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Moko; or Maori Tattooing

Chapter IV — Moko Processes

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Chapter IV
Moko Processes

Fig. 46.—Uhi, or chisels in the British Museum (actual size). Presented by Sir George Grey, K. C. B., &c.

Fig. 46.—Uhi, or chisels in the British Museum (actual size). Presented by Sir George Grey, K. C. B., &c.

Moko was a long and for the patient a painful operation. I have remarked on some of its attributes in the foregoing pages, and need not now repeat what has been said. In several points, however, additional and interesting information is forthcoming.

The instrument used for making the incisions in the flesh was called Uhi, and was very like a small narrow chisel. I give illustrations of some of these chisels preserved in the British Museum. Sometimes they had merely a sharp edge, others were page 49 furnished with comb-like teeth. The chisel was sometimes made from a sea-bird's wing-bone; some were made of sharks' teeth, stones, or hard wood, and were usually worked down to a fine edge or point. They were also of different sizes and shapes so that they could be applied to different parts of the flesh, and could be used for coarse or fine work as the case might be. The average breadth of the blade was about a quarter of an inch. The incision into the flesh was made by applying the edge to the skin, and driving it in by means of a smart
Fig. 47.—Tattooing instruments. (After Polack.)

Fig. 47.—Tattooing instruments. (After Polack.)

tap applied to the handle with a small light mallet, thus causing a deep cut in the flesh. The mallet was called He Mahoe; sometimes it had a broad flattened surface at one end used to wipe away the blood that interfered with the artist's work. The artist sometimes held in his hand a piece of muka or flax dipped into the pigment, and this he applied to the incision as soon as it was made. The Uhi or chisel penetrated quite through the skin and sometimes, as the Rev. Mr. Taylor says, completely through the cheek as well; in which case when the patient took his pipe the smoke found its way out through the cuttings. The pain page 50 was of course excruciating, especially in the more tender parts, and caused dreadful swellings. New Zealand tattooing is rough to the touch and deep canals were made in the skin. Under the skin the black charcoal looks blue black, and time renders the pigment less dark. Since iron instruments were used the scars produced were however less rough.

When iron Uhi were introduced much finer work became possible; and thus Sheffield may be said to have something to do with the later development of the art.

Fitzroy mentions this finer work in 1835; Darwin, in the same year, and Wakefield, in the period 1839–44. As was natural, the natives most in contact with Europeans were the first to adopt the iron instrument. In the earliest days chisel work was the only method employed in tattooing; but later on the system of pricking was introduced and allowed the artist far more scope for his elaboration of detail. The general practice of operators in moko undoubtedly was however to dip the Uhi or chisel into the colouring matter before incising the skin, so that the process of cutting and colouring went on at the same time; the chisel was then withdrawn, wiped clean, and dipped again in the pigment for another insertion. Polack says: “The process was one of intense pain, the recumbent figure of the victim wincing and writhing at every stroke of the operator and quivering under the torments inflicted.” The sufferer looked very hideous after the operation, and instances were even known of permanent distortion of the features.

An excellent description of the process (at the date 1839–44) is furnished by Mr. Wakefield: “I saw Iwikau or page 51 ‘the Skeleton,’ the head fighting chief of the tribe under Heu-heu, being chipped on the cheek-bone. The instruments used were not of bone as they used formerly to be, but a graduated set of iron tools fitted with handles like adzes supplied their place. The man spoke to me with perfect nonchalance for a quarter of an hour, although the operator continued to strike
Fig. 48.—Tattooing a head.

