The Trail Of Waitangi

UTU - Payment and Revenge, an Eye for an Eye.

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This article is upon one aspect of the word utu, which could be described as an obligation to undertake payment upon others for a wrongdoing.

Utu was an integral part of Maori Law, and was as much ingrained in the people as is the nature that causes us to awake in the morning. If the desire or obligation to fulfill it was not able to be undertaken by the appropriate person, it would be passed on for family or tribe to fulfill.

It was not until the early 1800's, after the advent of Christian influences, that there was any lessening from the passion and obsession for revenge that was associated with it.

All New Zealanders, and that applies to ourselves today, are born under the influence of utu, for it is unfortunately a strong part of our natural heritage in this country. Analyse the news items in your local newspaper for a few days, and see what percentage of news is based on vengeance or retribution! We don't want it, and yet the natural mind seems to crave it.

From the Encyclopedia Britannica (1982):  "Eye for an eye, means in law and custom, the principle of retaliation for injuries or damages; e.g., in ancient Babylonian, Biblical, Roman and Islamic law, it was a principle ...etc"

The following are some extracts and examples of utu as found and described in our earlier New Zealand history .

Better the blood of the innocent than none at all, is a recognised maxim of the Maori law of utu."

"Revenge ..., not so much a matter of feeling, as of duty."

"The earliest precept instilled into the child is "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth." Whose eye, or whose tooth, does not very much matter. If a man fails to act up to it, he is deemed wawau (a coward), and his friends would then act for him, to save the honour of the tribe."

"UTU - 'satisfaction' - is more than an institution in Maoridom; it is a passion, for the gratification of which a Maori has been known to sacrifice even life itself.
There is the story of Kohi, who having been kicked and struck by Te Matahara, decided that he would bring vengeance on Te Matahara. He accordingly arranged for his wife Pero, and relative Tairoa to strangle himself (Kohi), and even adjusted the rope around his own neck. His intention was to make Te Matahara's attack appear mortal, which would give Kohi a larger 'satisfaction' of utu than what would have been gained from an ordinary beating.
However the satisfaction he had hoped for, namely, the hanging of Matahara, was to be obtained by means of the law of the Pakeha; but he miscalculated, for the Pakeha declined to interfere!"

Another form of 'utu' cot commonly known of today, is its use in what is termed 'stripping', whereby utu, more as a 'mark of respect' was undertaken by friendly tribes, generally because no other person or tribe was responsible for an injury (say a chief twisted his ankle), or a natural death etc., and yet by law some form of 'payment' had to be executed.

The following is an extract from Rev. Henry Williams in a letter to England of 16th August 1827. He writes that accounts of the clans in Scotland probably differed to the Maori only in this respect:

"......If a chief be insulted, he is visited by parties that strip his plantation, or even property of any kind. If he meets with an accident it is the same: so, also, when he dies. In these cases the whole tribe suffers.
Hongi has several times been subject to this compliment within two years. Once he was severely hurt by the falling of a tree: they commenced the pillage immediately, and he was visited by parties from all the northern part of the island. He has been several times served in this way, owing to the death of his son, and some of his wives, etc., etc.
When Pomare was killed, his people were stripped by many parties.
Te Koki, who was on our boat the Herald on her return from Port Jackson was struck on the head by a rope, which drew a drop of blood. In the course of the day, two tauas came upon him." A taua is a raid by an armed force, and is properly an act of hostility. But there are occasions when it becomes a mark of respect, - a compliment!
A great chief, with ample power to protect his own, will quietly submit to being stripped, provided that all be in order, in accordance with rule.
The injury to the tribe is proportionate to the rank of the person hurt. . The greater the rank, the greater the compensation, consequently a great taua becomes a compliment.
There is a less fantastic reason why friends and family should first 'strip the 'culprit', if he be called such. And that is that his friends or family would soon likely have some need of the same treatment, and the possessions would be obtained back again by the original owner."

On a larger scale, the taua can become an immensely fearful force involving warring parties. Eldson Best (Tuhoe Vol 1 p379.) writes:

"...Taua toto is a force which goes forth with the expressed object of gaining blood vengeance. Such a party is credited with being animated by much greater determination and reckless courage than is an ordinary war party, hence those attacked by such devoted bands do not attempt to leave their fortified places, but remain behind in their earthworks and stockades."

Text within quotation marks unless otherwise stated is from 'The Life of Henry Williams' Vol 1.by Hugh Carleton

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