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Moko; or Maori Tattooing

Chapter X — Tradition, History, and Incidents of Mokamokai

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Chapter X
Tradition, History, and Incidents of Mokoamokai

[Note added by NZETC as annotator:]

Description: Fig. 131.—Preserved heads of Maori warriors arrayed in robes and displayed by their conquerors. (From a sketch by the Author.)

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.

The curing or embalming of the head was among the Maoris an acknowledgment of the nobility of its owner: it served to keep alive the memory of the departed, among a people who were innocent of literature or of any (except carving) of the usual forms of art. Most of the early writers on New Zealand mention the practice of preserving human heads, and it appears to have been very general amongst the Maoris in their then state. None of the numerous accounts however are very complete, and many of them appear to be rather descriptions at second hand page 132 than records of personal observation. Probably this was due not so much to a lack of curiosity on the part of the writers as to the fact that observers were few, and would from prudential motives naturally keep aloof from the scenes of which the heads formed the central point of interest; besides which, in many cases, the actual business of preparation was strictly tapu or sacred, and an effectual bar would be placed against too minute a scrutiny. It is a question not only curious in itself, but of great interest to the ethnologist. Though the custom from a civilised point of view was certainly a barbarous one, it was not practised from mere brutality, or simply from a desire for personal vanity on the part of the conqueror; no dishonour was intended for the owner of the head, in fact the exact opposite was the case. The distinction, for such it was, was strictly reserved for persons of importance, and the heads of the chiefs of a tribe, and occasionally those of their wives and children, were preserved as well as those of the chiefs of the enemy slain in battle. Mr. Marsden states that “it is gratifying to the vanquished to know that the heads of their chiefs are preserved by the enemy”; and the same authority relates the case of a chief's wife who had the head of her sister preserved, and placed in an ark near her hut in order that she might relieve her feelings by weeping over it.

Moko being in old days an essential part of warlike preparations, it is more than probable that many a young brave was supported under the pain of tattooing by the thought of the handsome and warlike appearance it would give to his countenance whenever his head came to be preserved.

The principal object of the custom seems to have been to page 133 keep alive the memory of the dead, and the mokomokai, as they were called, supplied the place of statues and pictures and

[Note added by NZETC as annotator:]

Description: Fig. 132.—Specimen at Saffron Walden Museum: head of woman, with post-mortem tattooing only, probably done for sale.

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.

monumental records. In the case of a departed chief of a tribe it was a visible sign that in some mysterious way his presence still page 134 dwelt amongst his people, inciting them to emulate his virtues, and to follow in his steps; while in that of the slaughtered warrior mokomokai served to keep alive the memory of the injury received by the tribe in whose possession they remained, and afforded a constant challenge to revenge and retaliation. Even where the mokoed head was that of an enemy, its possession was valued by the victorious tribe, and was only given up under circumstances of a peculiar nature. The preserved head of a foe was a familiar object about the old Maori pas and in its vicinity. The Rev. G. Smales says the enemies' heads were usually placed on the tops of houses or on poles by the wayside where they were exposed to the contemptuous taunts of the passers-by. Those of relations and friends were, however, more carefully kept. They were placed in a secluded spot; they were protected by the strictest tapu; they were brought forth and exhibited only on great occasions, as the hahunga (a feast attending the ceremonial raising of a chief's bones), at the departure of a warlike expedition, or at a gathering of the tribe.

During the progress of a war or when negotiations for peace were pending, these embalmed heads of the principal chiefs played no small part in the business of the moment. Mr. Marsden was informed by Hongi and Te Morenga that when a chief fell in combat the victors demanded that the body, if not already in their possession, should be delivered up, and this was done if his people considered further fighting to be useless. Hostilities were suspended, the head was cut off, and after an elaborate ceremony of “auguration” the tohunga (or priest) proclaimed the cessation or continuance of the fight. The head was kept page 135 for the chief on whose account war had been begun; it was preserved and sent round to relatives and friends as evidence that justice had been satisfied, and the war brought to an honourable conclusion.

Such are some of the earliest incidents we know attaching to mokomokai. The origin of embalming is involved in obscurity, in common with everything relating to the early customs of the people. No one knows whether the Maori brought the art with him, or evolved it from his consciousness or observation. It was in vogue before Cook came into the country. Mr. Yates says the custom of preserving enemies' heads was one of more recent date; and was an extension of the older custom of preserving the heads of friends and relatives. As a matter of fact, when the traffic (about which more anon) in heads became general, the Maoris ceased to preserve the heads of friends lest their relics should be sold. This traffic in dried heads will be told separately and presently.

