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Moko; or Maori Tattooing

Chapter XII — Traffic in Heads

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Chapter XII
Traffic in Heads

I will commence my remarks on the growth of the remarkable traffic in Maori dried heads with an account of a battle as given by Rutherford—an eye-witness—in his graphic narrative over seventy years ago. From such a battle as that which he speaks of, the traders derived no small advantage; and the traffic became so great a scandal that in 1831 it was stopped by legislation. Rutherford says: “The two bodies then advanced to within about one hundred yards of each other, when they fired their muskets. They only fired once, and then throwing their muskets behind them, where they were picked up by the women and boys, drew their meres or tomahawks out of their belts; when the war-song was being screamed by the whole of them together, in a manner most dismal to be heard, the two parties rushed into close combat. They now took hold of the hair of each others' heads with their left hands, using the right to cut off the head. Meanwhile, the women and boys followed close behind, uttering the most shocking cries I ever heard. These last received the heads of the slain from those engaged in the battle as soon as they were cut off, after which the men went in amongst the page 167 enemy for the dead bodies, but many of them received bodies that did not belong to the heads they had cut off.”

The first dried head ever possessed by a European was acquired on January 20th, 1770. It was bought by Mr. (afterwards Sir Joseph) Banks, who was with Captain Cook's expedition as a naturalist; and it was one of four brought on board the Endeavour for inspection. It was the head of a youth of fourteen or fifteen, who had been killed by a blow that had fractured his skull. The three other heads, not for sale, seemed to have false eyes and ornaments in the ears. In Hawksworth's Voyages of Captain Cook it is recorded that the first head brought had been preserved, for it had no disagreeable smell, though from the softness of the skin it was evidently that of a person recently killed. The natives showed the greatest reluctance to sell the head was exchanged for an old pair of Sir Joseph Banks white linen drawers, and could not be induced to part with another at that time. This reluctance, as we shall see, disappeared too soon. To get muskets wherewith to continue their terrible tribal wars, heads were soon sold, when it was found that a demand existed, and the demands of the traders were prompted by the prices paid by museums and collectors. Many a murderous attack, says Mr. Taylor, has been made to obtain heads for market, the best prices being paid for finely tattooed specimens. Mr. Taylor also says that he was assured some heads offered for sale were those of Europeans. Mr. Polack "Manners & Customs" Vol. 2. p. 41. says that many a battle and predatory excursion has been undertaken expressly to obtain “choice tattooed heads” for white traders. Up to 1818 the native population was large. Fire-arms were extensively used after 1820, when heads became much cheaper, and European museums and collections well stocked. In my Appendix p. 183 I have given a list of page 168 some of the collections. It was the desire to possess muskets for self-preservation, and the facility for exchanging dried heads for
Fig. 151.—Bargaining for a head, on the shore, the chief running up the price. (From a drawing by the Author.)

Fig. 151.—Bargaining for a head, on the shore, the chief running up the price.
(From a drawing by the Author.)

firearms that led up to this traffic. There are instances of several white heads having been included in the trade in specimens. Between the years 1770–1809 only, upwards of one hundred Europeans had been killed and eaten in New Zealand.
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The first head taken to Sydney, of which there is any record, was brought from Fouveaux Straits in 1811. see p. 29. Dunedin & its Neighbourhood." Bathgate. 1894. It was obtained by theft, and a boat's crew was nearly cut off for utu (revenge). In 1814 heads were certainly not yet an ordinary article of trade at Sydney; but in 1820 it appears that preserved heads were not uncommon. Until Europeans began to visit New Zealand and to settle there, heads were of sentimental interest only and had no commercial value. But the desire to possess them as curiosities for museums and collectors, caused a large demand to spring up. The Maori on his part was eager to obtain firearms, ammunition, and iron implements. His reluctance to part with the heads was overcome, and so brisk a traffic sprang up that the demand exceeded the supply. It considerably reduced the population of New Zealand; but stocked the museums of Europe with specimens of barbaric face-culture; while as a commercial enterprise the traffic was not without profit. Freshly done and inferior heads took the place of the old and genuine; and it was found that a newly tattooed head looked as well when preserved as one similarly preserved years before. The chiefs were not slow in taking advantage of the discovery, and set to work to kill the least valuable of their slaves, tattooing their heads first (as above remarked) as though they had belonged to men of high rank, drying them and then selling them. The Rev. J. SG. Wood author of "The Natural History of Man." 1870. says: “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.” Old grudges were raked up and small local wars undertaken to keep up the supply.