Fig. 48.—Tattooing a head.

the little adzes into his flesh with a light wooden hammer the whole time, and his face was covered with blood. The worst part of the pain seems to be endured a day or two after the operation, when every part of the wound gathers and the face is swollen considerably. The staining liquid is made of charcoal. I rarely saw a case in which the scars were not completely well in a week.”
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Another good account is as follows: “The instrument used to make the punctures is formed out of a piece of whalebone, according to the design intended to be cut, and is bound to a piece of wood in the shape of a carpenter's square. This the tohunga holds in his left hand between his forefinger and thumb. In his right hand between his third and fourth finger is held a piece of fern-stalk, about eight inches long, the outer end of which is bound with a little flax. Between the thumb and forefinger of the same hand is held the black; when the tohunga has made an incision with the Uhi by striking it with the piece of fern-stalk held in his right hand, he again draws the Uhi between the finger and thumb which holds the black, and in so doing it carries with it a portion for the next incision.”

From this I will pass to Rutherford's earlier account, which is of deep interest, though I doubt if the whole operation could have been undergone at one “sitting” as he seems to suggest. Rutherford and five of the crew of the Agnes were captured by the Maoris in 1816; and he remained a prisoner close on ten years.

“The whole of the natives having then seated themselves on the ground in a ring, we were brought into the middle and, being stripped of our clothes and laid on our backs, we were each of us held down by five or six men, while two others commenced the operation of tattooing us. Having taken a bit of charcoal and rubbed it upon a stone with a little water until they had produced a thickish liquid, they then dipped into it an instrument made of bone, having a sharp edge like a chisel and shaped in the fashion of a garden hoe, and immediately page 53 applied it to the skin, striking it twice or thrice with a small piece of wood. This made it cut into the flesh as a knife would have done, and caused a great deal of blood to flow which they kept wiping off with the side of the hand, in order to see if the impression was sufficiently clear. When it was not they applied the bone a second time to the same place. They employed, however, various instruments in the course of the operation; one which they sometimes used being made of a shark's tooth, and another having teeth like a saw. They had them also of different sizes to suit different parts of the work. While I was undergoing the operation, although the pain was most acute, I never either moved or uttered a sound, but my comrades moaned dreadfully….. Although the operators were very quick and dexterous, I was four hours under their hands, and during the operation Aimy's (a chief) eldest daughter several times wiped the blood from my face with some dressed flax. After it was over she led me to the river that I might wash myself (for it had made me completely blind)…. and then conducted me to a great fire. They now returned us all our clothes with the exception of our shirts, which the women kept for themselves, wearing them, as we observed, with the fronts behind. In three days the swelling which had been produced by the operation had greatly subsided and I began to recover my sight; but it was six weeks before I was completely well. I had no medical assistance of any kind during my illness.”

The description Rutherford gives agrees with that of other observers; though it is generally concluded that in no case is page 54 the operation undergone at once, as appears to have been his experience.

Captain Cruise asserts that the tattooing in New Zealand is occasionally renewed as the lines become fainter by time; and that one of the chiefs who returned home was re-tattooed soon
Fig. 49.—Tattooing a thigh. (After Earle.)

Fig. 49.—Tattooing a thigh. (After Earle.)

after his arrival. Both this authority and Mr. Marsden expressly state that according to their information it always required several months and sometimes years to complete the tattoo of a chief; and that this was so because of the necessity of allowing one part of the face or body to heal before operating on another. Perhaps, too, the prolongation of the process may have been necessary where the amoco is of more intricate pattern, or the surface operated on was larger than that which Rutherford describes; or in his particular case it may have been determined page 55 to test his powers of endurance further than would have been necessary in the case of a native. The portrait of Rutherford well represents the tattooing on his body. I will complete the story of Rutherford's experiences later on; but will say here that he has omitted to mention the tracing out of the figure on the flesh prior to the cutting of the skin. This appears to have been invariable in New Zealand and elsewhere. According to Mr. Savage a piece of burnt stick or red earth was used for the purpose.

To tattoo a person fully was, in fact, a matter of time; and if too much was attempted at once it positively endangered life. The Rev. Mr. Taylor tells us of a poor porangi, or lunatic, who during a war was tattooed most unmercifully by some young scoundrels, and his wounds became so inflamed as to occasion death. When once the operation has been performed, it is not possible to erase the moko; not sickness nor death itself has the power of destroying. When a head was preserved every line retained its distinctness; and appeared almost more distinct than when subject to alteration from the muscular motions of the living man.

