At the age of 8, Caroline Perrett was kidnapped by Maori in Taranaki in 1874, and was discovered living as a Maori in Whakatane fifty years later. Her story, as told to the Sun newspaper is recorded below. It is a remarkable tale, most revealing of Maori life and the extraordinary character of Caroline Perrett. For the history of New Zealand, and the relationship between its peoples, it is one of the most significant documents still in existence.
MY LIFE AMONG THE MAORIS
Communicated exclusively to J. R. Sheehan, for The Sun by Mrs Ngoungou, nee Caroline Perrett, of Poroporo, in the presence of A. F. Moncur.
I have no recollection whatever of my early life at Lepperton. Neither
is it true, as has been read to me from the newspapers, that I can remember
being taken across the sea in a great canoe by the Maoris. My first conscious
memories begin from the time when, as a small girl, I was digging gum with
a band of wandering Maoris in the Kaipara district, north of Auckland.
I could not speak Maori then, so it must have been shortly after I was kidnapped. The Maoris were very unkind to me at the time, though I was never struck or beaten. They simply ignored me, and had it not been for the kindness of one or two of the womenfolk life would have been miserable indeed.
Their method of teaching me the language was very simple. Pointing to some article on the ground they would order me to pick it up, and in a very short time I was able to speak Maori as fluently as any of the tribe.
It was then I discovered that the Maoris with whom I worked belonged to no special tribe, but were drawn from all over the Waikato and Wanganui districts and banded together for the common purpose of digging for gum. They were split up into about 40 camps scattered all over the Kaipara district.
We lived in raupo whares and the life was hard and comfortless. Every morning, at daybreak, I used to go out with a spade and spear and dig until sunset. All the children worked just as hard as their parents and though it may seem hard to Europeans, we thought nothing of it. In the evening we sat in the camp and scraped the gum. The dust and scrapings we flung on the fire which blazed up and lit the darkness. There were no candles at all. There was plenty of gum in those days—great lumps of it and it was easy to find. When we had enough we took it down to the store and sold it. What the name of the settlement was I never found out, but there was actually no township—only a shop or two. Our camp was ten miles from this place, and when I was only a child, I used to walk this distance with about 60 Ib of gum in a sack. It was backbreaking work, but I did it for years, and it doesn't seem to have done me much harm, because I am still hale, hearty and working hard at 63 years of age. After selling the gum, we would each carry a 56 Ib bag of flour back to the camp.
As to clothes, I got just enough to keep me covered and no more. Print dresses, bought ready-made, were what I usually wore. Boots I never saw at all. In fact, it was not until my second marriage that I wore boots. My feet were as hard as iron and nothing could hurt them. About £1 was allowed me each time I sold my gum. The balance, in accordance with Maori custom, went toward the camp food.
The storekeeper to whom I sold my gum never passed any remark about my white colour. Perhaps he was an Austrian or a Dalmation, but newly arrived in the country, and thought I was an albino Maori—a freak of nature. I do not know. In any case I did not stop to consider I was different from the Maoris to whom I belonged. I saw my face in the river often, but it did not seem strange that I was a lighter colour. That seems difficult to explain, but nevertheless it is a fact.
I remember a Pakeha speaking to me one day when I was a young girl and he offered me some biscuits. Of course, what he said was meaningless to me. Since the mystery about me has been cleared up I have been told his name was Coxhead, a young surveyor. He had heard of a white girl being kidnapped from Lepperton and he thought I might be the missing girl. This is what he told my sister, Mrs Kay, of Lower Hutt, some years afterward. The Maoris were very annoyed about my talking to the young surveyor and called me away. 'Never speak to any Pakehas at all,' they said.
As I grew to young womanhood among the Maoris, the feeling against me grew less and what remained of it was more conspicuous among the men. The women were very good to me and the children played with me just as though I were one of themselves. They never asked me why I was white, nor did I at any time hear any curiosity expressed or any reference as to my origin. Neither was I curious, because I accepted the fact that I was a Maori.
At night sitting around the camp fire scraping the gum, my Maori brethren sang and laughed and told old legends that had been passed down from father to son for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years. They were a merry lot when work was finished.
