My old rangatira at last began to show signs that his time to leave this world of care was approaching. He had arrived at a great age, and a rapid and general breaking up of his strength became plainly observable. He often grumbled that men should grow old, and oftener that no great war broke out in which he might make a final display, and die with eclat…. At last this old lion was taken seriously ill and removed permanently to the village, and one evening a smart handsome lad, of about twelve years of age, came to tell me that his tupuna was dying, and had said he would “go” to-morrow, and had sent for me to see him before he died. The boy also added that the tribe were ka poto, or assembled, to the last man around the dying chief. I must here mention that, though this old rangatira was not the head of his tribe, he had been for about half a century the recognised war chief of almost all the sections or hapu of a very numerous and warlike iwi or tribe, who had now assembled from all their distant villages and pas to see him die. I could not, of course, neglect the invitation, so at daylight next morning I started on foot for the native village, which I, on my arrival about mid-day, found crowded by a great assemblage of natives. I was saluted by the usual haere mai! and a volley of musketry, and I at once perceived that, out of respect to my old owner, the whole tribe from far and near, hundreds of whom I had never seen, considered it necessary to make much of me,—at least for that day,—and I found myself consequently at once in the position of a “personage.” “Here comes the pakeha!—his pakeha!—make way for the pakeha!—kill those dogs that are barking at the pakeha!” Bang! bang! Here a double barrel nearly blew my cap off by way of salute. . . On I stalked, looking neither to the right or the left, with my spear walking-staff in my hand, to where I saw a great crowd, and where I of course knew the dying man was. I walked straight on, not even pretending to see the crowd, as was “correct” under the circumstances; I being supposed to be entranced by the one absorbing thought of seeing “mataora,” or once more in life my rangatira. The crowd divided as I came up, and closed again behind me as I stood in the front rank before the old chief, motionless, and, as in duty bound, trying to look the image of mute despair, which I flatter myself I did to the satisfaction of all parties. The old man I saw at once was at his last hour. He had dwindled to a mere skeleton. No food of any kind had been prepared for or offered to him for three days; as he was dying it was of course considered unnecessary. At his right side lay his spear, tomahawk, and musket. (I never saw him with the musket in his hand all the time I knew him.) Over him was hanging his greenstone mere, and at his left side, close, and touching him, sat a stout athletic savage, with a countenance disgustingly expressive of cunning and ferocity, and who, as he stealthily marked me from the corner of his eye, I recognized as one of those limbs of Satan, a Maori tohunga. The old man was propped up in a reclining position, his face towards the assembled tribe, who were all there waiting to catch his last words. I stood before him and I thought I perceived he recognized me. Still all was silence, and for a full half hour we all stood there, waiting patiently for the closing scene. . . At last, suddenly without any apparent effort, and in a manner which startled me, the old man spoke clearly out, in the ringing metallic tone of voice for which he had been formerly so remarkable, particularly when excited. He spoke. “Hide my bones quickly where the enemy may not find them: hide them at once.” He spoke again—“Oh my tribe, be brave! Be brave that you may live. . . He continued—“I give my mere to my pakeha,”—“my two old wives will hang themselves,”—(here a howl of assent from the two old women in the rear rank)—“I am going; be brave, after I am gone.” Here he began to rave; . . .Then after a short pause—“Rescue! rescue! to my rescue! ahau! ahau! rescue!” The last cry for “rescue” was in such a piercing tone of anguish and utter desperation, that involuntarily I advanced a foot and hand, as if starting to his assistance; a movement, as I found afterwards, not unnoticed by the superstitious tribe. At the same instant that he gave the last despairing and most agonizing cry for “rescue,” I saw his eyes actually blaze, his square jaw locked, he set his teeth, and rose nearly to a sitting position, and then fell back dying. He only murmured—“How sweet is man’s flesh,” and then the gasping breath and upturned eye announced the last moment. The tohunga now bending close to the dying man’s ear, roared out “Kia kotahi ki te ao! . . . Then giving a significant look to the surrounding hundreds of natives, a roar of musketry burst forth. Kia kotahi ki te ao! Thus in a din like pandemonium, guns firing, women screaming, and the accursed tohunga shouting in his ear, died “Lizard Skin,” as good a fighting man as ever worshipped force or trusted in the spear. His death on the whole was thought happy, for his last words were full of good omen:—“How sweet is man’s flesh.”
The two old wives were hanging by the neck from a scaffold at a short distance, which had been made to place potatoes on out of the reach of rats. The shriveled old creatures were quite dead. . .
The two young wives had also made a desperate attempt in the night to hang themselves, but had been prevented by two young men, who, by some unaccountable accident, had come upon them just as they were stringing themselves up, and who, seeing that they were not actually “ordered for execution,” by great exertion, and with the assistance of several female relations, who they called to their assistance, prevented them from killing themselves out of respect for their old lord. Perhaps it was to revenge themselves for this meddling interference that these two young women married the two young men before the year was out, and in consequence of which, and as a matter of course, they were robbed by the tribe of everything they had in the world, (which was not much,) except their arms. They also had to fight some half dozen duels each with spears, in which, however, no one was killed, and no more blood drawn than could be well spared. All this went through with commendable resignation; and so, due respect having been paid to the memory of the old chief, and the appropriators of his widows duly punished according to law, further proceedings were stayed, and everything went on comfortably. And so the world goes round.
…In the afternoon I went home musing on what I had heard and seen. “Surely,” thought I, “if one half of the world does not know how the other half live, neither do they know how they die.”
[#18] Frederick Edward Maning, “The Head, and the Dying Maori Chief and his Old and Young Wives,” Old New Zealand: A Tale of the Good Old Times. Auckland: Robert J. Creighton and Alfred Scales, 1863): 62-63; 214-222.