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Volume 14, 1881
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Art. LXXVI.—On the fine Perception of Colours possessed by the ancient Maoris.
(Addendum to Art. III.)

[Read before the Hawke's Bay Philosophical Institute, 10th October, 1881.]

I purpose here noticing more particularly some of the errors in Mr. Stack's paper; those especially which I have not referred to in my paper.*

At page 154 Mr. Stack says:—“What stage had the colour-sense of the Maori reached before intercourse with Europeans began? This can readily be ascertained by reference to the terms existing in the language at that date, for giving expression to the sense of colour.”

I deny that this can “readily be ascertained” even by any expert Maori scholar; still it was, and is known; but not in the bald way that Mr. Stack supposes.

He then goes on to say, that “there are only three colours for which terms exist” (!) which he also follows up with certainly erroneous attempts at derivation of his three Maori terms, relying as he tells us upon “a few standard works, which will always serve for reference, whenever a question may arise as to the meaning of any word in the language. One of the most reliable of these is the translation of the Bible, the work of Archdeacon Maunsell,” etc.

Here I note, (1)—“for reference as to the meaning of any word in the language.” Now this remark alone would, à priori, confirm me in my supposition of Mr. Stack's insufficient knowledge of Maori. There are hundreds,

[Footnote] * See above, p. 49.

[Footnote] † See “Trans. N.Z. Inst.,” vol. xii.,—and so throughout, whenever Mr. Stack's paper is referred to.

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aye, thousands of Maori words that are not to be found in the works he mentions; and it was my certain knowledge of this fact which led me to undertake the heavy work of the Polynesian (or New Zealand) Lexicon,* which knowledge was also both increased and confirmed in me as the years of labour therein rolled on.

(2.) That the translation of the Bible into Maori was not the work of Archdeacon Maunsell. The New Testament was translated and in use before Archdeacon Maunsell arrived in New Zealand; so were the Book of Psalms, and other Books and parts of Books of the Old Testament; the original translation of the New Testament being mainly the work of the late Dr. Williams, the first Bishop of Waiapu. That Dr. Maunsell largely aided (under Bishop Selwyn) the zealous hard-working band of coadjutors concerned in the present edition is correct.

(3.) Then, most astonishing of all, Mr. Stack goes on to quote even Greek words from the Septuagint, to meet certain Maori words used in the present translation of the Old Testament!

In the conclusion of his paper, Mr. Stack winds up with saying,—“In common with the colour-blind the Maori confounded the lighter tints of several different colours,—and were blind to blue.”

In my paper (supra) I have shown the contrary of these assertions; and I bring this sentence forward here (re the blue) just to meet one of Mr. Stack's chief and earliest Septuagint quotations. He gives us, ακινθoν—blue (Exodus xxv., 4).

(1.) Is he aware that this Greek word means other dark colours equally with blue?

“By Homer, Odysseus' hair is likened to the hyacinth (ακινθoσ), and the ancient Greek commentators, to whom the conception was not yet so foreign as to us, quite correctly refer the simile to the black colour (⊸λασ). Pindar speaks in the same sense of violet locks. With Homer, also, the word κUalpha;νoσ (our cyan) is the deepest black. The mourning garment of Thetis he calls κνáνεoν, and at the same time ‘black as no other garment.’ The same colour-term is applied to the storm-cloud, and the black cloud of death, and several times by adding ⊸λασ it is distinctly explained as black.” —Gieger, Frankfort Lectures, 1867).

(2.) Would Mr. Stack be surprised to hear that perhaps the Hebrew word in that place (tepaylět) does not, or may not, mean blue? This is what some of the old and learned doctors have said about it in their trans-

[Footnote] * I have often—aye, almost constantly—lamented, that the Government did not carry on this work: had such been done, neither Mr. Stack nor myself had written our papers.

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lations and comments:—“Kimchi explains tepaylět by bleu; Abarbanel translates, silk; Ebn Exra, Rashi, and others, yellow; and Luther, yellow silk; others, indigo—(but ακινθoσ is not exclusively blue),” etc., etc. (Dr. Kalisch, in loc.)

Mr. Stack further says (p. 154),—“The Maoris appear to have reached the third stage of colour-sense development, when, all at once, the arrival of Europeans revealed to them the entire scale of colours possessed by the highest races of mankind.”

Mr. Stack will find that in the earliest mental productions that are preserved to us of the various peoples of the earth the colour blue is not mentioned at all.

