vintage, nostalgia and memories


May 22, 2017

Major General Horatio Gordon Robley With His Collection of Tattooed Maori Heads, 1895


Horatio Gordon Robley (1840-1930) was a British army officer and artist who served in New Zealand during the New Zealand land wars in the 1860s. He was interested in ethnology and fascinated by the art of tattooing as well as being a talented illustrator.

He wrote two books relating to his time in New Zealand, Moko or Maori Tattooing in 1896 and Pounamu: Notes on New Zealand Greenstone. In the first book, as well as demonstrating and explaining the art of Māori tattooing, he also wrote chapters on the dried tattooed heads or Mokomokai. Robley decided to acquire as many examples of Mokomokai as possible, and at length built up a unique collection of 35 heads.

Major General Horatio Gordon Robley with his collection of tattooed Maori heads, 1895

Robley would have obtained these heads from a market and traded for them. The trafficking of the items would have likely lead to murder and foul play since they were sought after items that had value. One account recalls a market seller telling the story of a slave who was being tattooed with the intention of being executed and sold as a Maori, however he escaped. The heads would have also been traded for firearms that certain tribes would have used during the musket wars.


In 1908 he offered them to the New Zealand Government for £1,000; his offer, however, was refused. Later, with the exception of the five best examples which Robley retained, the collection was purchased by the American Museum of Natural History, New York, for the equivalent of £1,250.

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