Title: Robley: Te Ropere, 1840—1930

Author: Timothy Walker

Publication details: University of Auckland, 1985, Auckland

Digital publication kindly authorised by: Timothy Walker

Part of: The Moko Texts Collection

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Robley: Te Ropere, 1840—1930

The Space Between

page 19

The Space Between

E Kore E Piri Te Uku Te Rino

Clay will not cling to iron1

Culture is the Radical, the root of any Society. It is the means by which people are connected, in a commonly identified way, to the life of those around them, to the life of those who have preceded them. By extension, Culture is the means by which they remain in the lives of those who will follow.

Culture Reflects, as It is Reflected by, the physical location; the social, natural and supernatural events in which — and through which — a Society lives. It gives manifest and spiritual voice to the accumulated knowledge, experience and achievements of people. From that base it sustains — and is sustained by — each new person, each new generation. By divining, and formulating connections between, the elements and forces upon which human life is dependent, Culture humanizes them — relates them to human life. In thus transcending any other focus of Nature, the human dimension of time, place — that is to say, history — is made predominant.

Culture is the Organically Changing Image of a Society. As it is active in defining the constraints within which people live their lives, it is dependent upon those lives for its own definition. Under effect of extraordinary events and individuals, Culture adapts itself to change. No single event or person can, however, change a culture without its historical context. The acts, achievements of an individual are continuous with previous people's actions and endeavours: they are, in the same way, generative of, continued in, page 20 acts perpetrated by members of subsequent generations. It is in this way that each individual is essentially of history. Culture is the radical — which is to say — the root — of that connection; the means by which the life of history might be entered into by, and equated with, the livity of the individual.

No Society Has Greater or Lesser Claim to Cultural Integrity. Each is made in the image of its own Culture which is, equally, the image of the Society it has grown from. In all cases the specific conditions and circumstances which have given rise to cultural truths are self-referential, their integrity being absolute only within their own terms.

The Ability of a Culture to Adapt to Change is most seriously challenged when that change comes from without; that is to say, from another Culture. The framework by which human life — and thus all life — is ordered is confronted by another of an equal but incomprehensible integrity. From the fear — of each, by the other — which is essentially engendered in this meeting, there are a number of possible resolutions. All things being equal, the two parties will mutually claim the space between: cultural elements of each will be interpreted by the other, to be reconstituted in their own cultural terms. New cultural ‘dialects’ are thus created, through which each Culture might be enriched rather than diminished; through which the integrity of each, the terms of each, might be maintained.

All Things Are, However, Seldom Equal. More usually the mutual fear of the other will develop into aggression, generally provoked by — and in terms of — the party most likely to profit from it. The imposition of these terms creates the impression of cultural Power. The space between the two Cultures, however distorted by the aggressive expansion of one at the cost of the other, is disguised rather than diminished by this movement.

In the cultural contact which has characterised the establishment of ‘New Zealand’ the model of an equal, mutual interchange of cultural truths and attitudes has seldom been apparent. Over the century preceding the Europeans' ‘discovery’ of New Zealand, their understanding of the World — and thus of their own humanity — had been informed by an increasing awareness of the multiplicity of human cultures. Their response, the development of a ‘scientific’ system of categorization — the synthesis of many elements within one ‘whole’ —, was essentially focussed around their page 21 own existence. The strange equation of geographical spread, skin tone and physiognomical form with stages of human ‘civilisation’ effectively enthroned the European Cultures within their own model. It was thus that their world could be colonized from the people of the Earth; within a single set of cultural terms. In that the ‘scientific’ model presupposed a relationship between all things — a relationship to the European — the colonizing races could be largely blind to the specifics of indigenous cultures. The very differences and peculiarities of individual race's cultural practices and beliefs made them fit within the model; which, after all, relied upon diversity for its development.

While the Maori voyages of discovery across the Pacific had been undertaken centuries before, when the European was barely capable of localised navigation, their more recent history had been free of the truly ‘alien’ cultural encounters of the European. The effect of contact between the Maori and the European was, therefore, differently active on their respective cultural and historical development.

