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Moko; or Maori Tattooing

Moko and Mokamokai — Chapter I — How Moko First Became Knows to Europeans

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Moko and Mokoamokai
Chapter I
How Moko First Became Knows to Europeans

History may yet have more to tell us about the Maoris, but the earliest record of them we have is in the journal of the celebrated traveller Abel Tasman. His visit to New Zealand in December, 1642, was very short, and it ended in bloodshed. But Tasman and the artist who accompanied him, though they record much of the personal appearance of the Maori, make no mention of tattooing. We can hardly suppose that this remarkable feature escaped their observation, since the figure, complexion, hair, and dress are all described; and the conclusion is that in Tasman's days moko or tattooing did not exist. The Maori has only legends and oral traditions to account for his presence in New Zealand and for his customs such as moko. Maori tradition sheds little light on the origin of this custom. There is no reference in song or chant to help the investigator; and the most that can be done is to compare the observations of navigators with the latest knowledge. In this way we learn something of page 2 its rudiments, of its early simplicity, of its later richness and more perfect design, and ultimately of its decay. After a long gap of one hundred and twenty-seven years, we come upon the next mention of the Maori in history; and during that space of time nothing is known of New Zealand. Not until Captain Cook, the great navigator, visited these Islands in 1769 was anything more known. Captain Cook and the Eudeavour returned to England in June, 1771, and then it was that the subject of this book became known. The treasures he brought back from the Southern Hemisphere and the drawings and journals he made will be referred to presently. In his time moko was much used in New Zealand. Native tradition has it that their first settlers used to mark their faces for battle with charcoal, and that the lines on the face thus made were the beginnings of the tattoo. To save the trouble of this constantly painting their warlike decorations on the face, the lines were made permanent. Hence arose the practice of carving the face, and the body with dyed incisions. The Reverend Mr. Taylor (an accepted authority on matters relating to the natives of New Zealand) is of opinion that moko or tattooing originated otherwise; and he assumes that the chiefs being of a lighter race and having to fight side by side with slaves of darker hues darkened their faces in order to appear of the same race. These two methods of accounting for the origin of moko are not inconsistent, and both may have had their share in bringing about the results which it is proposed to consider. No reliable evidence whatever exists as to the nature, meaning, extent, or elaboration of primitive moko. But the fact need not diminish its interest.

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The term tattoo is not known in New Zealand; and the name given to the decorative marks in question, though elsewhere so called, is in New Zealand moko. The subject, it is true, exercised almost a fascination for the great navigator Captain Cook, who practically rediscovered New Zealand after it had first been visited (as already narrated) in 1642 by Tasman; and to Captain Cook we owe the first full and faithful description of moko, for he gave to it the full force of his unrivalled powers of observation. So important are his comments and notes on the subject that I shall refer to them at some length in the course of this chapter. For the moment I will digress to deal with early historical mention of markings of this nature. Herodotus appears to refer to it as being customary among the Thracians, where he says: “To have punctures on their skin is with them a mark of nobility; to be without these is a testimony of mean descent.” This remark suggests a curious analogy between the ancient Thracian noble and the modern Maori chief. Plutarch says that the Thracians of his time made tattoo marks on their wives to avenge the death of Orpheus whom they had murdered in Mœnad fury while celebrating the mysteries of Bacchus. And it is not a little remarkable that a custom should be at one time a punishment to the female sex, when it was or had been an ornament to the other.

There are other references to the custom, and these all tend to show how widely diffused it was. It is, for instance, evidently alluded to (together with the practice of wounding the body to show mourning) in Leviticus (chap. xix). At the twenty-eighth verse we read: “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh page 4 for the dead, nor print any marks upon you.”also Jeremiah, chap. 16, & 1st King's, chap. 18. It is reasonable to suppose that both injunctions were directed against a practice common amongst neighbouring nations, which the chosen people according to their usual propensity showed a tendency to imitate. Pliny too states that the dye with which the Britons stained themselves was that of a herb glastum: that they introduced the juice with punctures previously made in the skin so as to form permanent delineations of various animals and other objects.

I will now deal with Captain Cook's remarks.