Letourneau (1881) gives two modes of tattooing. The first, he says, is that done with a sharp stone or a shark's tooth; the second, with a small instrument with sharp teeth. Tattooing by means of cutting is, he says, still the method most employed by the New Zealanders; but the system of pricking allows of more adornment and of an enlargement of the primitive custom. Much importance is, he says, attached to this form of ornamentation which is shown chiefly on the face. It is made by page 56 winding arabesques showing off the different features of the face, and is often done with considerable skill.

And now with regard to the pigment or dye with which the process of moko
Fig. 50.—Vegetable caterpillar, from which a dye is obtained.

Fig. 50.—Vegetable caterpillar, from which a dye is obtained.

was completed. This was called Narahu or Kapara, and consisted of the burnt and powdered resin of the page 57 Kauri pine, Kahikatea, or of Koromico, a veronica. This was said to give the finest tint to the moko, always a blue-black. Aweto Hotete, or vegetable caterpillar, burnt, was also sometimes employed. This plant is a native of New Zealand, and amongst the most remarkable productions on the border line between the vegetable and animal kingdoms. The caterpillar burrowing in the vegetable soil gets a spore of a fungus between the folds of its neck; and, unable to free itself, the insect's body nourishes the fungus which vegetates and occasions the death of the caterpillar by exactly filling the interior of the body with its roots, always preserving its perfect form. The stem grows up like a little bulrush, six to ten inches in height; after being dried, it is burnt into a coal giving an excellent black pigment. Charcoal, too, and even gunpowder have been employed to yield the necessary colour. “At Taupo,” says the Rev. Mr. Taylor, “I went to see the place where this pigment was manufactured; a narrow pit was sunk at a little distance from a precipice, and from the face of the cliff a passage was cut to the bottom of it, over the mouth of which pieces of wood containing the resin were burnt; the residuum falling within it was taken away.”

Sometimes, however, the preparation was rubbed on a stone, and a little water was added to form a thin paste.

Another account gives the following information: “The soot with which they are marked is obtained by making a hole, somewhat like a lime-kiln, in which kauri (to burn black) gum is burnt, or a wood called kapara; on the top of the kiln is placed a Maori basket, made of korari besmeared with fat, to which the soot adheres. The black thus obtained is sacred, and page 58 is kept for generations, father and son being tattooed from the black made at one burning. The soot is mixed with oil or dog's fat.”

Gunpowder has often been substituted, leaving a blue mark which time can never wholly efface.

As if the physical torture of moko were not sufficient to set the seal of true martyrdom on a Maori he was subjected during the operation to a species of boycott or Tapu. He was forbidden all communication with people not in the same condition as himself; and in eating was not allowed to use his hands, and was dependent on his attendants for his food. According to the old superstition the man who presumed to raise a finger to his mouth before his moko was finished for the time would certainly find his stomach invaded by the Atua or fiend, who would devour him alive. Earle notices this. He says: “All those chiefs who were under the operating hands of Aranghie the tattooer were under the law. In fact, as we strolled through the village at the time of their evening repast, it appeared as though some dreadful disease had suddenly struck the greater part of the inhabitants and deprived them of the use of their limbs, most of them being either fed by their slaves, or lying flat on the ground and with their mouths eating out of their platters or baskets.”

And Mr. E. Tregear says that a person being tattooed was prohibited from eating fish, unless the fish which is sacred to Tangaroa, the Sea-God, is held up to see the tattooing. No gourd or calabash might be eaten if children had playfully made tattooing marks thereon. Mr. Taylor too has some interesting remarks on this phase of the subject.

