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Volume 27, 1894
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Art. LXX.—Maori Preserved Heads.

[Read before the Auckland Institute, 1st October, 1894.]

Most of the early writers on New Zealand mention the practice of preserving human heads, which appears to have been universal among the Maoris in their primitive state. None of the numerous accounts, however, are very complete, and most of them appear to be rather descriptions at second-hand than records of personal observation, the reason probably being not so much a lack of curiosity on the part of the writers as the fact that observers were necessarily few, and would, from prudential motives, naturally keep aloof from the scenes of which the heads formed the central point of interest; besides which in many cases, the actual business of preparation being strictly tapu, or sacred, an effectual bar would be placed against a too minute scrutiny.

In the present paper I do not pretend to give an exhaustive account of the subject so much as to propose the consideration of a question not only curious in itself but of great interest from an ethnological point of view, throwing light as it does on many peculiar aspects of aboriginal life and character, in the hope that it may be taken up by those who are better able to do it justice than myself.

In seeking for information I have largely availed myself of an unpublished journal* of the Rev. Samuel Marsden, the founder of the Church Mission in New Zealand, who, during several visits to this country in the early days of the century, enjoyed peculiar advantages for observing the customs of the natives in their primitive state. I also obtained a most minute and graphic description from Mr. W. King, of Waimate North, who, when a little boy, happened to be an eye-witness of the actual process of preservation of two heads, which, according to the general belief of the Bay of Islands natives, are those which are now in the Auckland Museum.

Though the custom from a civilized point of view was certainly a barbarous one, it was not practised from mere wanton brutality, or simply from a desire for personal aggrandisement on the part of the conqueror—like that of scalping, for instance, among the American Indians. No dishonour whatever was intended to the owner of the head: in fact, the exact opposite was the case. The distinction—for such it

[Footnote] * The original MS. is in the possession of Dr. Hocken, of Dunedin. The published journal consists of extracts from this work.

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really was—was strictly reserved for persons of importance, and the heads of the chiefs of the tribe, and occasionally those of their wives and children, were preserved as well as those of the chiefs of the enemy who were slain in battle. Mr. Marsden states that “it is gratifying to the vanquished to know that the heads of their chiefs are preserved by the enemy”; and the same authority relates the case of a chief's wife who had the head of her sister preserved and placed in an “ark” near her hut, “in order that she might relieve her feelings by weeping over it.” In fact, the curing of a head was an acknowledgment of the nobility of its original owner, and it is more than probable that many a young brave was supported under the pain of tattooing by the thought of the handsome and warlike appearance that it would give to his countenance whenever his head came to be preserved.

The principal object of the custom seems to have been to keep alive the memory of the dead; and the mokomokai, as they were called, supplied to a people ignorant of literature and the arts the place of statues and pictures and monumental records. In the case of the departed chief of a tribe they were a visible sign that in some mysterious way his presence still dwelt among his people, inciting them to emulate his virtues and to follow in his steps; while in that of the slaughtered warrior of the enemy they served to keep alive the memory of the injury received by the tribe in whose possession they remained, and were a constant challenge to revenge and retaliation.

As might be expected, the preserved heads were familiar objects about the old Maori pas. According to an interesting, account lately published by the Rev. G. Smales,* those of the enemy were usually placed on the tops of the houses or on poles by the wayside, where they were exposed to the contemptuous taunts of the passers-by; while those of relatives and friends were carefully kept in some secluded spot protected by the strictest tapu, whence they were brought forth and exposed to public view on great occasions, as, e.g., the hahunga, a feast attending the ceremonial raising of a chief's bones, or the general gathering that took place on the eve of the departure of a war-expedition. The most important part which they played, however, was during the actual progress of the war, and in the negotiations respecting its continuance

[Footnote] * “Episodes in the Life of an Old Missionary,” Auckland Herald, 1894.

[Footnote] † Mr. J. B. Lee, native teacher, of Waima, Hokianga, informs me, on the authority of Hone Mohi Tawhai, chief of that district, that the head of an obnoxious party would be dried, and, as an ito, would accompany its rangatira on fishing excursions, when it would be so fixed on the gunwale of the canoe as to nod freely if a fish took the baited hook, the line of which was attached to the ear.

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or otherwise, when, as Polack* aptly observes, and as will presently be explained, they were not only the “trophies of battle,” but the “oriflamme of either party,” by whom they were “preserved similar to the tattered rags that ornament the cathedrals of polished nations.”

