The trade in preserved Maori heads

Last updated 00:00 01/01/2009

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The row in France over a preserved Maori head is a legacy of the vast and vile colonial trade in human remains. Anthony Hubbard reports.

It started when Captain Cook's botanist bought a Maori teenager's head in exchange for some second-hand underpants. Joseph Banks haggled in Queen Charlotte Sound with an elderly Maori who had paddled his canoe out to the English explorer's ship, the Endeavour. The man had three heads on board, but was "very jealous of showing them," Banks wrote in his diary. He liked the price but "hesitated much to send the head up," and so Banks insisted he either sell or return the bartered goods. "I enforced my threats by [showing] him a musquet." The man handed over the head and took the price, "a pair of old drawers of very white linen." It was the summer of 1770.

"And so the trade began," says Professor Ngahuia Te Awekotuku in her 2007 book Mau Moko: The World of Maori Tattoo, "with a white man's recycled underwear." Maori became more willing sellers, however, when the white man's muskets fuelled bloody intertribal warfare. "Maori were caught up in an arms race," says former Auckland Museum ethnologist Dave Simmons, "and they had to get guns. And two tattooed heads were easier to get or to make than a shipload of dressed flax or two tonnes of potatoes." Two heads bought one musket: and as the Musket Wars raged, Maori needed more human currency. So the practice arose of tattooing slaves as well as chiefs. "Many a poor slave suffered a horrible fate mokoed only to be murdered for his head," wrote the British head-collector Horatio Gordon Robley in 1896. "At one time forbidden the pride of the noble and the free, the unhappy slave was now forcibly tattooed, and when his scars were healed he was tomahawked, his head dried, and then sold to the ever-ready trader.

"A good-looking slave might be elaborately tattooed, so that as soon as required, his head might pass as that of a distinguished rangatira." There were even stories of slaves being killed to order. Robley cites an anecdote about a chief who went on board ship with several slaves. "Choose which of these heads you like best, and when you come back I will take care to have it dried and ready for your acceptance." Quantities of Maori preserved heads or toi moko found their way into European hands before the British government banned the "disgusting traffic" in 1831. It was a trade from which neither side emerges with glory not the European head-hunters, and not the Maori head-sellers either.

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Hundreds of heads still remain in European and American museums, hospitals, and private collections. New Zealand is trying to get them back, including the one in Rouen which sparked a row between the local mayor, who wanted to return it, and France's minister of arts and culture, who didn't. But more overseas institutions are now prepared to return their toi moko. "If you asked them 20 years ago, most of them would probably have said a flat no," says Te Herekiekie Herewini, who leads Te Papa's repatriation team. "But if you asked them within the last three or four years, there's been a change in the thinking of the museums themselves."

Since 1987, some 68 toi moko have been brought back, a third of them in the last year. They now lie in two special wahi tapu at Te Papa along with a dozen others already in the museum's possession. The heads are in cool vaults in "acid-free boxes lined with polythene packaging material," Te Papa says. Very few people, none of them journalists, are allowed to see these sacred objects.

Nowadays even the idea of a preserved head might seem repulsive; the photos of them have a peculiar aura of horror. Traded heads were typically cut off below the jawline, the brains and eyes removed and the eyelids sewn together, the lips cut off and the teeth exposed. They were dried in the sun and over fires. The result was a hollow head which a hand could fit into, a kind of grisly human puppet. And yet the moko is often an artistic masterpiece.

A terrible image, above, shows Robley sitting with his harvest of heads displayed on a wall behind him. This was apparently an advertising poster: Robley wanted to sell the heads because he was broke. Today, the collector, a former British Army officer who fought in the New Zealand wars, might seem like some ancestor of Auschwitz, an emblem of colonial atrocity.

In fact, says Simmons, he was not as bad as many suppose.

"According to Maori scuttlebutt put it that way they reckon it was robbery, he'd taken all the heads in his collection. Well, he hadn't. All the heads in his collection were heads he had picked up in England he actually rescued a hell of a lot." In his book Moko; or Maori Tattooing, Robley denounced the traffic in heads as "gruesome," "sordid" and replete with "abominations", a trade that was "repulsive to [Maori] instincts and which they only adopted as a desperate measure to preserve their tribes from annihilation." In the early 20th century, Robley tried to sell his collection to the New Zealand government. But "Sir James Carroll and Apirana Ngata, who were ministers at the time, said New Zealand was not in the business of buying the ancestors," says Simmons.

