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The Aborigines of New Zealand: Two Lectures



The custom of marking the skin called Tatoo, in New Zealand, Moko, is one of the most widely diffused practices of savage life. It is found with various modifications throughout the Pacific, from New Zealand to the Sandwich Islands, and also among the aboriginal tribes of Africa and America. It appears to have been in use among the ancients. Hence the Mosaic prohibition, Lev. xix., 28—“Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you.” These were doubtless customs of neighbouring tribes, connected with idolatrous worship. Men printed marks upon their flesh in honour of the objects they worshipped. Herodotus mentions it as prevailing among the Thracians, who considered that “to be marked with punctures was a sign of noble birth.” Others speak of it as the practice of the Scythians and Assyrians. All the castes of the Hindoos bear on their foreheads or elsewhere what are called sectarian marks, which distinguish them, both in a civil and religious aspect, from each other. Among the Greeks these marks were called “stigmata.” To these St. Paul refers when he says “I bear in my body the marks (stigmata) of the Lord Jesus.” Cæsar remarks it as prevailing amoug the Britons, and Pliny says they introduced the juice of the plantain into punctures made in the skin, so as to form a permanent delineation of various objects. Like most other customs among the Polynesians, tatooing it supposed to have had its origin with the gods. Mr. Ellis gives a tradition about it in the first volume of his Researches, p. 262.

The New Zealander generally refers the invention to “Mataora;” hence many of their songs speak of the “uhi Mataora” (the chisel of Mataora). Mataora was the inventor of the art, and Onetonga the first man tatooed.

It may have originated in a sense of decency in the tropical Islands, where little or no clothing was used. The Marquesans are said to be tatooed from head to foot. The New Zealanders say that when their ancestors came from Hawaiiki their legs only were tatooed.

It is not a mark of chieftainship among the New Zealanders. Many chiefs are without a single line, and many a slave has submitted to the greatest pain to have his plebian face made as beautiful as the moko could make it. Nor is their rank denoted, or the tribe indicated by it. All depends upon the taste of the artist, or the direction of the party and his ability to pay the operator. The only reasons they assign for the custom are—1st. It increases their beauty—makes them admired by the ladies, who are not page 45 supposed to fall in love with a plain face; and 2nd, it secures the preservation of their heads when dead, as an untatooed face was not considered worth preserving.

The operation was performed by a certain class of Tohungas (priests), who make it a profession, and go from village to village for the purpose. The process causes great pain. The person lies down with his feet against something for pressure; the lines are traced with charcoal, and the incisions made with a small chisel struck with a slight mallet, the point being dipped in colouring matter, either of flax root burnt to charcoal, reduced to powder, and mixed with water, or the soot of kahikatea collected in their houses. Great inflamation ensues, so that but little can be done at once. The face is not generally covered for years, but once done it is not possible to erase it. They have a name for every part. While the process is going on the women sing, principally with a view of inspiring the the sufferer with patience and diverting his thoughts. The following is one of the songs:—

“We are sitting eating together.
We are viewing the prints on eyebrows
And on the nose of Tutetawha.
They are crooked as a lizard's leg.
Tatoo him with the point of Mataora.
Be not impatient to go to the girl
That gathers you sweet greens
In baskets of Kowhara.
Let every line be traced.
On the man that has the utu,
Let the figures be handsome;
On the man that has no utu,
Make it crooked, leave it open.
Let our songs lull the pain,
And inspire these with fortitude.
O Hiki Tangaroa. O Hiki, &c.”

I am sorry I am not able to say that it has passed away. Many of the young men of the present generation still desire it, and submit to the pain rather than live and die with what they call a plebian face. But in proportion as Christianity reaches their hearts and civilization spreads, like every other pagan custom it must perish.