Maori cannibalism, the novel

Reading room

A Maori scholar evokes “a difficult history”

my new novel Kawai depicts Maori society in the 1700s, and kaitangata – referred to as cannibalism in ethnographic literature – was an integral part of that society. To ignore it in the novel would be to be unfaithful to what I know of this period.

The scene quoted below is one of the few in the story where the kaitangata is mentioned. Cannibalism has its own life in the historiography that emanates from Europe. This does not necessarily convey a deeper Maori understanding of the term. But at the same time Kawai don’t shy away from the difficult story, I must remind the reader that this scene is taken from a novel. Yes, the novel is based on many true stories, but it is still a work of fiction.

Why did I include kaitangata in the novel? Because it was what it was. I have a research experience that spans nearly 40 years, during which time I have had access to closely guarded tribal and family manuscripts. Early in my adult life, I had a research job that required me to read volumes of evidence recorded in the original Native Land Court records. These had been written during the last three decades of the 19th century. They captured statements of examples from the culture, many of them between 70 and 80 years old.

At the time, I was also part of a group familiar with the oral traditions of our people. Our elders, some of whom were veterans of the 28th Maori Battalion, spoke to us knowing that we had been brought up in the same cultural value system as them and that they had a cultural obligation to teach us our history without picking, for what they wore were the last vestiges of our connection to the homeland of Hawaii. We were shown places in our rural landscape called “Umu-a-tel-et-tel”, which means “where so-and-so was cooked”. In an unused enclosure is a huge disc-shaped boulder called an ‘umu-tangata’ (people’s earth oven) which we were warned to avoid, as human flesh had often been cut into it. Such relics and their associated korero have made the past much closer than we thought.

A well-informed elder once told us of an old bedridden man or koroua, who, in the elder’s youth, asked him to fetch kina (sea eggs) from the sea. While he was sorting the tongues of the kina, the koroua ordered him to separate those that looked the reddest and leave them to those who had tasted human flesh. By that, he meant himself. It was in the 1910s. The koroua probably originated in the 1830s when the custom was still practiced.

All of these sources captured evidence of kaitangata, some far more gruesome, if judged from today’s perspective, than anything I described in the novel.

For the young men that we were, the products of Maori boarding schools, accustomed to seeing and witnessing agricultural killings, it was not with revulsion that we received these accounts, but rather with acceptance that they were part of our past culture, before our ancestors had converted to Christianity, and we passed no judgment on them.

Some commentators have written that Māori never pursued the practice out of love, but for revenge against their enemies. That may be true, but there are examples in our oral traditions that point to the killing and consumption of individuals who were less than traditional enemies. Uenuku, for example, upon learning that his wife had committed adultery, dispatched her, cooked her heart, and fed it to their child, Ira, who became known as Ira-kai -putahi (Ira-eater of hearts). I guess it depends on how you define the term enemy or hoariri as it would be said in Maori (angry friend).

The pononga, which I reluctantly translated in the novel as slaves, were sometimes killed for important events like building a house or tattooing a high-ranking man or woman. The Pononga were actually enemies captured in battles or raids and forced into roles of servitude. So somewhere between servant and slave might be closer to the mark.

The scene, taken by itself, can give the wrong impression of what the novel is about and detract from all the other cultural aspects that the book reveals. Most New Zealanders today only see symbolic fragments of this culture and are probably completely unaware of how they were used before Aotearoa was settled.


Pages 45-48 of Kawaiby Monty Soutar: The leader walked regularly among his people over the next few days, offering a word of encouragement here and there. The fruits of their hard work could be seen all over Ngāpō. Temporary dormitories had been erected; groups of older women made harakeke floor mats, baskets and plates; while young girls scraped flax leaves with mussel shells and, together with their mothers, weaved clothes from the remaining fiber to give as gifts to the baby. A shell was a clumsy tool in the hands of a novice, but wonderfully effective in the skilled fingers of the most experienced. The boys picked up garbage while their fathers chopped wood.

Knowing that they would all have a small part to play in his son’s upbringing, the workers happily addressed the young leader as he walked past.

“Tēnā koe i tā tātau tamaiti, e Rangi.” Greetings on the birth of our child, oh chief.

Out of earshot, they discussed the baby’s name. “I bet it will be something to do with Te Maniaroa,” one woman suggested.

“No, their daughter has this cover,” said another.

“It will be Kū, I’m sure,” postulated a third woman. “You look – he will name him after his father.”

“And Kiri’s father?” said another woman. “She will surely want his name on their child.”

“It’s up to him. It will be his father’s name for sure. It will be Kū.” Tāwae was eager to examine the varieties of fish that hung on the trees to dry. He saw hāpuku, tāmure, tarakihi, kahawai and even shark carcasses. All had been surprised by the men observing the rhythms of the moon and offering the appropriate invocation to Tangaroa, the atua of the sea.

