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«Mediating Revenge: Utu and Māori war captives Hazel Petrie Abstract Popular misapprehensions typecasting Māori society as being in a constant state ...»

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Mediating Revenge: Utu and Māori war captives

Hazel Petrie


Popular misapprehensions typecasting Māori society as being in a constant state of

retaliatory warfare have been strengthened by translations of the word ‘utu’ as

revenge. Revenge implies a negative, probably hostile response, whereas utu can

also be a positive response to an act of friendship. Cultural difference has

confounded misunderstandings. Translation is not a simple matter of replacing a

word in one language with that of another if that other language and culture have no real equivalent. Utu could be glossed simply as ‘to make a response’, but a better definition might be ‘to restore balance or maintain mana (authority and power)’. Mana is the fundamental basis of chiefly leadership in Māori society. It has a spiritual source, tapu, and can be inherited or acquired through achievement but can also be weakened or lost. Injuries or even insults, often considered trivial by European observers, could represent a serious attack on the mana of the victim or their tribal group, the maintenance of which was essential to the integrity of descent groups. Satisfaction for offences was often gained by non-violent means but, when that did not succeed and warfare ensued, it was nonetheless aimed at resolving the conflict and restoring stable peace. Consequently, warfare, which offered an opportunity to reclaim lost mana, played an important role in inter- group relations. Military success restored or enhanced the mana of the victor, but captivity and enslavement represented a massive loss of tapu and mana for the defeated. This paper will discuss the concept of utu with particular attention to the variety of circumstances in which war captives (typically referred to in English as ‘slaves’) found themselves and how their treatment was tailored to fit the circumstances, maintain balance, and restore peace. In doing so, it will also consider claims that Christian teaching ended intertribal warfare and captive- taking.

Key Words Māori, slavery, utu, revenge, mana, war captives, cross-cultural *****

1. Introduction Despite the word having positive as well as negative connotations, the perception of pre-colonial Māori as constantly seeking ‘utu’ in the sense of revenge and consequently being in a perpetual state of inter-tribal warfare persists. The prevalence of such ideas in popular and academic arenas underscores the difficulties not merely of translation but of fully comprehending culture-specific concepts. Misapprehensions have been strengthened by poor translation and the loss of many early texts so that the original Māori words, translated as revenge, are Mediating Revenge: Utu and Māori war captives no longer recoverable.1 This is an important consideration because, despite frequent rendering as revenge, utu more properly means to restore balance and harmony. Other common assumptions are that Christian teachings were responsible for ending both intertribal warfare and slavery in Māori society, but the reality may not be so simple. Angela Ballara, who undertook a comprehensive study of Māori attitudes to warfare in the early nineteenth century, responded to scholarly predecessors who claimed that Māori society lacked ‘institutionalized processes for the redress of wrongs’, by arguing that the joint mechanisms of warfare and its related peacekeeping initiatives actually constituted such institutions.2 Taking the treatment of war captives as a point of reference, this paper will suggest that the restoration of balance was the natural precursor to peace and that Christian teachings were less the key catalyst for change than a means to an end.

2. Utu, mana, and tapu Utu operates to maintain or enhance mana (authority and power), the fundamental and all-important basis of leadership in Māori society. Derived from the ancestor gods, the source of mana is tapu — a powerful spiritual property or state of untouchability. The mana of powerful chiefs empowered them to wield spiritual forces that protected the tribal groups under their leadership but could also harm those who breached their tapu — whether tribal members or not. However, although mana can be inherited or acquired through achievement, it can also be weakened or lost. Hence the importance of utu.

Maintaining mana was vital for group wellbeing. But, because the key purpose of utu was to restore balance it was also important not to go too far in taking revenge or seeking compensation for wrongs and equally important not to be so generous that the receiver of largesse would be unable to respond sufficiently. If a chief or his tribe wanted to damage the mana of another, it could be done just as effectively by overwhelming them with gifts or hospitality they could not reciprocate.

