There is not a bay, not a cove, in New Zealand which has not witnessed horrible dramas, and woe to the white man who falls into the New Zealanders’ hands.

Dr. Felix Maynard & Alexandre Dumas, The Whalers, Hutchinson, 1937.

The dreadful Maori custom – or at least occasional habit – of exhuming and eating buried human bodies was also a Fijian custom.

Elsdon Best

In this situation we were not above two cables’ length from the rocks, and here we remained in the strength of the tide, from a little after seven till near midnight. The sea broke in dreadful surf upon the rocks. Our danger was imminent and our escape critical in the highest degree; from the situation of these rocks, so well adapted to catch unwary strangers, I call them ‘The Traps.’

There was not a man aboard Endeavour who, in the event of the ship’s breaking up, would not have preferred to drown rather than be left to the mercy of the Maoris. For as Endeavour slowly circled the North Island, those few words spoken by the Maori boys – ‘Do not put us ashore there; it is inhabited by our enemies who will kill and eat us’ – began to grow into a hideous reality. Yet even as fresh evidence came to light that these people were indeed cannibals, the ship’s company still refused to believe the truth their eyes told them.

Tupia inquired if it was their practice to eat men, to which they answered in the affirmative; but said that they ate only their enemies who were slain in battle. We now began seriously to believe that this horrid custom prevailed amongst them, for what the boys had said we had considered as a mere hyperbolical expression of their fear. But some days later some of our people found in the skirts of the wood, near a hole, or oven, three human hip-bones, which they brought on board: a further proof that these people eat human flesh...

Calm light airs from the north all day on the 23rd November hindered us from putting out to sea as intended. In the afternoon, some of the officers went on shore to amuse themselves among the natives, where they saw the head and bowels of a youth, who had been lately killed, lying on the beach, and the heart stuck on a forked stick which was fixed on the head of one of the largest canoes. One of the gentlemen bought the head and brought it on board, where a piece of the flesh was broiled and eaten by one of the natives, before all the officers and most of the men. I was on shore at this time, but soon after returning on board was informed of the above circumstances, and found the quarter-deck crowded with the natives, and the mangled head, or rather part of it (for the under-jaw and lips were wanting), lying on the taffrail. The skull had been broken on the left side, just above the temples, and the remains of the face had all the appearance of a youth under twenty.

The sight of the head, and the relation of the above circumstances, struck me with horror and filled my mind with indignation against these cannibals. Curiosity, however, got the better of my indignation, especially when I considered that it would avail but little, and being desirous of becoming an eye-witness of a fact which many doubted, I ordered a piece of the flesh to be broiled, and brought to the quarter-deck, where one of the cannibals ate it with surprising avidity. This had such an effect on some of our people as to make them sick. Oedidee, the native who had embarked with us some time before, was so affected with the sight as to become perfectly motionless, and seemed as if metamorphosed into a statue of horror. It is utterly impossible for art to describe that passion with half the force that it appeared in his countenance.

When roused from this state by some of us, he burst into tears, continued to weep and scold by turns, told them they were vile men and that he neither was nor would be any longer their friend. He even would not suffer them to touch him. He used the same language to one of the gentlemen who cut off the flesh, and refused to accept or even touch the knife with which it was done. Such was Oedidee’s indignation against this vile custom; and worthy of imitation by every rational being...

One of the cannibals thereupon bit and gnawed the human arm which Banks had picked up, drawing it through his mouth and showing by signs that the flesh to him was a dainty bit. Tupia carried on the conversation: ‘Where are the heads?’ he asked. ‘Do you eat them too?’ ‘Of the heads,’ answered an old man, ‘we eat only the brains.’ Later he brought on board Endeavour four of the heads of the seven victims. The hair and flesh were entire, but we perceived that the brains had been extracted. The flesh was soft, but had by some method been preserved from putrefaction, for it had no disagreeable smell...

