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Volume 36, 1903
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Art. II.—On the Maori Method of preparing and using Kokowai.

[Read before the Auckland Institute, 3rd August, 1903.]

I have much pleasure in presenting the Auckland Museum with a stone grinding-slab and rubber used by the Maoris of old time in the manufacture of their favourite red pigment generally known as kokowai.

The occasion seems to furnish an opportunity for offering a few notes on the subject, in the composition of which I

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have had some difficulty, as in my residence in a country district I have not the means of consulting many works of reference. They are therefore not as complete as they might be under more favourable circumstances. I am largely indebted, however, to a compilation from various sources given in Hamilton's “Maori Art” (pp. 299-301), and have gathered a good deal of useful information from some of the older settlers in these parts, chiefly from Mr. James Bedggood, of Kerikeri, whose long residence among the natives and frequent opportunities of observation enable him to speak with authority on the subject.

The old Maoris' assortment of pigments was very limited. They used black and white, the former manufactured chiefly, I believe, from the soot of burned kauri-gum or resinous wood, and the latter from a kind of pipeclay. They had also a very beautiful cobalt blue called pukepoto, a natural product formed from the decomposition of fossil bones, and found in very limited quantities in pockets in clay rock. These, with the red kokowai, constituted the “palette” of the old-time Maoris. No attempt apparently was ever made to produce a variety of shades by the blending of the different colours.

Of the pigments named the kokowai was by far the most important. The black and the white were chiefly employed in small quantities for fine work, while the use of the blue was solely confined to personal adornment. But the kokowai was in universal requisition. It formed the general colour of all the painted work on the canoes, the houses, and the more ornamental portions of the palisading surrounding the pas; and it was also extensively used as a personal decoration, it being the very general custom of the chiefs and other people of note to cover their bodies with it.

The raw material from which this favourite pigment was made consisted of a species of red ochre or oxide of iron found in deposits in the ground. This was first roasted in a very hot haangi, or native oven, and afterwards ground to a fine powder on a flat stone by means of a round smooth boulder. A finer variety was produced from creeks and streams which held the oxide in suspension. Fascines of fern, &c., were sunk in the water, and after some time were found to be covered with a deposit of the material in the form of an impalpable powder. They were then taken out and dried, when the powder was easily shaken off, the result being a pigment of the very finest quality, which was made up into balls, wrapped in leaves, and roasted, as already described. This variety was called horu, that procured from deposits in the earth being known as takou (A. H. M., vol. iv., p. 103).

The vehicle generally used for the manufacture of the

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paint was shark-oil, but when required for personal adornment it was often mixed with vegetable oils expressed from the seeds of the titoki (Alectryon), the kohia (Passiflora), the miro (Podocarpus ferruginea), or the tangiao (Tetranthera calycaris), which were more or less sweet-scented (“Maori Art,” p. 300).

A convenient vessel for mixing the paint was found in the paua-shell (Haliotis). The small holes in these were stopped with a flax cord inserted in them and joined so as to form a handle (“Maori Art,” p. 300). When required in a greater quantity a large vessel such as a calabash was employed.

Various modes were adopted in the application of the kokowai, each depending on the purpose for which it was required. For the treating of woodwork the mixture was made up into the consistency of ordinary paint and smeared over and rubbed in with a bunch of muka, or flax-fibre. When required for a cosmetic it was used in a more liquid state. Polack, in describing a hahunga, or feast at the ceremonial scraping of the bones of a chief, says, “Red paint was much in requisition. A quantity of the mixture was arranged in a broken calabash, into which some of these antipodal exquisites absolutely dipped the entire head and face” (“Manners and Customs of the New-Zealanders,” vol. i., p. 81). In this form it was also used for saturating the clothes, which was sometimes done. Occasionally it was used in a form of greater consistency. One of the old writers relates that a Maori who was completely covered with kokowai kept a small lump of it in his hand, which he was constantly rubbing on to any portion of his body from which the colour had worn off.