On Sunday, October 8th, 1769, Captain Cook records that the first native with moko was hot, and notes that one side of the face was tattooed in spiral lines of a regular pattern. The navigator calls the tattooing “amoco.” In recounting his first voyage, Captain Cook says each separate tribe seemed to have a different custom in regard to tattooing; for those in some canoes seemed to be covered with the marking; while those in other canoes showed scarcely stain except on the lips, which were black in all cases. He says: “The bodies and faces are marked with black stains they call amoco—broad spirals on each buttock—the thighs of many were almost entirely black, the faces of the old men are almost covered. By adding to the tattooing they grow old and honourable at the same time.”

And again: “The marks in general are spirals drawn with great nicety and even elegance. One side corresponds with the other. The marks in the body resemble the foliage in old chased ornaments, convolutions of filigree work, but in these they have such a luxury of forms that of a hundred which at first appeared exactly the same no two were formed alike on close examination.” page 5 And in the course of his first voyage he describes some of the New Zealanders as having their thighs stained entirely black, with the exception only of a few narrow lines, “so that at first
Fig. 1.—From an original drawing for Captain Cook's Voyages. (British Museum, Additional Manuscripts Room.)

Fig. 1.—From an original drawing for Captain Cook's Voyages.
(British Museum, Additional Manuscripts Room.)

sight they appeared to wear striped breeches.” He observes that the quantity and form of these marks differ widely in different parts of the coast and islands; and that the older men appeared page 6 to be more profusely decorated. One may almost regret that a practice which suited the Maoris and which involves so much art and skill is rapidly dying out under modern influences. In Captain Cook's time it was very generally practised and was carried to a point of ferocious perfection which never failed to
Fig. 2.—From one of Sydney Parkinson' drawings. one of the earliest known and incomplete patterns.

Fig. 2.—From one of Sydney Parkinson' drawings. one of the earliest known and incomplete patterns.

attract the visitor who regained his ship. With Captain Cook was Sydney Parkinson, the clever draughtsman employed by Mr. Joseph Banks: and Parkinson's journal gives some account of moko as it was in 1769, besides the first drawings of it. He says; “As to the tattowing, it is done very curiously in spiral page break
Fig. 3.— Specimen drawn by Sydney Parkinson. One of the earliest known patterns.

Fig. 3.— Specimen drawn by Sydney Parkinson. One of the earliest known patterns.

page break and other figures; and in many places indented into their skins which looks like carving, though at a distance it appears as if it had been only smeared with a black paint.”

And he adds: “The tattowing is peculiar to the principal men among them.”

Also at another part of the coast, he says: “These people were much like them we had seen heretofore; excepting that they were more tattowed: most of them had the figures of volutes on their lips, and several had their thighs and part of their bellies marked.”

“The tattow on their faces was not done in spirals, but in different figures from what we had ever seen before.”

His account of the tattooing of the women I shall refer to in my chapter devoted to that part of the subject. A great authority. Mr. W. Colenso of Napier, says of Parkinson's portrait of a chief, that it bears a style of tattooing which has long become extinct and of which he only saw a few specimens some 40 years ago. Three of Parkinson's sketches of Maoris tattooed in the style of 1770 or thereabouts are given in my illustrations.

In the Additional Manuscripts Room, British Museum are many of the original drawings in pencil and colour taken during Cook's voyages.

Subsequently to Captain Cook's visits to the New Zealand islands several early navigators, travellers and missionaries have published their observations on the subject of moko, and mention should be made of the works of Mr. Savage and Mr. Nicholas, who were among these earlier visitors. The periodical reports of the Church Missionary Society also have frequently treated of this page break
Fig. 4.— Head of a Chief from one of Sydney Parkinson's drawings.

Fig. 4.— Head of a Chief from one of Sydney Parkinson's drawings.

page 10 national decoration. I must also refer to the reports of Crozet's voyages in 1771–2, of which mention will again be made.but is not.

While speaking of the tattooing practised with so much art and skill by the Maoris and other inhabitants of Polynesia, I must quote Sir John Lubbock's valuable opinion. Speaking of Polynesian tattooing, he says that perhaps the most beautiful of all was that of the New Zealanders who were tattooed in spiral lines. The process, he adds, is extremely painful, particularly on the lips, but to shrink from it or even to show any signs of suffering while undergoing the operation was considered unmanly.

The mode of tattooing practised by the Maoris was unlike that of any other race, and their artistic designs were so arranged that the skin of the face was often completely covered up to the corners
Fig. 5.—Specimen of a Moko signature. Ahoodee o Gunna (Turi o Kana) of Rangihoua.24·2·1815. See Missionary Register, 1816, p. 328.