This custom of eating their enemies slain in battle (for I firmly believe they eat the flesh of no others) has undoubtedly been handed down to them from earliest times; and we know it is not an easy matter to wean a nation from their ancient customs, let them be ever so inhuman and savage; especially if that nation has no manner of connexion or commerce with strangers. For it is by this that the greatest part of the human race has been civilized; an advantage which the New Zealanders, from their situation, never had.

One of the arguments they made use of to Tapia, who frequently expostulated with them against this custom, was that there could be no harm in killing and eating the man who would do the same by them if it was in his power. For, said they, ‘Can there be any harm in eating our enemies, whom we have killed in battle? Would not those very enemies have done the same to us?’ I have often seen them listen to Tapia with great attention, but I never found his arguments have any weight with them. When Oedidee and several of our people showed their abhorrence of it, they only laughed at them.

Captain Cook

[Touai, a New Zealand chief who was brought to London in 1818 and resided there for a long time, becoming ‘almost civilized’] confessed in his moments of nostalgia that what he most regretted in the country from which he was absent was the feast of human flesh, the feast of victory. He was weary of eating English beef; he claimed that there was a great analogy between the flesh of the pig and that of man. This last declaration he made before a sumptuously served table. The flesh of women and children was to him and his fellow-countrymen the most delicious, while certain Maories prefer that of a man of fifty, and that of a black rather than that of a white. His countrymen, Touai said, never ate the flesh raw, and preserved the fat of the rump for the purpose of dressing their sweet potatoes...

New Zealanders particularly esteem the brain, and reject the remainder of the head; but an English missionary has reported that Pomare, a chief of the Bay of Islands, ate six entire heads. Chiefs’ heads are usually dried and perfectly preserved by an ingenious process. When a tribe wishes to make peace, it offers the vanquished tribe, as proof of its good intentions, the heads of the chiefs the others have lost. These heads are also articles of commerce in the neighbourhood of the Bay of Islands.

The bones of chiefs are very carefully gathered up, and from them they construct knives, fish-hooks, arrow-points, and points for lances and javelins, as well as ornaments for the toilet. I possess some fish-hooks pointed with very sharp fragments of human bone. Sometimes they detach the hand and the forearm and dry them at a fire of aromatic herbs. The muscles and tendons of the fingers contract so that the whole forms a hook, which they place in their huts for the suspension of baskets and weapons. I have seen several of these used as clothes-pegs. They utilize the remnants of the corpse in this manner in order to cause the family of the chief who is no more to feel that, even after death, he is still the slave of the victor. Before the feast of victory, each warrior drinks the blood of the enemy he has killed with his own hand. The atoua, the god of the conquered, then becomes subject to the atoua of the victors. In the neighbourhood of Hokianga, Hongi ate the left eye of a great chief. According to their belief, the left eye becomes a star in the firmament, and Hongi considered that henceforth his star would be much the more brilliant, and the strength of his sight would be augmented by all that which was possessed by the defunct....

Though the New Zealanders do not conceal their cannibalism, their chiefs sometimes endeavour to excuse themselves for it. ‘The fish of the sea eat one another,’ they say; ‘ the large fish eat the small ones, the small ones eat insects; dogs eat men and men eat dogs, while dogs eat one another; finally, the gods devour other gods. Why, among enemies, should we not eat one another?’

There is usually a suspension of fighting after the death of the first chief to fall in combat. The party which has not lost that leader claims the body of the defunct. If the others are intimidated, they yield it at once, and in addition, the chief’s wife, who is immediately put to death; she even voluntarily yields herself up, if she loved her husband. The priests cut up the corpses, divide them into fragments, and eat some; offering the greater number to their idols, while consulting the gods upon the issue of the present war.

Dr. Felix Maynard & Alexandre Dumas, The Whalers, Hutchinson, 1937.

After battle comes the terrible and revolting episode of the cannibal feast. It is unfortunately impossible to pass it over without notice, for Maori history is too full of allusion and incident connected with the practice for us to avoid mention of description of some of its horrors.