In order to fully estimate the significance which attached to the various uses of these grim mementoes of departed grandeur it is necessary to understand something of the relations in which the chiefs stood towards their tribes. This may be roughly stated as very similar to that which existed in olden time between a Highland chieftain and his clan, and of which a shadow remains to the present day. Although there were often a number of minor chiefs scarcely inferior in rank, the position of the leading chief was distinct and supreme. He was the active intelligent representative head in whom was concentrated the strength and glory of the whole body of his people. He was their leader in war and their counsellor in time of peace. In all public matters his will was unquestioned, and on setting out on a fighting expedition his formal consecration by the tribal tohunga (priest) extended to the whole of his party. Any respect paid to the chief reflected honour upon the entire tribe; any insult must be wiped out if necessary by the blood of the whole body; and, conversely, an injury to the tribe was felt to be an injury to the chief, and must be noticed and avenged accordingly. Amongst his own people the person of the chief was enveloped in a peculiar sacredness (tapu), which extended to the most minute article of his belongings, but which was concentrated, so to speak, in his head, that part of the body being considered by the Maoris as the seat of honour and the home of all the virtues which the man possessed. To meddle with a chief's garments, weapons, or ornaments, or to eat the food prepared for him, was a grave offence, but to touch his head, although accidentally, or even to mention ti with disrespect, was a crime punishable with death.

In time of war the heads of the principal chiefs on either side formed the centre round which the whole business revolved. Whenever a chief fell within the lines of his own party, as Mr. Marsden was informed by Hongi and Te Morenga, the victors immediately demanded that the body be delivered to them, which was at once done if his people considered themselves unable to continue the fight. The head was then cut off, and all hostilities ceased, until, after an elaborate ceremony of “auguration,” the tohunga declared whether the combat should be renewed. The head was kept for the chief on whose account the war had been undertaken; and as soon as it could be conveniently done it was preserved and sent round

[Footnote] * J. S. Polack, “New Zealand,” 1838.

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to all his friends and relations as a tangible evidence that justice had been satisfied, and the war brought to an honourable conclusion.

As a matter of course, so long as the heads remained in the possession of a victorious chief no amicable relations could exist between the rival tribes. Should he, however, desire to make peace, he took them and exhibited them to the conquered party; and if these cried aloud at the sight of them this was taken as a signal that they were willing to put an end to the contest, and were prepared to accept the terms, which might be offered; whereas if they kept silence it was understood that they were determined to hold their ground and risk the issue of another battle.* Sometimes it was the desire of neither party to renew hostilities—generally, no doubt, when both sides were weakened by excessive loss of fighting-men and tired of the continued struggle, or perhaps when they were threatened by a common enemy. In this case it was not unusual for the heads to be purchased by the friends of the vanquished and returned to the surviving relations, who held them in the highest veneration.

As in primitive times war was the common pastime of the people, and disputes on a greater or lesser scale were of constant occurrence, the number of these preserved heads must have been very large. Mr. Marsden relates that on the return from one of Hongi's expeditions against the East Coast natives no less than seventy were brought to Rangihou in a single canoe. And it was no uncommon occurrence for the early missionaries, during the fighting season, which occupied several months of the year, to see the palisading of the adjacent pa, or sometimes the fence of their own compounds, ornamented with a row of these gruesome trophies.

As from a collector's point of view a preserved head formed a very desirable item in an assortment of foreign curios, attempts to secure, specimens were made from the very earliest period of our intercourse with the Maoris. For a long time, however, these attempts met with little success. Mr. Banks, the naturalist who accompanied Captain Cook's expedition, succeeded, after great difficulty, in purchasing one from the natives of Queen Charlotte Sound in 1770, but no inducement could prevail upon them to part with a second. And although Pomare, one of the principal chiefs of the Bay of Islands, and who was considered the most expert artist of his time in the preparation of heads, offered to show Mr. Marsden an example of his skill, and at the same time furnish him with some specimens if he would let him have some ammunition wherewith to shoot the people who had killed his son, his case seems to

[Footnote] * Marsden.

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have been quite exceptional. As before remarked, it was only the heads of chiefs that were preserved; and, as their restoration to the tribes from whom they had been taken was the indispensable preliminary to the conclusion of a peace, they were far too precious to be traded away even for the coveted treasures of the pakehas.