The head chef supervised a group of pononga who were busy removing the backbones, heads and tails of eels and hanging them from mānuka railings to dry. Tāwae could almost taste the sweet, succulent meat.

“In five nights,” the cook told him, “we caught nearly four hundred tuna, with a big hīnaki still to be gutted.” Tāwae opened the lid of the wicker basket and salivated at the sight of dozens of slimy, black and silver eels, crawling over, under and around each other.

A few other pā had sent supplies of taro, a starchy food reserved for important people, while others sent sweet kūmara kete. The only delicacies missing from the menu were kererū and kākā preserved in their own fat, as it was not bird hunting season.

The kīnaki or relish had to be provided by an unsuspecting pononga, and this time Wehe did the honors himself. While some of the kai-rākau watched, he walked silently behind a slave girl who was squatting on a large smooth stone making patties of dough from pounded fern. Taking his patu from his belt, Wehe quickly punched her in the back of the skull, the brute force he used ensuring a clean, clean fracture. The woman slumped forward, her limp hair soon saturated with blood.

Turning to the pononga companions, Wehe bellowed, “If I catch anyone else stealing from the kūmara pits, you can expect the same treatment. You two pick her up and take her to the cooking area. Servants rushed over and picked up the body. Wehe then closed in on the remaining three pononga. The men did not look up but pounded their fern harder and harder.

“Not good, huh? one of the pononga said quietly to his companions, his shaggy hair hiding his eyes, which were fixed on Wehe’s feet. He remained motionless for a moment, still clutching his patu. “Ehara te kupu i te papaki mō te pononga: ahakoa hoki ia mātau, e kore ia e rongo,” he said over his shoulder to the kai-rākau. Sometimes slaves cannot be disciplined by mere words. Although they understand, they will not respond.

The trembling pononga in front of him didn’t know if he was next for the earthen oven or if his master was just admiring his handiwork. Wehe tucked his patu back into his belt and walked away, just as a trail of urine came out from under the pononga’s linen kilt.

The chef, a fierce-looking character, waited with his own party of workers and pononga for the two tohunga apprentices to complete their summoning over the slain body. As soon as they finished their karakia, Wehe barked instructions to the cook.

“Make sure it’s not overdone like last time.”

The cook looked back at him.

Wehe and the kai-rākau watched the two pononga lay the body down on a large rock slab. Snap! Snap! Snap! The adze did its job and the head rolled. The dogs, which had gathered instantly at the smell of blood, began to lick the severed neck. Legs and arms were cut off at the joints and two women skillfully boned the thighs before wrapping them in leaves and placing them in a covered basket to prevent flies from reaching them.

“E ta! For God’s sake ! growled the cook, tossing the bones to the dogs. “Just that one, wehe? It won’t be enough.

“It’s for visiting chefs, not for us,” Wehe retorted. “Why don’t you cut down some of those kurī and cook them in the umu as well?” »

“Ha! So what will keep me warm when the cold nights come? I need my dogs,” chuckled the cook. “A warrior can survive on water and fern root if need be,” added one of the kai-rākau. “We’re not sure about you, Cookie – it sounds like you’re eating all the time.”

As the pononga was about to put the last member in the basket, the cook caught it, stuck out his tongue, and pretended to lick it. Then he closed his eyes and smiled to indicate extreme pleasure. The kai-rākau couldn’t contain their mirth, while the other pononga kept their eyes downcast. “The main thing is hospitality,” Wehe said. “Make sure we have a variety of dishes at the feast, and more than enough to send our loved ones home satisfied.”

The cook could see his workers and the pononga handled the torso reluctantly.

“Here I will,” he growled, pushing them aside. Wehe’s men watched with interest as the cook demonstrated his impressive butchering techniques using an obsidian knife and a long-handled adze. The torso was quartered, the entrails removed and given to the dogs, whose powerful jaws tore them apart as their bushy tails wagged wildly.

“You have an easy job,” teased one of the kai-rākau. The cook wiped the sweat from his brow. “Is it easy work? Here you try it.” He offered the knife to the warrior and stepped back, his muscular arms streaked with sweat, blood and visceral fat. The kai-rākau seemed reluctant to accept the challenge.

“Ah . . . no thank you. Really, you’re fine.” His buddies teased him, while the cook smiled.

“Go back to work, men.” Wehe clapped and the kai-rākau left, leaving the kitchen helpers to wash the body parts in a stream of fresh water.

Kāwai: For a time like this by Monty Soutar (Bateman, $40) is available in bookstores nationwide.

Irene B. Bowles