Prisoners taken in the fight were slain in cold blood, except those reserved for slavery – a mark of still greater contempt than being killed for food. Sometimes after the battle a few of the defeated were thrust alive into large food-baskets and thus degraded for ever. As a general rule, however, they were slain for the oven.

In days near our own it is recorded that a chief named Wherowhero ordered 250 prisoners of the Taranaki people to be brought to him for slaughter. He sat on the ground and the prisoners were brought to him one by one to receive the blow of the chief’s mere – a weapon till lately in the possession his son, the late Maori ‘King.’ After he had killed the greater number of them he said, ‘I am tired. Let the rest live.’ So the remainder passed into slavery.

How numerous sometimes these war captives were may be judged by the fact that when Hongi returned from his raid on the southern tribes he brought back 2,000 prisoners to the Bay of Islands. One of the latest cannibal feats of consequence was held at Ohariu, near Wellington, when 150 of the Muaupoko tribe went into the ovens. When the Maoris overcame the gentle Morioris of the Chatham Islands, not only did they keep the captives penned up like live-stock waiting to be killed and eaten, but one of the leading chiefs of the invaders ordered a meal of six children at once to be cooked to regale his friends.

I was shown a part of a beach on the Chatham Islands on which the bodies of eighty Moriori women were laid side by side, each with an impaling stake driven into the abdomen. It is difficult for one not accustomed to savage warfare to note how shockingly callous and heartless this desecration of the human body made the actors in these terrible scenes...

A Maori relating an account of an expedition said, incidentally: ‘On the way I was speaking to a red-haired girl who had just been caught out in the open. We were then on the eastern side of Maunga Whau, Auckland. My companions remained with the girl whilst I went to see the man of Waikato who had been killed. As we came back, I saw the head of the red-haired girl lying in the ferns by the side of the track. Further on, we overtook one of the Waihou men carrying a back-load of the flesh, which he was taking to our camp to cook for food. The arms of the girl were round his neck, whilst the body was on his back.’ If one can mentally picture the scene, with the man striding along, carrying the headless, disembowelled trunk of the naked girl, enough of this kind of horror will have been evoked...

When the bodies could not all be eaten, some of the flesh was stripped from the bones and dried in the sun, being hung on stages for that purpose. The flesh was then gathered into baskets and oil was poured over it, the oil being rendered-down from the bodies; this was done to prevent it spoiling from damp. Sometimes the flesh was potted into calabashes, as birds were potted. The bones were broken up and burnt in the fire. The body of a chief might be flayed, and the skin dried for covering hoops or boxes. The heads of the inferior chiefs were smashed and burnt, but those of the great were preserved by smoking. Sometimes the bones were broken and knocked like nails into the posts of the storehouses – a great indignity.

Bones were also taken away to be made into fish-hooks, or as barbs for bird or eel spears. The hands were dried with the fingers bent towards the palm, and the wrists were tied to a pole which was stuck into the ground, and baskets containing the remains of a meal were hung upon the fingers. Some of the Ngapuhi tribe were treated this way early this century. The hands were fastened to the walls of a house, with the wrists upwards and fingers turned up as hooks. The hands had been roasted until the outer skin had come off. The palms were quite white inside....

If the deceased had been a great chief, care was taken to degrade every part of the skeleton. The thigh-bones were made into flutes, or cut into sections that could be worked into rings for the legs of captive parrots. From other bones would be made pins for holding the dress-mats together, or needles for sewing dogskin mats. The skull might even be used as a water-vessel for carrying water in, for wetting ovens. But chiefs’ heads were carried back to be erected on posts so that they might be taunted, or fixed on the corner sticks of a loom to be mocked by a women as she sat weaving. In fact, no method of showing contempt, especially of defiling the remains of the defeated by associating them with food, was spared.

