Robley: Te Ropere, 1840—1930
1. In New Zealand; 1864–1866
1. In New Zealand; 1864–1866
When the twenty-three year old Ensign Horatio Gordon Robley (68th Durham Light Infantry) arrived in Auckland on the 8th January, 1864, he was extensively tattooed on the torso and arms.1 While it is likely that a number of his comrades had also submitted themselves to tattoo artists during their lengthy sojourn in India and Burma, Robley had acquired a remarkably comprehensive catalogue of the intricately rendered devices;2
“… their figures turned out with [a] wealth of … flowers, signs of the zodiac, elephants, demon, monkey demon, nats or angels.”
Robley's activities as an artist had strongly influenced the nature of his relationship with the Burmese. Although stationed at Rangoon he had made numerous journeys into the central states, on which occasions he always carried with him a sketchbook and a pencil. The initially suspicious response of the Burmese to his constant sketching — and especially to his interest in portraiture was gradually moderated as they became familiar with the nature, and results, of such activity. To an extent this accord was mutual; the Briton's interested attempts to learn of local customs, to acquire a knowledge of Burmese dialects, and to study the manufactures of their artists were somewhat at odds with the general attitude of his fellow soldiers.4
“In the course of my peregrinations abroad in search of subjects for my pencil, one monastery, or kioung, in particular interested me, the head of which [was] an old, yellow robed Buddhist priest … when he learned afterwards of our impending evacuation to New Zealand, it was interpreted to me, that he had prayed much that I should be saved from all harm, and that to complete his implorations I was to allow a sacred red emblem to be pricked on my right arm which he declared would render me invulnerable … After a great deal of urging I yielded to the request made, and found that by doing so he derived a great deal of gratification, and the result was that the letters were indelibly marked in an artistic circle. After a lapse of sixty years the mystic symbol is still showing, and who will be so bigoted as to say that to it is not due that the self same arm can now write of it …”
Robley had also acquired a number of examples of the local artists' productions — engraved silverware, silk garments and the small Buddha figures so characteristic of the area.6 It was in a similar sense of ‘collecting’ that he had filled a large number of sketchbooks with drawings and watercolours of the Burmese and their country. While the majority of these were lost — when the ship upon which they were despatched to England sank — those which remain record a concentration on the social, cultural and geographical peculiarities of Burma.7Among these were the local attitudes towards, and practices surrounding, death and the supernatural. Robley's fascination with these — nor more or less apparent than his general interest — was typical of the European response to an unfamiliar, palpable presence of death in life, evident in a number of ‘alien’ cultures. Unlike a great many European observers, however, Robley appears to have regarded such phenomena without fear or favour; his response being free of the sense of spiritual threat apparent in many others’.
Already involved in supplying British Periodicals with annotated illustrations of foreign life and events, Robley's style of drawing was clearly documentary.8 Each element within the page 32 image was carefully observed, delineated, and verbally described in note form of the reverse side of the sheet. This precise manner of representation made his work ideally suited to visual reportage and his position within the British Army meant that Britons saw, in work such as his, their own presence within the newly ‘discovered’ World. It is less likely that the demands of newspaper work had any great effect on his natural artistic temperament; as is evidenced by the exact similarity between images thus-intended and the body of his work. Robley's sketches are the ‘snapshots’ of a tourist-cum-collector who, from the security of his position within a British Force was able to openly approach and record — and thus ‘collect’ — those aspects of the country which most interested him.
Although it was as a soldier that Robley departed for New Zealand in 1863, it was the nature of his artistic enquiry and his encounter with the extraordinary art of the Maori that was to most profoundly characterize his contact with the country and its people.
Arriving in Auckland on board the British India Steam Navigation Company's Screw Steamer ‘Australian’ Robley, designated as Carrier of the Queen's Colours, led his Regiment in the march up Queen Street to the Albert Barracks in the centre of the town. The 68th were accompanied by their Band and a fully grown, black Burmese Bear; the latter, intended as a Regimental mascot, died later in the same year.9
“It was thus I landed in the land of the Maori, a country I was quickly to find a grand place to get to, where there was unlimited opportunity to sketch most interesting scenes and subjects, and to make friends with both English and Maori companions in arms.”
