The native people of New Zealand, called the Maori, are world famous for their tattooing. Although they do not cover as much of the body as many South Pacific people, the Maori developed their own unusual style of tattooing. Working mostly on the face (Moko) and buttocks, the Maori took their wood carving technique and applied it to tattooing. With this they achieved a unique chiseled design into which they then rubbed ink. After the Europeans arrived in the 1700s bringing metals to these islands, the Maori began a more conventional style of puncture tattooing. Amazingly enough, this tattooing can still be seen in many museums around the world, not just in drawings or photographs, but also in the skin.
Because the Maori tattooed the face, they had an unusual custom of removing and preserving the heads of their tattooed chiefs after death. These heads would stay with the family and be an honored possession.
Until Europeans began to visit New Zealand and settle there, heads were of sentimental interest only and had no commercial value. Museums and collectors were desirous of possessing them as curiosities and a great demand for them sprang up. Reluctant to part with the heads, the Maori were eager to obtain firearms, ammunition and iron implements. As a result, a brisk traffic ensued and the demand began to exceed the supply. The Maori were known to fight one another in disputes over land and property. The heads of these war victims became part of the trade supply. This considerably reduced the population of New Zealand while stocking the museums of Europe with specimens of barbaric face-culture. As a commercial enterprise this traffic was not without monetary profit as well.
The first dried head to be possessed by a European was acquired on January 20, 1770. It was brought by Mr. (later Sir Joseph) Banks, who was with Captain Cook's expedition as a naturalist, and 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 fractured his skull. The three other heads, not for sale, seemed to have false eyes and ornaments in the ears.
The first of such head taken to Sydney in this manner was brought from the Foveaux Straits in 1811. It was stolen, and the crew's heads aboard ship, were nearly cut off for "utu" (revenge.) In 1814 heads were certainly not yet an ordinary article to trade at Sydney, but by 1829 it appears that preserved heads were not uncommon.
The Rev. J.S. Wood 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".
"But the trade began to grow in importance and at length agents were sent to select the best specimens, and "baked heads" acquired a separate entry among the imports at the Sydney customs, and it was not uncommon thing to find them offered for sale in the streets of that city".
Many a poor slave suffered a horrible fate: mokoed only to be murdered for his head! At one time it was forbidden to tattoo slaves. To be tattooed was reserved for the noble and the free. The slave, who sometimes came willingly for his moko, found to his dismay, that once his tattoos healed he was tomahawked, his head dried and 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 (the head of the community). 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.
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 not 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.
Slowly but surely the traffic became a public scandal. The Maori possessed all the arms they wanted and discontinued the practice of trading. Instinctually, they found it repulsive and had only adopted it as a desperate measure to preserve their tribes from annihilation. In any case the practice was dying out.
This human and courageous effort to stop the abomination of the traffic in heads was shortly followed by an Act, which was passed into law before New Zealand became a separate colony. Governor Darling of New South Wales, had the satisfaction of imposing a fine of 40£ as well as publishing the name of those trafficking in heads. Public feeling ultimately supported the cause of humanity and the trade faded away.
Following is a partial list of museums and organizations which count Maori heads a part of their collections:
Royal College of Surgeons - England
Aberdeen, Marishal College - Scotland
South Kensington Museum - England
British Museum - EnglandSt. George's Hospital - England
Guy's Hospital - England
King's College Museum - England
Paris Museum d'Historie Naturelle - France
Plymouth Museum - England
Konigliches Museum fur Volkerkunde - Germany
Auckland Museum - New Zealand
Canterbury Museum - New Zealand
Sydney Australian Museum
Florence Anthropological Museum - Italy
Smithsonian Institution - U.S.A
Army Medical Museum - U.S.A
Halifax Museum - England
Devizes Natural History Society - England
Exeter Albert Memorial Museum - England
Science and Art Museum - Ireland
Ethnographical Museum - Germany
Today there is a move afoot to return the collections to the Maori people. Ireland is the first country to formally make this decision, but more are sure to follow. While this might be considered a loss to the tattoo historian as well as the interested public, it is fitting that they be returned to their rightful resting place.
Tattoo Archive © 2003