It is a persistent irony that although the European gained their greatest cultural impetus and enrichment from these encounters with other Societies, they were incapable of existing equitably — which is to say peacefully — within the terms of any one ‘alien’ group.

With Cultural Imposition Comes the Imposition of History. When the Cultural system of one Society dominates the development of others, its concept of ‘History’ will come to be seen as the most appropriate to the greatest number of people. History is, however, culturally defined: it is an expression of Culture. Fundamental to the understanding of any Bicultural Development — literally; the development of two, individual, Cultures — is the acknowledgement that ‘history’, and the manner in which it is perceived, is not absolute. The ‘story’ of human civilization is, and can only be, coined in the terms of the Society it is of.

If there are two Cultures living in the same place, during the same period, it follows that there are two ‘Histories’ of that place, of that time; each informed by their respective ‘Pasts’. In each case it is the cultural dimension through which that ‘history’ — and thus the present is understood.

page 22

It has followed that the Power of the European Culture — that is to say the Pakeha Culture — has engendered in its own ‘history’ the impression of absolute truth. It is a concept of ‘history’ which relies on a belief in the imbalance between races — that is to say between Cultures —; the superior to the inferior, the civilised to the primitive, the light to the dark. It is a concept of ‘history’ which, in its fundamental belief in the continual linear, progression of human civilisation, puts the Past behind it. It never looks back because it believes it is impossible to go back. Thus the simple injustices, compromises and misunderstandings implicit in the colonial Past are perpetuated as complex, indefinable, and certainly as non-renegotiable.

A largely one-sided Biculturalism has developed within this climate. Led in many instances by the need to survive within their changed, culturally undermined country, the Maori has adapted to many of the cultural manners and modes of the Pakeha. It has been — and perhaps remains — generally accepted within analysis of ‘New Zealand history’ that this movement has been an inevitable outcome of European settlement. The consequential ‘falling off’ of Maori cultural practices and modes is, apparently, equally accepted as implicit in our ongoing ‘history’. Indeed Maori actions intended as checks to this diminishment, as attempts to retain self-determination and cultural integrity, have commonly been dealt with as acts of provocation.

It is an ongoing irony — and one which must be addressed here — that while the movement of the Maori towards the ‘alien’ (to them) Pakeha Culture has been accepted — that is to say, expected — any profound movement in the opposite direction has been regarded as ‘eccentric’. Because there is no ‘need’ for such movement, because it goes against the ‘balance’ of ‘history’; there is, perhaps a perceived threat in its pursuit.

The many-faceted work of Horatio Gordon Robley is defined by, and informative of, the space between Maori and European Cultures; the time between the establishment of ‘New Zealand’ and this country today. In both respects, perhaps, his work is unfamiliar to us.

The artistic sensibility evident in Robley's work is defined by an emerging bicultural development. A Pakeha artist, Robley was page 23 increasingly involved in attempts to imitate — and thus to come to terms with the art of the Maori; an art which was essentially and profoundly alien to his own. As much as he — by the very fact of his point-of-view, his graphic means of representation — altered that art in interpreting it; he was altered by its gradual revelation.

Because the mechanisms employed in our perception of history are divided into specific disciplines, and because Robley's work is addressed as a cohesive whole by none of these, attempts to analyse his wide-ranging endeavours and achievements have typically produced a number of rather fractured images. While some aspects of his work fall within the criteria of one discipline, and are thus analysed, further elements are studied under separate ‘microscopes’. Such a process of observation inevitably dislocates the works' overall integrity, removing each action and achievement from the interests and intentions which informed their pursuit.

The Art Historian has typically addressed her/himself to the many watercolours and drawings by Robley; images of Maori people, places, and of an emerging European settlement within those places. Any consideration of the extraordinary body of work effected during his forty year study of Maori art is, however, left — be it by declaration or implication — to the Anthropologist or Ethnologist. It is difficult not to conclude from this that not only is Maori art regarded apart from New Zealand's Art History, but that the investigation of that art by any artist is similarly circumspect. Art History.