Although wrongs always demanded utu, non-violent means of resolving conflicts were preferred. Disputes might be settled through pre-emptive peacemaking but another method of avoiding warfare was muru, a form of ritual plunder or process of restorative justice. However, when such systems failed to satisfy, human sacrifice or warfare might be necessary.

Some customary responses may seem unjust to non-Māori. For example, when a Te Whanau-a-Apanui chief who had joined his tribe’s Whakatohea allies was killed fighting the people of Whakatane, his people sought utu, not from Whakatane but Whakatohea because their request for support had led to his death.3 Similarly, when a chiefly woman was killed by a fall from a horse, the horse was killed as utu.4Other responses strike Westerners, who privilege individual responsibility, as abhorrent. But in communal societies, responsibility is Hazel Petrie communal, the blame and penalty falling to all members of the culprit’s group as the loss of mana impacts all members of the victim’s group. The greater the mana of the victim, the greater the loss to the group. Nor did Māori law distinguish between injury and mere harm. Whether the hurt was deliberate or inadvertent, utu was required. As one man explained with regard to pre-Christian times, it was


to kill someone in revenge for the death of a relative, and provided that someone was killed it did not matter whether the person who committed the crime or others suffered for it.5 Because the culprit’s people would want to avoid sacrificing one of their own, they might prefer to substitute a surrogate and a ‘slave’ (war captive) from another tribe could serve as payment. But a life for a life was not necessarily sufficient. The life of a chief was not equivalent to that of a slave or commoner so several captive deaths might be necessary to restore balance following the loss of a chief.

Moreover, unrequited killings did not go away with time. Obligations for utu might remain for generations and it would be incumbent on descendants to obtain satisfaction for outstanding wrongs. Nevertheless, observed practice indicates that the level of compensation was typically measured against the seriousness of the offence. It was not tika or correct to take too heavy retribution for offences committed.

When all else failed, warfare served to avenge insults or murder, settle disputes, or achieve political dominance. But whereas military success restored or enhanced the mana of the victor, captivity and enslavement represented a massive loss of tapu and mana for the defeated. A large number of enslaved captives symbolised the high status of successful tribal leaders and the degraded, subservient state of the vanquished. War captives were typically assigned jobs that were both menial and tapu-destroying — such as making fires, preparing and cooking food. Cooked food is noa, the antithesis of tapu, and people of rank had to keep well clear of places where food was cooked. Thus the availability of captive labour allowed the conquerors to maintain their tapu and mana while destroying that of the defeated.

But, having said that, the lives of captives varied greatly from menial drudges or mistreated concubines to favoured wives or trusted companions.

3. Appropriate conditions of captivity Being captured by the enemy might not mean instant ‘slavery’. In the worstcase scenario, captives taken back to the conquerors’ home could be killed immediately by grieving widows of fallen warriors. On the other hand, people with desirable skills were occasionally taken selectively so their captors might take advantage of their talents. Men with expertise in carving or tattooing might be valued and respected as young beautiful women could gain status as beloved Mediating Revenge: Utu and Māori war captives secondary wives. And captives of either sex could become close friends and confidantes of their masters and mistresses, especially if they were of chiefly birth.

It is also evident that captives of high rank were typically treated differently from commoners and there are many accounts of victors recoiling from manhandling chiefly opponents in the aftermath of battle. The capture of a chief might be a lawful act of justice by one equal to another but ‘for any common person to lay violent hands on the sacred person of a chief, even one destined for the oven, was highly offensive to Māori susceptibilities’.6 Much like the American Civil War, the New Zealand wars of the 1860s pitted family against family, tribe against tribe. Following one 1864 battle, therefore, those who had fought in support of the government were very reluctant to surrender their prisoners to the Crown. The remarks of one leader reflect the feeling that by having given them military support, the British should not expect

further sacrifice:

We have fought for the Queen and for the protection of the Pakehas [settlers]. We have killed … many of our nearest relations and friends.