Food was plentiful. We did not need the European butcher shop then. Tunas, Kereru (wild pigeon), and pigs gave us all we wanted in the way of meat. The pigs we caught with our dogs. And fat! Nowadays we have to feed the ordinary pig up such a lot to get him fat and there is little fat on the wild pig. But in those days the wild pig was very fat and good, and we enjoyed him very much. And the little pihipihis, the little bright-eyed silly birds—we caught them too. First one would be caught in a snare and kept alive. He would call to his mates, who would flock round in scores to see what was the matter. Before they knew what was wrong a Maori would rise up from behind and sweep them to the ground with a big stick. Then we would put them in a bag and wait until some more of the foolish little birds came along. When enough were caught they were preserved in fat until such time as they were wanted.
We had a very crude way of making bread. We mixed the flour and water together until a hard, stocky mass was formed. It would then be pulled into a long roll and a stick was pushed through the centre of it and set in front of the fire. The stick was slowly turned until the bread was properly baked. Just flour and water and baking soda, but it was wonderful bread! I liked it better than I like European bread now. And the big, sweet tunas we used to catch were the finest I have tasted. Perhaps it was because I worked so hard that I thought they were so good. There is no sauce like the sauce of hunger. We shifted our camps from place to place as we searched for gum. As to education, I didn't know what it was. There were no schools in that life, and I never heard of them at all. The education I got was the education of the out-of-doors, and though perhaps Pakeha children could read and write and add up figures, I could have shown them a lot about real life—the life where to live was to work, and to work hard. I have never learned to read and write and I have never missed it. I don't know whether it would be a benefit to me, but where I have lived it never has been necessary, anyway.
On Sundays there was no work in the camps. That was the one day we could relax. We observed the same Sunday as the Christian world, because that was the one day when we could not sell gum at the store. That is how we came to fix on that particular day. We would lie round and eat and talk and laugh and make merry generally. Yes, Sunday was a day to look forward to.
And at Christmas we had a big feast and celebration. Though there was no Christmas pudding there was plenty of everything the Maoris liked and we ate just as much as the Europeans do nowadays, though perhaps we did not feel quite as sick afterward. I don't remember ever seeing any liquor in the camps. Sometimes Maoris would go away and get drunk, but that was very rare.
My memory is very indistinct, because I have worked hard and passed through great troubles, so I must be excused if there are things I cannot tell. What religion we had I cannot say now, because it is so long ago. I do not think we had any. We were just a tribe of nomads and all we thought of was work and eating, for they were very necessary things too.
I used to go down to the river with all the women and children and do the washing. Soap, of course, we had in plenty. We bought it from the store in great bars. At the river-side we would chatter and laugh and sing, just the same as other women.
My hair was cut short just like a boy's, and my skin was tanned by exposure to the weather as the years went on. I saw many Pakeha men who never suspected I was not a Maori, but I never saw a Pakeha woman. In fact, it was not until after my second marriage that I first saw one, and I still remember how frightened I was. But I saw little of Pakehas generally until I came down to live here at Whakatane.
Every little while we would go down to Mahurangi Heads to rest at the a, near Waiwera and Warkworth. There used to be hot springs there, where we bathed. I have been told since that they have all been fenced in and are good hot springs. After spending a time at the pa resting after our labour and enjoying ourselves, back to the gumfields we would go to work as hard as before.
|t was here on the Kaipara gumfields that I was first married. I was only about fifteen when my husband took me. I had known him and worked with him for years, and he was a big, fine-looking Maori. Some of the papers have said he was a Maori chief, but that is not true. He was just a nomad Maori, digging gum as we all were doing. His name was Ewa Ngaru, and he was much older than I was, though I could not say what his age was. He had come up from Tauranga a long time before.
We were married according to Maori custom and went on with our work side by side on the gumfields. He was a very good husband to me. I kept on working right up until the time my baby girl was born. After the birth, my husband's mother looked after the baby and I went back to the gumfields.
