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Murihiku: A History of the South Island of New Zealand and the Islands Adjacent and Lying to the South, from 1642 to 1835

Head Collectors, 1820

Head Collectors, 1820.

At this juncture the attention of the Sydney public was rather prominently called to the traffic in human heads with the New Zealand natives. This traffic, so far as it can be traced, is supposed to have started in Foveaux Strait among the sealers. A very interesting correspondence took place in the press, and a perusal of extracts therefrom will page 231 show that so far as the owners of the vessels were concerned the trade was discouraged, but the men, for the sake of the profit, often risked the lives of their fellows and the property of their employers to carry on a surreptitious trade with those of the natives who could be induced to deal with them.

A writer stated:—

“In passing through George Street in this town a few days since my attention was suddenly arrested by a very extraordinary sort of a bundle under the arm of a man who was passing me on the footpath…. I called to and asked him what the handkerchief under his arm contained; judge my astonishment and horror, Sir, at beholding a human head, with long black hair, in a state of perfect preservation …. As soon as I had recovered myself, I asked the man if what he showed me was really a human head; with perfect indifference as to my feelings and consternation the man replied it was the head of a New Zealander, which he had purchased from a person lately arrived from that country, and that he was going to dispose of it for two guineas to a gentleman who was about to embark for England.

“I remember, about 7 or 8 years ago, to have seen in a private house in this town two human heads of the same kind, tattooed and ornamented in a manner customary among the natives of the higher classes in New Zealand, and so far as my recollection serves me, I think they were valued at twenty guineas each head.

“If the import of human heads from New Zealand be so far countenanced and encouraged that the price shall fall, in the course of seven years, from 20 guineas to 2 guineas each, the inference must be, that human heads, having become by practice the objects of trade or barter, the dealers in that traffic are not only supplied in proportion to the increased demand, but even on terms much lower than formerly; and that in all probability, in a few years, they will be so easily acquired as to be exposed to market at a dollar each.”

I am, Sir, yours, &c.,


Sydney, 8th January, 1820.
page 232

In the next issue appeared the following reply:— To the Printer of the Sydney “Gazette.”


“The letter signed “Verax” which appeared in your last Paper, I complain of as being too general in its animadversion. It speaks about dealing in human heads from New Zealand as though it was an established medium of barter, and evidently proceeds from the pen of a writer who has no knowledge of his subject. New Zealand has been for many years frequented by sealers, who committed every species of depredation upon the natives, for the purpose of obtaining curiosities, as they are termed, such as their war implements, mats, and so forth; and though they might have been safe so long as they continued civil, yet the wish of making money of such spoil as they could any way pick up, upon their return to Port Jackson, was a temptation irrestible to the generality of that class of men; who, after toiling under excessive hardship for a year or two in Foveaux Straits, would spend their hard earnings in a week upon their return to Sydney.

“To apply the term traffic to so vile an instance of depravity as must characterize the individual who would barter for a thing so appalling to humanity, is not just; because the writer might upon enquiry have been aware that the persons engaged in vessels going to New Zealand are all prohibited by their articles from trading or bartering in any shape whatever with the natives; from which it follows, that these heads, so far from being made an article of traffic, are conveyed on board by stealth, and secretly kept until their arrival here, otherwise a forfeiture of pay or wages would ensue.

“These heads are exhibited by the various chiefs of the island as trophies; but since the Missionary establishment, this savage custom gradually declines; and I can in no better way account for a greater number having been of late brought here than was before known at any one time, than that the natives, abating in the desire of exposing the heads of their conquered enemies as trophies of victory, page 233 yet being extremely indigent, would rather barter them away with sailors than dispose of them in any other way.

“The first of these heads that I remember to have been brought up was by a wild fellow of the name of Tucker, in 1811, who got it by plunder; and so tenacious were the natives at that time of these heads, that a whole boat's crew were nearly cut off for the crime of this villain, which was not known until he exposed the head for sale in Sydney. The crew had an hour before the sacrilege committed by Tucker, being upon the most friendly footing with the natives; when suddenly an alarm burst out, and had the vessel had not immediately got away, a hundred war canoes would have boarded her at once. This man has since been killed at New Zealand.”

I am Sir,

Yours, &c.,


It is on record—but after careful search the author is not satisfied that it is authentic—that the head mentioned as being the first taken to Sydney was got by Tucker from the Maoris at Foveaux Strait. It may however have been at some point on the Otago coast line. Tucker returned to New Zealand in the Sophia in 1817, and, with two others, was killed by the natives of Otago when landing to purchase potatoes.

Countless pages of literature execrating the traffic have been published from time to time but, in the midst of all the condemnation of the trade, it must be kept in mind that the finest collection of Maori heads in the world is the private property of a major-general in the British Army, and that every acquisition thereto is photographed and published in the leading papers of the Dominion. Great pressure, too, has been brought to bear upon the Ministry of the day to purchase this collection. We should not blame the poor sealer, who in those far-away days traded with the Maori for the same article, but at a much lower figure than present day quotations. Some of the same heads which were then hawked about the streets of Sydney page 234 for two guineas apiece and the transaction considered a shocking crime, may be now in the collection mentioned and offered for sale to the museums of the world for fabulous figures and the purchase of them considered a right and proper thing on the part of the Dominion.

When we remember that even in civilized society to-day ordinary rules of meum and tuum are rarely observed by curio collectors in their eagerness to obtain rarities, no matter to whom belonging, and that locks and keys are always wanted, we can easily see how matters would be viewed by the sailors on the small sealing craft, when they realised that in these strangely preserved human heads was a rare opportunity for profit. They naturally tried to secure them. The first idea of the native, on the other hand, was not to part with his possession. The very circumstances attending the obtaining of it were opposed to the parting with it. It was only when tempted by a large price and when gradually debauched by the first flush of trade with the rough sealers, that he yielded to temptation and began a regular traffic.