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Mokomokai: Commercialization and Desacralization

Commercialization of the Mokomokai

Commercialization of the Mokomokai

The first head obtained by westerners, was ironically, on only the second voyage to land in New Zealand. Joseph Banks, the naturalist who traveled with Captain Cook, bought a head of a 14-year-old boy on January 20th, 1770 (Robley 1998: 167). The Maori were extremely reluctant to part with the head and there is no information about the rank of the youth or if the preserved head was tattooed.

The first record of a mokomokai traded in Sydney was in 1811. The head was stolen and not a regular trade item. It was not until the 1820’s that the trade in tattooed heads was commonplace and “‘baked heads’ acquired a separate entry among the imports at the Sydney customs” (Robley 1998:169, 171). The story that led up to the regular trade of the mokomokai began when Thomas Kendall invited Hongi, a Maori chief who had been converted to Christianity, to England in order to aid in the creation of a bilingual dictionary and the translation of the Bible into the Maori language.

While in England, Hongi was presented to polite society, where his dignified bearing and his elegantly tattooed face excited great admiration. King George granted him an audience and presented him with a large trunk full of gifts as a reward for his efforts in spreading the gospel.

On his way back to New Zealand, Hongi stopped off in Sydney, where he exchanged the King George’s gift for several hundred muskets and a large supply of ammunition…and used his muskets to launch a series of highly successful raids against his traditional tribal foes (Gilbert 2000: 68).

War has long been a part of traditional Maori life, but the introduction of guns changed the nature war. Before muskets and other trade items entered the economy, wars were started to gain women, slaves, greenstone, and mana. Later wars were fought to kill the enemy, conquer his land, take tattooed heads, gain access to trading areas, and grow economically (Lewis 1982:8).

As some tribes obtained guns they gained an enormous advantage over their neighbors. The other tribes in the region were forced to obtain guns to defend themselves and went to any means to obtain them.

The destruction caused by the new warfare engulfed not only the defeated chiefly families but their people as well, on a scale never seen before. …Maori fighting chiefs with the well-armed taua lay waste the populations of their rivals. Only the possession of sufficient muskets could save a tribe from this fate. (Evison 1997: 50)

Chiefs traded flax, potatoes, slave women, and tattooed heads for guns and ammunition in order to protect their tribes from destruction (Evison 1997:50). The trade in the mokomokai grew because of the increasing demand by European museums and private collectors. Other trade items were considerably less valuable: for example, it took a ton of flax to purchase one musket (Gilbert 2000: 68). Later the demand rose and “European traders demanded two such heads, a ton of potatoes, or a shipload of flax for one musket” (Lewis 1982: 93). The heads, however, were a valuable trade items and the trade expanded. After one battle, ten of the most desirable enemy heads were sold to an American ship for guns and ammunition (Evison 1997:69).

Once the arms race began, muskets were so essential to survival that many raids were started with the sole purpose of obtaining heads to trade (Robley 1998:167-8). The mokomokai, once essential objects in the establishment of peace, became the source of guns and the cause of wars.

Traders could sell the heads to museums and private collectors in Europe for large profits (Gilbert 2000: 68) It is estimated that hundreds of these heads were bought and sold during the peak years of the trade in mokomokai from 1820–1831 (Blackburn 1999:18) Of course captured warriors and slain chiefs could not provide sufficient heads to meet the demand so soon the Maori found other ways to fulfill the market demand. Slaves were tattooed and killed because their head was worth more than their living body (Lewis 1982: 93).

The tattooing of slaves was another example of the denigration of Maori moko. The moko was a mark of rank and importance. Slaves were never tattooed until a market was created for tattooed heads (Robley 1998: 24). Furthermore, tattooed slaves and the heads created for commercial purposes were done carelessly and without attention to detail and the tattoos that resulted were a “jumble of meaningless motifs” (Simmon 1999:66). Understanding the mana associated with a proper moko explains the conscious errors in the commercial mokomokai. Thus the commercial demand for the art not only desacralized the mokomokai but destroyed their aesthetic value as well (Hiroa 1982:301). This seems to be a trend with western demands on indigenous art.

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.