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"Old Whaling Days." McNab. 1913. p.161. Many a poor slave suffered a horrible fate—mokoed only to be murdered for his head. At one time forbidden the pride of the noble and the free, the unhappy slave was now forcibly tattooed, and when his scars were healed he was tomahawked, his head dried, and then sold to the ever ready trader. A good looking slave might be elaborately tattooed, so that as soon as required his head might pass as that of a distinguished rangatira. When the traffic in heads became general, the natives ceased altogether to preserve the heads of their friends, lest by any means they should fall into the hands of others and be sold. There were cases where slaves, rendered valuable with scrolls and curves and arabesques, effected their escape and carried their stolen value on their shoulders.

The Rev. J. G. Wood records the following incident: “One of my friends lately gave me a curious illustration of the trade in heads. His father wanted to purchase one, but did not approve of any that were brought for sale, on the ground that the tattoo was poor and not a good example of the skill of the native artists. The chief allowed the force of the argument, and pointing to a number of his people who had come on board, he turned to the intending purchaser saying, ‘Choose which of these heads you like best, and when you come back I will take care to have it dried and ready for your acceptance.’”

The death duties seem to have taken curious forms in New Zealand, and to have been heavy. At every turn of the inquiry into this horrible subject, one is met with evidence of brutal cruelty, of low dishonesty, and of debasing greed. Maning quotes a case where the head of a living man was selected, sold and paid for beforehand, and duly delivered according to agreement; and he thinks it was no isolated case. At first the agents for the collection page 171 of these heads were ne'er-do-wells or deserters from ships who lived among the natives on the coast line; through them the skippers of trading or whaling vessels were accustomed to arrange for the “goods.” But the trade began to grow in importance, and at length
Fig. 152.—Offer of a living mokoed head for sale. From a drawing by the Author.

Fig. 152.—Offer of a living mokoed head for sale.
From a drawing by the Author.

agents were sent to select the best specimens, and “Baked Heads” acquired a separate entry among the imports at the Sydney Customs "Manners & Customs." Polack. Vol. 2. p.41; and it was no uncommon thing to find them offered for sale in the streets of that city
“Verax” writes in an old Sydney Gazette, 8 Jan. 1820, “Passing through page 172 George Street my attention was arrested by a very extraordinary sort of bundle under the arm of a man who was passing me on the footpath. I called to ask him what the bundle contained, when I beheld on his opening the covering a human head with long black

[Note added by NZETC as annotator:]

Description: Fig. 153.—Opening at the neck showing a hoop and sewing of flax. (In Author's 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.

hair, in a state of perfect preservation. I asked the man if what he showed me was really a human head, when the man replied that it was the head of a New Zealander, which he had purchased from a person lately arrived from that country, and that he was going to dispose of it for two guineas to a gentleman who was about to embark for England.”
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The traffic still increased, and as the quality deteriorated, the dealers became dissatisfied, and some of them who went personally to examine and select living slaves whose heads they were willing to buy, were overtaken by a fate that deserves little pity.

