Moko; or Maori Tattooing
Moko and Mokamokai — Chapter I — How Moko First Became Knows to Europeans
Moko and Mok
How Moko First Became Knows to Europeans
History may yet have more to tell us about the Maoris, but the earliest record of them we have is in the journal of the celebrated traveller Abel Tasman. His visit to New Zealand in December, 1642, was very short, and it ended in bloodshed. But Tasman and the artist who accompanied him, though they record much of the personal appearance of the Maori, make no mention of tattooing. We can hardly suppose that this remarkable feature escaped their observation, since the figure, complexion, hair, and dress are all described; and the conclusion is that in Tasman's days moko or tattooing did not exist. The Maori has only legends and oral traditions to account for his presence in New Zealand and for his customs such as moko. Maori tradition sheds little light on the origin of this custom. There is no reference in song or chant to help the investigator; and the most that can be done is to compare the observations of navigators with the latest knowledge. In this way we learn something of page 2 its rudiments, of its early simplicity, of its later richness and more perfect design, and ultimately of its decay. After a long gap of one hundred and twenty-seven years, we come upon the next mention of the Maori in history; and during that space of time nothing is known of New Zealand. Not until Captain Cook, the great navigator, visited these Islands in 1769 was anything more known. Captain Cook and the Eudeavour returned to England in June, 1771, and then it was that the subject of this book became known. The treasures he brought back from the Southern Hemisphere and the drawings and journals he made will be referred to presently. In his time moko was much used in New Zealand. Native tradition has it that their first settlers used to mark their faces for battle with charcoal, and that the lines on the face thus made were the beginnings of the tattoo. To save the trouble of this constantly painting their warlike decorations on the face, the lines were made permanent. Hence arose the practice of carving the face, and the body with dyed incisions. The Reverend Mr. Taylor (an accepted authority on matters relating to the natives of New Zealand) is of opinion that moko or tattooing originated otherwise; and he assumes that the chiefs being of a lighter race and having to fight side by side with slaves of darker hues darkened their faces in order to appear of the same race. These two methods of accounting for the origin of moko are not inconsistent, and both may have had their share in bringing about the results which it is proposed to consider. No reliable evidence whatever exists as to the nature, meaning, extent, or elaboration of primitive moko. But the fact need not diminish its interest.page 3
The term tattoo is not known in New Zealand; and the name given to the decorative marks in question, though elsewhere so called, is in New Zealand moko. The subject, it is true, exercised almost a fascination for the great navigator Captain Cook, who practically rediscovered New Zealand after it had first been visited (as already narrated) in 1642 by Tasman; and to Captain Cook we owe the first full and faithful description of moko, for he gave to it the full force of his unrivalled powers of observation. So important are his comments and notes on the subject that I shall refer to them at some length in the course of this chapter. For the moment I will digress to deal with early historical mention of markings of this nature. Herodotus appears to refer to it as being customary among the Thracians, where he says: “To have punctures on their skin is with them a mark of nobility; to be without these is a testimony of mean descent.” This remark suggests a curious analogy between the ancient Thracian noble and the modern Maori chief. Plutarch says that the Thracians of his time made tattoo marks on their wives to avenge the death of Orpheus whom they had murdered in Mœnad fury while celebrating the mysteries of Bacchus. And it is not a little remarkable that a custom should be at one time a punishment to the female sex, when it was or had been an ornament to the other.
There are other references to the custom, and these all tend to show how widely diffused it was. It is, for instance, evidently alluded to (together with the practice of wounding the body to show mourning) in Leviticus (chap. xix). At the twenty-eighth verse we read: “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh page 4 for the dead, nor print any marks upon you.” It is reasonable to suppose that both injunctions were directed against a practice common amongst neighbouring nations, which the chosen people according to their usual propensity showed a tendency to imitate. Pliny too states that the dye with which the Britons stained themselves was that of a herb glastum: that they introduced the juice with punctures previously made in the skin so as to form permanent delineations of various animals and other objects.
I will now deal with Captain Cook's remarks.
On Sunday, October 8th, 1769, Captain Cook records that the first native with moko was hot, and notes that one side of the face was tattooed in spiral lines of a regular pattern. The navigator calls the tattooing “amoco.” In recounting his first voyage, Captain Cook says each separate tribe seemed to have a different custom in regard to tattooing; for those in some canoes seemed to be covered with the marking; while those in other canoes showed scarcely stain except on the lips, which were black in all cases. He says: “The bodies and faces are marked with black stains they call amoco—broad spirals on each buttock—the thighs of many were almost entirely black, the faces of the old men are almost covered. By adding to the tattooing they grow old and honourable at the same time.”
Fig. 1.—From an original drawing for Captain Cook's Voyages.