Having settled into his canvas quarters, Robley visited a Shortland Street bookshop in search of texts which might enlighten his complete ignorance of New Zealand and the Maori. (When the Regiment received orders to proceed to New Zealand they had been anticipating a recall to England.) As well as purchasing a Maori vocabulary he invested in Frederick Maning's recently published companion volumes, “Old New Zealand” and “A History of the war in the North.”11As an introduction to the Maori these vividly — and in the case of the former, somewhat sensationally — written accounts page 33 significantly influenced Robley's attitude to the Race. From these books he learned of the Maori customs and beliefs which, in violating western taboos were of immediate interest to him. Maning's peculiar, ‘Pakeha Maori’ sympathy — descriptive of a similar fascination — provided Robley with a specific point-of-entry into the Maori World.
“I am always glad that on arrival … I bought “Old NZ” & “War in North” & vocabulary or I would not have drawn with interest perhaps directly.”
It is difficult to divine the exact order in which Robley's New Zealand paintings were executed; his later habit of making repeated copies of scenes (all dated as originals) and his invention of new scenes (painted as if he had been there) considerably distorts any such classification. More important than the chronological sequence, however, is the manner in which the artist approached, on different levels, the real subject of these paintings — that is to say, the Maori and their art.
Robley's ‘scenes’ of the Bay of Plenty (the 68th and 43rd Regiments were sent to Te Papa — the centre of the present City of Tauranga — in late January, 1864) record, in his usual documentary manner, the people, places and events he encountered during his two years in the area. It is precisely because of their ‘objectivity’ that these images — of people and objects within a landscape — have an effect beyond the act, and time, of their making. They show rather than explain, although depending on the point-of-view from which they are perceived, the showing is the explaining.
We can, in looking at these images, recognise their constituent elements from our own experience. The carved pataka, wakataua, whare and Pou rahui we know from Museum Exhibition Halls, from Ethnological texts. The landscape — so resonantly conveyed by Robley — we know from travelling in the Bay of Plenty; we recognise it as the same place. Our experience of each of these is, however, defined by the context in which we see them — the items of carving are the relics or artefacts of a lost, or confused, past; the landscape is the setting of kilometres of kiwifruit plants, shelter belts and pine treed white beaches.
In replacing this landscape and these objects in the context of one another, these paintings not only offer an image of page 34 ‘history’, they also reveal an essential complicity between now removed ‘realities’. Each element is at once more relevant, and more resonant, when seen in combination with the other. The implication of these images' revelation — which brings into question the permanence of subsequent, modern realities within the same landscape — cannot be seen as the direct intent of their execution. Robley's position as a member of the Imperial Forces — committed to the subjugation of the Maori — meant that his own presence in New Zealand was to be at the cost of the reality he experienced and, in these paintings, recorded.
Art, however, requires a peculiar loyalty from those enlived by it. Robley's later, conscious attempts to perpetuate a knowledge of moko — the ‘past’ art of race then perceived to be dying — grew directly from his 1860's experiences. Whatever qualities had originally attracted him to Maori art, it was the artistic essence he discovered within it which, perhaps unconsciously, provoked his continued fascination.
It is those paintings which record the Maori and their cultural productions from a more intimate point-of-view which best suggest the nature of Robley's response to New Zealand. While is to say, more interested — studies focus wholly on Maori subjects.