We have taken others of them prisoners. Have we not done enough …’?

They were especially concerned for the Hauhau (anti-government) chief Raimona who, as they said, was ‘nearly related to every Chief of this river, to all of us’ and

repeatedly asked for his release:

–  –  –

So they sought to avoid desecrating his tapu through physical contact and tipping the balance of reasonable revenge.

It was not a new phenomenon for Māori combatants to find themselves set against kinfolk on the battlefield. However, the deferential treatment of chiefly relatives and the capture of Raimona confirm that such situations required delicate handling. Edward Tregear described a process sometimes employed to obviate the enslavement of chiefs, nearly related to both sides, who were likely to be captured in battle. He wrote that when one of the contending armies was about to be routed, the leader of the victors was permitted to call out the name or names of certain warriors among the enemy. If one of those immediately accepted the invitation and joined them, he was treated as a visitor rather than a prisoner and often as a highlyhonoured guest.8 That practice would have avoided the humiliation of chiefly kinsmen. Unrelated, chiefs were, perhaps, more often killed than taken prisoner but it does seem that, when captured, they were treated with greater respect than more lowly folk and might be treated as ‘hostages’ rather than prisoners or slaves with a Hazel Petrie view to a subsequent diplomatic resolution.9 To mistreat a captive of rank from the opposing tribe would likely defeat the aim of re-establishing balance.

Polygamy was the norm for men of rank and diplomatic marriages with a chiefly woman from the contending party could seal the peace when hostilities ceased. Captive women of any rank might be taken as secondary wives by the victors but were not necessarily deemed ‘slave’ wives and might be accorded chiefly status.10 The same might apply, albeit less often, to men taken as husbands by a woman on the winning side.11 Because people of rank were tapu in their physical person, items in contact with their body were imbued with that tapu. So, by placing a garment, usually their cloak, over someone about to be slain, they could indicate that the individual was now under their mana and protection.12 They were spared but consequently owed obeisance to the cloak’s owner. In similar vein, it is recorded that when a particular pā (fortified settlement) was taken and the chief captured, the conquering chief spread his cloak on the ground and invited the defeated leader to sit on it. By agreeing to do so, he not only saved his own life but those of his people who would likely become a vassal tribe.13 Similar policies allowed a member of a war party who had relatives among the people about to be attacked to go ahead and warn them of the approaching danger.14 The same applied when the first war party was approaching the tribal settlement from which they sought utu. They would not attack until they had been seen by their intended victims.15 An expectation of military fairness surely lay behind the response of the leading chief at the battle of Rangiriri in 1863, who initially declined the opposing British general’s call for surrender saying: ‘Ho mai he paura’ (‘Give us some gunpowder’) as they had run out but hoped to continue the fight.16

4. Maintaining chiefly mana As in the case of human sacrifice, maintaining chiefly dignity or mana, was quite often at the expense of war captives. So if a person of rank was suspected of theft, a slave was likely to take the blame. And woe betide a slave who witnessed their master or mistress committing a misdemeanour and blabbed about it for they, too, were likely to face punishment for the damage done to the miscreant’s mana.

The same rules, that is, Māori law, applied to Europeans. That was evident when the Boyd, a British trading ship, arrived at Whangaroa Harbour from Sydney in 1809 with 70 people on board including a young Whangaroa chief named Te Ara. The captain had expected Te Ara to work his passage as a member of the crew but, for reasons lost to time, he refused to follow orders. Whether that refusal was because the work was inappropriate for a man of his rank, because he was ill or incapacitated, or for some other reason is uncertain but we do know that he suffered a flogging and was denied food. When the ship arrived at his home port Mediating Revenge: Utu and Māori war captives and his relatives learned of his mistreatment, the dramatic response, necessary in terms of utu, was unexpected by the crew.

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