These pages contain material published before October 2003 by the Department of Courts and the previous Ministry of Justice.




Muru was a means for seeking justice in traditional Maori society. It involved the taking of personal property as compensation for an offence against an individual, community or society. Muru has received negative interpretations over the years, so this chapter seeks to identify the nature of muru.

Muru is a form of utu, except it does not create the same obligations that utu does. Once a muru was performed that was the end of the matter. A muru would redress an intentional offence and could also be instituted for unintentional affronts or offences. The protocols and practices involved in a muru would be determined by various factors, including the mana of the victim or offender, the degree of the offence and the intent of the offending party.

Muru as an Institution

Traditional Maori society used the muru process as a form of compensation and retribution, where individuals, whanau or hapu were offended against. Contemporary writers describe muru as a form of plunder. However this interpretation is inaccurate because plunder implies theft or robbing a person of their goods. The notion of plunder contrasts sharply to the traditional statement of muru in that the offender and the whanau of the offender acknowledged that a wrong was committed and accepted that they were to be subjected to muru.

Whakama[235] is a pivotal concept in muru. The whakama aspect of a muru had a direct effect on the whanau of the offender in that the whanau had to watch and observe their goods being taken in compensation for the offence of their relation.

The Nature of Muru and its Relationship to Utu

When discussing the nature of muru, there must be reference to the concept of utu from which muru is derived. Utu in its purest form conveys a sense of reciprocity. A muru seeks to redress a transgression with the outcome of returning the affected party back to their original position in an active manner.

"If a breach of tapu was considered major then there was this muru where my people would go to the offender s people and right the wrong that was done to me..." [236]

This is the restorative nature of a muru. The transgressor disturbs the balance of society by offending against another, so the equilibrium must be restored through processes such as muru and utu. If utu through a muru were not followed, then it would be considered an insult and a degradation of the mana of the victim. The difference with a muru however, is that no future obligations are involved as in the case of utu. The party that had the muru performed on them does not respond to the muru. They accept the blame apportioned to them unequivocally.

"[Instances of a person opposing a muru ] could come in the exchanges of oratory, the korero and the exchange between them and us. One of the things that were used to win an argument... in any dispute... was the whakatauaki. If one could be found to suit the occasion then it wasn't past them to use it... if they were able to use it. But I don't know of anybody successfully arguing against a taua coming in and carrying out a muru..." [237]

A muru may have a connotation of vengeance. However, unlike common vengeance, there did not need to be any positive display of the cause or initial action, which deemed the muru acceptable. A muru could be brought upon someone who unintentionally transgressed. As illustrated by Sir Peter Buck, the custom of muru was employed if a death was due to an accident:

"The relatives were judged guilty of negligence in allowing the accident to take place and the visiting party expressed their wrath by beating them with sticks or with their hands and perhaps by demanding compensation in goods.[238]

The theme to be gathered from this illustration is that for allowing the accident to happen, the tribe would potentially be without a future warrior or weaver. As a result, the family of the hurt or deceased is subject to a muru because the fact that such a misfortune could happen implies a weakness on the part of the tribe, a vulnerability to hostile forces.

A prime characteristic of muru is that it rehabilitated not only the avengers ( through their violent response to the affront) but also its victims. An integral part of the nature of a muru is that it is close ended. Although utu can be sought for an unintentional injury, the means by which utu is obtained must be intentional. In contrast to muru, utu is much more cyclic, and where the whanau of the victims assert utu in a situation, the nature of an utu would require the recipients of the act to respond accordingly, and so it continues.

Where utu is focused on the process of reciprocity, a muru is primarily concerned with the punishment and denouncement of the transgressor. In this sense muru is not a complicated or ambiguous concept.

Dynamics of a Muru

Various motives affect the behaviour and change the function of a muru. A muru is applied whether the transgressors acted intentionally or unintentionally. Added to these criteria are factors such as the mana of the victims and transgressors, the effect of the transgression and intent of the parties. Accidents were a common ground for a muru[239], as shown by the example below.