“Let me first mention the wonderful, youthfully fresh hymns of the Rigveda, consisting of more than 10,000 lines; these are nearly all filled with descriptions of the sky. Scarcely any other subject is more frequently mentioned; the variety of hues which the sun and dawn daily display in it,—day and night, clouds and lightnings, the atmosphere and the ether,—all these are with inexhaustible abundance exhibited to us again and again in all their magnificence; only the fact that the sky is blue could never have been gathered from these poems. * * * The Veda hymns represent the earliest stage of the human mind that has been preserved in any literature; but as regards the blue colour, the same observation may be made of the Zendavesta, the books of the Parsees, to whom, as is well known, light and fire, both the terrestrial and heavenly, are most sacred, and of whom one may expect an attention to the thousand-fold hues of the sky similar to that in the Vedas. The Bible, in which, as is equally well known, the sky or heaven plays no less a part, seeing that it occurs in the very first verse, and in upwards of 430 other passages besides, quite apart from synonymous expressions, such as ether, etc., yet finds no opportunity either of mentioning the blue colour. * * * The Koran does not know the blue colour either, however much it speaks of the heavens. Nor is the blue sky mentioned in the Edda hymns. * * * Nay, even in the Homeric Poems the blue sky is not mentioned, although in the regions where they originated it exercises such a special charm on every visitor. * * * The ten books of Rigveda hymns, though they frequently mention the earth, no more bestow on it the epithet green than on the heavens that of blue. They speak of trees, herbs, and fodder-grass, of ripe branches, lovely fruit, food-yielding mountains, of sowing and ploughing, but never of green fields. Still more surprising is the same phenomenon in the Zendavesta.

“Aristotle, in his ‘Meteorology,’ calls the rainbow tri-coloured—viz., red, yellow, and green. Two centuries before, Xenophanes had said, ‘What they call Iris is likewise a cloud, purple, reddish, and yellow in

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appearance;’ where he leaves out the green, or, at all events, does not clearly define it. In the Edda, too, the rainbow is explained to be a tricoloured bridge.

“Democritus and the Pythagoreans assumed four fundamental colours, black, white, red, and yellow, a conception which for a long time obtained in antiquity. Nay, ancient writers (Cicero, Pliny, and Quintilian) state it as a positive fact that the Greek painters, down to the time of Alexander, employed only those four colours. * * * The Chinese have since olden times assumed five colours, viz., green in addition to the foregoing.”—(Gieger, loc. cit.)

And so Max Müller.—“There is hardly a book now in which we do not read of the blue sky. But in the ancient hymns of the Veda, so full of the dawn, the sun, and the sky, the blue sky is never mentioned; in the Zendavesta the blue sky is never mentioned; in Homer the blue sky is never mentioned; in the Old and even in the New Testament the blue sky is never mentioned. It has been asked whether we should recognize in this a physiological development of our senses, or a gradual increase of words capable of expressing finer distinctions of light. No one is likely to contend that the irritations of our organs of sense, which produce sensation, as distinguished from perception, were different thousands of years ago from what they are now. They are the same for all men, the same even for certain animals, for we know that there are insects which react very strongly against differences of colour. * * * Democritus knew of four colours, viz., black and white, which he treated as colours, red and yellow. Are we to say that he did not see the blue of the sky because he never called it blue, but either dark or bright? * * * In common Arabic, as Palgrave tells us, the names of green, black, and brown, are constantly confounded to the present day. It is well known that among savage nations we seldom find distinct words for blue and black; but we shall find the same indefiniteness of expression when we inquire into the antecedents of our own language. Though blue now does no longer mean black, we see in such expressions as ‘to bea black and blue’ the closeness of the two colours. * * * As languages advance, more and more distinctions are introduced, but the variety of colours always stands before us as a real infinite. * * As no conception is possible without a name, I shall probably be asked to produce from the dictionaries of Veddas and Papuas any word to express the infinite; and the absence of such a word, even among more highly civilized races, will be considered a sufficient answer to my theory. Let me, therefore, say once more that I entirely reject such an opinion. * * * The infinite was present from the very beginning in all finite perceptions, just as the blue colour was, though we find no name for it in the dictionaries of Veddas and

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Papuas. The sky was blue in the days of the Vedic poets, of the Zoroastrian worshippers, of the Hebrew prophet, of the Homeric singers, but though they saw it they knew it not by name; they had no name for that which is the sky's own peculiar tint, the sky-blue.”—(Lectures at the Charter House, 1878: Lecture I).

