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Mokomokai: Commercialization and Desacralization

The End of Commercialization

The End of Commercialization

The trade in heads was always considered a sacrilege. An early account tells of Captain James Kelly, who, when landing near Otakou Bay, was attacked and three of his crew members killed because “One of the victims …[was] recognized as having sold tattooed Maori heads in Sydney, a sacrilege known to the relatives since every facial tattoo was distinctive and recognizable” (Evison 1993:30). Another example is given where a trader refused to surrender the head of a chief to the dead chief’s relatives. When the trader was leaving the area the relatives attacked and killed his party and their heads were dried (Robley 1998:178). In these instances, the desecration of the head of a friend was a capitol offense.

European society and law institutions, on the other hand, were slow to react to the atrocities committed by those involved in the trade. People prosecuted for the massacre of innocent people were let escape, allowed free on bail, and generally not punished for their activities against the Maori (Evison 1997: 55) The ineptitude of the legal system in prosecuting those clearly guilty led, in part, to Governor Darling’s proclamation on April 16th, 1831 prohibiting trade in preserved heads in Sydney. By taking out the middlemen the traffic in human heads was greatly decreased (Gilbert 2000: 68).

The trade, however, continued to some extent for at least another decade. In 1837 on Kapiti Island, Evison writes that the trade in mokomokai was still “thriving.” Live slaves were shown to potential buyers and when the purchase was made, the slave was killed; his head was dried and traded for muskets (Evison 1997:92). And in 1838, a US expedition purchased two heads from a European, indicating that both Maori and Europeans continued to sell the mokomokai (Robley 1998:181).

Eventually the trade began to die out, Robley attributes this to the eventually saturation of Maori society with muskets and the slow but growing discontent of ‘civilized’ society to the trade in dried heads. Robley describes how,

Slowly but surely the traffic became a public scandal. The Maori too had become possessed of all the arms the wanted, and discontinued a practice which was repulsive to their instincts and which they adopted as a desperate measure to preserve their tribes from annihilation. (Robley 1998: 178)

Around this same time the Maori altogether stopped preserving the heads of friends and relatives out of respect, because the general trade in mokomokai made this dangerous and uncertain (Robley 1998: 170). Mokomokai and ta moko, once important and essential elements in Maori culture, were disappearing.

There are numerous explanations for the discontinuance of the moko. The most obvious is directly linked to the trade in tattooed heads. Rev. G. Woods writes, “In the first place, no man who was well tattooed was safe for an hour unless he was a great chief, for he might be at any time watched until he was off his guard and then knocked down and killed, and his head sold to the traders” (Robley 1998:169). This is the most obvious disincentive to have a moko but it is not the only factor involved in their discontinuance.

Gilbert attributes the decrease in Maori tattooing, not only to the trade in heads, but the loss of Maori lands and the accompanying cultural degradation and forced incorporation into European society (2000: 69). As Robley states “European civilization…obliterated the distinction which prevailed, upset all their social order, and reduced the entire race to one dead level of social inferiority to the Pakeha” (Robley 1998: 123). Gell agrees, “Thus the moko disappeared, not because it was unpopular with the whites, but because it had lost its political rationale” (1993:263). The moko was a product of the Maori social structure, and once that social structure disapppeared, the need and rationale for the moko disappeared as well. The loss of the moko was a part and parcel of the larger degradation of Maori society.

Blackburn, on the other hand, links the decline of the moko to the growth of Christianity and the disapproval of the missionaries of this “heathen practice.” Interestingly enough Christian converts sometimes had their baptismal names tattooed on their arms to mark their conversion, indicating the continued importance and cultural significance of the tattoos in general (Blackburn 1999: 15). Obviously, there were a variety of factors involved in the disappearance of male moko. All of these reasons, however, are directly linked to European colonization and the imposition of new economic, political, and religious structures.

Whatever the cause, by 1840 the male moko were becoming increasingly rare (Simmons 1999:150). Although the male moko was almost completely discontinued, it was begun again in the 1860’s around the time of the Maori Wars as a sign of assertion of cultural and political independence. After the wars, however, the moko once again fell out of use (Hiroa 1982: 300). The female moko, however, continued throughout this period and into the present, sometimes growing and sometimes decreasing in popularity. It is interesting to note, however, that there is only one female tattoo among all the heads traded and now deposited in museum (Blackburn 1999: 18). This seems to link the trade of mokomokai directly to the decrease in importance of the male moko.