Headhunter: the story of Horatio Robley (part 2)

In Part 1 of this story, we heard how Horatio Robley came to New Zealand as a young officer in the British Army and witnessed the devastating British defeat at Gate Pā. In Part 2, we hear how the Tauranga War ended, and how Robley became famous as a collector of Mokomokai, preserved Māori heads.

A few months after Gate Pā, Māori and British come to blows again at Te Ranga. This time the British catch Tauranga Māori before they can finish building their Pā and the half-dug trenches become a mass grave for 108 warriors.

Within weeks peace is negotiated, but Robley and his fellow soldiers stay on in Tauranga for several more months. In those months, Robley has a chance to become much more intimately involved in Māori culture …and with one Māori woman in particular.

With the spectre of war lifted, Robley doubles down on his artwork. He paints spectacular watercolours of Tauranga landscapes and takes portraits of prominent Māori in the region, including many of his former enemies from the Ngāi Te Rangi iwi.

Tauranga Māori clearly respected Robley’s skill as an artist. They give him the name Te Ropere and eventually allowed him to sketch some incredibly intimate and sacred moments.

“There was a gradual building of rapport,” explains Tim Walker, pointing out a painting Robley did at a tangi. “Astonishing for a Pākeha [soldier] to be sitting in that context.”

Somewhere in the middle of this, Robley forms a relationship with a Māori woman – and not just any woman. Herete Mauao is the daughter of one of the highest ranking chiefs in the entire Bay of Plenty region.

“Some kaumātua have told me she was presented to Robley as an act of respect for his mana,” Walker says. “It seems hard to understand in one way because he was only an itinerant soldier who’s part of a colonising force.”

However it began, Robley and Herete’s relationship becomes serious very quickly. Herete gives birth to a son, named Hamiora Tu Ropere after his father.

But Robley doesn’t stay with his family for long. In fact, he may already have left New Zealand by the time Hamiora Tu was born. After just 20 months in Aotearoa the 68th regiment are redeployed away from New Zealand. Robley will never see his wife and child again.

However, he would maintain a deep and sometimes deeply problematic relationship with Aotearoa for the rest of his life.

Over the next 20 years, Robley’s career in the British Army takes him all over the world. He eventually retires at the rank of Major General in 1887. But one day as he’s travelling on a bus in London he sees something which rekindles his passion for New Zealand.

This Māori head is a mokomokai. A relic of a horrific trade from the Musket Wars of the early 1800s, when Māori exchanged the preserved heads of tattooed slaves for guns with European traders. The usual deal was two heads per musket.

By the time Robley arrives on the scene in the late 1800s this trade had been stamped out, but there are still thousands of heads in private hands or in museum collections all across Europe. Over the next few years Robley is completely obsessed with collecting mokomokai. He wrote in a gleeful tone about his headhunting in his memoir.

Robley ends up with a collection of nearly 40 mokomokai which he displays all around his house. The sight was vividly described in the diary of a friend who visited him:

It’s always been assumed Robley collected human heads out of sheer curiosity. The Victorian era was the age of the eccentric collector after all, and in that context Robley was only slightly beyond the norm of his time.

But Walker thinks there’s more to it. Robley’s collection was a means to an end – and that end was understanding tā moko, traditional Māori tattoo, he says.

Right at the time Robley is building his collection of heads, moko is beginning to vanish.

Today it’s unusual to see Māori men wearing facial moko. In modern society facial tattoos are stigmatised, and that stigma has a long history in New Zealand going back to some of the very first European arrivals in Aotearoa.

In the early to mid-1800s moko had a grim association with the Musket Wars and the trade in mokomokai. One missionary in the 1830s wrote that wearing moko was literally like painting a target on your face:

It’s easy to see how this might have made Māori uneasy about wearing moko, but missionaries also had a direct role in suppressing what they described as the “truly hideous” and “barbarous practise” of moko. Early New Zealand missionary Leddiard Nicholas wrote that “missionaries will exert all the influence they are possessed of to dissuade them from it”.

During and after the New Zealand Wars the stigma of facial moko hardened even further because Māori ‘rebels’ like Kingi Tāwhiao wore moko. They encouraged others to preserve the art, so tattooed faces came to be seen as a symbol of resistance to the government’s authority. As the tide of war swung against Māori and land confiscation ramped up, moko was actively suppressed and the knowledge of how to create it passed out of living memory.

According to In Your Face: Wearing Moko – Māori Facial Marking in Today’s World, moko nearly vanished entirely over the following century.

Today, however, facial moko is seeing a resurgence and Robley’s collection of heads has played a large part in that revival.

In 1896, Horatio Robley publishes a book: MOKO, or Māori tattooing

It’s literally a face-book; pages and pages of writing and sketching about moko and mokomokai.

Robley’s book includes extremely detailed sketches of his collection. They note every mark of the tattooist’s chisel, the arc of every curved line, complete with explanations of how these marks were produced and in what order.

Walker believes a fascination with moko was the sole reason Robley collected Māori heads.

“It’s not because of an interest in the macabre, it’s not because of an interest in human remains, it’s not about colonial booty,” Walker says. “More than that, it’s about the evidence of the design system that [mokomokai] alone hold.”

“The more moko he drew the more he got pulled in,” explains Walker. “He realised that [moko] is a design system with a set of rules and every time moko is invoked it generates an entirely new pattern.”