Fortunately, the raw material for this much-sought-for pigment was pretty widely distributed; but as there was much difference in quality a good deposit of kokowai formed a valuable possession, and the question of ownership sometimes gave rise to tribal disputes. One important kokowai-field which supplied the wants of the people over a large portion of the Bay of Islands district is situated at a place called Te Ngau Areha, on the highest point of a range of hills which forms the watershed of the Waitangi and Waihou Rivers. Here are still to be seen several extensive excavations, each of which was under separate ownership, and of which one was always kept tapu, its product being reserved for sacred purposes. A similar field lies on the right bank of the Mangonui River, near the harbour, and probably many others now forgotten might be found in several places. Mr. Elsdon Best gives the name of a famous spring which deposited the red pigment near Ohaua. It was known as Nga Toto o Tawera (the Blood of the Morning Star). In Hawke's Bay four varieties are recognised—kokowai, taupo, tareha, and taramea. In Taranaki the material does not seem to be so

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plentiful. Mr. W. H. Skinner, of the Survey Office, New Plymouth, informs me that the great place for the kokowai-deposits in the middle of that province is towards the headwaters of the Waiwakaiho River, among the spurs of Mount Egmont and the Patua Ranges. He also describes a place in the Mokau district where the work of collection was one of considerable difficulty and even danger. At the north side of the mouth of the river, he says, there are two or three caves worn out by the action of the sea. The floors of these caves are covered to a good depth by water, and away in their innermost recesses the deposits of kokowai are found. To obtain this the Maoris were obliged to swim, and in one place to dive under a depression of the roof, coming out in an inner chamber where the deposits lie. This field has long since been abandoned, and twenty years ago when Mr. Skinner visited the spot only one old Maori knew the secret of diving under the rock. Altogether there must have been an immense quantity of kokowai used, and an incredible amount of labour expended in the preparation of it. Most of the old writers speak of the prevalence of the “red ochre,” and it seems to have been in universal use throughout the whole of the Maori-inhabited country.

The grinding-slab was usually a flat piece of hard coarse-grained sandstone about 2 ft. long by 12 in. to 15 in. wide, the same kind as that used for sharpening the stone implements. * All those found about the Bay of Islands appear to be of the same quality as the specimen before us, which has evidently been used for both purposes, as, though each surface bears marks of abrasion, only one shows traces of the red pigment. A favourite place for obtaining these stones is situated near Waimate North, where the rock naturally splits off into flags of the required thickness.

The rubbers (autoru) were generally smooth beach- or riverworn pebbles, about 6 in. long, of hard basalt or volcanic stone. They were often brought long distances, especially in the northern peninsula and in inland districts where no suitable stones are to be found. A favourite place for obtaining them was the Little Barrier Island, but it is not improbable that on their more distant excursions down the east and west coasts the Maoris would keep a look-out for good specimens, which they would bring back with them on their return to their homes. It is to be hoped that in time some of these will find their way into the Museum, when geologists will, no doubt, be able to locate their places of origin, and perhaps

[Footnote] * Though I have inquired of many of the old natives in the district, I have been unable to obtain the specific name for the grinding-slab. One Maori told me that each slab had its proper name. This, I think, is not improbable.—P. W.

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throw some unexpected sidelights on the past history of the race.

A good grinding-slab was a valuable article, and was prized accordingly. They were generally, if not always, tapu (consecrated), and in order to insure their safe keeping and preserve them from desecration they were usually deposited in some wahi-tapu, or holy place, which no common person would dare to enter, and which the tohunga (priest) would only visit formally and officially. In later times, when the fear of the tapu began to wear off, the stones were sometimes buried underground for additional security in a spot only known to one or two of the tokungas or chiefs of highest rank. As an instance of the dread of the tapu even within the memory of persons now living, I may mention that as late as forty or fifty years ago one of these slabs was ploughed up on the Mission farm in the Waimate, where some land was being prepared for a crop of potatoes. A young girl who had thoughtlessly handled the stone was warned of the danger she had incurred, and actually died of fright a few days afterwards. In another case a stone which was identified as one formerly used for preparing kokowai for a chief was accidentally found in a wooded gully, and the whole place was at once declared tapu, and none of the timber could be used for cooking until an elaborate ceremony of whakanoa had been held, when the spot was “made common.”

The question has naturally been raised as to the purpose intended by the use of the kokowai as a cosmetic. Dr. Shortland remarks that “a reason for some persons painting their body and clothes was that they might leave a mark behind them, that people might know where their sacred bodies had rested” (“Traditions of the New-Zealanders,” p. 112). There may be something in this, but that it was not the only reason is evident from the fact that the painting of the body was not confined to chiefs of particular note, but was practised by men generally of the rangatira class. Kokowai was, like the purple of the Romans, a sign of rank, but not reserved exclusively for persons of the highest station. From Polack's account, already quoted, it will be seen that it was in general request among men of fashion at the feast which he describes; and Bidwell observes that in his time it was impossible to be carried by a native without getting one's clothes soiled by the “red dirt” which had saturated their mats (“Rambles in New Zealand,” 1841, p. 35). Though probably certain distinguished individuals kept themselves painted at all times, the minor rangatira appear to have been decorated only on festal and ceremonial occasions, one of which was the starting on a hostile expedition, when the whole party were arrayed in full “war-paint.” There is no doubt that one of the prin-