Sometimes the heart of the vanquished was roasted for ceremonial purposes. When the Kaiapoi stronghold was attacked by the forces of Rauparaha, the heart of a chief of the defending party was cut out and roasted in a fire, while all the attacking warriors stretched out their arms towards the heart while it was cooking. When the priests ended their chant, the warriors took up the song, while the chief priest tore off a portion of the heart and threw it among the enemy to weaken them.

The heart of a victim of sacrifice was not always eaten for war purposes. Sometimes it was for other reasons. Thus Uenuku ate the heart of his wife, who had committed adultery. The heart of the human sacrifice was eaten at a house-building ceremony, and also at the tattooing of the lips of a chief’s daughter and at the felling of a tree to be used for a great chief’s canoe.

Edward Tregear, The Maori Race, New Zealand, 1904.

A young Maori convert, of ‘a particularly gentle and lovable disposition, very shy – even timid, and extremely popular with everyone at the mission where he was employed... One day he happened to meet a young girl who had run away for some reason from her home in a neighbouring village. The young Maori suddenly became possessed of an unaccustomed demon. He seized the young girl, took her to his hut, killed her in cold blood; cut up her body in the traditional manner, and then invited his friends to partake with him in a meal, the chief and most favoured dish of which consisted on this young Maori girl.’

A. P. Rice in The American Antiquarian, vol. XXXII, 1910.

The Master of the trading brig Elizabeth, one Captain Steward, who allowed himself to be persuaded by a Maori chief to smuggle him and a party of his tribesmen aboard the ship so that they might arrive unexpectedly at the shores of an island where their enemies lived. Te Rauparaha must have been a person of some plausibility, for Captain Stewart allowed a hundred or more natives to secrete themselves in part of his holds before he set sail for their mutual objective: the one to pick up a cargo of flax, the other with a very different end in view.

Between one and two in the morning, the Elizabeth dropped anchor off shore. At daylight, Steward found canoes coming out to visit the ship, and one by one, the crews were allowed to come aboard, and were then battened down below hatches. As soon as sufficient canoes were available, the tribesmen from the other hold came up on deck, boarded the canoes, and paddled across the bay, to fight the depleted community and ultimately return with canoe-loads of victims, who were then thrown down into the holds where already their fellow-tribesmen were battened down.

None of those taken prisoner were killed, nor were any of those killed on shore cooked on board, nor in the cooking-vessels belonging to the ship. All the bodies were cooked on shore in the primitive Maori fashion of the day. They dig a hole in the earth two feet deep, in which they make a quantity of round stones red-hot with dry wood, after which they take out all the stones except a few at the bottom, over which they lay several alternate tiers of leaves and flesh, until there is as much above the ground as below. They then throw about two or three quarts of water over all, and confine the steam with old mats and earth so completely that in 20 minutes the flesh is cooked; it is in this way that they cook and cure all their provisions.

The prisoners, the dead and alive flesh, were brought ashore and seated in rows on the beach, the preserved flesh being carried off in baskets to the place appointed for the cannibal feast. It was estimated that about one hundred baskets of flesh were landed, and that each basket contained the equivalent of one human body. Then commenced a dance which was described by an eye-witness:

The warriors, entirely naked, their long black hair, although matted with human gore, yet flowing partially in the wind; in the left hand a human head and in the right hand a bayoneted musket held by the middle of the barrel. Thus, with a song, the terrible expression of which can only be imagined by being heard, did they dance round their wretched victims, every now and then approaching them with gestures, threatening death under its most horrible forms of lingering torture.

The captives, with the exception of one old man and a boy who were sentenced to death, were apportioned amongst the conquering warriors as slaves. The tables were laid. About a hundred baskets of potatoes, a large supply of green vegetables, and equal quantities of whale-blubber and human flesh, constituted the awful menu. The old man, from whose neck suspended the head of his son, while the body formed part of the cannibal feast, was brought forth and subjected to torture from the women before the last scene of all.