Robley's facility for ‘objectively’ representing items of Maori art should be regarded as separate from his general ability as a precise draughtsman. While that ability — together with his enthusiasm for ‘collecting’ images of otherwise unprocurable items — gave rise to his initial representations of carvings and other examples of Maori art, the process triggered in such drawing set it at a remove from his other sketching. His earlier experience of Burmese art had disappointed his attempts at a graphic emulation of pattern and form. The art was, as far as he could see, marked by an utter lack of invention; the same forms were endlessly decorated in beautiful but unchanging motifs. These were then taught to, and perpetuated by, younger apprentices. Such art denied Robley the chance to study it — the acquisition of several key items effected a complete understanding of its aesthetic ‘life’.13page 35
His encounter with, and experience of, the Maori exposed him to an entirely different concept of art. Certainly he approached the race with the same openess he had shown towards the Burmese.
“Burmese artists had blued much of me … but spaces were, however, ready for the delineation of maori art, and only for certain reasons the chisel of the Maori was never applied to me.”
The imbalance between Robley's response to the Art of the Maori and that of the Burmese — and those of all other races he encountered on subsequent service — must be seen as the result of the different effects of their activity on his artistic sensibility. While the Burmese artists' work had effectively denied that sensibility (and was inactive upon it), the art of the Maori tohunga engaged it profoundly and in so doing pushed it beyond itself. Robley was to spend the remainder of his life — over sixty years — attempting to divine the exact nature of this extraordinary ‘living’ Art.
It is impossible to retrospectively define the point at which Robley's drawing of Maori art becomes less a representation and more an involved, emulative investigation. In carefully and precisely delineating the chisel-marks of the Maori tohunga Robley,in his drawing, became apprized of an art which was endlessly generative of new forms, patterns and designs. Not only was the object presence of items of Maori manufacture powerfully ‘charged’, that visual potency remained in their represented image — if their elemental structure was faithfully reproduced. The act of their representation developed in Robley an embryonic understanding of the relationship between the making of Maori art and its made object presence. That understanding, specified in his case by the graphic re-making of items and patterns originally formed by very different processes, remained the prime catalyst in his ongoing investigation of the art.
“Belle of the Maori Village” (illustrated postcard) ink & wash sketch
Auckland Public Library NZ Prints 594(3)
“The Maori dreaded withcraft or loss of years if drawn; — & so here see the bow of a war canoe, you see the fighting chief threatening the artist on shore which was I … I retired but [later] finished sketch.”
It is typical of Robley that, in completing his sketch from memory, he included the ‘challenge’ itself. Similar acts of defiance are recorded in a number of other watercolours and drawings. Robley appears to have drawn, or completed, many of his sketches from memory; the nature of their subjects and the intimacy of their observation makes it difficult to understand how the artist could have rendered them without eliciting an outraged protest.16
Maori rebukes were, however, insufficient to dissuade Robley from his sketching. In attempting to closely observe and represent individual Maori — face to face — he focussed on the inevitable key to his interest in their art: moko. The designs of tattooing, imprinted upon the human face, were (and are) the most personal core of semblance. As Robley was aware (from a knowledge of carved and painted effigies bearing the specific moko of deceased people) the representation of those designs effected (and effects) a reconstitution of their bearers' presence. As such they were sacred.17
Of the portraits Robley painted during the two years he spent in the Bay of Plenty, all but a few were of tattooed Maori.18 Already in an advanced state of decline, moko was perhaps the most extraordinary artform still evident in the 1860's. Although immediately prefigured by his Burmese experiences, it would be wrong to assume that the practice of tattooing itself was, at the time Robley encountered moko, paramount among his concerns — that any tradition of tattooing evident within Maori art would have engaged his enthusiasm. More clearly his fascination with moko was the focus of an interest, not in tattooing, but in the Maori, in the art of the Maori.page 37
In order to study moko Robley had to make portraits. In order to do that he had to have subjects. It is difficult to imagine a human relationship more tensely intimate than that between the artist and subject: the specifics of this artist and this subject greatly amplified that tension. Characteristically resourceful, Robley found means of persuading the Maori to ‘sit’ for him. Gradually, as had been the case in Burma, the tension was resolved as the process became understood.