Recent Ethnological research has raised doubts as to the authenticity of some of Robley's drawings of moko and other designs; questioning both the nature of the items he studied and his representations thereof.2 Whatever qualities Robley brought to the publication of “Moko; or Maori Tattooing” [Robley: 1896] he was not an ethnologist but an Artist. His interest in, and understanding of, the Maori and their arts was primarily pursued and described within those terms. It was this perception of Maori art which provoked his attempts to discover — that is to say, uncover — the artistic base of its designs and forms. He was only capable of divining this from his comprehension of the object images of that art; his position without a Maori cultural context making any focus other than a formal one impossible.

page 24

The investigation of an art without its social and cultural context — those conditions which specify its generation and production — must inevitably give rise to an understanding of that art fundamentally separate from the original intention of its manufacture. The ‘authenticity’ of Robley's attempts to document the work of Maori artists must be addressed within the criteria implied by his (culturally and physically) removed observation of ‘pieces’ of Maori art. The European concept of the Art Object — to which Robley, as a Collector, firmly adhered — specifies the way in which European artists and observers perceive the cultural manufactures of all people. Robley's appraisal of the work of Maori artists, undertaken primarily in reference to the ‘objects’ in his possession, was untempered by any communication with the artists themselves. It was the aesthetic of those artists' work which Robley attempted, through imitative representation and reproduction, to penetrate.

It is fortunate for subsequent students that Robley's positive, artistically-based method of investigation has furnished them with a documentary resource of increasing worth. Because the drawings are the means of enquiry, they continue to give voice to the evolving revelation which distinguishes his work. Although his pursuit of an understanding of Maori art — and most specifically, of moko — seeks to place it within a European framework of Art, the open manner of his recording allows a range of interpretations. It is because of the relative ‘objectivity’ of his drawings that these works continue to have a life beyond, and without, the strict boundaries of his own life. Through Robley, much of this material is referential to the items, to the energy at its source.

There is a case to be made, and it is true of all Art, of all artists, that an essential thread of definition runs through the Art made by one person, through the Art produced within one Society. This is, in the way in which Art is parallel to life, manifest expression of a life force. Each ‘piece’ of Art is enlivened in its relationship to others; between them they are generative of an implied continuum of growth. It is in the same way that a human life is seen as the sum of an individual's actions, statements, thoughts and endeavours.

Although Robley's life was most remarkably defined by an ongoing, developing investigation of Maori art, he is more usually page 25 regarded as the perpetrator of a number of sensationally perceived activities. In most instances his name is linked with Mokamokai (Preserved Heads), an association which is emanative of a certain ‘macabre’ fascination. It is therefore pertinent to preface a discussion of his artistic development with a brief consideration of this general attitude.

There were, perhaps, two distinct types of Britons during the nineteenth century; those who went abroad to form the Empire and those who stayed at home to administrate its expansion. From the time the eighteen year old Robley purchased a commission in a foreign-based Regiment of the British Army — and thus followed in his father's footsteps to India and Burma — he belonged whole-heartedly to the former group. The fearless enthusiasm which was the prerogative of the British officer in occupying a foreign country inevitably led to actions which were, in the terms of the indigenous cultural and spiritual values, offensive and profane.

It was common for soldiers and administrators from the ‘colonies’ to retire back to Britain where they surrounded themselves with the vase [sic] collections of ‘trophies’ acquired during their foreign service. These men — and in a few cases, women — would typically write books on the specialties of their collections, would become ‘experts’ on those subjects. While Robley fits comfortably within this group, his artistic investigation of moko and Mokamokai (Preserved Heads) distinguishes the ongoing, historical presence of his research, his ‘expertise’.