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“During the time of the tapu,” says the Rev. Mr. Taylor, “he could not be touched by any one, nor even put his own hand to his head; but he was either fed by another who was appointed for the purpose, or took up his food with his mouth from a small
Fig. 51.—Tapued chief eating with a fern-stalk. (After Taylor.)

Fig. 51.—Tapued chief eating with a fern-stalk. (After Taylor.)

stage with his hands behind him, or by a fern-stalk, and thus conveyed it to his mouth. In drinking water, the water was poured in a very expert manner from a calabash into his mouth, or on his hands when he needed it for washing; so that he should not touch the vessel which otherwise could not have been used again for ordinary purposes.”
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Rutherford recounts the fate of one of his tattooed companions left with him. He says: “My comrade and I were left at home with nobody but a few slaves and the chief's mother, an old woman who was sick and attended by a physician. A physician in this country remains with his patients constantly both day and night, never leaving them till they either recover or die…. During the absence of the family at the feast, my comrade
Fig. 52.—A tattooed gourd. (British Museum.)

Fig. 52.—A tattooed gourd.
(British Museum.)

chanced to lend his knife to a slave for him to cut some rushes with in order to repair a house; and when this was done he received it back again. Soon after he and I killed a pig, from which we cut a portion into small pieces and put them into our own pot along with some potatoes which we had also peeled with our knives. When the potatoes were cooked the old woman who was sick desired us to give her some, which we did in the presence of the doctor, and she ate them. Next morning she died, when the chief and the rest of the family immediately returned home page 61 …. On the third day after the death they all, to the number of some hundreds, proceeded to cut themselves. The following morning the men armed and alone formed a circle round the dead body, and the doctor appeared walking backwards and forwards in the ring. By this time my companions and I had learned a good deal of the language; and as we stood listening to what was said we heard the doctor relate the particulars of the old woman's illness and death: after which the chiefs began to inquire very closely into what she had eaten for the three days. At last, the doctor having retired from the ring, an old chief stepped forward with three or four white feathers stuck in his hair, and having walked several times up and down in the ring addressed the meeting and said that in his opinion the old woman's death had been occasioned by her having eaten potatoes that had been peeled with a white man's knife after it had been used for cutting rushes to repair a house; on which account he though that the white man to whom the knife belonged should be killed, which would be a great honour conferred upon the memory of the dead woman. To this proposal many of the other chiefs expressed their assent, and it seemed about to be adopted by the court. Meanwhile my companion stood trembling and unable to speak from fear. I then went forward myself into the ring and told them that if the white man had done wrong in lending his knife to the slave he had done so ignorantly, not knowing the customs of the country. I ventured to address myself to Aimy, beseeching him to spare my comrade's life; but he continued to keep his seat on the ground, mourning for the loss of his mother, without answering me or seeming to take any page 62 notice of what I said; and while I was yet speaking to him the chief with the white feathers went and struck my comrade on the head with a mery and killed him. Aimy however would not allow him to be eaten. The slaves therefore having dug a grave for him he was interred after my directions.”
Fig. 53.—Funnel for feeding a chief during time of tattooing. (In Author's collection.)

Fig. 53.—Funnel for feeding a chief during time of tattooing.
(In Author's collection.)

The religious character of these observances is brought into prominence by Polack who, speaking of “old times,” says: “The priest and all the people are tapu (on account of the blood) during the operation; but the ceremony of making native ovens with hot stones is gone through—priest's oven, God's oven, and oven for the tattooed man. The priest handles one of the hot page 63 stones of the God's oven, thus transferring the tapu to their food which is hung up on a tree. After eating, all are noa (common, not tapu).”

And Rutherford, speaking of himself and five comrades, says: “We were not only tattooed, but what they called tabooed; the meaning is, ‘made sacred’ or forbidden to touch any provisions of any kinds with our hands. This state of things lasted three days, during which time we were fed by the daughters of the chiefs with the same victuals and out of the same baskets as the chiefs themselves and the persons who had tattooed us.”