“It is noteworthy down to what a late period both the Greeks and the Romans still confounded blue and violet, especially with grey and brown. Even long after scientific observation had separated these colours they seem to have been mixed up together in popular conception. And thus it happened that Theocritus, and, in imitation of him, Virgil, by way of excuse for the bronzed hue of a beautiful face, could still say, “Are not the violets, too, and the hyacinths black?” With a similar intention Virgil says: “The white privets fall; it is the black hyacinths which are sought after and loved.” Nay, even Cassiodorus, at the beginning of the sixth century after Christ, gives an account of the four colours employed in the Circensian Games, which, as is well known, sometimes acquired a fatal significance: green had been dedicated to spring, red to summer, white, on account of the hoar-frost, to autumn, blue to the cloudy winter—venetus nubilœ hiemi. Classical antiquity, in fact, possessed no word for pure blue. * * * The Romanic languages found indeed no fit word for blue in the original Roman tongue, and were obliged partly to borrow it from the German. Thus, among others, the French bleu and the older Italian biavo, are, as is well known, borrowed from the German blau, which, in its turn, in the earliest time signified black.”—(Gieger, loc. cit.)

I have been at the trouble of bringing forward all this first-class authority evidence, to show—(1) that “the highest races” did not possess “the entire scale of colours;”—(2) that had the Maoris not been already in possession of the knowledge of colours, and of their shades and hues, “the arrival of Europeans” among them would not suddenly have “revealed” such to them;—and (3) that such a wholesale mental revolution, as Mr. Stack here states, has never, and could never take place “all at once.”

I feel, however, that I must specially notice two or three more of Mr. Stack's statements.

He says (p. 155)—“Kura (red) is used very often instead of whero to describe redness in any inanimate object.”

Mr. Stack evidently never heard of any of their (many) old supernatural beings, still believed to be existing, called Kura; and was not Kura a common term for the chief men in the olden time? e.g.—“I te oranga o tenei motu, he Kura te tangata.”

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Again (p. 156)—“While they regarded the rainbow as a divinity, * * to their organ of sight it presented one characteristic tint, and that was ma (white), or allied to light.”

This assertion I have already fully met in my paper (supra); but I would further ask—Why, then, was it so commonly called Kahukura—“scarlet,” or red, garment?

Mr. Stack also quotes the well-known passage in Isaiah i, 18, for “scarlet and crimson.” But the “scarlet” of King James' days (the time of the translators of the English Bible) was not the same identical colour as the scarlet of to-day. Our modern scarlet was not then known.

Again (p. 155), Mr. Stack says, “Pounamu, or greenstone, * * * is sometimes used now as a colour-term. Karupounamu=green-eyed, is the term applied to persons with light-coloured hazel eyes, but I never heard pounamu used to describe the colour of the sea.”

I refer Mr. Stack to one of “the few standard works” which he quotes —Sir G. Grey's “Mythology,” pp. 158, 159 (or to his “Poetry of the New Zealanders,” pp. xciii., xciv.), where he will find two sentences in excellent Maori, re the colour of the eyeball, and of the water, in both of which the pounamu is used as a simile.* Evidently, he has also overlooked the little bird called Titipounamu (Acanthisitta chloris); the shark called Tahapounamu; the lizard called Pounamu-kakanorua; the early winter potato of the Ngapuhi tribe called Pounamu; our northern lakes called Rotopounamu; and the Aupounamu, the Waipounamu, etc., etc. Again, in my two editions of the Maori Bible (one in 12mo. and one in 8vo.), the passage in Esther i. 6, contains the word pounamu for green colour, and not that “Maoricized” abomination—karini—which Mr. Stack quotes.

Mr. Stack also says (p. 156), “At the suggestion of Europeans the indigoblue plumage of the pakura (Porphyrio melanotus) is sometimes employed to indicate the colour, which before intercourse with Europeans was unrecognized.” These two statements (which I have italicized) I deny; and I should not care to do so here, only to show that I had written to the direct contrary in 1865 (“Essay on the Maori Races,” § 33).

Further, Mr. Stack says (same page), “No words are found in the Maori language to express violet, brown, orange, and pink colours; but there are no less than three words to express pied or speckled objects.” This is

[Footnote] * See “Trans. N.Z. Inst.,” vol. xi., pp. 97 and 98, for my translation.

[Footnote] † Observe here how Dr. Sparrmann (who accompanied Captain Cook to New Zealand) naturally hit on the same term in colour for this bird (chloris) as the Maoris had formerly done.

[Footnote] ‡ “Trans. N.Z. Inst.,” vol. i., p. 37 of “Essay.”