“my rum ration was always being exchanged for curios or to take portraits — it wanted something to get a quiet sitter — yet the exclamation of bystanders where moko was correctly copied was another phase — that broke down [the] idea of witchcraft “makutu”- besides I did not look a “tohunga”, only a harmless pakeha artist in moko.”
Robley's interest in portraiture — which, in lieu of any other concerns, would have led him to a consideration of moko — defined the manner in which he initially approached the representation of facial tattoo designs. The pursuit of these portraits constituted an effective apprenticeship in moko; that is to say, in the representation of its designs. The naturalistic style of his drawing — which would favour the description of his subjects' formal, object presence — was fundamentally at odds with the more schematic nature of moko. In attempting to ‘portray’ the likeness of a Maori, Robley was inevitably forced to sacrifice a complete representation of the patterns tattooed upon that person's face. The portrait of nature favoured by European artists tied the artist to a single point-of-view. That moko was conceived, and existed in nature — that is to say, in the round — essentially compromised the alien artist's ability to fully understand, and certainly to represent, its image.
The constant ‘advice’ Robley received from Maori onlookers — mocking admonishment for an incorrect delineation of moko, and praise for correctly drawn patterns -, together with his increasing familiarity with the patterns he thus articulated, gave rise to a degree of sympathy with the art of the Tohunga page 38 ta moko. More importantly, the painting of portraits brought Robley into close contact with Maori individuals. In that situation his enthusiasm for recording details of Maori art — and his ability to do so with a degree of accuracy unusual for a non-Maori observer provided the basis for a more specific interrelationship than might otherwise have been the case. Certainly it appears that Robley's skill as an artist gave rise to a certain respect among the Tauranga Maori.
“[Te Kuka te Mea] sat to me for presents of tobacco and my field ration of rum, at the village of Matapihi, and my rendering of his decorations on face was criticised or acclaimed by the natives; we got friendly and Te Kuha [sic.], a famous carver did me a stick with mythological figures for which I presented “utu” …”
Because Robley's portraits record (and recall) people, they provide the ‘pivot’ about which the exact nature of his interest in the Maori and their art might be understood. The important fact of these portraits is that they represent living people, that their moko is a living art. Moko is implicitly of life: without his experience of, his observation of, his drawing of moko in life, it is highly unlikely that Robley would subsequently have devoted the greater part of his forty year retirement to an investigation of the art. During that study he was to discover that moko had an image life of its own; that its designs were borne of an organically self-generative aesthetic code. Such is the nature of moko however and it is so fundamentally true of no other art — that its life is instrinsically of human life.
Robley's subsequent interest in moko, and Maori art generally, is inconceivable without this initial experience of the art in life; without his encounters with Maori people. It is from those meetings that his interest in the Race and their art is emanative. As much as increasing his familiarity with the people had opened his understanding of their art, it is true to say that his later in-depth study of the art significantly opened — which is to say, changed — his understanding of the people. The portraits of Maori people bearing moko painted en situ in the Bay of Plenty may be seen as the catalyst for the subsequent study, as the object state Robley continued to attempt to ‘recapture’, to perpetuate.page 39
Robley's personal relationships with Maori individuals during his time in New Zealand were considerably more complex and wide-ranging than is commonly allowed in the modern perception of the period. In her recent thesis on moko, E.C. Brown cites Robley's dedication of his book, “Moko; or Maori Tattooing” to “those who have served against the warriors of New Zealand” as demonstrating that he “perceived Maoris and their culture in a negative framework.” [Brown: 1980 p.4]
To say that Robley viewed the Maori and their culture in a “negative framework” is only to accord to him the general attitude of the Pakeha, that attitude which made colonization possible. It is insufficient to state the superficially obvious when the specifics of Robley's personal attitude apparently go well beyong this simple conclusion. There are a number of examples of Robley's ingrained racial prejudices towards non-European (non-British) Races. He would have been an extraordinary — and perhaps, useless — member of the British Military had he been enlightened beyond such attitudes. It is his response to the Maori, however, which is of interest.
