A Basket of Whitebait.
Human nature is the same through all the ages, and a cannibal warrior named Kotiora, who lived in his stockaded village on the shores of Lake Rotoehu, one hundred and fifty years ago, was in essentials no better and no worse than some evil-tempered pakeha bullies whose ways are revealed to us now and again through the medium of the Magistrate’s Court reports.
Kotiora was the overlord of the Rotoehu shores. His spear and mere held sway from Lake Rotoiti on the one side, to Rotoma on the other; and you may see the spot where his fortress stood on the lakeside cliff—if you know where to look—as you motor along the bush road from Rotorua towards Te Teko and Whakatane.
It so befell one day that Kotiora bethought him of an old feud he had with the people who lived on the shores of Rotoiti. He sallied forth with a war-party and scouted up along the wooded cliffs of the most beautiful of lakes until he neared the island-like peninsula Tumoana. With allies from Rotorua, he attacked the fortified village there. The pa was captured, and there was a fearful slaughter. Kotiora returned with much “long pig” for commissariat, and with a great prize in the shapely form of a handsome young woman. This girl, whose name was Te Aoniwaho, he took to wife.
The captive wife dwelt there many moons, at Rotoehu, with her husband, but she was by no means resigned to her fate. Kotiora taunted her more than once with her origin, and bragged of having eaten her relatives. This did not tend to happiness in the whare, and poor Aoniwaho wept many a bitter tear.
The climax of woe for the wahine came one morning when Kotiora was in a surly mood. He ordered his wife to cook him a meal of whitebait, the little inanga, which swarmed in all those lakes before the pakeha trout was introduced.
Aoniwaho prepared her earth-oven, the haangi, and set a flax basket of whitebait therein for the process of steam-cooking. But everything went wrong that morning. When the young wife uncovered the oven, the inanga was not cooked. Some one, perhaps, had put the evil eye on it.
Kotiora shouted from the front of his whare: “Bring me my food.”
“It is not yet cooked,” said Aoniwaho. “I have put it in the haangi again.”
“Bring me my food,” roared the bully. “I am hungry, I say. Bring me the inanga.”page 193 page break page 195
So the poor wife brought the basket of whitebait from the steaming oven and set it before her lord.
Kotiora scooped up a handful and tasted it. Next moment, with a roar of rage, he leaped up from the mat on which he had been squatting. He picked up the basket of whitebait, seized his trembling wife, and capsized the mess over her head.
Then he flung her roughly from him, and stalked off to demand food from one of his tribesmen.
Poor Aoniwaho sat weeping in her whare, her heart swelling with indignation at the insult literally heaped on her. She was a high-born woman, a chief’s daughter, and it was a shocking outrage to throw food upon her sacred head. She wept long, then she dried her tears, and she brooded on revenge.
Late that night she stole down to the lakeside, launched a small, light canoe that lay there, and paddled cautiously up the west arm of Rotoehu. Landing there, she ran swiftly through the forest of Tahuna, along the winding trail that long afterwards came to be known as Hongi’s Track, and came out on the Tapuwae-haruru beach, at the east end of Lake Rotoiti. There she found, among the canoes tied up to posts below the sleeping village of the Ngati-Pikiao folk, another small kopapa, and in this she paddled up the calm, silent lake westward.
Dawn was breaking as Aoniwaho wearily drew up into a quiet little bay below the Whangaikorea pa, on the northern coast of Rotoiti, where her kinsfolk dwelt. The village was roused, the people came wondering into the marae, and there the returned exile told her story.
When she came to describe the terrible insult, the emptying of the whitebait basket on her head, an angry murmur rose, and the chief of the kainga leaped to his feet, and, whirling his stone club about his head, cried: “Whitiki, whitiki! Tatua, tatua!”
It was the call to arms: “Up and gird yourselves for war.”
Every village on the northern and western parts of Rotoiti was roused by messengers in swift canoes, and by night a flotilla of war-craft, crowded with men, was sweeping down the lake for the beach of Tapuwae-haruru, the Sounding Footsteps. In the darkness the war-party filed along the Tahuna bush track. In silence they crept through the forest and along the cliff to the rear of Kotiora’s pa.
The lakeside village slept; Kotiora, the bully, slept. Not a sound but the melancholy morepork, calling his kou-kou to the stars.
Kotiora! (ominous name, it meant “cut up while alive!”) Rouse yourself, Kotiora, if you ever want to taste steamed inanga or roast foeman again! Where are your sentries? All snoring, too!page 196
Kopu, the bright morning star, which the pakeha calls Venus*, swam slowly up above the black forests, and that was the sign for action.
“Kokiri!” It was the charge. With a fearful yell the invaders were up and into the pa. Hot and terrible work for a few moments, then—bring torches! Kotiora had been seized at once, when he leaped, half-dazed, from his mats. His despised wife had not forgotten to describe exactly his sleeping-place.
The Rotoehu village—its name was Nukumaru—was given up to plunder, and then to the flames; its surviving people were flying fugitive through the forest. And soon thereafter big tattooed Kotiora, bully no longer, was lying in the bottom of a canoe, tied hand and foot, listening, with death’s hand very near his heart, to the great war-song of victory yelled by the Rotoiti avengers as they paddled home across their lake.
To the pa at Whangaikorea—a headland now all silent and deserted, a lovely sanctuary of the wilds—the captive chief was taken. There he was set in the marae, the village square, an object for reviling, and there he was killed. His body was cut up, cooked in a steam-oven, and it was eaten by the tribe.
The account was squared—the utu was complete.
It was not usual for the ladies to share in a cannibal meal, but in the interests of poetic justice I hope Aoniwaho was given at least a finger.
So expiated Kotiora his high offence against Maori ethics and the amenities of domestic life. But the trouble, as narrated by old Ereatara, of Ngati-Pikiao, did not end there. Kotiora’s clan carried the vendetta on, and there were canoe excursions and bush raids and reprisals, and much grim exercise with stone mere and wooden spear, and forts were taken and lands seized.
* * *
It seems to me that the old-fashioned way of drawing a moral from a story is not out of place here. At any rate, the tale of Kotiora may hold a lesson for hasty, bearish husbands. Be kind to your Aoniwaho, even though you faint with hunger; deal leniently with her cookery. Restrain your gibes, hurl not her imperfect dishes at her. For the worm may turn; and her relatives may descend and rend you.
* Or Jupiter, as morning star.