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cipal objects in the application of the kokowai, with its admixture of shark-oil, was at once to protect the body from the changes of temperature and from the annoyance of sand-flies, mosquitoes, and certain parasitic insects which seem to have been very abundant among the old-time Maoris, and afflicted all classes alike (see “Cook's Voyages”). This double purpose would probably be fairly accomplished by the strong-smelling oil alone, but the addition of the earthy matter would doubtless render the application more effective, and at the same time give it an aristocratic appearance. So far as I have been able to learn, this use of the kokowai was exclusively confined to the male sex, women and girls using various pigments derived from the pollen of flowers and other vegetable sources in small spots or patches on their faces.

Though there were several shades of kokowai, according to the quality of the article, the general and favourite colour was a rich warm red something like that of a well-burnt brick, with a “mat” surface. When used for the painting of a war-canoe it was relieved with black, and occasionally with white. Thus, the hull and topsides were invariably red, and the figure-head and stern-post, as well as the long batten which covered the joint between the hull and topsides, were usually a lustrous black, while for several feet under the bows a running pattern was painted in black and white suggestive of the rippling of the waves. The effect of this combination was most striking and beautiful, especially when the head and stern pieces were further decorated with their ornament of kaka (parrot) and pigeon feathers, and the covering-batten spaced at intervals with the white plumes of the gannet.

On the great wooden images carved on the principal posts of the palisading of the pas, on the entrance-gates, on the barge-boards and the door and window pieces of the house, and, in fact, on all carved work whatsoever, the kokowai always formed the general ground tint; and a contrast was obtained by picking out some of the smaller details—e.g., the moko, or tattooed pattern on the faces or bodies—in black, the effect being further enhanced by the insertion of pieces of paua-shell (Haliotis) for the eyes of the figures.

For interior decoration the kokowai was specially adapted. It formed the ground colour of the massive slabs or pilasters which spaced off the walls into panels and supported the roof. These in a large tribal meeting-house were elaborately carved with a succession of grotesque semi-human figures with eyes of the iridescent paua-shell and the wonderful convolutions of the moko picked out in black. On the broad rafters the prevailing red and black alternated in filling up the spaces between the scrolls of a bold running pattern in white. Several excellent samples of these rafter-patterns are repro-

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duced in colour by the Rev. Herbert Williams in Part II. of Hamilton's “Maori Art.”

The kokowai met the eye of the Maori at every part of his surroundings during his lifetime, and did not leave him even in death, as it was the custom, after the bones of a chief had been scraped clean at the hahunga, or ceremonial feast held for the purpose, to give them a coating of his favourite colour before they were deposited in their final resting-place.

As prepared by the Maoris in the old time the kokowai formed a paint of extraordinary permanence and durability. A piece of carving in the possession of Mr. W. H. Skinner was exposed to the weather for at least sixty years, but on all sound portions of the wood the colour is still quite strong and fresh. A still better example, if possible, may be seen on my grinding-slab. This, together with the rubber, was found in the vicinity of an old pa near Waimate, which has not been occupied within the last two centuries. The two stones lay together at the edge of a bush in a spot which must have been overrun by innumerable fires, the heat of which was sufficient to scale the hard basalt of the rubber; but in spite of this exhaustive test the kokowai is still there. Neither sun, rain, fires, nor the lapse of time has been able to obliterate it.

Though it may have been well on æsthetic grounds, as a general rule, to restore the Maori carvings in our museums to something like their original appearance with a fresh coat of paint, I think it would be interesting to leave a few good specimens untouched, as, apart from the fact that these weather-worn objects have a beauty of their own which it is a pity to destroy, it would be an advantage to have an opportunity of seeing how this wonderful mixture is capable of enduring the most trying conditions.

On the origin of the name kokowai Mr. S. Percy Smith, F.R.G.S., in a note on the subject kindly sent to me, thinks that the word is probably derived from the colour. Koko, he says, is evidently connected with colour, kokouri and kokotea meaning respectively dark- and light-coloured. Koko is also connected with a strong or unpleasant smell. On the term horu, a common name for a variety of the kokowai (see above), Mr. Percy Smith quotes from “L'Anthropologie” for August, 1891, as follows: “There is no doubt that in certain Egyptian myths there is connection between Horus, the sun god, and Iron,” and asks, “Is not the Maori name horu, the name for an oxide of iron, derived from the same source?”