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incorrect, as my paper (in part) will show, where brown, orange, and pink are brought forward. And as to there being “no less than three words for speckled objects,” I know more than a dozen!

Again, Mr. Stack says (p. 156),—“Further proof of their imperfect perception of colour is furnished by the fact that the Maoris have never shown any real appreciation of floral charms. * * * Flowers generally were despised, and the greatest astonishment was expressed by Maoris in the early days, when they observed the pains taken by colonists to cultivate any but flowers of the gaudiest hues.”

Here I observe,—(1) Flowers were not despised; very far from it. It was owing to their fading so quickly, especially when in close contact with the human body; I have known, however, young chiefs often to fix a flowering sprig in their ears. It was not the national custom of the Maori women to decorate their hair, for they generally wore it cropped (vide Cook and others); but I knew them at an early date to bind their hair with a graceful wreath of Clematis (C. colensoi, and C. hexasepala), and of Lycopodium volubile, and not unfrequently with a neat green fillet of fresh flax. (See plate xix., in Parkinson's “Journal;” Parkinson was Sir Joseph Banks' draughtsman, and here in New Zealand with him.) (2) The Maoris never wantonly destroyed “right and left” the shrubs and small trees around them,—like the “superior” or (to use Mr. Stack's own words) “the higher races” invariably did; it was a pleasing sight to see their hastily putup booths or “tabernacles” in travelling, or abutting on their country plantations and river and seaside fishing grounds, their karaka fruit and bird preserves,—always made in a snug bowery place; even the common privies of their pas (towns) were often so situated, and I have known such public spots with planted and trained shrubs and creepers (Solanum aviculare, and Muhlenbeckia adpressa) growing over them; and they never cut down the trees growing near for firing, fencing, or any purpose; rather than do such wanton acts, they would travel miles to procure poles, sticks, etc.* (3) That “astonishment” experienced “in the early days” was not re flowering plants of non-gaudy hues, but plants not producing fruit (tubers, etc.). From long before Mr. Stack's earliest recollection the Maoris planted with “pains” the potato, the onion, the melon, and the cabbage; the flowers of these did not possess “gaudy hues;” but being a practical people, a true race of hard-working agriculturists, they were astonished at such waste of labour, good ground and fences, in non-productive plants.

Mr. Stack also says (p. 158),—“They (the Maoris) seem to have lost all sense of harmony in colouring.” Qu. Could they lose what (he had repeatedly said) they never possessed?

[Footnote] * See “Trans. N.Z. Inst.,” vol. xiii., p. 373.

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Further, and lastly, Mr. Stack says (same page),—“Most persons have had an opportunity of observing the incongruous colours in which a Maori belle arrays herself when seeking to attract admiration in our streets. Her mode of adornment proves that her sense of colour is still very defective. She knows each colour by name * but she has an imperfect mental conception of it, and therefore cannot realize what a fright she makes herself by wearing colours that will not harmonize.” Mr. Stack might more justly have applied these words to a fashionably dressed European female, such as I not unfrequently meet with here in Napier. Take out the word Maori and insert European or Colonial—and the sentence is complete. Such, almost word for word, I have last year frequently seen in our more respectable papers, English and Colonial, when writing on the horried deformities of the fashionable and bizarre female dress of the day. In my estimation, the Maori woman of to-day has been so far vitiated and debased in taste as to run after and adopt those ultra European fashions.

I have thought it necessary thus freely to criticize Mr. Stack's paper in the interests of our English and European philological and physiological writers (as Max Müller, Herbert Spencer, Darwin, Tylor, Lubbock, etc.), who, in the prosecution of their studies and researches, naturally look to such a volume as our New Zealand Institute “Transactions” for correct information re the Maoris: and to allow such erroneous notions and statements, however innocently made, to remain unchecked, would never do.

I wish to add, that I do not believe that Mr. Stack has erred wilfully; and, further, that if, even now, he were to travel leisurely among the Maoris in the interior of the North Island, he would himself soon discover many of his errors, and abandon them.

[Footnote] * I suppose that some of those colours of dress, she is said now to know by name, are such as the following, e.g.:—


plum-colour rose-colour
lavender-colour orange-colour
lemon-colour claret-colour
sage-green-colour pea-green-colour
fawn-colour mouse-colour
dove-colour salmon-colour
etc., etc., etc.

[Footnote] Now where is the very great difference in expression, or rather, say, the superiority, of these of the Europeans over those of the Maoris, by whom similar natural objects having the exact shade of hue required were also used comparatively?