But circumstances alter cases, and before very long an unexpected train of events brought an unlimited stock into the market. The terror of the great Hongi, who was the first New Zealand chief to obtain firearms, hung like a storm-cloud ready to burst over the tribes of the south, and every attempt must be made to meet him on equal terms. For a ton of dressed flax, laboriously scraped with a pipi-shell, a gun was purchased from the skippers of the Sydney schooners, or from the traders who early in the century began to establish themselves along the coast; but this process of armament was far too slow, and it was found that the preserved head offered just the ready means of barter that was required; and, as the purchasers were not particular so long as they obtained a good specimen, the honour of the mokomokai was no longer confined to the chiefs, but was extended to every man whose head would pass muster. Old grudges were raked up and small local wars undertaken to keep up the supply; and it is even stated that a good-looking slave was often elaborately tattooed so that as soon as it was required his head might be passed off as that of a distinguished rangatira.*

To such an extent did this trade extend that it attracted the notice of the Government of New South Wales, and an ordinance was published by which the possession of a preserved head was made a penal offence. And to this, less, perhaps, than to the fact that the Maoris gradually became possessed of the weapons by which they were able eventually to turn the tables upon their northern enemies, is to be ascribed the discontinuance of a practice that must have been most repulsive to their strongest instincts, and which would only have been adopted as a desperate measure for preserving their tribes from annihilation. In any case we find that the trade rapidly declined, and the custom itself has long since died out, so that for many years past the only means of obtaining a specimen has either been by exchange among the different museums or at the sale of some private collection of curios.

Mode Of Preparation.

Of the mode of preparation of the mokomokai we have several accounts, none of which, as before observed, is complete, and most of them differing a good deal in detail. It is very probable, however, that the various artists purposely

[Footnote] * Compare Manings “Old New Zealand.”

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differed in their methods of treatment in their efforts to acquire an enviable distinction; and it is not unlikely that in the case of the more distinguished subjects extra care would be taken, and a more elaborate system employed. All authorities agree in stating that the brain, tongue, eyes, and as much as possible of the flesh were carefully extracted; the various cavities of the skull, nostrils, &c., stuffed with dressed flax; and the skin of the neck drawn together like the mouth of a purse, an aperture being left large enough to admit the hand. The lips were sometimes stitched together, and the eyes were invariably closed, as the Maoris feared they would be bewitched (makutu) if they looked into the empty sockets. This was done by a couple of hairs attached to the upper lids, and tied together under the chin.* The head was then subjected to a steaming process, which was continued until all remains of fat and the natural juices had exuded. Rutherford states that this was done by wrapping it in green leaves, and submitting it to the heat, of the fire. Polack says it was steamed in a native oven similar to that used for food. Those seen by Mr. King were impaled on upright sticks set in open holes in the ground, which were kept supplied with hot stones from a fire close by, while the operator basted them with melted fat. Each of these processes would equally serve the purpose required. The next stage was a thorough desiccation, effected by alternate exposure to the rays of the sun and the fumes of a wood fire, of which the pyroligneous acid helped to preserve the tissues and protect them from the ravages of insects. A finishing touch was given by anointing the head with oil, and combing back the hair into a knot on the top, which was ornamented with feathers, those of the albatros being usually preferred. The work was then complete. The form of the features was very fairly preserved; every line of the moko, (tattooing) was distinct; and, although the likeness was sufficient to identify the departed warrior, the heads invariably bore a ghastly expression of life-in-death, which once seen can never be forgotten.

The Heads In The Auckland Museum.

The two specimens in the Auckland Museum originally formed part of the collection of Dr. Barnett Davis, of Lon-

[Footnote] * Mr. W. King's account.

[Footnote] † Hone Mohi Tawhai stated to Mr. J. B. Lee that he remembered when a boy seeing stone kettles among his people. These were hollowed out of soft stone, and the water was heated by means of red-hot is stones, a constant succession of which was kept up by slaves. These kettles were called kohue, perhaps from a resemblance to a section of a dried hue, a gourd, which was similarly used for ordinary culinary purposes. The expression “upoko kohue” (boiled head) was the deepest insult known to the Maori language.

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don, which was sold about 1880, and were acquired from the purchaser in exchange for a pair of Moriori crania from, the Chatham Islands. These heads are claimed by the Bay of Islands natives to be those of two of Kawiti's tribe named Moetarau and Koukou, who were killed in a fight which took place about sixty years ago near the site of the present railway-station of Opua. They were taken to Te Puna, where they were preserved by an old chief named Muru Paenga, and were afterwards presented to the party of Hokianga, natives who had assisted in the fight, by whom they were eventually sold to the captain of a vessel for £20. These were the last heads preserved in the Bay of Islands.