The banquet went on to a finish, and, though it proved none the less attractive to the participants, was rendered all the more hideous to the onlookers by the fact that the midsummer season when it took place, added to the hasty and incomplete manner in which the human flesh had been prepared in the ovens, caused the human – yet inhuman – food to become putrid in a most revolting form before it was spread out for the banquet. Officers of the boat witnessed this frightful orgy, and some of them brought to Hobart Town mementoes of the scene, dissected from the bodies as they lay out for the repast.

Garry Hogg, Cannibalism and Human Sacrifice, pp. 197-199.

The principal part of the prisoners that day were cripples, women and children; the remainder making their escapes as well as their weak state would allow them (they had been besieged for a considerable time). A party of the enemy were employed in despatching as many as would be sufficient for the evening’s meal; their slaves getting the ovens ready, and the remainder went in search of more prey, which they found to the number of twelve hundred.

On the 23rd, they commenced the slaughter of the prisoners that were taken alive. They were crammed into huts, well guarded, the principal chief executioner, with a sharp tomahawk in his hand, ready to receive them. They were then called out one by one. Those that had well carved or tattooed heads had their heads cut off on a block, the body quartered and hung upon fences that were erected for the purpose. Those with indifferent heads received one blow, and were then dragged to a hole to bleed. The young children, and grown-up lads, were cut down the belly and then roasted on sticks before the fires.

I have, since this bloody deed was committed, paid a visit to the fatal spot to view the remains of this horrid carnage. Within several miles in all directions, are placed in the ground pieces of wood, painted red, as a memorial of the spot where those that that were left behind had some friend or relative slain. On advancing nearer, is a heap of bones, since burned, as near as I can imagine of about 300 persons. Thence to about a quarter of a mile are skeletons, not burned, strewed about the place where the enemy had formed their settlements, and the ovens still remaining where they had been cooked.

I believe they did not eat any flesh inside the place where they butchered them, as I could not see any bones in it; it had not been disturbed since the savages left it [to] pay us a visit. The block they struck the fatal blow on was still remaining, the blood and the notches from the axe were still quite fresh. The trees were stripped of their leaves, and the branches thereof supplied, instead, with dead bodies, cleaned and ready for cooking.

On taking a general view of the place, I observed that the enemy had formed three different settlements, and in each of them was a heap of bones similar to the first I had seen, and also to each, a rack, placed along the spot where they eat their victuals; on it they place the heads of their unfortunate victims, that they may continually keep the objects of their revenge in their sight and mind, which is the continued bloodthirsty practice of this disgraceful race, whose constant study is meditating the death of their fellow-countrymen...

To the gun I was stationed at, they dragged a man slightly wounded in the leg, and tied him hand and foot until the battle was over. Then they loosed him and put some questions to him, which he could not answer, nor give them any satisfaction thereof, as he knew his doom. They then took the fatal tomahawk and put it between his teeth, while another pierced his throat for a chief to drink his blood. Others at the same time were cutting his arms and legs off. They then cut off his head, quartered him and sent his heart to a chief, it being a delicious morsel and they being generally favoured with such rarities after an engagement.

In the meantime, a fellow that had proved a traitor wished to come and see his wife and children. They seized him and served him in like manner. Oh, what a scene for a man of Christian feeling, to behold dead bodies strewed about the settlement in every direction, and hung up at every native’s door, their entrails taken out and thrown aside and the women preparing ovens to cook them! By great persuasion, we prevailed on the savages not to cook any inside the fence, or to come into our houses during the time they were regaling themselves on what they termed sumptuous food – far sweeter, they said, than pork.

On our side, there were eight men killed, three children, and two women, during the siege. They got sixteen bodies, besides a great number that were half roasted, and dug several up out of the graves, half decayed, which they also ate. Another instance of their depravity was to make a musket ramrod red hot, enter it in the lower part of the victim’s belly and let it run upwards, and then make a slight incision in a vein to let his blood run gradually, for them to drink...

I must here conclude, being very scanty of paper; for which reason, columns of the disgraceful conduct of these cannibals remain unpenned

Daniel Henry Sheridan

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