Just before Te Pehi, mentioned in Part I, was killed, he was making free with a block of greenstone. The owner objected; and what followed is narrated by the Rev. James W. Stack in Kaipohia:Te Pehi, who was now within four or five paces of the gate, turned and faced the speaker, and in the most contemptuous terms derided him for daring to question the actions of one so much his superior. ‘Badly tattooed, badly tattooed,’ he cried; ‘what use would your ugly head be to me if I was to carry it with me to Kapiti; it would be worth nothing towards the purchase of a musket. But here is a man,’ turning towards Te Panihi, who stood near him with a well-tattooed face, ‘his head would be worth having; but you, with a valueless head, how dare you call in question the doings of Pehi tu a te rangi?’” "I taia to moko ki te aha?" — Maori proverb — "to what purpose was your head tattooed". applied to a coward

Rutherford, in his account of the chief Pomaree, referring to the year 1820, or 1821, throws more light on the history of the traffic in these dried heads. Pomaree's importance must be estimated from the fact that he had with him five hundred men, and numerous war canoes. Pomaree showed Rutherford several heads of numerous enemies he had killed; and these were to be taken to the Bay of Islands, and there to be exchanged for arms and powder with the ships that touched there. Pomaree was a famous taxidermist of heads, and was himself finely tattooed and had marks on his upper lip.

Mr. Nicholas also describes Pomaree as a man “gifted with keen commercial instinct” and most desirous of doing business. He told page 174 Mr. Marsden he was quite ready to go and shoot some people who had killed his son, if ammunition and guns were given him, and

[Note added by NZETC as annotator:]

Description: Fig. 154.—Group of heads in the Museum d'Histoire Naturelle,Jardin des Plantes at Paris; one is a skin mounted on a plaster cast.

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.

that he would then give an instance of his skill in preserving heads. Mr. Marsden told him never to mention again such shocking brutality, nor to bring any specimens of his inhumanity on the page 175 vessel Mr. Marsden was on board of, Mr. Nicholas says he fully believed that for the purposes of gain Pomaree would not hesitate to take the life of the first person he met, provided he could have done it with impunity.

I see in the Missionary Register for 1827 a letter from the Rev. H. Williams, recounting that a short time before Pomaree had fallen in battle, and with many of his men had been cut to pieces by a tribe which he had attacked.

The following well-known story from Maning's Old New Zealand illustrates the sordid nature of the traffic in heads on which I have been commenting. Maning recounts how he noticed a company of natives with finest cloaks and feathers on a little rising ground, and how he determined to introduce himself to them: “As I approached, one of these splendid individuals nodded to me in a very familiar sort of manner, and I, not to appear rude, returned the salute. I stepped into the circle formed by my new friends, and had just commenced a Tena koutou, when a breeze of wind came sighing along the hill-top. My friend nodded again,—his cloak blew to one side. What do I see?—or rather what do I not see? The head has no body under it! The heads had all been stuck on slender rods, a cross-stick tied on to represent the shoulders, and the cloaks thrown over all in such a natural manner as to deceive any one at a short distance, but a green pakeha, who was not expecting any such matter, to a certainty. I fell back a yard or two, so as to take a full view of this silent circle. I began to feel as if at last I had fallen into strange company. I began to look more closely at my companions, and to try to fancy what their character in life had been. One had undoubtedly been a warrior; there was something page 176 bold and defiant about the whole air of the head. Another was the head of a very old man, gray, shrivelled, and wrinkled. I was going on with my observations, when I was saluted by a voice from behind with: ‘Looking at the 'eds, sir?’

“It was one of the pakehas formerly mentioned.

“‘Yes,’ said I, turning round just the least thing quicker than ordinary.

“‘ 'Eds has been a getting scarce,’ says he.

“‘I should think so,’ says I.

“‘We an't 'ad a 'ed this long time,’ says he.

“‘The devil!’ says I.

“‘One o' them 'eds has been hurt bad,’ says he.

“‘I should think all were, rather so,’ says I.

“‘Oh no; only one on 'em,’ says he. ‘The skull is split, and it won't fetch nothin',’ says he.

“Oh, murder! I see, now,’ says I.

“‘ 'Eds was werry scarce,’ says he, shaking his own ‘ 'ed.’

“‘Ah,’ said I.

“They had to tattoo a slave a bit ago,’ says he, ‘and the villain ran away, tattooin' and all!’ says he.

“‘What!’ said I.