Weight must be given to the consideration that warriors would wish to show as trophies the heads of the chiefs they had killed in combat. However, the evidence that this custom, as relating to enemies, was of more recent origin is satisfactory; and we must look to the older and pleasanter aspect of mokomokai—namely, the embalming of the heads of friends, as supplying the origin of the custom. Some confirmation of this view may be derived from the undoubtedly old custom of embalming the head of a beloved wife or child. And I shall proceed to deal with the two branches of the subject separately. But first I shall have to refer to the ethnological aspect of the matter in the page 136 shortest possible terms. The embalming of the Maori head does not only suggest the Egyptian mummy process. In Book IV. of his History, Herodotus tells us the Scythian warrior used to carry away the heads of his slain foes for preservation. It has been said the Gauls used to bring home and embalm the heads of defeated enemies, and that collections of these trophies were kept in large chests. The conserving of scalps by American Indians and even by the Scythians need hardly be referred to.

Mokoamokai of Enemies.

Reference has been made to the custom of exposing an enemy's head, as contrasting with that of carefully guarding the head of a friend or relative. It should be added that Mr. White states these strange heads were set on the tops of the posts surrounding the marae or enclosure (courtyard, it may be rendered) so that strangers might see the results of the prowess of the tribe. They were a sort of spolia opima to the successful chief, over which he is supposed to exult. I give an illustration of three heads treated in the manner characteristic of the country; and about these the victors would relate to an admiring audience the tales of war and victory, and slay the slain again. At the conclusion of war, an exchange of heads was an indispensable article in the treaty of peace. Should a chief dispose of a captured head during the continuance of the war, it was regarded as a sign that he would never conclude peace with his foe. The exposed head was placed on a pole or stake (turu turu) with crossbars to represent arms; a mat was wrapped round pole and crossbar to give the effigy as life-like an appearance page 137 as circumstances would admit. On the occasion of a gathering of the clan or tribe, the victorious chief would gloat over these precious things, and re-enact the incidents of the combat amidst a scene of wild excitement. Mr. J. S. Polack says that in the flight of an army or in the butchery of prisoners, those heads that were best punctured were decollated for future preservation; but that the possessor of an unmarked head was battered and crushed with the most savage brutality. Subsequently those that were worth preserving, when set up on stakes as already described, were subject to all manners of abuse and obloquy from the victors who addressed the captured heads as though they were living persons. Mr. Yates thus renders the language addressed to these effigies of deceased enemies: “You wanted to run away, did you? But my mere overtook you, and after you were cooked you were made food for my mouth. And where is your father? He is cooked. Where is your brother? He is eaten. Where is your wife? There she sits, a wife for me. Where are your children? There they are, with loads on their backs, carrying food as my slaves.”

Mr. T. B. Lee, native teacher of Waima, Hokianga, informed the Rev. P. Walsh, on the authority of a chief of that district, that the head of an obnoxious party would be dried, and, as an ito, would accompany its rangatira on fishing excursions, when it would be so fixed on the gunwale of the canoe as to nod freely if a fish took the baited hook, the line of which was attached to the ear.

Some hair was usually torn from the head of each slain enemy, and preserved for the home-coming of the victors.

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So long as the heads remained in the possession of a victorious chief, no amicable relations were possible between the rival tribes. Sometimes where both sides were inclined for peace, it happened that the heads of defunct friends were exchanged, or purchased, and returned to the surviving relatives by whom they were held in much veneration. The number of these preserved heads must have been very considerable, and a parade or exhibition of them must have been a very terrible spectacle to a stranger. Mr. Marsden tells us that on the return of one of Hongi's expeditions against the East Coast natives, a single canoe brought back to Rangihou no less than seventy of these trophies. The early missionaries used to find, during the fighting season which lasted for several months, that the palisading of the adjacent Pa and even the fence of their own compounds were decorated with a row of heads. As before remarked, only the heads of chiefs or of the tattooed were thus preserved; and when the heads were those of enemies, restoration to the defeated tribe was an indispensable preliminary to peace. The most important part which they played, however, was during the actual progress of the war, and in the negotiations respecting its continuance or otherwise. These heads were consequently too precious to be traded away for the white man's treasures. A change was brought about in these views when Hongi first obtained a good supply of arms and ammunition. Hongi was the first to organise Maori warfare on this new principle, and the terror of his name spread far. Every effort was made to meet him on equal terms; but difficulty was experienced in buying enough arms and ammunition. A ton of dressed flax, laboriously scraped with a pipi shell, could page 139 only be bartered for a single gun. But when it was found that the trading schooner would give guns and ammunition for specimen heads, another state of things supervened. Mokoed heads were wanted, and were rapidly provided, for the drying process was such that new and old heads were not readily distinguished. And what was once an honour reserved for chiefs, became forced on slaves with a view to prompt sale of the head. So armaments were bought; and the traders got that which the public wanted for museums and for collections. Then came the end, as we shall see.