The dedication Brown quotes is open to interpretations well beyond that she implies. A number of the Maori Robley fought at Pukehinahina and Te Rangaranga in early 1864 were comrades-in-arms with the British during the subsequent actions against the ‘Hau hau’. Even in the former engagements Robley had befriended those Maori acting as field guides to the British troops; namely Raniera te Hia hia and Hamiora Tu. It would appear that, to the well indoctrinated British soldier, the concept of an Enemy of the Crown overrode all other distinctions between people. In dedicating his book as he did Robley was paying tribute to the British soldiers he fought with, to the Maori soldiers he fought with and to the Maori toa he fought against. It is important to accept that as much as war set the two parties against one another, the perceived qualities of the warrior in each engendered a mutual respect.
“[I] felt a glow at spirit of chivalry of the Maori … the Maori I knew at Tauranga were deserving of all honours…”
“[speaking about the battle at Pukehinahina (Gate Pa)] … Ah! Those were glorious days. Every fighter was a rangitira, and one was proud to meet each other in battle.page 41
Whatever the reverses were to either side no bitter feelings were engendered to form any permanent hatred. We were all friends immediately there was no fighting.”
While there is a large measure of truth in the claim that Robley saw the Maori within a negative framework it is more significant that he came to divine a positive, creative energy within their culture. His paradoxical — and the paradox is resonant well beyond individuals such as he — apprehension of the Maori is better described in his later statement that moko was “the old art of the most interesting savage people.”23 It was an imperialistic, patronizing attitude shared by many of his New Zealand correspondents of later years, notably Captain Gilbert Mair and Augustus Hamilton.
Subsequent to the surrender of the Ngaiterangi to the British at Te Papa in July, 1864 (this, following their defeat at Te Rangaranga) Robley and his Regiment reverted to a life-style similar to that they had experienced in Burma. Although manning out-lying redoubts and being in a constant state of readiness, the British troops were largely at their leisure around the Te Papa Headquarters Camp. Interesting themselves in duck-shooting, fishing and other pursuits, the soldiers were free to travel around the surrounding districts.
Robley spent much of his spare time in late 1864 and throughout 1865 in the Maori villages around the Tauranga Harbour and, to the south, at Maketu. From his paintings it appears that he was a regular visitor to Matapihi, a small settlement on the south-west shores of the Tauranga Harbour, immediately opposite the Monmouth Redoubt at Te Papa. Over a number of visits the young Lieutenant met, and became increasingly intimate with, a Maori woman, Harete Mauao; daughter of Tamati Mauao.24 The exact nature of the couple's relationship is not known, although it is evident (from his paintings) that Robley was on familiar terms with the woman, her father and the other inhabitants of Matapihi. At some time during 1865 or 1866 Harete gave birth to a son, Hamiora Tu Ropere; named after Robley, the child's father.25
It is possible that the child was born subsequent to Robley's departure from New Zealand in March, 1866; that the soldier was unaware of his son's existence until much later in life. While there page 42 is no reference to Harete after that time, a number of letters exchanged between Hamiora Tu Ropere and Robley at the turn of the century are in existence. During the course of their correspondence, in which neither father nor son refer to one another in such terms, Robley sent Hamiora Tu Ropere a number of watercolours,26 a copy of his book, “Moko; or Maori Tattooing”,27 a number of illustrated postcards28 and numerous other items. Although Robley, in these letters and those written to other people, gives the impression that he was unaware of his relationship to the Maori, there can be little doubt that he understood, and acknowledged, the bloodline. Certainly the Maori family was well aware of the link.
Robley planned to return to New Zealand in the early years of the twentieth century, a visit keenly anticipated by Hamiora Tu Ropere in a letter written to his father at the time.29 As is discussed in the following chapter, circumstances were to prevent Robley from making the trip. In later years he invited his grand-daughter, Te Heipiwhara Tu to join him in London so that she might attend a British school and receive a ‘proper’ education. The young woman declined the offer, apparently out of a concern that the differences between Maori and British life were, for her, unbridgeable.30 She remained, however, kindly disposed towards her British grandfather, an affection which has remained in succeeding generations.
