Elsdon Best, F.N.Z.Inst.
Death has deprived New Zealand of her greatest student of Maori lore and culture. Elsdon Best was born in the early settlement of Porirua, near the city of Wellington, in 1856. In 1865, his family moved to Wellington, where, after passing the Junior Civil Service Examination, he entered the office of the Registrar-General. His country and bush upbringing had implanted in him the love of the open spaces, which remained with him through life. One year of office work was enough, and he sought the open air of the Poverty Bay district in 1874. After some years of station life, the opportunity for adventure drew him into the Armed Constabulary at Wellington, from whence armed forces were sent to Taranaki to disperse the gathering of Maori tribes under Te Whiti at Parihaka. Here he was associated with a contingent of friendly Maoris, and one can imagine him sitting by the camp-fire at night encouraging them to unfold tales of their ancient lore. He left the Armed Constabulary after the arrest of Te Whiti and Tohu in 1881, and returned to the East Coast. In 1883, he wandered abroad through Hawaii to California and other States, where he had experience of timber work and ranching. He had many adventures amongst the wild spirits of those parts, but met with no serious trouble, for he never “packed” a gun. The display of weapons was an invitation which was quickly accepted in those regions.
In 1886, Elsdon Best returned to New Zealand. After some years of sawmilling, he went to the newly-opened Urewera Country as an officer of the Lands and Survey Department. He quickly realised that the Tuhoe tribe, in the forest isolation of that region, had retained a greater mass of their ancient culture than the tribes in closer proximity to white settlements. He set to work to record the Native lore and history of the Tuhoe tribe, the Children of the Mist. His interest in local culture broadened out to include the culture of the Maori people. His love for delving into Maori lore became his absorbing interest in life. He earned the confidence of old men who were the repositories of the knowledge of their tribes. Throughout Elsdon Best's later writings there are constant references to Tutaka-nga-hau of Tuhoe and Hamiora Pio of Ngati-awa. These experts, and others, admitted the keen student of another race behind the screen that stands between two cultures. He saw things with their eyes and felt with their feelings. They unfolded to him the intricacies of their spiritual and mental concepts. He learnt their psychology from practical observation and constant association. Out in the open, one of his teachers told him of the sacred name of Io, the one supreme god. When he sought further details of Io in the evening beside the camp cooking fire, a blank curtain descended over the face of his erstwhile vivacious teacher. The sage knew nothing. Later on, under the free expanse of heaven, his teacher turned to Best and said, “Never again mention the name of Io under a roof or near a cooking-fire.” And so the student came to know when and how to put questions. During a goodly portion of this period, he lived under canvas and moved camp from time to time to be nearer sources of information that could be tapped. He worked during the day to provide the necessaries of life, but the evenings were devoted
to study, questioning, listening, and recording. Thus in a field camp pitched beside woodland streams or in deep glades of the forest of Tane, there was laid the foundation of that knowledge which subsequently shed an illuminating light on Maori culture and enriched the world's store of information concerning the study of man.
The outstanding feature of Elsdon Best's achievement was that he took up the study of ethnology without encouragement or financial assistance from outside sources. In these days, ethnology is a recognised science taught in universities. Research funds are now more or less available to enable students to conduct investigations in the field. Research funds were not only not available to Mr Best, but he
accepted a mere pittance to keep body and soul together in order that he might continue to live in a locality that had no financial openings, but was rich in the lore which his scientific mind valued above gold and pecuniary advantage. His was the spirit of the true pioneer. His only encouragement was association with kindred spirits such as Colonel Gudgeon, Percy Smith, and Edward Tregear. It was this quartette, under the leadership of Percy Smith, who were responsible for the formation of the Polynesian Society in. 1892. Mr Best was a member of the first council of the Society. Later, he served as President; and in the years preceding his death he was joint Editor of the Journal with Mr J. C. Andersen. He was a constant contributor to the Journal from its very inception.
Elsdon Best was fond of repeating Colonel Gudgeon's advice to him in his early recording days: “Young man, collect information for 20 years and then begin to write.” Such advice, though sound,
would not suit the modern student who, after taking a university course in anthropology, dashes off into the field for six to twelve months, and writes a thesis for his Doctorship degree. Though Elsdon Best may not have waited 20 years, certain it is that he had a sound knowledge of his material when he began to write his longer articles on Maori subjects. Curiously enough, his first article in the first volume of the Polynesian Journal, 1892, was on. “The Races of the Philippines.” His first article in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute appeared in Volume 30, 1897, and was on a subject that he had made peculiarly his own, “Tuhoe Land: Notes on the Origin, History, Customs, and Traditions of the Tuhoe or Urewera Tribes.” His shorter articles appeared in the Polynesian Journal, while to the Transactions were submitted the longer and more detailed subjects such as “The Art of the Whare Pora,” “Maori Eschatology,” “Maori Forest Lore,” “Maori Medical Lore,” and a number of other valuable papers.