Fig. 5.—Specimen of a Moko signature.
Ahoodee o [unclear: G]unna (Turi o Kana) of Rangi[unclear: h]oua.24·2·1815.
See Missionary Register, 1816, p. [unclear: 3]28.

of the eyes, and even over the eyelids; and that the stains, though tending to diminish in brilliancy, were indelible. But doubtful as the meaning of moko is, there were uses for it. Some portion of page 11 it, some distinctive part, was a mark of identity, and has been copied for Europeans by the Maoris as a signature. For instance, Mr. Wakefield records that in a purchase of land near the Bay of Islands by Mr. Samuel Marsden, the famous missionary, in place of signatures to the deed, facsimiles of the face-moko of the vendors were drawn on the document. This was in 1815. The deeds were witnessed by Messrs. Kendal and Nicholson on the part of the
Fig. 6.—A Moko signature. Kowiti, Chief of Waimate and Maunganui. Kawiti

Fig. 6.—A Moko signature.
Kowiti, Chief of Waimate and Maunganui.

purchasers, and on the part of the vendors by a native carpenter who drew the moko of one of his cheeks in place of a signature. The same writer mentions that the deeds and copies which conveyed the plains of Wairau (in consideration of a ship's gun) were signed with elaborate drawings of the face-moko of the chiefs. Letourneau notices a similar practice which may, in fact, be compared to the use of a seal in our country. Polack, too, speaks of the pride the New Zealanders take in adding the various curvatures page 12 of the moko to their signatures: “Our risibility has,” he says, “often been excited in viewing an aged chief, whose scant locks have weathered upwards of seventy winters, drawing with intense care his signature, with inclined head and extended tongue, as is the wont of young European practitioners in the art of penmanship.”
These moko signatures give some interesting history and designs. Here is a curious autograph sketch of the face-moko
Fig. 7.—Sketch of his own moko, drawn by the chief Themoranga.Te Morenga.

Fig. 7.—Sketch of his own moko, drawn by the chief Themoranga.Te Morenga.

of a chief named Themoranga, as drawn by himself with a pen—an instrument which he handled on that occasion for the first page 13 time in his life. It is dated 9th March, 1815, and was done on board the Active. It shows a face of elaborate moko still
Fig. 8.—Moko signature on a deed. (The original in the possession of Dr. Hocken, of Dunedin, N.Z. This is a land grant signed by Tuawhaiki (alias “Bloody Jack”), a chief of Otago (Ngaitahu tribe). He was a great enemy of Rauparaha, who signed the Wairau deeds.

Fig. 8.—Moko signature on a deed.
(The original in the possession of Dr. Hocken, of Dunedin, N.Z. This is a land grant signed by Tuawhaiki (alias “Bloody Jack”), a chief of Otago (Ngaitahu tribe). He was a great enemy of Rauparaha, who signed the Wairau deeds.

incomplete; the left half of the lips, the left cheek, the left upper forehead, are unfinished. Another remarkable work of art is a drawing of himself by Te Pehi Kupe, a fine piece of page 14 moko which must be taken as correct. His body was also plentifully covered with marks; and his fine muscular arms were
Fig. 9.—Moko signature on a deed. (The original in the possession of Dr. Hocken, of Dunedin, N.Z.) This is a land grant by the chief Golontine Korako. Matene Koroko Wara? of Waikouaiti & Taieri.

Fig. 9.—Moko signature on a deed.
(The original in the possession of Dr. Hocken, of Dunedin, N.Z.)
This is a land grant by the chief Golontine Korako. Matene Koroko Wa[unclear: r]a?
of Waikouaiti & Taieri.

in particular furrowed by numerous single black lines, which he said denoted the number of wounds he had received in battle.
Te Pehi Kupe (whose daughter had been killed and cooked) page 15 was in England in 1826 to procure arms to revenge the onslaughts of the northern tribes. He gave some valuable information on the subject of moko when sitting for the portrait, for he was very anxious that the marks on his face should be accurately copied. One mark just over his nose was, he said, his name—“Europee man write with pen his name—Te Pehi's is here” (pointing to his forehead); and he delineated on paper the
Fig. 10.—Tattooing on the face of Te Pehi Kupe, drawn by himself.