The European reaction to the Maori practice of preserving Heads by drying has always been one of an interested horror. This was amplified by the use of Mokamokai as trade items during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, during which time the Heads subsequently acquired by Robley found their way to Europe. While often apprized of as evidencing the ‘savage barbarity’ of the Maori, the Trade was established and promoted — that is to say created — by the European demand for Mokamokai. Influenced by the new scale of economic ‘value’ the Maori adapted the traditional practice of preservation to the apparently insatiable market. Joseph Banks, recording one of the earliest transactions of this nature, reported in 1770:

page 26

“[A Maori] bringing with him in his canoe 6 or 7 heads of men preserved … he was very jealous of shewing them, One though I bought tho' much against the Inclinations of its owner, for tho' he liked the price I offered he hesistated much to send it up, yet having taken the price I insisted either to have that returned or the head given but could not prevail until I enforced my threats by shewing him a Musquet on which he chose to part with the head rather than the price he had got which was a pair of old drawers of very white linen …”

Joseph Banks 3

Robley's remarkably determined acquisition of Mokamokai was thus not entirely without precedent. No other individual, however, has ever become so obsessively engaged in the collection and study of items as culturally sensitive, as humanly charged as Mokamokai. There can be little doubt, whatever the exact nature of Robley's ‘collecting’, that he perpetrated acts of immeasurable cultural offence. His fearless — and open — fascination with those ‘exotic’ aspects of foreign people's customs an beliefs which his fellow Britons regarded as ‘grisly’ or ‘grotesque’ is evident throughout his life. It is not surprising that from his preoccupation with these highly sensitive phenomena Robley acquired a reputation as a man obsessed with the ‘macabre’. That perception of his endeavours continues to monopolize the modern appreciation of his work.

To an extent the actions and attitudes of individuals such as Robley speak of a curiosity which is deeply rooted in the society they are of. In actually perpetrating such activity, in actually confronting such interests, these individuals draw out a hostile reaction from that society. Robley was, however, unperturbed by the horrified response his collecting habits elicited. As well as seeing in Briton's outrage an ignorance of the Maori and New Zealand, he appears to have had some doubts as to the morality which provoked their somewhat fascinated indignation.

“Whilst at the time Maori were trafficking in heads, as works of art, the study of anatomy in England required a number of bodies and the villanous (sic.) body snatching or resurrecting arose — One of these dealers 1908–10 had supplied 305 adult bodies at abt 4 [guineas] each £ 44 under 3 ft … In April 1828, one of the [House] of Commons questions (in the Enquiry) … is significant - page 27 “Knowing the high price given for dead bodies do you think that price is too high for the safety of the living?” … Widow buying was put down Dec. 1929 in India — Maori Head Traffic stopped April 1831 4 Sydney & NZ, but this villanous collecting still goes on in the Continent.”


page 28 page 29
The incidence of tattooing among many of the world's people became a popular subject among European historians and scientists interested in tracing ancient migrations and cultural relationships. This map, reproduced from “The History of Tattooing and its significance” [Hambly:1925] illustrates what the author refers to as “a reasonable, dateable sequence of the migration of tattooing.”

The incidence of tattooing among many of the world's people became a popular subject among European historians and scientists interested in tracing ancient migrations and cultural relationships. This map, reproduced from “The History of Tattooing and its significance” [Hambly:1925] illustrates what the author refers to as “a reasonable, dateable sequence of the migration of tattooing.”

1 Steedman: 1985 p. 134

2 D.R. Simmons maintains that many of the Mokamokai — and thus moko designs — Robley studied are likely to have been produced without the traditional constraints which defined moko; as trade items. Simmons has also pointed out discrepancies between Robley's representations of moko and the models from which they were copies [personal communication; 1984–19-5]

3 Morrell: 1958 p. 146

4 “In the year [1831] before NZ was a crown colony the legislative of New South Wales passed an act to stop the trade in heads, a fine of 100 was instituted for possession … This act is still unrepealed; & on the complaint of several native people of standing the Curator of the Otago Museum was warned by the Attorney-General … to have them put away out of sight, on strength of this Act. Sir J von Haast had to comply …” Robley-Craig-Brown: 1896 ATL MS16/3

5 ATL MS1387/26