My first baby grew up fine and strong and healthy, and was married many years ago. Her name is Mrs Ngaruna Mikaere, and she lives near Coromandel. She has had 13 children of her own, of whom 10 are now living.
Shortly after her birth my husband's health began to fail and he grew weaker and weaker as time went on until he could work no longer. His trouble was consumption. It was very sad and pitiful and 18 months after the baby was born he died of the disease, leaving me a young widow of about 18 years of age. A great tangi was held for him, and his body was kept for two days before he was put into a rough wooden box and buried. I was heartbroken and my hair was cut off close into the scalp as a special sign of deep mourning. This custom is kept up among the older people today, though the younger Maoris are letting all the old customs go. The cutting was done by the women of the camp, who consoled me in my great loss.
Stricken by Typhoid
Soon after his death I was stricken with typhoid fever, and for eight weeks I was very close to death. I went down to nothing but skin and bone and all my hair fell out, leaving me quite bald. I must have looked a strange sight. My Maori friends were very good to me then and all the old feeling against me had completely passed away. They waited on me and did everything they possibly could to bring me back to health, even though they were so busy themselves. It is hard to say how I caught the disease, as it was not common among the Maoris with whom I lived. Most likely it was drinking from some small stream on the fields. My Maori friends kept putting cold water on my head to keep me cool, for I was parched and burning and felt that I was on fire.
However, though it was a hard struggle, I eventually battled through, but it took me months to regain my proper strength and condition. But I shall never forget my old Maori friends for their great kindness then. It is burnt into my mind in fire.
Though I never made fancy mats or did any of the finer work, I used to make any number of potato kits with the rest of the women. I liked that work, too. They were happy days, indeed, when we sat together and talked and laughed. Alas! Most of my friends have gone from this world and I have seen none of my old acquaintances from the Kaipara gumfields for over forty years.
One habit I could never take up was that of smoking. The Maoris, both men and women, were always puffing away at their clay pipes, but I could not acquire the habit, though I tried once or twice. The torori, or Maori tobacco, was terrible stuff and burned my tongue. It was made from the proper tobacco plant, but had none of the usual ingredients of the prepared tobacco and was very bitter. Perhaps it was my forgotten white blood that rebelled against the habit. The rest of the camp thought it was strange that I did not like it.
My Second Marriage
I was still on the Kaipara fields when I met Ngoungou, my present husband. I suppose I would be about twenty at the time. Ngoungou came from Wairoa and was a big, fine-looking young Maori. He had come up from the South with his grandfather to pay a visit to some relatives and it was then he first saw me and wanted me to be his wife. On his way up to Kaipara, Ngoungou was in Te Puke on the night of the great eruption of Tarawera in 1886 and could see far-off the glare of the great mountain that slew so many, both Maori and Pakeha. Then he came up to Tauranga and took a boat up to Auckland, before travelling on into the Kaipara district.
I fell in love with Ngoungou, for he was a very fine-looking Maori indeed and he took me to be his wife according to Maori custom. There was feasting to celebrate our union. It was agreed I should go down to Whakatane with my husband, but first we were to have three months' holiday. So, after about 12 years on the fields I left my Maori friends behind forever and turned southward, never more to see Kaipara. My little laughter was left with the tribe.
We came down to Te Puke, which was practically nothing in those days, re was only one hotel and the population was all Maori. We stayed here or seven weeks before coming down through Whakatane to Poroporo, fhere I have lived ever since, about 43 years.
Here, all the children of my second marriage were born, Maui, my eIdest son, being born shortly after we arrived. Whakatane was a very small place at that time, containing only about four shops. It was very wild and desolate and, of course, Maoris were swarming in the district. The ship from Auckland used to anchor alongside the Pohutaroa Rock, which now stands back quite a distance from the water. Where the hotels are now was the seashore.
Many a time I have seen the Pakeha sailors from the boats roll a keg of liquor along the waterfront, and have a big haurangi there. Sometimes it used to end in a fierce brawl, with blood and skin flying. Now, the place is quite civilised, but in those days it was no place for a weakling.