“‘Bolted afore he was fit to kill,’ says he.

“‘Stole off with his own head?’ says I.

“‘That's just it,’ says he.

“‘Capital felony!’ says I.

“‘You may say that, sir,’ says he.

“‘Good morning,’ said I.

“I walked away, pretty smartly. ‘Loose notions about heads in page 177 this country,’ said I to myself; and involuntarily putting up my hand to my own, I thought somehow the bump of combativeness felt smaller, or indeed had vanished altogether. ‘It's all very funny,’ said I.

“All the heads on the hill were heads of enemies, and several of them are now in museums in Europe.” “With reference to the knowing remarks of the pakeha who accosted me on the hill on the state of the head-market, I am bound to remark that my friend Mr. —— never speculated in this ‘article,’ but the skippers of many of the colonial trading schooners were always ready to deal with a man who had ‘a really good head,’ and used to commission such men as my companion of the morning to pick up heads for them.”

It was a point of honour with the Maoris to try and save the heads of their tribe from the grasp of the enemy, who would sell them. Maning tells a story which illustrates this: “A small party of our friends had been surprised. Two brothers were flying for their lives down a hill side; a shot broke the leg of one of them and he fell; the enemy were close at hand; already the exulting cry of ‘Na! na! mate rawa!’ was heard; the wounded man cried to the brother, ‘Do not leave my head a plaything for the foe.’ There was no time for deliberation. The brother did not deliberate; a few slashes with the tomahawk saved his brother's head, and he escaped with it in his hand, dried it, and brought it home.”

Such are a few gruesome incidents of this truly awful traffic, which flourished so long.

Slowly but surely the traffic became a public scandal. The Maoris too had become possessed of all the arms they wanted, and page 178 discontinued a practice which was repulsive to their instincts and which they only adopted as a desperate measure to preserve their tribes from annihilation. In any case the practice was dying out. The credit of stopping it is due to Governor Darling of New South Wales. He was of course, it is said, exposed to very violent abuse, which continued for no inconsiderable time. Events, however, had occurred which brought public opinion to bear on a matter which, if it put a stop to a “gainful” traffic, was undoubtedly one that ought never to have reached the position it occupied in 1831. In January, 1831, Andrew Powers was one of the crew of a boat belonging to Joe Rowe, a trader in preserved heads at Kapiti. Amongst the heads which Joe Rowe had purchased were two of Taupo chiefs. These were seen at his store at Kapiti by their relatives who entreated him to give them up. He laughed at them. Finding he had arranged this expedition, they left before him and went to await his arrival. The boat, with Rowe and three white men, and a coloured man, entered the Wanganui River and they beached their boat to cook a meal. While eating, a party of natives joined company and one of the natives went and sat down in the boat. Rowe called out to Powers to turn him out, but knowing more of the natives, Rowe proceeded to do so himself, and the Maori promptly killed him with a blow on the head. Powers went to his help and was knocked overboard, but not killed. The rest of the party except the coloured man were killed. Rowe's head and that of another of the men were steeped and dried in the usual way for sale. One was too much chopped about to be worth preserving. The bodies of two were eaten. Powers was spared and lived with them, and was finally redeemed by the captain [unclear: Hans] Tapsell of Maketu. of a page 179 trading schooner for twenty-five pounds of tobacco. Powers, however, seeing only two preserved heads, inquired what had become of the third man, and was told that before being killed he had cried out for fear, and their atuas said the bodies of such as cried for fear of death were not to be eaten, lest those who eat should become cowards too. So he was buried in the sand. This account was given the Rev. Mr. Taylor in 1850 by Powers, who lived to a good old age.

