When Captain Cook first landed on the islands of New Zealand in the 1769, one thing immediately became apparent to him – the Maori people are fucking stone-cold hardcore. Part of this sudden realization concerning the undeniable badass credibility of the indigenous Polynesian peoples of this island probably stem from the fact that one of Cook's first encounters with the Maori happened when a pimped-out war canoe (I love the idea of "war canoes" by the way) rolled up alongside Cook's ship and a couple of skull-crushing tribesmen with gnarly full-face tattoos stood up in their ship and held up a set of perfectly-preserved severed heads they had recently detached from the torsos of a band of almost-equally-hardcore warriors. Cook noted with interest that these dried severed heads were so well preserved that the hair and facial features were still intact and fully-recognizable, which was a pretty impressive (if not creepy as fuck) feat of modern engineering that both impressed and intimidated him at the same time. Cook would later learn that taking the heads of your enemies was pretty much a regular custom in Maori culture, and that once the heads had been dried and baked, they were generally put on posts so they could be mocked and cursed (in a manner not dissimilar to the one I quoted above). Oh, and the Maori would eat the dead warriors' asses with sweet potatoes in an effort to gain the slain warrior’s strength Highlander-style.
As there wasn’t a written language among the ancient Maori, we don’t know much about this warrior-culture before the Europeans first landed there, but the stuff we do know – and particularly the story of the inventive yet head-popping-offingly ruthless war Chief Hongi Heke – is sufficient to substantiate the late Captain Cook's initial belief that these guys are some of the most pants-crappingly terrifying and intense fighters in history.
Hongi Hika, future war chief of the Ngapuhi tribe and master of the North and West areas of the Bay of Islands, was born at some nebulous time in the mid- to late-1770s. As a young man he fought wars against his tribe's mortal enemies – the Ngati Whatua – and his combat prowess and magical ability to implode his enemies' skulls with a badass jade war club made him a minor hero among his people in no short order. In 1808, however, Hongi's tribal chief, while trading items with the Europeans, discovered a new, ultra-powerful weapon that he was certain was going to be the most awesome thing to happen to warfare since the invention of decapitation – the flintlock musket. With this new weapon locked and loaded, Hongi's boss was sure he was going to drive all his tribal opponents before him in a haze of blood spray and gunpowder.
It didn’t work out so well. In the Ngapuhi's first battle against the Ngati Whatua, Hongi's side got off one volley of gunfire, and then while they were reloading (a process that back in the day took roughly 20 seconds, which is a really fucking long time to stand around doing nothing when a guy is bearing down on you with a giant club) the Ngati Whatua warriors rushed in and pummeled the Ngapuhi into bloody crapburgers. The war chief, most of his clan, two of Hongi's brothers, some donkeys, and a large number of Ngapuhi warriors were massacred, their heads were taken as trophies, and the headless bodies were then eaten cannibal-style. Hongi barely escaped with his life by leading a small group of warriors into the swamp and hiding out for a while, but this wasn't exactly glamorous work.
Hongi Hika was still convinced that this SNAFU was just a minor setback, however, and he was wise enough to understand that gunfire was inevitably going to be superior to beating douchebags over the head with sticks. As the most senior badass of his tribe, Hongi took over as ruler of the Ngapuhi, and he made a point to maintain contact with the Europeans and trade for as many bullets and as much gunpowder as he could get. After a couple of military successes, he developed a pretty sweet answer to Western Civilization's supply-and-demand decapitation problem that would ultimately benefit his tribe in the long run: He would behead captured enemy warriors, smoke their heads, and trade the heads to Europeans for guns and ammo. It turns out there was a pretty huge market for smoked disembodied Maori warrior heads back in Europe (they used them as lawn ornaments or something), so this enterprise into capitalism ended up netting Hongi quite a bit of valuable war material. Hongi, who as a delightfully cute side note has a name that roughly translates into the semi-adorable rubbing-noses "Eskimo Kiss" thing, eventually brought the Ngapuhi back to power as a serious force among the Maori tribes that nobody wanted to fuck with. He got a bunch of hardcore face tattoos, married two women (including a blind woman who was a military genius said to be able to see the future), and kept looking out for opportunities to use European advances to tech up his army.