It will have been gathered from what has been said that the Maoris did not entirely reserve their treatment of heads solely for their own race; and many heads of white men have been similarly smoked and dried. An instance may be given: In 1834, H.M.S. Alligator was sent to obtain restoration of British subjects, then in the hands of the New Zealanders; after the affair at Waimati on the coast, the preserved head of some ill-fated European was taken out of the water which partially filled a trench, where it was supposed to have been thrown on the flight of the natives. The complexion of this head was changed, but the features and hair remained unaltered. This discovery formed a melancholy confirmation of Mr. Guard's tale of shipwreck and slaughter. Yet, strange to say, none of the survivors of the crew of the Harriet could recognise the face as one of their former companions, and it may have been obtained from another source. The sight of the head again stirred up the soldiers, and in the course of the day one of them brought in the head of a New Zealander which he had detached from the trunk of one of page 140 the fallen natives. It was, however, buried by the officers under a rock, as it had been made a football of. The last instance is from the fighting which occurred in 1864. Just when the Maori cause seemed lost, the flames of war were fanned by a new religion called the Pai Marire or Hauhau, derived from the “fightingest” part of the Bible. At Te Ahuhu, on April 6th, a detachment under Captain PT. W. J. Lloyd, of the 57th Regiment, was cut off in an ambuscade. Captain Lloyd fell fighting heroically, and killed or wounded three natives with his revolver when lying on the ground with a broken thigh. His body had eighteen wounds. The natives, believing that a British medical officer had decapitated one of their people and carried off his head as a specimen, did it for Utu, or revenge. They cut off the heads of Captain Lloyd and the fallen of his party, and having drunk their blood, they buried the heads and bodies in separate places. A few days after, they dug up the heads and smoked and dried them in the old fashion. Captain Lloyd's head was placed on a pole at Pipiriki on the Wanganui river and subjected to indignity; the wild fanatics even rushing at it and biting at it. The Hauhaus believed that the Angel Gabriel would appear to those who drank of the blood; and they caused the head to be carried about in order that it might be a means of communicating with Jehovah. They then announced that the head had appointed a high-priest Te Ua and two assistant prophets, Hepania and Rangitauria; had communicated a new religion; and that its believers (called Very Good) were to be protected by the Angel Gabriel and his legions who would aid in driving the Europeans out of the country, together with all natives who page 141 did not adopt the new faith. When this was accomplished, messengers would come from heaven and teach the Maoris all the Pakeha arts and sciences. A head was afterwards given up at Waitotara by Te Ua to Mr. Brompton, the interpreter; and the officers of the 57th believed it to be that of their gallant comrade. It was buried with the body, and a lock of hair sent to the widow.

In March, 1865, during the continuance of the fanaticism, the Rev. Mr. Volckner was killed at Opiatiki, and shocking orgies ensued. Later in the same year the head of a soldier was taken to Pipiriki by Kereopa and Patara, and used as a mystic symbol. This is the last case of an English head preserved in the Maori fashion. In 1827 Captain Dillon was ordered by the Government of British India to undertake a voyage to the South Seas to ascertain the fate of La Perouse's expedition. In the course of the voyage, he was informed that the ship's carpenter had refused to work, and said he was going ashore. To deter him from this step Captain Dillon had recourse to the following expedient. He asked him if he had seen any preserved human heads offered for sale by the natives since his arrival. The carpenter replied he had. “Then, sir,” said Captain Dillon, “if you attempt to desert from the ship I will pay the natives to preserve your head and bring it here as a curiosity.” The threat had the desired effect.

I have myself seen the mokoAmokai of a young European, with close cropped hair. How old it was I could not judge.

As already stated, these preserved heads of native enemies had their use in bringing about peace, and often in maintaining it when once arranged.

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It may be added that after the Maori had knowledge of fire-arms, the skin of the buttocks of a dead enemy, if well tattooed, was stripped off; it is about one-fifth of an inch thick, and was used as a cover for cartouche-boxes. In a medical museum I can name, there is a bit or sample of tanned skin of a man (name given) which is equal to good quality pig skin. On the same shelf is a small white-looking taper or uncanny dip formed of human fat. Commerce, one may suppose, will not adopt these articles just yet. (One reads lately that in France after the execution of the murderer Pranzini, the presiding judge was presented with a purse made from the criminal's skin.) I will endeavour to exhaust all I have to tell of these old Maori practices with a short account given by Captain Cruise, when at the Bay of Islands. The English learnt one day on going ashore that a body of natives had just returned from a successful expedition with numerous prisoners, including men, women, and children, some of the latter not two years old. Amongst the prisoners was one distinguished by her superior beauty, who sat apart from the rest on the beach, and though silent seemed buried in affliction. Her father, it appeared, had been killed by the man whose prisoner she had become, and who remained near her during the greater part of the day. The gruesome narrative proceeds:

“As we were preparing to return to the ship, we were drawn to that part of the beach where the prisoners were by the most doleful cries and lamentations. Here was the interesting young slave in a situation that ought to have softened the heart of the most unfeeling. The man who had slain her father, having cut off his head and preserved it by a process peculiar to these islanders, page 143 took it out of a basket, and threw it into the lap of the unhappy daughter. At once she seized it with a degree of frenzy not to be described; and subsequently with a bit of sharp shell disfigured her person in so shocking a manner that in a few minutes not a vestige of her former beauty remained.”