After the formation of the Maori Health Service, under the Department of Public Health, in 1900, Elsdon Best was appointed health inspector for the Mataatua Maori Council district, which included his Tuhoe country. By this time, the great work he was doing was recognised. Later, he received the appointment of Ethnologist at the Dominion Museum in Wellington. Though his salary was quite inadequate for a man of his attainment, the position gave him the opportunity of settling down in comparative comfort, with the access to libraries that he needed in order to write up the rich wealth of material he had accumulated. In 1912, his exhaustive monograph on “The Stone Implements of the Maori” appeared as Bulletin No. 4 of the Dominion Museum. This followed on the series inaugurated by Augustus Hamilton, when he was Director of the Museum. Elsdon Best was the first to formulate a terminology for stone adzes of the Polynesian area. His outstanding work was recognised by the New Zealand Institute, which, in 1914, awarded him the Hector Medal “for research work in ethnology.” It is characteristic of the modesty of the man that he stoutly maintained that the medal should have been awarded to his colleague, Percy Smith, before himself. Another Dominion Museum Bulletin, on “Maori Storehouses and Kindred Structures” followed in 1916. In 1919, Elsdon Best was elected one of the twenty foundation Fellows of the New Zealand Institute. Whilst his work continued unabated, and manuscript after manuscript was completed, a cessation of printing took place until 1922. In 1922–23, a series of six invaluable Dominion Museum monographs appeared. The Dominion Museum Bulletin series was resumed in 1924, with the first section of “Maori Religion and Mythology,” followed in 1925 by a magnificent volume on “The Maori Canoe.”
Elsdon Best's writings and his personality had been exercising a profound influence on the inarticulate students of Maori lore who had Maori blood in their veins. Ngata, Pomare, and myself felt that we should do something to carry on the work begun by Best, Percy Smith, and others of the white race. The result was the establishment of the Board of Maori Ethnological Research, with funds to assist research and provide for printing. Elsdon Best was appointed a member of the Board, and served on it until his death. The Board
set to work to print Mr Best's manuscripts as speedily as possible. Though still appearing as Dominion Museum Bulletins, they were printed under the direction of the Board. Thus, in 1925, appeared two further bulletins, “Games and Pastimes of the Maori,” and “Maori Agriculture.” The remaining numbers of the Bulletin series were “The Pa Maori” (1927), “Fishing Methods and Devices of the Maori” (1929), and “The Whare Kohanga” (1929). Two other works were published as Memoirs of the Polynesian Society; “The Maori,” in two volumes, and “Tuhoe,” also in two volumes. A smaller form of “The Maori” was printed as a New Zealand Board of Science and Art Manual, under the title of “The Maori as He Was.” Before his death, Mr Best was busily engaged on the second part of “Maori Religion and Mythology.”
Elsdon Best was widely read, and covered Polynesia and more distant lands in his references and comparisons. His major works, together with the numerous papers in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, Journal of the Polynesian Society, and other periodicals, form a stupendous contribution for one area by one man. His work throughout maintains the highest standard of reliability, for he was essentially a field worker dealing with first-hand information obtained in a native language which he thoroughly understood. Though he pondered, at times, over striking similarities with ancient Babylon and Sumeria, he never committed himself to any fanciful theories. He was a gifted writer, for he put into English words what Maori orators had told him. While drawing attention to Maori mytho-poetic forms of expression, they flowed through his fingers into his pen. He was honest to a degree, for when he found archaic terms and expressions in old-time songs and chants that his informants could not explain, he recorded the words, but refused to guess at translations. In spite of his wide reputation, he remained a simple, modest, and lovable man, approachable by all. Nothing pleased him more than to interest people in his subject, and assist them in obtaining a true perspective of the race which he had made a lifelong study.
Mrs Best survives her husband. Through all the strenuous years in the Urewera Country, she accompanied him in camp and field. She was the perfect helpmate and comrade, for she was imbued with the same high spirit which brushes aside personal inconvenience and discomfort for the sake of the quest. May the love and affection of her husband's many friends assist in bringing her surcease of sorrow in the House of Mourning.
The reputation of Elsdon Best is established throughout the scientific world. His work forms an imperishable monument to his memory. As long as the race shall endure, men and women of Maori blood will owe a debt to the man who toiled so long and so arduously to record their ancient culture, with its halo of romance and achievement, “that he who runs may read.” We shed our tears on the plaza of Death for him whose head rests on the pillow which cannot be removed. The giant totara tree has fallen. The lofty peak of the mountain has been levelled. A horn of the crescent moon has been severed. An open face has passed along the sunset trail of the Broad Pathway of Tane. Te Peehi! Farewell.
Te Rangi Hiroa.