In June 1853, a settler from Tasmania, Australia, called Edwin Meredith scouted the Hawke’s Bay region of New Zealand for suitable land to graze his sheep. June was the first month of winter and he was forced to take shelter from the rain wherever he could find it.
I had only about 20 miles to ride to reach Waipukurau but ….. my poor horse was completely knocked up as the result of his previous day’s experience [stuck in a bog and dragged out with difficulty]. There was nothing for it but to put my saddle and bridle in a flax bush and walk on in the hope of finding shelter before dark, for I was wet through.
It was raining steadily and the country around did not afford a tree or bush to break the wind and rain, or fuel for a fire. With my rug on my back I arrived at the Waipukurau Pah. Having satisfied myself that there was no European habitation in the neighbourhood, I had no alternative but to take refuge from the rain and cold of a winter’s night in one of the many whares* within.
I made for a large one, about the low entrance to which I saw a number of men standing or going to and fro. It was my first experience of being in a large Maori Pah [fenced or fortified village] and I can hardly recall the circumstance without a shudder. Not that I feared any evil treatment but to be the only European in the midst of about 300 savages, the majority of whom were, or had been, cannibals and whose every feature was made hideous by tattooing – to witness the gesticulations which accompanied loud and rapid utterances in harsh gutteral tones emphasised by savage excitement might, or might not, be the prelude to something still more exciting. I was subsequently informed that there had been a pig-hunt that day on a large scale, and in all probability I had been listening to a somewhat theatrical recital of the adventures of the day’s sport.
I sat crouched upon my rug and, though occupying a conspicuous position near the doorway in a large room occupied by perhaps 50 men, none appeared to take the slightest notice of me – till my eye lighted on a man who had been especially voluble and, from the time he subsided and sat down, never took his eyes off me. Every atom of his face was tattooed and I could not help tracing in the expression of his disfigured features something malignant. I had remarked, while he was tossing his arms about in delivering his address, that he had only one hand.
Having scrutinized me long and intently, to my great relief he disappeared. I hoped that he would not return and, as no one seemed to notice me, I was about to roll myself in my rug, wet and cold as I was, when suddenly I was startled by a tap from behind upon my shoulder. On looking around, there stood the man whose gaze had been so repulsive to me, holding in his hand a clean new shirt and a pair of trousers. With the stump of the other arm he touched my wet clothes, motioning to me by signs to take them off and put on those he had brought. Never in my life had I been so rebuked for my misjudgment.
‘Reminiscences and experiences of an early Colonist’, Edwin Meredith, 1898.
*whare = house, building, residence.
There is a town at Waipukurau today but there was only the Pa in 1853.
Follow the link to learn more about Ta moko – Maori tattooing.