"One day, a servant of Polack threw outside his residence a garden hoe. The story continues that this hoe accidentally struck the leg of a chief, this chief raised a great outcry and as a result pronounced that Polack was merited of being subject to muru. The formalised nature of this example is illustrated when in the Sunday following the transgression, the chief sent a slave to Polack. This slave was sent to enquire if it would be equally convenient, if he were to be plundered on the following Monday as he did not want to break the protocol of the missionaries and break the Sabbath."[240]

A muru has a set protocol and process. Before a muru was actually engaged, the matter of what would be taken and the quantity of the produce was discussed in great detail. This korero process was known as the whakawa. The dialogue was often quite formal and structured. It included dialogue of accusation and investigation from which there would be a decision or judgement.

Peter Buck gives an account of when he took part in a muru over a family of a woman who had committed puremu:[241]

"Our leaders made fiery speeches accusing the local tribe of guilt in sexual matters, punctuating their remarks with libidinous songs. The village chiefs admitted their fault and then proceeded to lay various articles before us in payment, such as jade ornaments, bolts of print cloth and money in pound notes. Each individual, as he or she advanced to the pile, called out the nature of their contribution. Some gave horses and cattle... We then rubbed noses with our hosts, engaged in amicable conversation, partook of a feast provided for us, and returned [home]."[242]

Before initiating a muru a number of other factors would also have to be considered. The tribe would have to decide whether to send a large taua or a small taua to perform the muru. This would be determined by the mana of the transgressors and the victims respectively. The larger the taua the higher the respect attributed to the transgressors.

Traditionally, the transgressor considered it an honour to be subject to muru by a large taua, as this was an acknowledgement of the mana and place in society that the transgressor held.[243]

A muru is most effective when acknowledged and regarded amongst Maori society, or the associated communities. An essential part of the muru process is to gain the attention of the community. A muru between hapu especially, was an acknowledgement by outside tribes of the mana of the victims and denouncement of the transgressors.[244] Peter Buck noted that one of the chiefs in the muru raid he took part in said, The clouds of heaven settle only on the peaks of the lofty mountains and the clouds of trouble settle only on the heads of high chiefs . This signified that if the transgressor s family was of poor status, a taua would not deign to visit them and perform the muru. However, if a taua did visit the transgressor s family they would suffer the muru complacently in the knowledge that the clouds settle only on the peaks of the mountains and that their mana would be enhanced by the magnificence of the gifts it had offered in recompense.[245]

In relation to an intentional transgression, a muru raid generally punished such offences as puremu.[246] Puremu was of concern to the whole hapu because the marriage was seen as a formal agreement between two family groups, not just between the two individuals. The adulterer s hapu or whanau was held collectively responsible, since he or she was considered a unit of the wider group.

It was considered appropriate, though, that if the bullying of a rangatira caused the wife to stray, the kin of the wife may muru the rangatira.[247] Peter Buck suggests that the wife s husband was given the chance to take one swing at her lover with a club. Honour was satisfied whether the club struck or was avoided, but a second blow was beyond the law and would form sufficient cause for the lover s tribe to rise in his defence.[248]

Sometimes a muru would also be exacted against the leader of a war party by beating him. The relatives of those that had been killed would use a muru as a way of expressing their grief. The leader would calmly accept the physical violence as an honour due his position.[249]


Muru acted as form of restorative justice. A number of variables, such as whether the transgression was intentional or accidental and the degree of the transgression determined the nature of a muru. It could be viewed positively by both the victim and the transgressor because of the benefits both received through the muru process. The offender s mana would be recognised as a result of the muru process, as would the victim s. Also the victim and his or her associated social or kin groups would be compensated through the muru process. Thus, muru was an effective form of social control, governing the relationships between kin and groups.


235. See A Collection of Behaviours, Philosophies, Emotions and Cultural Influences for an explanation of whakama

236. Kaumatua Interview, Wellington, 8 April 1999

237. Kaumatua Interview, Wellington, 8 April 1999

238. The Coming of the Maori above n 16, 421

239. Economics of the New Zealand Maori above n 214, 412

240. Counterpoint in Maori Culture above n 231, 152

241. See Case Study 2 for an illustration of a muru that took place because of puremu

242. The Coming of the Maori above n 16, 371

243. Counterpoint in Maori Culture above n 231, 155

244. He Whaipanga Hou above n 3, 43

245. The Coming of the Maori above n 16, 371, 421

246. The Maori as he was above n 181, 4

247. A Show of Justice above n 106, 8

248. The Coming of the Maori above n 16, 371

249. The Coming of the Maori above n 16, 421