Fig. 10.—Tattooing on the face of Te Pehi Kupe, drawn by himself.

corresponding marks or names of his brother and of his son. Every line, both on his face and on other parts of his body, was firmly registered on his memory. The portrait of his moko was drawn by page 16 him without the aid of a mirror. During his stay in Liverpool he was besieged with applications for specimens of his art, and for a fortnight a large part of his time was occupied in turning out sketches of his face. The depth and profusion of the moko, he said, indicated the dignity of the individual; and little of the original surface of his face remained. Some of his sketches represented moko on other portions of his body. He drew for Dr. Traill the mokos of his brother and of his son; and on finishing the latter, he held it up and gazed on it with a murmur of affectionate delight, kissing it many times and, as he presented it, burst into tears.

Te Pehi's statement that the more elaborate the moko the higher was the rank implied may have been true, but it was by no means the case always among the Maoris. The time he had for the artists, the wishes and power of endurance of the patient, had no doubt much to do with the nature and extent of the pattern. Many of the great chiefs were only partly decorated; and the likeness of the king who was a visitor here in 1884 accompanied by four chiefs will show that even King Tawhiao was far behind Te Pehi in elaborate decoration. It must be admitted that a man with such a pattern drawn on his face as Te Pehi had was entitled to assume the rôle of a critic on tattooing.1

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I am anxious to give the reader all that the best authorities have told us on the subject of moko, and will here add
Fig. 11.—From a drawing in Dumont D'Urville's Voyages.

Fig. 11.—From a drawing in Dumont D'Urville's Voyages.

D'Urville's views. He professes to see in Maori moko a complete analogy to European heraldry, but with this difference—that whereas the page 18 coat-of-arms attests the merits of ancestors, the Maori moko illustrates the merits of the person decorated with it.
He says: “Tuai one day was calling my attention with great pride to some curious designs cut on his forehead, and when I asked him what there was remarkable about them he answered: “Only the family of Coro-coro in the whole of New Zealand has the right to bear these signs. Congui, most powerful as he is, could not adopt them, for the family of Coro-coro is much more
Hara.of OkaeuwaiWakateri. Titore.Fig. 12.—Signatures of chiefs of the Bay of Islands. (c. 1830–1835.)

Hara.of O[unclear: kaeu]waiWakateri. Titore.
Fig. 12.—Signatures of chiefs of the Bay of Islands. (c. 1830–1835.)

illustrious than his.’ A New Zealander one day examining the seal of an English officer noticed the arms engraved on it and asked him if the design was the moko of his family.”

But Mr. Tregear states: “I do not think there is any mark distinguishing tribes, still we do not know everything (probably never will know) about the full significance of tattau.”

It has been used as a method of communication, and the Rev. page 19 Mr. Taylor says: “The Maori used a kind of hieroglyphic or symbolical way of communication. Thus a chief inviting another to join in a war party sent a tattooed potato and a fig of tobacco bound up together; which was interpreted to mean by the tattoo that the enemy was a Maori, and not European, and by the tobacco that it represented smoke; the other chief, on receiving the missive, roasted the one (the potato) and ate it, and smoked the other (the tobacco) to show he accepted the invitation and would join him with his guns and powder.”

1 Te Pehi failed to obtain the firearms which had made Hongi so successful a warrior. He returned home and was with a number of his friends killed and eaten by a Middle Island tribe, amongst whom he rashly trusted himself. In revenge, an expedition was arranged in 1830; and Captain Stewart of the brig Elizabeth, an Englishman, lent his aid to the revolting scenes which ensued. On the promise of a cargo of flax, he sailed with a war party on board, and entered into communication with the enemy, enticed the enemy's chief on board and lulled his followers into a false idea of security. Captain Stewart's friends then massacred the tribe, and brought 500 baskets of human flesh and 50 prisoners on board his vessel where the ship's coppers were used to prepare the cannibal feast. Stewart on returning failed to obtain payment for these services. He arrived at Sydney January 14th, 1831, where a captain of some vessel had carried the news and where he was shunned, and then was tried, but evidence being out of the way he escaped. Though human vengeance did not reach him, he dropped dead on the deck of the Elizabeth while rounding Cape Horn, and his body reeking with rum was pitched overboard by his crew with little ceremony and no regret.