Robley goes beyond just copying the patterns he sees on mokomokai. Walker says his understanding allows him to become a moko artist in his own right.

Robley paints his own face in moko patterns for fancy dress parties. He gets hold of a plaster cast of a Māori chief’s head and engraves moko onto it. He doodles moko patterns in the margins of letters. He sketches prominent Pākeha politicians with moko drawn on their faces.

It’s very lucky Robley preserved this understanding in his book, because without it Haami Piripi says the art of moko could have been lost entirely.

“Perhaps in some isolated communities it might have been preserved by specific tohunga [expert practitioners] but as a generic source of knowledge I would say [Robley] is foremost in that field.”

Piripi says in more recent years Māori experts like Dave Simmons have gone on to interpret the meanings of the patterns Robley recorded.

“So today we have a fairly good idea of what a tā moko is made up of, how it’s done, what’s a no-no and what’s not. Robley himself has contributed significantly to this body of knowledge.”

But in his own time Māori were less than appreciative of Robley’s work. Some of his own family couldn’t forgive his collection of human heads.

“He hated his grandfather,” says Googie Tapsell from her house in Maketu, holding the framed photo of her uncle Hepata. “Didn’t want to know about him… hated him.”

Tapsell is Horatio Robley’s great granddaughter. Today, she’s in her 80s but she still remembers hearing how her ancestor’s legacy divided the family. The story she remembers most vividly is what happened when a copy of Robley’s book was delivered to her Uncle Hepata.

“He stomped on that book … he said ‘I don’t want to know about him’,” Tapsell recalls. But she says her uncle’s attitude wasn’t universal. “Mum loved him. [Robley] wanted to bring her to England for her education … But she wouldn’t go. Didn’t want to leave New Zealand.”

It’s easy to see why Robley would be a difficult man for Tapsell’s uncle to love. Aside from his collection of human heads he did some other things which could be seen as deeply offensive to Māori. Walker says one particularly bizarre incident happens when Māori soldiers come to London while on their way to the frontline of the Boer War in 1900.

“Robley goes down to New Zealand House [and organises] a powhiri for them. Puts on a piupiu [grass skirt] he brought from New Zealand and paints his face in moko.”

Robley then carries out his approximation of a Māori welcoming ritual despite not knowing more than a handful of words in Te Reo Māori. “It would have been a very strange performance,” laughs Walker. “Then, afterwards he invites [the Māori soldiers] back to his bedsit and unfortunately for them… there were the mokomokai.”

If someone did something like this today they’d be branded culturally offensive if not downright racist, but Walker says it’s important to understand Robley was genuinely trying to make these Māori soldiers feel welcome.

Later, during World War I he painted tāniko panels and sent them to a French Hospital where he’d heard Māori patients were being treated.

Throughout the later years of his life, Robley frequently wrote of his desire to return to New Zealand and reconnect with the family he’d left behind in Tauranga.

And he hoped his collection of Māori heads would help fund his trip back to Aotearoa.

Robley spent several years corresponding with various figures in the New Zealand government, trying to convince them to buy his mokomokai collection

“He started off offering the price he had paid [for the heads],” Walker says. “His final offer was half the price plus a ticket on a ship back to New Zealand.”

Walker says Robley wasn’t looking to profit from the sale of his collection but the government refused to buy the heads at any price. Partly because senior Māori figures in the government objected to paying money for human remains and partly because there was a general feeling in New Zealand that mokomokai were relics of a dark past which was better left forgotten.

Robley still hoped to return to New Zealand at his own expense but faced a series of illnesses, injuries and financial problems which left him unable to travel. In the end, he never made it back to Aotearoa.

Horatio Gordon Robley died in 1930, at the age of 90. He was dirt poor and buried in an unmarked grave.

So what happened to his collection?

Eventually, Robley sold most of the mokomokai to the American Museum of Natural History, in New York. He wanted to make sure they were all kept together rather than being sold off one by one at an auction after he died.

Unfortunately, Robley couldn’t bring himself to part with five of the heads which he kept in his personal collection. Sadly these have vanished; either lost, buried or thrown away.

As for the rest, after painstaking negotiation they were returned to New Zealand in 2014 as part of a wide-ranging effort to recover Māori remains from overseas museums. Today, the mokomokai are sitting in a special room at Te Papa museum. Eventually, it’s hoped they’ll be returned to their whānau.

And Robley left one last treasure which is still waiting to be uncovered. Robley was never happy with the book he wrote on moko. “He quickly came to see it as an embarrassment,” Walker says.

Robley spent the 12 years after it was published gathering even more information from Māori experts back in New Zealand and from his examination of the mokomokai in his collection.

He planned to use these notes and sketches to publish a second, much more detailed, book but he died before it could be finished. It was never published and for the better part of hundred years that priceless information was left gathering dust in the UK.

Luckily, in more recent years this material has also been repatriated. Today, this material – maybe the single most detailed written record of tā moko – sits in an archive in Dunedin.

Walker hopes that one day a modern moko practitioner will find the time to comb through Robley’s work, and that the man once dubbed a “predator of culture” can be fully redeemed as a “friend of the Māori”.

Listen to the Black Sheep podcast to hear more details of Horatio Robley’s story, including an interview with a modern moko artist.

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