The Maori attitude towards Robley was not always so moderate, especially in the Bay of Plenty. Te Heipiwhara Tu's brother, Hepeta, did not share his sister's (or father's) regard for the Major-General — news of whom continued to reach Tauranga residents until his death in 1930. Family sources recall Hepeta physically spurning the copy of “Moko; or Maori Tattooing” Robley sent them, demonstrating the common perception that Robley was something of a ‘profanity’ to the Maori.31 Although Robley's reputation in the Bay of Plenty was (and is) most significantly determined by reports of his activities while in the area in the 1860's, his association with moko and Mokamokai cast(s) him in a peculiar, singular light. It is not possible to address Robley without addressing moko. To a significant extent, the opposite is also true.page 43
Having been recalled to England, the 68th Durham Light Infantry departed from Auckland on the 15th March, 1866 — Robley aboard the S.S. Percy.32
“My personal connection with New Zealand was now ended and I left that fine country, the land of the Maori with feelings of the utmost regret; nor was I ever so fortunate as to again visit its shores; and yet how often I have wished I could go its rounds again. What I took away with me of its native arts was a gracefully carved jewel of finest greenstone shaped like a shark's tooth, and some old weapons of whalebone and stone, and I was happy in the possession of them.”
The Percy arrived at Portsmouth on the 28th June, 1866; Robley's twenty-sixth birthday. Although a number of his fellow officers had purchased transfers to New Zealand Regiments so that they could stay in that country (in some cases with Maori wives) the young Lieutenant Robley chose to pursue his already promising military career closer to home.page 44 page 45
Hamiora Tu Ropere
Newsclipping; no source/1968
Alexander Turnbull Library; NZ Biographies v. 4:9
[Note added by NZETC as annotator:]
Description: Robley with two Mokamokai (c. 1905) National Museum of New Zealand.
This image is not available for public viewing as it depicts either mokamokai (preserved heads) or human remains. The reasons for non-display are detailed in the policy regarding display of images of mokamokai. If you would like to comment on this decision you can contact NZETC.
1 Fildes: 1921 p. 10 VUW Fildes 1507
3 Robley-Fildes: c. 1924 VUW Fildes 10/1
4 Robley-Best:1917 ATL MS16/2
5 Fildes: 1921 p. 10 VUW Fildes 1507
6 ibid p. 11
7 one of Robley's sketchbooks from this period is in the Alexander Turnbull Library Art Collection; E28
8 Robley was a friend of Charles Keene, the foreign Art Editor for Punch, and through him had a number of drawings published in that periodical. His work was also used by the Pictorial World, the Illustrated London News and, in later years, the Graphic
9 Fildes: 1921 p. 14 VUW Fildes 1507
10 ibid p. 15
11 Published by Robert J. Creighton, Auckland
12 Robley-Adams: n/d ATL MS16/9
13 Fildes: 1921 p. 12 VUW Fildes 1507
14 ibid p. 10
15 Robley — Craig-Brown: 1914 ATL MS16/5
18 “Taratoa was [papatea-untattooed] so I did not draw” Robley-Fildes: 1921 VUW Fildes 10
19 VUW Fildes:n/d VUW Fildes 10/1
22 Ngatai: 1926 p. 26
23 Robley-Fildes:n/d VUW Fildes 10/1
24 See cat. No. 94
25 Mrs Googie Te Weurangi Tapsell; personal correspondence 24/4/1984
26 Robley-McDonald: 1905 NMNZ Ethnology MS
27 Bay of Plenty Times 25/12/1901
28 Mrs Googie Te Weurangi Tapsell, personal communication, 1985
29 AIM MS256 R66
30 Mrs Googie Te Weurangi Tapsell, personal communication; 1985
32 Fildes: 1921 p. 106 VUW Fildes 1507
33 33 ibid