely, their dressed flax fibre and yarns for weaving their mats, and for twisting into cords, [58] lines, and threads, of almost all light hues,—from that of a light fawn, and a whitish-brown, to a dirty or dull white; their selected flax strips, tassels, and fringes, with the yellow epidermis unbroken save at regular distances; the narrow bleached strips of the leaves of the kiekie plant (Freycinetia banksii); the bleached inner bark of the celebrated aute (paper mulberry), and, also, the inner bark of the little autetaranga shrub (Pimelea arenaria).

And so particular were they (at times), that I have known them to patiently undo their panels of laced-up reed-work, after having laboriously fixed them up in their places in the chiefs’ houses, merely to take out a stained reed or two which did not harmonize in colour with the adjoining ones;—though this portion of that work (i.e., the proper selection of the reeds) was usually done by going over them one by one, and by joining them telescope-fashion, before they were carried off to be fixed in their proper places. And just so the women, in the weaving of their best dress mats (one of which always took a long time, often over 2–3 years), they strove hard to have the bleached yarns of flax in the body of the fine garment, though prepared at different times and seasons, all of one hue of colour throughout; often while weaving it rejecting a yarn or strand on account of a slight difference in the colour. Indeed, so sharp were their well-trained eyes at this work, that they could distinguish a difference in the shade or hue of the flax-yarns and threads when I could not.

Two little incidents, illustrating their high powers of discerning the light shades of colours, may here be mentioned. (1.) Nearly 50 years ago, when some of the Maoris had learned to write, and paper for that purpose was in high request, they preferred the white or cream-coloured paper to the foolscap writing paper having a light cast of blue, though the Mission annual supply of writing paper was composed of this latter sort, and it was stouter and stronger and better fitted for their use. (2.) When the first canaries were introduced into New Zealand, and the few Maoris who had seen them in the Bay of Islands were describing them to their friends who had not seen them, and some said the colour of the new bird was that of the kowhai747 flowers (Edwardsia grandiflora), others corrected them by saying, “No; not so; rather that of the paler whanariki” (sulphur), with which, in its pure native state, they were well acquainted.

The beautiful natural light colours of the bellies of several living fishes—–silvery, dead white, slightly iridescent, and with a faint tinge of blue,—were also much noticed and remarked on; and so were the light colours, internal and external, of several shells; insomuch that not a few of them had early passed into their proverbs and songs.748 Hence, too, they were [59] quick at detecting any light coloured variation in the plumage of birds, (well-knowing the few genera that sometimes produced albinos), and in the foliage, and fruits, and wood of plants, as well as in shells; all such, and every variety of colour, bore its own proper name.

A little botanical incident bearing on this subject may be briefly told:—On one of Mr. A. Cunningham’s visits to New Zealand, he went to the kauri forests botanizing. While there he heard from his intelligent Maori companions of two kinds of kauri known to them, but only by the difference in their names, arising from the variety in colour of their timber. This set him on the search after the new Dammara pine, No. 2! but after much toil and enquiry, and the obtaining of a quantity of foliage specimens, he gave it up, concluding that such slight difference in colour (which did exist) might arise from the soil, or situation, or from the varying specimens of timber having been cut from both the sunny and the shady sides of the same tree; this latter opinion, however, the Maoris (and the few European sawyers then at work among them) always denied. It was one of my dear friend’s last bequests to me to follow that enquiry up; but, like himself, I never could make anything of it. There is, however, a difference in the colour of some of the kauri timber, exclusíve of the prized “mottled” kind, for which the old Maoris had, as usual, their own proper distinctive names.

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