"Now what they didn't know, of course, was that Robley was an absolute pauper at that time and he suggested that the collection come back to New Zealand he wanted something to live on. That was what he was looking for. He died a pauper and is buried in a pauper's grave in London."

Rebuffed by New Zealand, Robley sold his collection to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The 39 heads are still there, the largest collection in the world outside New Zealand. Former Governor-General Sir Paul Reeves, who is on Te Papa's repatriation advisory panel, saw them in the late 1990s.

"They are not on exhibition, they are in a hermetically sealed sort of place and when I went down there it was into a repository which was admirable. They've been kept well." The museum could understand the Maori attitude that these were sacred objects that should be returned to their iwi for proper burial: "Of course they could." But the museums of America and Europe faced big issues about the material gathered, often by doubtful means, from the rest of the world.

The most famous case is that of the Greek Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. If Britain returns them, what will become of all the other colonial loot? The question is also an urgent one in France, says Simmons. If the Rouen head is classified as a work of art, as the French culture minister argued, giving it back would create a terrible precedent.

"If they even think about repatriating anything," says Simmons, "they have to send back all the stuff that Napoleon swiped from Egypt, such as Cleopatra's Needle, which is in the Place de la Concorde [in Paris]." But New Zealand argues that the heads are human remains rather than art works, and that their return does not therefore set a museum-emptying precedent. "There is a distinction, surely?" says Reeves.

More and more are inclined to agree. Britain made a law change in 2004 allowing human remains "less than 1000 years old" to be repatriated, and there has been a noticeable flow of heads from British institutions to New Zealand in recent times. American museums have increasingly taken the same tack. Te Papa has not yet started negotiations with the New York museum over the Robley collection, however. It's too busy dealing with other institutions.

It is trying to retrieve toi moko or other human remains skeletons and bones, known as koiwi tangata from institutions in Russia, Sweden, Japan, Germany, France, Italy, Britain, the United States, Canada, Spain, Fiji and Mauritius, among others. Te Papa sends letters out "and we're reliant on them to be honest about what they have in their collections," says Herewini. "We leave it up to them whether they repatriate or not, because we can't actually force them. So it's a matter of good will."

Te Papa's approach is one of patience and quiet persuasion. It typically takes years to negotiate a return. With the head in Rouen, says Herewini, all it can do is watch and wait while France's internal debate continues. "If change is to happen it's not going to happen overnight. It might take 20 years. But remember we've got other work to do. We are returning other ancestors."

Herewini, who only recently came to the job, hopes to return a third of the 500 koiwi tangata to the iwi this year. The bones are much easier to find a home for because it is known where they came from. The collectors who gathered them from caves and burial grounds in the later part of the 19th century were required by their buyers museums and medical institutions to say where they got them.

But most of the preserved heads were not identified, and finding the iwi to which they belong is difficult and in many cases may be impossible. The pattern of the tattoo shows the region in which it was done, Simmons explains. But it doesn't show who the person tattooed was, because most were captive slaves taken from another tribe. Simmons, who found more than 200 preserved heads in overseas museums during research in the late 1970s, says most of them were slave heads.

Sometimes Pakeha heads were preserved. The late Dalvanius Prime, a campaigner for repatriation, brought home from Australia a number of his ancestors' heads, including a Pakeha "who happened to be with a Maori group when they got stoushed," Simmons says. "They took him to be a Maori and they preserved him." Before the European arrived, Maori kept the tattooed heads of enemies and sometimes displayed them on sticks. And they kept the preserved heads of revered chiefs, or sometimes even of favoured family members, including children. "If you go to a tangi nowadays you find around the coffin photographs of ancestors," says Paul Reeves. "I believe that in pre-European times you would find toi moko."

Reeves says the ethics of the head trade are not simple: "To say that one side was good and the other was bad ethics don't divide like that." In fact, both Pakeha and Maori can now feel sorry about what happened. "I would counsel any Maori not to use this business as a means of making some adverse point, not at all. But rather I would go the other way and say, let's work on understanding and forgiveness, if that's the word both ways."


- Sunday Star Times

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