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No. 37 (December 1961)
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BOOKS

OLD MAORI MARRIAGE
CUSTOMS COME TO LIFE
IN SCHOLARLY ESSAY

Maori Marriage, an essay in reconstruction, by Bruce Biggs. The Polynesian Society Incorporated. 21/-.

Curiosity about the past can be satisfied up to a point by visits to libraries, picture galleries and museums. If you can spare the time, you may learn a little about “their” fish-hooks, weapons, tools, art, architecture, garments, ornaments, burial chests, and the long canoe riding at anchor in the sea of glass cases. But even then, you will be lucky if you can make more than a few wild guesses as to what “they” were really like in that time and place. Take for instance customs concerning birth, death, marriage. For information about such matters, we are dependent on the work of specialists like Dr Biggs, whose painstaking research and careful interpretations of available data are aimed at a reconstruction of the intangible past.

It would be impossible within the scope of this review to discuss fully all the aspects of Maori marriage which Dr Biggs describes with his scholarly pen, but a glance at the chapter headings and sub-headings will give you an idea of how wide he has cast his net and how carefully he has sorted out the catch. He begins by examining Maori attitudes to sex in general. ‘Sex was not restricted to any one department of life but rather permeated all aspects of it. Sexual symbolism is common in the decorative art and the mythology divides all of nature into male and female … No premium was placed upon virginity …. Sexual intercourse was not a sin, though it was often a social offence when it occurred between the wrong persons.”

Passing on to the range of marriage, Dr Biggs tells us that marriages within the hapu were the most favoured, that while most matches were arranged, “marriages stemming from tolerated liaisons were probably very common among those below the highest rank …. A usual way of announcing their intention to marry was for the young couple to remain sleeping late in some place where they would be sure to be discovered.' There seems to be considerable doubt about the practice of a marriage rite, but it was necessary for the whole community to be informed of a young couple's intention to form a permanent relationship, and to agree to the match. This was done by discussions preceding the marriage followed by a formal handing over of the bride, but in the case of an irregular marriage a satisfactory agreement was reached only after the aggrieved family, usually the girl's, had sent a taua muru (quarrelling party) against the other family, demanding compensation. “It is not as if a woman were a thing of small worth. Remember that food comes from the sea, sea-food from the net, and man from woman.” It was a decided asset for a wife to come of a wealthy family or hapu, especially if her husband's position demanded lavish entertaining and hospitality. What was hers was also his. “Chiefs of importance possessed more than one wife.” Dr Biggs quotes an early observer as saying, “the chiefs take them rather for their manual services than for the charms of their persons or the endearments of their society.”

In the chapter, Marriage as a Procreative Institution, Dr Biggs gives us some extremely interesting accounts of the rites and ceremonies associated with conception, pregnancy, and birth, and it includes the author's translations of some of the spells used on such occasions. This is part of the Hine-te-iwaiwa spell for cases of difficult childbirth—

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“A child of whom?

A child of idle amusement.

A child of whom?

A child of adultery, of illicit liaison …”

It was believed that difficult childbirth was due either to some breach of tapu or to adultery, and until the woman had confessed the name of the true father and his genealogy had been recited, the child would not come forth. It must have been a rather grim business for all concerned. Children were usually welcome and shown much affection and indulgence, a fact commented upon by some of the early missionaries whose memories of their own Victorian upbringing would no doubt be very different. Marriage could be dissolved by desertion, because of adultery, and of course by death. “It was not unusual for widows to commit suicide in their excessive grief … husbands might commit suicide on the death of a wife, but I have found no record of an instance.” Remarriage was expected of widows, and it was possible, too, for deserted or deserting wives, providing that they weathered the storm.

Dr Biggs completes his study with an appendix in both English and Maori, written by Wiremu Maihi Te Rangi-Koheke of the Arawa tribe about 1850. It is a detailed account of courtship, liaison ending in an irregular marriage, a taua muru, pregnancy, birth, and the associated rites. Here at last is what we have been searching for, the lost

past recovered and “they”—the true and only owners of those museum goods—brought to vivid life, speaking and moving across the printed page. It is not clear if Dr Biggs is the translator, but whoever it is should be commended for such a masterly piece of prose.

Apart from being a rare source of information about Maori marriage customs, Dr Biggs' book is an exercise in social anthropological research based on certain theories and hypotheses. It is, as the sub-title tells us, An Essay in Reconstruction. Dr Biggs is not, thank heaven, one of those anthropologists who are apt to turn up their noses at any data which has not been dug up, cannot be carbon-dated, or neatly labelled and mounted. In his opening chapter, Dr Biggs stresses the value of accounts by early observers (both European and Maori), myth and legend, historical tradition, poetry and genealogies, as source material, and discusses at some length how such material can most profitably be used. With his training in linguistics (a Ph.D. at Indiana University and field work in the New Guinea Highlands) and his knowledge of the Maori language (the first teacher of the Maori language in the University of N.Z.) as well as his anthropological training, Dr Biggs is uniquely equipped to draw on such material. Some of the Maori texts quoted have not been translated into English before, let alone used as a guide to the structure and dynamics of Maori society. It must be said, however, that Dr Biggs' verifications of theory, method and source, couched in technical terms and involved syntax, may prove difficult and exasperating to the reader who is primarily interested in learning what Maori marriage consisted of rather than how the author tackled his job. On the other hand, the book is the first of a series of Monographs on Maori culture published by the Polynesian Society, and should be accepted as such. It will be of inestimable value to students in the field, and it is to be hoped that the authors who complete the series will be able to maintain the high standard set by Dr Biggs.

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Mr Whatarangi Winiata, from Otaki, who studied for an advanced accountancy degree in Michigan, U.S.A., under a Rotary scholarship until last July, came for a flying visit to New Zealand this winter, addressed a number of Rotary Clubs throughout the country, left for Michigan again for a further two years under a Ngarimu scholarship to do a doctorate in the field of business administration. It is perhaps less well-known that before departing he added further to a notable career by marrying Miss Frances Winifred Aretama, granddaughter of Tokoaitua Morrison. This charming young lady was a Rotorua representative basketballer for five years and won North Island selection. She has gone to Michigan now with her husband.