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 17


Mention must be made now of a newspaper article by Robley, which appeared in two instalments in the Kaitaia newspaper Northlander (now the Northland Age of November 25th, and December 2nd, 1925, under the presumptuous title, A History of the Maori Tiki.

Therein he took the ancient Maori custom of the women expressing grief for the dead by gashing themselves with pieces of cutting substance, along with that of tattooing, and related them to the Biblical injunction "Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you."15 He suggests that these commands of Moses to cease their established customs, were sufficient to cause the tribe practising them to migrate eastward through India and Burma until finally they reached the Pacific. In the course of these wanderings they encountered the figure of Buddha; "the impression of the perpetual heavenly smile, and the position of the limbs at perfect rest in divine repose" remained dimly with them throughout the centuries until, with their discovery of New Zealand and the finding of greenstone, the fashioning of the tiki was the final outcome of their continuing, shadowy impression of Buddha.

Those are not his words, but it is broadly the idea he drives at. Unfortunately, he appears to have borrowed the Biblical analogy and the idea of the south-east migration from another soldier, Surgeon-Major A. S. Thomson16 who preceded him by some twenty years in New Zealand, added some of F. E. Maning's observations on ancient Maori customs, and then conveniently fitted the result as historical background material.

In our better understanding of the early Maori what then is Robley's place when, besides writing so superficially on the origins of the race, he could, in another direction, confuse Hongi with Heke?

To bring him into proper perspective we must differentiate between Robley as a writer and Robley as an artist.

Of his two New Zealand books, Moko: or Maori Tattooing is the more important. It is a comprehensive account of the subject and notable for its illustrations. For the text he drew substantially upon the work of numerous others. His acknowledged object was to put together a text to support the specialised record he had drawn of tattoo patterns, and his collection of dried heads. On these two subjects he regarded himself as an authority, a claim not to be disputed provided we bear in mind that his awareness was that of a curio collector, and not that of a scholar.

His interest in greenstone artifacts was of a similar kind, and his other book, Pounamu: Notes on New Zealand Greenstone, with which Canon Stack helped,2 is a simple, easily-read essay on that material and the uses to which the Maori put it. As such it was no doubt useful to overseas readers, but would add little to the knowledge of the average New Zealand reader of forty years ago, when greenstone artifacts were more in circulation than they are today.

page 18

Robley's importance lies in his drawings. Not that he was alone in this accomplishment, for it was a common pastime of the day among those of his social class, and it seems to have had a particular attraction for military and naval officers, no doubt as a defence against the boredom of peacetime service. But whereas some of his fellow officers were content to draw the landscape, Robley recorded accurately and in considerable extent, Maori life and customs as he witnessed them in 1864-1865. Moreover, because he was interested in people rather than in places, he was able to catch the atmosphere of the times whether related to the direct action or the casual attitude. His extensive recording of patterns was an important and specialised contribution to the subject of tattooing.

To the endorsements by Gilbert Mair and Johannes Andersen already mentioned, may be added the estimate of W. J. Phillips, Acting Director of the Dominion Museum, Wellington:

"He was an accurate and painstaking artist who never neglected details, with the result that his work stands high in the scale of our early observers of Maori life."17

[Note added by Sam Callaghan as annotator:]

Description: General Robley studying his collection.

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.