In 1814 Hongi went to Sydney, where he met a British dude named Samuel Marsten who was really into Christianity and Jesus and not beheading people all the time, but who also wasn't really equipped to defend his missionaries in their attempts to convert the native population. Hongi, looking to get in good with the Europeans any way he could, ended up setting up the first Christian mission in New Zealand, and took it upon himself to personally protect the missions and dish out excruciating, head-removing tortures on anyone who tried to step to Jesus in New Zealand (Hong himself, however, refused to convert – he claimed that the whole turn the other cheek thing was “unsuitable for warriors”.) Hongi’s role as the defender of the faith eventually made him so popular among the Brits that in 1820 he was invited to England to meet with King George IV, who personally gave a ton of awesome gifts to the Maori war chief. Hongi kept the awesome suit of medieval-looking armor bequeathed to him by the British monarch, but on the way home from London he stopped into Australia and exchanged pretty much everything else for guns and bullets. By the time he had returned to his native land, Hongi Hika had not only helped put together the world’s first Maori-English dictionary, but he'd also brought three thousand flintlock muskets with him. Now everyone was humped.
|Other fun Pacific Islands headhunting facts: In Sumatra, if you committed adultery with the chief's wife, you were killed and eaten (your family had to supply the limes and salt to season your dead ass). Tahitian guys used to crush their opponents corpses with a club, cut the dude open, pull his insides out, and wear him around like a kimono. In Fiji they would eat your brains and use your skull to bail water out of their canoes, and guys in Iban couldn't get married until they’d taken an enemy head in combat.
I would never take anything away from a death implement as awesome as a club fashioned from a solid hunk of jade, but let's be honest here – traditional Maori weaponry wasn’t really super-effective against a dude at close range with a musket. So in 1821, when the freshly-equipped army of Hongi Hika started sailing 40 war canoes up and down the Bay of Islands stopping at every township along the way to smite their foes apart, you can be pretty sure that they were pretty damn successful. The Maori tribes hadn’t seen anything like the sort of pain Hongi was dropping on them before, and as a result he destroyed towns up and down the bay, killing everyone, taking their heads, and eating the cooked corpses with a side of horseradish sauce (fun side note: when one Christian missionary accidentally stumbled on the scene of one post-war man-feast, Hongi offered the guy some food, saying that human meat was way better than the shitty pork they ate in Britain all the time). The heads were then sold for bullets, used as target practice, or used as decorative ornaments as needed. Just to prove he was even more hardcore, he cut the tattooed skin off the thigh of one slain enemy, dried it out in the sun, and turned it into an intimidating-looking cartridge box for lugging around his bullets.
For the next year, Hongi’s destruction was ultimate. He conquered the Ngati Maru, the Ngati Paoa, the Arwa, and the Waikato, plundered their towns, and captured their women. In 1825 he attacked his ancient enemies, the Ngati Whatua, killing 1,000 men in a single battle while losing just 70 of his own warriors. He easily established himself as the big shit on New Zealand.
Things went well for a while, but eventually the Maori tribes caught on re: guns being awesome and started buying muskets like crazy from the Europeans. The party eventually ended for Hongi in 1828, when he was shot in the lung during a battle. With his last words, the dying Maori war chief called his warriors over to listen to the wind whistle out of his chest, which is pretty creepy/awesome. As an interesting side note, while Hongi was bloody and brutal in his life, he actually did a lot to help the Maori in the long run – when the Maori went on to armed conflict to resist the inevitable European domination of their homeland, they were a step up on other native cultures throughout the empire – they already had guns, and they knew how to use them.
NZ Government Site
Chacon, Richard J. and David H. Dye. The Taking and Displaying of Human Body Parts as Trophies by Amerindians. Springer, 2007.
Knight, Ian and Adam Hook. Maori Fortifications. Osprey, 2009.
Lal, Brij V., and Kate Fortune. The Pacific Islands. Univ. of Hawaii Press, 2000.
MacCormick, Alex. The Mammoth Book of Maneaters. Running Press, 2003.