My husband and his family owned a 60-acre farm out here at Poroporo, where we still live. In those days it was all swamp, though it has long since been drained. We lived down on the banks of the Whakatane River in raupo houses. They were quite warm and snug, and I think in every way equal to the European houses as far as comfort is concerned. Often yet, I think longingly of those old Maori huts and wish I was back in them again.
The white people around the district took no notice of me and never, to my knowledge, asked any questions as to the why and wherefore of my like among the Maoris. They just accepted the fact as part of the general scheme of things. In deference to the wishes of my husband's family, who belonged to the Church of England, my husband and I decided to get married according to the English law, though we were actually just as truly married by Maori custom. But a hitch occurred. The Maori girls around this district were very jealous about my marriage to Ngoungou, and there was a good deal of bad feeling shown about the whole affair. The Maori minister of the Church of England refused to perform the Christian ceremony for us, influenced, no doubt, by the attitude of the rest of his race here. In any case, he gave no definite reasons. We were determined to get legally married in some way, so we approached the Catholic priest and told him we would turn Catholic, if he married us. He agreed and Ngoungou and I were duly married after we had been living together in Maori fashion for over a year.
There was a surprising change in the attitude of the local Maoris after the ceremony. Where, before, they had been making life miserable for us, taunting us, insulting us and behaving rude to us generally, they swerved completely around after the ceremony and were as good as they had been bad toward us before.
Another surprising thing for which I could not account was my strong objection to be tattooed. When I was quite a young girl tattooing was all the fashion and was considered to enhance the beauty of the young women. The work, which was very painful, was always done by a specialist block of wood, and the dyes, which were made by the Maoris themselves, were affixed. The patients would bleed copiously after the operation which took a long time to complete. They were also warned against looking into water as it was said if they did so the colours would not stick. It is a custom that is almost dead now, but in those days a Maori was not considered to be fashionable unless he or she bore some pattern of the tattooist's art on face or body. Though I was often pressed to be tattooed I refused vigorously. Why, I do not know, but the idea repelled me.
I have no recollections of any of the events of the Maori wars. Perhaps I have heard the men speaking of them, I could not say now. My memory is so bad; and then again a Maori woman has plenty to do looking after her husband and her work without troubling about such things as wars. Not as far as I can remember have I ever heard Maoris say much against the white man. No threats or rebellious talk—not even away up on the gumfields, where there was a collection of men and women of practically every tribe in New Zealand. The Maoris treat their women well and I do not know if I would have been any happier living as a European. Sometimes the Maori gets very angry and scolds his wife soundly, but it is unusual for him to strike her. Nor do the Maori men fight much among themselves, though they often get angry and talk a good deal.
First Pair of Boots
One of the great events of my life was when I first wore boots. That was when I came down to Tauranga with Ngoungou. They were lace-up boots and I was very proud of them, though I seemed to be tied up and could hardly walk. You must live for years without boots to understand how I felt. The way I staggered along the streets must have amused the people.
It was in Tauranga, too, that I first saw a Pakeha woman and I was very frightened of her. She was a pretty woman I thought, but she did not look hardy and healthy as I was. She had pink and white cheeks and a very clear skin and such beautiful clothes on, I remember. She thought I was a great curiosity, dressed as I was, in the roughest of garments. I felt so bashful I did not know what to do and ran to my Maori friends again for comfort, but the lady passed on and forgot me very soon, I suppose.
Soon after I settled down with my husband at Poroporo, I came into contact with a number of Pakehas and sometimes I used to go out and work for the Pakeha women. It was amazing how quickly I picked up the English as well as most people. People, in later years, asked me where I had come from but I could not say. I said I was a Maori and had always lived with the Maoris, and that was all I knew about it. I have been in the same place here for 43 years and I have never been down even as far as Opotiki. I would like to see Auckland. People tell me it is a great town, very much bigger than Whakatane, but I don't suppose I will ever see it before I die.
I saw the great rebel chief Te Kooti on several occasions after he was pardoned by the Government. He was not a very big man and had a white beard. He seemed very nice, but I was frightened of him.
