Info on the web about Moko Mokai
April 7th, 2000
Aussie Museum To Return Maori Heads
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) - An Australian museum
has agreed to return five tattooed and preserved Maori heads to New
Zealand, a spokesman said Thursday. The return of the heads from the
South Australian Museum in Adelaide later this month marks another
milestone in an ongoing campaign to repatriate all the tattooed heads
of Maori from museums and galleries round the world. Maori, the original
inhabitants of New Zealand, preserved the heads of their dead through
a drying process and often kept the heads of their loved ones around
the home. The South Australian Museum will hand over the heads - known
as ``moko mokai'' -on long-term loan at a ceremony on April 17. The
heads will be held by Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand, in Wellington,
where dozens of other repatriated heads are stored. The largest collection
outside New Zealand, numbering 35 heads, is at New York's American
Museum of Natural History. Moko Mokai Education Trust spokesman Dalvanius
Prime said final negotiations were under way for the return of the
American Museum of Natural History's collection, and the heads should
be repatriated early next year. Prime also said the tattooed and preserved
head of a white New Zealander was secretly repatriated from Australia
in February and buried on land alongside the Whanganui River 160 miles
north of Wellington. Though Maori often kept the heads of their loved
ones, enemies or slaves were not so revered. Many Maori traded their
tattooed heads for European goods like muskets, meaning many heads
are now in museums around the world.
Preserved Maori heads traded by major-general
The first recorded sale of Maori mokomokai was in 1770,
says a history written by a chief trader and collector, British Army
Major-General Horatio Gordon Robley.
His book, published in 1896, Moko; or Maori Tattooing says Maori head
preservers steamed then carefully dried the body parts. Some heads
received further tattoos after death.
Robley said even dried Maori heads with few lines of moko were valuable,
as were "occasional specimens of dried European heads."
The trade ended "as far as possible" in the 1830s, with
most heads obtained in the last 20 years.
He said: "They are works of art; and it's value is subject to
all the vicissitudes that affect the value of other works of art.
"They are all very scarce and the number in private hands (as
distinct from Museum ownership) is very few."
The Major-General, who dedicated his book: "To those who have
served against the warriors of New Zealand",said among heads
in Museum collections were six at the Paris Museum d'Histoire Naturelle,
including a skin mounted on a plaster cast.
Two more were at the Berlin Konigliches Museum fur Volkekunde, one
fitted with glass eyes. This is pictured mounted on a metal pole with
a feather earring. Another four were in Plymouth, England.
He also mentions heads in Museums at Christchurch, Auckland, Sydney,
Gottingen, Germany and at the Royal College of Surgeons, London.
The Museum of New Zealand said last week it has mokomokai in it's
collection but they were not on display. It refused to supply Sunday
News with photographs of the heads because of the sensitivity of the
The many desperate tribes without the much-needed muskets to defend
themselves soon found a way of obtaining these weapons. The European
traders were more than willing to trade muskets for embalmed tattooed
heads. In war, the Maori custom was to take the heads of their victims,
embalm and preserve them, and then present the heads to the family
of the killed warrior. Because of the lucrative trade in dried heads,
with muskets as the end goal, Maori warriors began leading skirmishes
against other tribes uniquely to gain heads for ammunition. Muskets
were always available, but heads began to run short, and soon the
Maori found himself unable to continue supplying dried heads as previously.
News of the head for musket trade reached Britain, and caused an outcry.
As New Zealand was not yet a colony the British were unable to do
much to stop this trade. They were, however, able to pass a law against
the trading of heads to Australia in 1831, and after this date head
trading dwindled rapidly.Hongi Hika died in 1828, following a bullet
wound incurred during a battle in the Hokianga area.