(British Museum, Additional Manuscripts Room.)
Fig. 2.—From one of Sydney Parkinson' drawings. one of the earliest known and incomplete patterns.
Fig. 3.— Specimen drawn by Sydney Parkinson. One of the earliest known patterns.
And he adds: “The tattowing is peculiar to the principal men among them.”
Also at another part of the coast, he says: “These people were much like them we had seen heretofore; excepting that they were more tattowed: most of them had the figures of volutes on their lips, and several had their thighs and part of their bellies marked.”
“The tattow on their faces was not done in spirals, but in different figures from what we had ever seen before.”
His account of the tattooing of the women I shall refer to in my chapter devoted to that part of the subject. A great authority. Mr. W. Colenso of Napier, says of Parkinson's portrait of a chief, that it bears a style of tattooing which has long become extinct and of which he only saw a few specimens some 40 years ago. Three of Parkinson's sketches of Maoris tattooed in the style of 1770 or thereabouts are given in my illustrations.
In the Additional Manuscripts Room, British Museum are many of the original drawings in pencil and colour taken during Cook's voyages.
Fig. 4.— Head of a Chief from one of Sydney Parkinson's drawings.
While speaking of the tattooing practised with so much art and skill by the Maoris and other inhabitants of Polynesia, I must quote Sir John Lubbock's valuable opinion. Speaking of Polynesian tattooing, he says that perhaps the most beautiful of all was that of the New Zealanders who were tattooed in spiral lines. The process, he adds, is extremely painful, particularly on the lips, but to shrink from it or even to show any signs of suffering while undergoing the operation was considered unmanly.
Fig. 6.—A Moko signature.
Kowiti, Chief of Waimate and Maunganui.
Fig. 7.—Sketch of his own moko, drawn by the chief Themoranga.
Fig. 8.—Moko signature on a deed.
(The original in the possession of Dr. Hocken, of Dunedin, N.Z. This is a land grant signed by Tuawhaiki (alias “Bloody Jack”), a chief of Otago (Ngaitahu tribe). He was a great enemy of Rauparaha, who signed the Wairau deeds.
Fig. 9.—Moko signature on a deed.
(The original in the possession of Dr. Hocken, of Dunedin, N.Z.)
This is a land grant by the chief Golontine Korako.
Fig. 10.—Tattooing on the face of Te Pehi Kupe, drawn by himself.
Te Pehi's statement that the more elaborate the moko the higher was the rank implied may have been true, but it was by no means the case always among the Maoris. The time he had for the artists, the wishes and power of endurance of the patient, had no doubt much to do with the nature and extent of the pattern. Many of the great chiefs were only partly decorated; and the likeness of the king who was a visitor here in 1884 accompanied by four chiefs will show that even King Tawhiao was far behind Te Pehi in elaborate decoration. It must be admitted that a man with such a pattern drawn on his face as Te Pehi had was entitled to assume the rôle of a critic on tattooing.1page 17
Fig. 11.—From a drawing in Dumont D'Urville's Voyages.
But Mr. Tregear states: “I do not think there is any mark distinguishing tribes, still we do not know everything (probably never will know) about the full significance of tattau.”
It has been used as a method of communication, and the Rev. page 19 Mr. Taylor says: “The Maori used a kind of hieroglyphic or symbolical way of communication. Thus a chief inviting another to join in a war party sent a tattooed potato and a fig of tobacco bound up together; which was interpreted to mean by the tattoo that the enemy was a Maori, and not European, and by the tobacco that it represented smoke; the other chief, on receiving the missive, roasted the one (the potato) and ate it, and smoked the other (the tobacco) to show he accepted the invitation and would join him with his guns and powder.”
1 Te Pehi failed to obtain the firearms which had made Hongi so successful a warrior. He returned home and was with a number of his friends killed and eaten by a Middle Island tribe, amongst whom he rashly trusted himself. In revenge, an expedition was arranged in 1830; and Captain Stewart of the brig Elizabeth, an Englishman, lent his aid to the revolting scenes which ensued. On the promise of a cargo of flax, he sailed with a war party on board, and entered into communication with the enemy, enticed the enemy's chief on board and lulled his followers into a false idea of security. Captain Stewart's friends then massacred the tribe, and brought 500 baskets of human flesh and 50 prisoners on board his vessel where the ship's coppers were used to prepare the cannibal feast. Stewart on returning failed to obtain payment for these services. He arrived at Sydney January 14th, 1831, where a captain of some vessel had carried the news and where he was shunned, and then was tried, but evidence being out of the way he escaped. Though human vengeance did not reach him, he dropped dead on the deck of the Elizabeth while rounding Cape Horn, and his body reeking with rum was pitched overboard by his crew with little ceremony and no regret.