Five of my children by my second marriage are alive. Ra, who is unmarried, lives at Thames; Pene, who has 10 children, is at Whakarewarewa; Maui has a family of five and lives here at Poroporo; Timi, who is single and my daughter, Naha, who has two children, are here also.
Discovered by Niece
The way I was discovered to be Caroline Perrett was remarkable. It did not happen in Taneatua as has been stated in the papers, but down in Whakatane one Saturday afternoon.
At Taneatua, only about nine miles away from Whakatane, lives Mrs F.J. Hayward, a daughter of Mrs Kay of Lower Hutt. Mrs Kay has since been proved to be my sister, and therefore Mrs Hayward is my niece, though I knew nothing about it at this time.
Saturday afternoon is a busy day at Whakatane. Pakehas and Maoris from all over the surrounding districts flock in to do their shopping in the town. The Saturday I am referring to was about three years ago. I was walking down the main street when Mrs Hayward came up to me, and said: 'You are a white woman. What are you doing with the Maoris?' I told her I knew I was white-skinned, but I had always lived among the Maoris, and had no idea whence I came.
'You look very much like my own mother,' said Mrs Hayward. 'She lost a sister, who was supposed to have been kidnapped by the Maoris many years ago. She said she would always know her lost sister, because she had a white mark on her neck, caused by a burn. Have you a scar on your throat?' I thought that was peculiar, because I had just that mark she spoke of; but still I could not believe it, and told Mrs Hayward so. She said she was sure I was her missing aunt, both because of the scar and the family likeness, and she would write home to her relatives to verify her facts.
When I got home, I told my daughter Naha what had happened, but Naha said it was nonsense. 'Don't take any notice of it,' she said. But Mrs Hayward wrote away, and found that the mark was as she thought, and she was perfectly sure I was her long-lost sister (sic, aunt). Shortly afterward, one of my brothers came up from Taranaki to make sure it was true.
'I am convinced you are,' he said after he had seen me; 'but to make it doubly sure, if you are really Caroline, you should have another mark below your left breast. Caroline was burnt both there and on the neck when she fell across the bars of the fireplace as a little girl.'
That was news to me, because none of my family know, nor did I know myself. A close examination, however, proved that the mark was there, and made it certain that I was really Caroline Perrett, who was kidnapped from Lepperton, Taranaki, 55 years ago. My sister, Mrs Kay, of Lower Hutt, came up last January, and wanted me to go down and stay with her; but I do not like to leave Poroporo, where I have lived so long. My niece, Mrs Hayward, often comes to see me, and the family are overjoyed to think that I have been restored to them after more than 50 years. And I am content that the mystery of my birth has been solved, and that I am no longer a woman without a name.
I am getting to be an old woman now, and perhaps it does not make much difference. It seems so incredible to me that I can scarcely grasp it yet. In my mind, however, I am Maori. I think as they think, just as I have always lived their life outwardly. All my interests and my friends are Maori, and my children also. So why should I seek to change my life now?
There is too much romance being made from my life, and many things have been credited to me that are not true. I want to say that those who talk of my memories of my kidnapping are not speaking the truth. It is all a blank to me, and anything said to the contrary is untrue. I have been misrepresented by some of the papers, who say I married a chieftain. I say quite definitely that is not true. My first husband was a gumdigger, and my second husband was a small farmer. Was I happy with the Maoris? Well, when I look back over my long life I with them, I think I can say yes. Hard work has roughened my body, but it has strengthened me inwardly. I know what trouble is, and I know what it is to fight on and endure in the face of tremendous difficulties.
The story I have told 'The Sun' is the only authentic story of my life and adventures. Others may write stories, but they are not the truth. I have given 'The Sun' as much as I can remember of my life. Details I forget, but the main thread is correct. Working as I did, I had little time to take note of particular events; but if I had the time, perhaps I could tell more of the customs and habits of the Maoris.
But here in Poroporo I think I shall finish my life. I have lived here so long, and with age the desire to change becomes less, until it finally dies out. I have been asked by many of my relations to go and stay with them, but I cannot bring myself to leave my home and family. And then, again, might feel out of place among the Pakehas, for their ways are not my ways, and it is too late to change my habits now.