They afterwards learnt that this fellow had married the very woman whom he had treated with such singular barbarity.

Fig. 133.—Taraia: (a chief who cooked two native Christians in 1842), fully tattooed, fine specimen.

Fig. 133.—Taraia: (a chief who cooked two native Christians in 1842), fully tattooed, fine specimen.

I will record the last act of cannibalism which is associated, as so many are, with heads. This ancient Maori custom was used for the last time at Katikati on the Thames about fifty miles from Auckland; and two human beings were cooked and eaten in 1842. They were native Christians. They fell in an attack led by a chief called Taraia, who had a feud against them, and they were duly entombed in the stomachs of the victors. The native account of page 144 the affair was reported to the New Zealand Government, as follows: After the action Taraia reached his own village where there were a church and a few believers, and here they rang the prayer-bell. When the Christian natives were at evening worship, Taraia rolled the two heads out into the midst of them. The missionaries were sent for by the executive council, and they proposed to Taraia that he should give some compensation to the sufferers' tribe. To this Taraia made no objection provided that the tribe in question paid him for the relations they had slain. “Have they not eaten my mother?” said Taraia. The matter was allowed to rest there; but it is satisfactory to give the portrait of the so-called last of the Cannibals. He had a shaking head, [unclear: &] wild blood shot eyes. Was reported to have eaten seven of his wives. Was also known as Ngakutu te [unclear: Turuihuia]

MokoAmokai of Friends.

The heads of their relatives were always objects of the greatest esteem to the Maoris; and here we touch upon pleasanter subjects. Families kept their relies in boxes, and aired them on occasion with songs and praises. Dieffenbach says: “In the vestibule of one of the houses I found the head of a young girl in a basket prepared in the manner which has long been so well known, and of which so many examples have been conveyed to Europe.” They were preserved as a memorial of the grief of survivors, or to show to relatives who might have been absent at the decease. It may be compared to the operations on the deceased performed by the ancient Egyptian physician and priest. Some light is thrown on the matter by a narration in Mr. Earle's book. Speaking of the return of a warlike expedition in 1837, he says: “They had brought with them several heads which they have the art of preparing page 145 in their native ovens, so as not to disfigure the countenance nor injure the figure tattooed upon them. One of these, the skull of a distinguished chief, seemed to afford them amazing delight. Most of our people had known him well, and several of his near

[Note added by NZETC as annotator:]

Description: Fig. 134.—A good specimen in Author's collection—head preserved by friend showing varying pattern on cheeks. Lips sewn together The first specimen obtained by General Robley

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.

relatives were present; but cruel war seemed to have eradicated every feeling of humanity, for all appeared to contemplate this ghastly object with great satisfaction. These heads were decorated profusely with yellow and red ribbons, and with white feathers; page 146 they were then stuck upon short poles and placed with great ceremony in front of old Queen Turero's house, who, sitting at the door, received this token of respect with approval and condescension.”
This passage also hints at the method which was adopted to embalm the head. If the deceased had relatives, the operators removed to some distance from their habitation; and neither

[Note added by NZETC as annotator:]

Description: Fig. 135.—Preserved head of a Maori baby (in King's College Museum, London), with gray glass eyes added by a European taxidermist.

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.

operators nor relatives were allowed to touch food until the head was fully “cured.” All were tapu; for if the process were witnessed by the friends, they would, we are told, be unable to repress their tears, and the head would be spoilt. The reasoning seems to lack something, but in the case of an enemy's head the operation was publicly performed. My illustrations will show the careful observer a case where the lips of the embalmed head are sewn together. This will explain another important distinction page 147 between a friend's head and that of an enemy. In the case of an enemy the lips are stretched out and sewn apart, while in the case of a friend the lips were sewn close together as though pouting. The Rev. Mr. Taylor says that it was no uncommon thing to embalm in this way the head of a favourite wife or child. The heads of these and of other relatives were preserved in baskets carefully made and scented with oil. They were brought out to be honourably mourned over, and on these occasions they were decorated with feathers and placed in a conspicuous position. In former times the principal wife of a deceased chief would have her husband's head cut off and dried, and also sleep with it by her side.