Title: Robley — Soldier with a Pencil

Author: L. W. Melvin

Publication details: Tauranga Historical Society, 1957

Digital publication kindly authorised by: Ronald Melvin

Part of: The Moko Texts Collection

This text is the subject of: National Library of New Zealand Catalogue

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Robley — Soldier with a Pencil


page 11


In retirement, Robley continued to contribute from his sketchbook to the London Graphic which was then receiving most of his work. He has listed sixty-six sketches reproduced by that weekly between the years 1871 and 1908; another sixteen (including those of New Zealand previously referred to) appeared in the Illustrated London News between 1864 and 1882, plus an unspecified number of Burmese scenes in the same journal.2

He turned again also to the particular interest he had developed in the art of Maori tattooing during his New Zealand service. This interest he now expanded by a wide course of reading, and by the acquisition of a collection of dried, tattooed Maori heads. We might well pause here to consider the unique position in which Robley stood in relation to Maori tattooing. The year 1835 had seen the extension of missionary influence in the North Island, and the missionaries condemned the practice of tattooing because of its relationship to the old way of life which they strove to change. Missionary influence flourished, with the result that tattooing had been a declining custom for the best part of thirty years before Robley came to New Zealand. The point is, however, that there were still some fine examples living at the time, and we have already noted his studious approach, even to the extent of copying designs from the bodies of battle casualties.

He sketched literally dozens of designs, and details of designs. As the Journal of the Polynesian Society expressed it in 1931:

"Since the art was even then an art of the past, and has since practically died out, he was in a better position than anyone else was then or ever wlil [sic] be to make a thorough study of the various patterns of moko."

Consequently, the publication in 1896 of his book Moko: or Maori Tattooing placed students in his debt, and it has remained a source book ever since. The work is in two parts, the second being devoted to the subject of dried heads — mokomokai. Long since out of print, Moko is nowadays a collectors' item, fetching from £10 to £11 for a good copy.

A number of the figures portrayed in Moko are those of Tauranga Maoris, some of whom are now identified as a matter of interest for those who have a copy of the book:


number in Moko


Te Kanawa.


Te Kani; a brother to Rawiri.


and frontspiece. Tomika Te Mutu.


Erena, belle of Maketu.




Tamati Manao.


Raniera Te Hiahia, a friendly Maori attached to General Cameron's force as a guide.


Anaru (said by Robley to have married a European from Sydney)


Penetaka. Believed to have been responsible for the layout of the Gate Pa defences.


Reweti is the central figure in the group.

Figures 79 and 80 are details from figure 140: while fig. 99 is the gate-way of Maketu pa.

page 12
Detail of Maori Tattoo. Forehead

Detail of Maori Tattoo. Forehead

page 13

Coming now to the second part of Moko, dried heads are a gruesome subject though enthnologically important. Maori specimens had been traded principally because of their tattoo, but the degenerate trade having been outlawed at a very early date, they were a rarity. Although various museums in Europe and the United Kingdom had specimens, none had collections of any extent. An individual who could form one would be unrivalled.

Spurred by his interest in tattoing [sic], Robley secured his first specimen, which he seems to have come across by accident, from a London dealer of sorts. Not long afterwards, at a sale of a well known collection in the south of England, he silenced numerous bidders to obtain two more good heads.

Now well into his stride, he was next off to a sale in Edinburgh where, elated by his successful bid, he astonished a crowded auction room by rubbing noses with his purchase. Returning to London by the night mail, he staggered the guard by casually exhibiting the head to him.

On the occasion of a medical conference in London, Robley was included in a party invited down to Hazelmere to visit the private museum of Sir Jonathan Hutchinson, a noted surgeon of his day. Sir Jonathan's collection included a fine head which Robley coveted. His prospects of purchasing it were not bright for Sir Jonathan was a rich and famous collector; but, reasoned Robley, objectives were not achieved only by frontal attack. Perhaps Lady Hutchinson could be interested in acquiring a valuable bowl of beaten silver which he possessed, worth about £40. And, if so, perchance she could persuade her husband to effect an exchange? The subject of the silver bowl was introduced successfully and in due course it was taken to Hazelmere. As Robley had guessed, Lady Hutchinson took a strong fancy to it and it was left with her "for consideration." Some time later, the Hutchinson butler came up to London with a message that the bowl would be retained. He also brought the head. (Moko fig. 140), see fig. 15.

Robley's next purchase was the outcome of his expert knowledge. A north London family advertised for sale "the head of a Dyak" which had come into their possession many years earlier from a sailor forbear. This head was notable for having a metal ring through the nose, and yet, when Robley examined it, he was confident of being able to discern beneath several layers of varnish, the pattern of Maori tattooing. This he proved was the case when subsequently, by careful tapping, he was able to flake off the varnish overlay.

So it went on until he had acquired a collection of thirty-five Maori heads which was claimed to be, and not without reason, the finest in the world.