In the same year 1831 as the Powers incident, another episode occurred which drew public attention to the matter. Jack, the master of a trading schooner, purchased in the Bay of Plenty the heads of some slain enemies who were from the Bay of Islands but see Bretts Early N.Z. p. 335.4 on. & Vol. 1 p. [unclear: 7]10 His. Records of N.Z. Carrick P.60. 106. Shortly after he and his schooner were at the Bay of Islands, where the heads were well known. A number of natives who came on board the vessel were shown the heads, and Jack poured them out of a sack on the ship's deck. The greatest commotion ensued, and such was the indignation aroused that Jack had to hasten away with his vessel, and was fired at soon after when met on the coast. Proceeding to Sydney, he disposed of his purchase, where the story excited the greatest interest. It was then that Governor Darling issued his Proclamation, which was justified by the enormity of the horrors involved in the trade. This document is worth transcribing. It runs thus:—

Government Order.

Colonial Secretary's Office,
, 16th April, 1831.

Whereas it has been represented to His Excellency the Governor that the masters and crews of vessels trading between this colony and New Zealand are page 180 in the practice (sic) of purchasing and bringing from thence human heads which are preserved in a manner peculiar to that country; and whereas there is strong reason to believe that such disgusting traffic tends greatly to increase the sacrifice of human life amongst savages whose disregard of it is notorious, His Excellency is desirous of evincing his entire disapprobation of the practice above mentioned as well as his determination to check it by all means in his power. And with this view His Excellency has been pleased to order that the Officers of the Customs do strictly watch and report every instance which they may discover of an attempt to import into this Colony any dried or preserved human heads in future, with the names of all parties concerned in any such attempt. His Excellency trusts that to put a total stop to this traffic it is necessary for him only thus to point out the almost certain and dreadful consequences which may be expected to ensue from a continuance of it, and the scandal and prejudice which it cannot fail to raise against the name and character of British traders in a country with which it has now become highly important for the merchants and traders of this colony, at least, to cultivate feelings of natural good-will. But if His Excellency should be disappointed of this reasonable expectation, he will feel it an imperative duty to take strong measures for totally suppressing the inhuman and very murderous traffic in question. His Excellency further trusts that all persons who have in their possession human heads recently brought from New Zealand, and particularly by the schooner Prince of Denmark, will immediately deliver them up for the purpose of being restored to the relations of the deceased parties to whom these heads belonged, this being the only possible reparation that can now be rendered, and application having been specially made to His Excellency for this purpose.

By His Excellency's command,

Alexander McLeay.

In a subsequent issue of the Gazette the following notice appeared:

Baked Heads.

We have to state from authority that although the name of the Prince of Denmark is mentioned in Government Order No. 7, in consequence of a special application having being made to the Governor respecting the heads brought page 181 in that vessel, yet there is no reason whatever for supposing that the master and crew have been in any respect more blameable or more engaged in the traffic complained of than those of other vessels engaged in the New Zealand trade.

This humane and courageous effort to stop the abominations of the traffic in heads, was shortly followed by an Act which passed into law before New Zealand became a separate colony; and Governor Darling had the satisfaction of imposing a fine of £40 as well as publishing the names of those concerned. Public feeling ultimately supported the cause of humanity, and the trade faded away. it was only two years before (December, 1829) that the English Government in India formally abolished (through the agency of Lord William Bentinck) Suttee—the name given by writers to the custom of burning a widow on the funeral pyre of her husband. The practice was known in India when the Macedonians first touched in that country.

In 1838, when a United States expedition visited New Zealand, an effort was made to purchase some specimens of mokoed heads. Ultimately two were obtained from the steward of a missionary brig in the Bay of Islands; and Commodore Wilkes observes that this was about the last quarter in which he expected to find them. His remarks illustrate, however, the effects of Governor Darling's exertions. The law has never been formally repealed, although it provided that the possession of a dried head was punishable by fine. A few years ago this practically obsolete statute was used against Sir Julius Van Haast, curator of the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch. The museum contained a dried head which gave offence to some resident page 182 Maories, who laid a complaint before the Governor, and the Attorney-General found that the old New South Wales ordinance was still in force, and the curator was officially informed that unless the offending exhibit was put out of sight, the law would be set in motion. The traffic discontinued in New Zealand has its feeble echo now among those who seek to possess preserved Maori heads.