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James Burney: The Maoris, 1777-73

The Maoris of New Zealand were first encountered by Europeans during Captain Cook's 1772-73 voyage. James Burney (1750-1821),wrote an account of the journey.

These Islands have been described in so satisfactory a manner, that there is no room left for me to hold forth without making frequent repetitions of what has before been said never the less I will venture a word or two & attempt to draw their characters according to my own opinions-

I must confess I was a little disappointed on my first coming here as I expected to find People nearly as white as Europeans. Some of the better sort are tolerably white, more so than a Spaniard or Portugueze, but the generality are of a dark olive Colour. the men are something larger than the common run in England-

The Similitude of Customs & Language scarce admits any doubt of these Islanders being sprung from the same stock as the Zealanders though from the difference of climate & country they are as opposite in their characters as the enervated, luxurious Italians & the rude unpolished Northern Nations of Europe-the Heavoh & Tattow are common to both though practised in different manners-the Islanders have I think, the Advantage of the Zealanders, in their persons, they are likewise very cleanly, washing both before & after every meal, & take a great deal of Pride in their Dress-any thing showy or Ornamental is much more esteemed here than at Zealand-especially by the girls who have almost as much Vanity as the Women of Europe-Hospitality & a love of Society reigns through all these Islands; I never in any of my Rambles met with an unwelcome reception-In short they are a friendly humane people, superior to the Zealanders in many aspects-I mean the men as to the women, they must not be mentiond together unless by way of contrast-they are reckon'd smaller here than the English Women & not in proportion to the men, but take away our high heads & high heels, the difference of Size would not be perceptible-there are much handsomer women in England & many, more ordinary. I mean as to the face-but for fine turned Limbs & well made persons I think they cannot be excelled-I only speak from my own notions, which are not infallible, for I have not the least pretence to set up for a Judge in this case-the Children are in general exceeding beautifull-as they grow up they lose it for want of that care which in Europe is taken to preserve Beauty, they are not in the least afraid "The Winds of the Heavens Should visit their faces too roughly"-were they brought up in the delicate manner European Women are, there would be a great many very fine women amongst these Islands-Colour, in my opinion, has very little to do with beauty provided it be a healthy one it is a handsome one whether fair, brown or black-I question if they have any Idea of Chastity being a virtue-you may see young Girls not more than 12 years old with bellies they can scarce carry-after Marriage they confine themselves to the Husband-if they are caught slipping the Husband commonly sends them home to their Relations, but the Gallant does not escape so well, his life often paying the forfeit of his incontinence. the Independent men, or Aree's are allowed to have 2 wives-If a women after 6 or 7 months cohabitation with her Husband does not prove with Child, their Union, if they please, may be dissolved & each party at liberty to choose another mate. the women always mess by themselves & are seldom allowed to eat flesh-if a girl becomes pregnant the man cannot be forced to marry her. When a man courts any girl for a wife, after having got her relations consent, he sleeps 3 nights at their house-if the bride is a Virgin he is allowed to take no liberties till the 3d Night, though he lyes with her each Night-the 3d Day he makes the Relations a present & the 4th takes the Bride home-they give no portions with the girls unless the Bride's father has no Male children or other Male Relations to bestow his property on. a case which must be very rare in these Islands-


Opune-has but one child (a Girl) living; he has 2 Wives & 3 Concubines-Tereroa's Sister was formerly one of his wives-She has been dead some time his Daughter if She survives him will inherit his Dominions-for he is not likely to have any more Children, being now a very old man but is Still greatly loved by his own Subjects & feared by the other Islands-Opune, in spite of old age & Blindness, (his Eyes being very bad) nevertheless retains all the Chearfullness & Merriment of a Young Man, nor are his people ever happier than when in his Companyhe is a great encourager of their Games & Revels (their Heavah of which I shall Speak presently) & has invented many new ones himself-I have given this Character of him from what Omy says, who stiles him a fighting man & a man of Laughter.-I never saw him-

Of these people's Character, I have as yet shewn you only the fair Side-My partiality towards them shall not induce me to Stop here-As I set down nought in Malice, so will I nothing extenuate.

In their dealings with us they are great thieves, our Goods being of such Value to them, that very few can withstand the temptation of a fair opportunitynevertheless I have slept all Night in their houses 8 miles up the Country, without any attempt being made on me-theft amongst themselves is punished with Death-

They have some very barbarous customs, the worst of which is, when a man has as many children as he is able to maintain, all that come after are smothered: women will sometimes bargain with her husband on her first marrying him, for the Number of Children that shall be kept. They never keep any Children that are any ways deformed-every fifth Child if suffered to live is Seldom allowed to rank higher than a Towtow-yet notwithstanding all this, these Islands are exceeding populous-even the Smallest being full of inhabitants & perhaps were it not for the Custom just mentioned, these would be more than the Islands could well maintain-

Every Island has a high priest, some two, with inferior priests-of this latter Class was Omy-the Being whom they worship they call Mo-wee & sometime offer human sacrifices to him-this is not done at any particular sett times but when Mo-wee requires it-he appears to none but the high priests, who frequently pretend to see him flying-this gives the high priest great power & if he is a man of a vindictive temper, whoever offends him must feel it-Mo-wee always names the person & as soon as his desires are known to the high priest he sends his attendants to dispatch the destined victim who knows nothing of his fate till the minute of his death-having killed him, he is carried to the high Priest, who takes out his Eyes, which Mo-wee eats, & the body is buried-

Before they venture on any extraordinary Expedition, Mo-wee is consulted: if the priest brings bad News it is either laid aside or deferred till better success is promised. Temperance or Chastity is not in the least essential to the high priest's Character, he being at liberty to take any woman he chooses to honour so far, married or unmarried, for as long as he pleases. The great power of the high priest would be very inconvenient for the Chief Aree were it not that they most commonly exercise this office themselves.-The Kingsfisher is one of their inferior deities-& the high priest understands what they say-...


Source: Beverly Hooper, ed., James Burney: With Captain James Cook in the Pacific. (Canberra, Australia: National Library of Australia), pp. 67-68, 72-74.

This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use of the Sourcebook.

© Paul Halsall, October 1998

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