"In 1908 he concluded the time had come when his collection should be permanently preserved; and whilst he twice offered it to the New Zealand Government for the sum of £1,100, the offer was not accepted. In 1909 the collection was on view in the Liverpool Museum, where it was seen by a representative of the New York Museum of Natural History. Learning it was on sale he cabled his principals, who immediately instructed him to buy. The whole, with the exception of five heads, finally went to the United States for the sum of £1,250. The five best heads were reserved, Robley hoping that these would eventually return to New Zealand; but, notwithstanding that he gave New Zealand every opportunity to possess them, no practical interest was shown, and they found ready purchasers abroad.

The result is that there are perhaps not more than seven preserved Maori heads in the whole of New Zealand. The Auckland Museum has two, of the chiefs Moetaru and Koukou, who were killed in a fight at page 14 Opua about 1820. The Christchurch Museum has two, but these, like those at Auckland, are not of the best. There is an inferior specimen in the Hocken Collection at Dunedin, procured from Robley; and two in the National Collection, Wellington, both secured directly or indirectly from Tasmania. A number of European museums possess specimens; the Paris Museum of Natural History has six, obtained by early French voyagers; the Berlin Museum has two; while there are at least sixty in the various museums of the United Kingdom."11

At first sight, the price of £1,100 asked by Robley of the New Zealand Government might be thought high, but apart from the fact that the Americans bought promptly at a higher figure, a good single head was at that time fetching £50 at auction.2

In 1915 he published a second work, Pounamu: Notes on New Zealand Greenstone. It is dedicated to Mrs. R. D. Maclean (later Lady Maclean) through whose interest and that of her husband, the work was published.12 After being marketed in England, the unsold copies were brought to New Zealand by the Macleans but not put on the market here, being distributed amongst their friends. It is relatively scarce and is listed nowadays at about £5.

Robley became a well-known figure about New Zealand House, London, where he met many visiting New Zealanders, among them the famed collector of historical material relating to this country, Dr. T. M. Hocken. As might be expected, Dr. Hocken secured for the Dominion Robley's own copy of Moko together with the notes the latter had been making for a second edition of that book; a project which, by the way, did not eventuate. Another was Horace Fildes, also well-known as a collector of New Zealand historical material, who first met him at the close of the 1914-1918 war and again in 1930, shortly before the General's death. Horace Fildes acquired a good deal of Robley material and this was included in the Fildes Collection subsequently presented to Victoria University College, Wellington.

The passing of the years did not dim the old man's interest in the matters close to his heart. After he had disposed of his collection, on the few occasions when a Maori head came up for sale he always made a point of informing New Zealand House, and regretted their failure to secure such specimens for this country. The sale of a famous collection of pictures by Augustus Earle, one of the earliest artists to portray Maori life and New Zealand scenes, saw him accompany the High Commissioner to inspect and evaluate the collection. But again he had to regret the success of American bidding.

Christopher Maling,13 the son of New Zealand settlers, had distinguished himself as one of a handful of picked scouts in the later stages of the Maori war, in the process rising from n.c.o. to captain, and winning the New Zealand Cross. His death in London many years later would have gone unnoticed, but General Robley would not have it so. He called on the High Commissioner, and the Prime Minister happening to be visiting England at the time, he saw him also, with the result that Maling was accorded a military funeral.

Amongst General Robley's several correspondents in New Zealand were his erstwhile opponent Hori Ngatai, the Tauranga chief who was a leading figure at the surrender scene sketched on July 25th, 1864; Gilbert Mair, and J. C. Adams of Tauranga. A peculiarity of Robley's correspondence in his retirement was that he usually wrote on scraps torn off the bottoms of inward letters. Frequently he would decorate envelopes and enclosures page 15 with Maori designs. In his correspondence with J. C. Adams he sometimes signed himself "Te Ropere", the Maori rendering of his name used by Hori Ngatai. From these scrappy notes we learn that at a London sale in 1927, three greenstone tikis sold for the fabulous prices of £72, £70, and £67 (broken) ; a taiaha at £24; Trooper A. Rodriquez's14 New Zealand Cross (to America) for £95. Concerning this last item Robley added "I told them of the sale at 415 Strand."

In those lush days he priced his own drawings at ten and twelve guineas, in view of which it is of some interest to note the following item which made £14 at Bethune's sale in August 1955:

Lot 1568 (Maning, F. E.) History of the War in the North against the Chief Heke, in 1845; second edition, 1864. Worn copy. Flyleaf has inscribed "H. Robley Lt., 68th Light Infantry E.C., New Zealand, 1864. I fired first shot, Gate Pa. To Douglas Maclean 53 years after, from H. Robley, M. Genl. retd. To F. Maclean." Inside front cover is photostat of Hone Heke, underneath which is inscribed "Hongi Ika called Shungie in C.M.S. Writings, visited England 1820." Also enclosed are the following: (1) Page of autographs of Maori members who attended the Coronation of King Edward Vll, 21st July 1902; (2) (3) and (4) Three signed notes from H. G. Robley; (5) Original signed full page wash drawing of two Maori Warriors, by H. G. Robley.

Detail of Maori Tattoo. Near left ear.

Detail of Maori Tattoo. Near left ear.

page 16

[Note added by Sam Callaghan as annotator:]

Description: A fully-tattooed head. This is the head obtained from Sir Jonathan Hutchinson.

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.