Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

‘A Curious Document’: Ta Moko as Evidence of Pre-European Textual Culture in New Zealand

page break

‘A Curious Document’
Ta Moko as Evidence of Pre-European Textual Culture in
New Zealand

Bsanz Bulletin vol.27 nos 3 & 4, 2003, pp.39-47

page break

For this purpose, the ingenuity of Shunghi furnished a ready contrivance; and that chief drawing upon the deeds a complete representation of the Amoco, or tattooing of Gunnah's countenance, to which the latter set his mark, it served as the ratifying symbol of the agreement. These deeds Mr Kendall and myself witnessed on the part of the settlers; and a native … drew the amoco of one of his cheeks, as a corresponding testimony for the New Zealanders …. the agreement … is, perhaps, one of the most curious documents ever yet presented to the public.

John Liddiard Nicholas, Narrative of a Voyage to New Zealand (London: James Black, 1817), vol.2, p.193

Traditionally Maori have been viewed as having no written form of communication prior to the European colonization of New Zealand. The aim of this paper is to determine whether Ta Moko, Maori facial tattooing, can be construed as evidence a pre-European textual culture in New Zealand. Tattooing has a long history in the multi-various cultures of the world, yet the Maori form is exceptional in its method of application. It is also of particular interest bibliographically, because of its use by Maori as a signature on legal documents.

Maori have historically been described as an entirely oral race prior to European contact1 'although accomplished readers of the symbols of art and landscape'.2 However, as the 'book' (in its widest possible sense) is not the same in one culture as it is in another, nor are alternative non-verbal forms of communication that have been considered forms of print culture. Print culture, by its name, is imbued in the analysis of alphabetic script or aspects of the process of produc- page 40 tion, while visual literacy takes many forms. Here we delve into issues of textuality and writing on the body with symbolic images where evidence of the use of Moko provides an important source of cultural history. Ta Moko has fallen outside the conventional boundaries of New Zealand's print culture history, and has therefore not been interpreted within this paradigm. This paper explores the question of whether the facial Moko of nineteenth-century male Maori could be construed as a system of pre-European textual culture in New Zealand.

An early European visitor to New Zealand, Cook first described Moko as tatu or tatau which he initially encountered on visiting Tahiti and seeing the tattoos worn by the indigenous people. Ta Moko differs considerably in its application from that of traditional tattooing methods of other cultures, which used tools to puncture the skin in order to apply the pattern and pigment. These often took the form of sharp multi pronged combs. Ta Moko was applied with a variety of chisels, uhi, made of different materials - some were used to cut the pathway through the skin, some were used to apply the pigment while others were used for creating specific designs. Some had a plain sharp edge, others were serrated or notched. The types of tools used varied throughout New Zealand.3

'Tattooing Instruments', from John Lillie Craik, The New Zealanders (London: Charles Knight, 1830), p.136.McLaren Collection, University of Melbourne

'Tattooing Instruments', from John Lillie Craik, The New Zealanders (London: Charles Knight, 1830), p.136.
McLaren Collection, University of Melbourne

Where other cultures tap designs into their skin, Moko differs in that it may be compared more closely with the intaglio method of printing. This involves engraving the printing plate with specific tools to create a design that once page 41 inked can be transferred to paper.4 The design is brought out, in both methods, by forcing pigment into the engraving. At this point the comparison ends, for with Moko, the healing and scarification of the wounds not only leaves the designs coloured with pigment but also textured by the furrows of the chisel. In fact, this allusion was made by Cook's surgeon on his first voyage. He commented it was 'as if a plate for example has been graved … not by a simple line or superficial black mark but really indented into the skin'.5

The tradition of Ta Moko is a complex, intricate and effective form of identification and, as the Moko can be read, it can be accepted as a form of communication; a sign system, a living document represented by meaningful marks on the human body. The 'text' of the Moko certainly had a place in the culture of nineteenth-century Maori and Pakeha. The arrival of Europeans saw a time when Moko was 'written' and 'read' out of its original context (the wearers face) but still as proof of identity. Purdie observes 'that many notable chiefs, when required to sign formal contracts with the Pakehas did so by affixing their Moko signatures, drawing every curve and spiral with the greatest care and exactitude, many specimens of which are still extant; some of the best being conserved for the benefit of posterity at the Hocken Library'.6

In attempting to rationalize the meaning and significance of Moko, nineteenth-century Europeans have variously compared it to the kilts of the Scots or heraldic blazonry such as a coat of arms that may have been engraved into a pocket-watch or signet ring. 'The Maori chin piece varies … as one may say, a coat of arms'.7 The comparison indicates that Europeans understood that the message of a Moko was fundamental to the identity of the wearer. Craik refers to Maori who asked European officers if their signet rings were their amoko.8 Other nineteenth century Maori are reported to have described the Moko as representing their name. For example, Te Pehi is reported by Craik to have said, 'Europee man write with pen his name, Te Pehi's is here' (while pointing to his page 42 forehead).9 The Tuhoe tribe have a saying which denotes the Moko as being a companion until death ‘Taia o moko hoa matenga mau’ (Have your face adorned with tattoo, to be your companion until death).10

In attempting to describe the meaning of the Moko to Europeans, twentieth-century Maori continue to describe their Moko in terms of its relationship to their identity. Te Kurapa Tamehana Rangiaho says of his Moko, 'My moko is my book to my generations and they read it, not to forget their roots'.11 Margaret Orwell is reported to have said that wearing the Moko was like 'having your name written on your face in beautiful writing'.12 Moana Maniapoto, in a song entitled 'Moko' writes:

I wear my pride upon my skin
my pride has always been with in
I wear my strength upon my face
Comes from another time and place
Bet you didn't know that every line has a message for me
Did you know that.

Verse 1
The word tattoo describes the marking of patterns by inserting coloured dyes under a smooth skin.
The word Moko represents a traditional custom in which spirals unique to Maori are carved
deeply below the skins surface to produce a grooved scar - did you know that. 13

It is interesting that contemporary Maori have made analogies to 'print' in order to describe and define the nature of Moko.

According to myth, Mataora introduced the Maori to Ta Moko on his return from Rarohenga (the underworld). He received the Moko from Uetonga, his father-in-law, while trying to win back the affection of his wife Niwareka page 43 who had left him. Michael King understands pre-European Moko as being a 'part of an expression of a way of life'14 where post European Moko was a necessary technology at times of crisis to assert iwi (tribe) and individual identity. Moko was revived with other features of Maori culture during the fighting in the 1840s and 1860s, but was not revived again until well after the wars. This was due in part to its debasement through the trade of Mokomokai (heads with Moko),15 when importation of heads was legislated against by Governor Darling in Sydney in 1831.16

By 1840 the tradition was waning largely due to the missionaries dissuading the Maori to wear Moko.17 Throughout the primary literature there is at best a curiosity about Moko, at worst, outright abhorrence. Simmons noted the 'changing social system and values allied to European influence lead to the abandonment of male Moko after 1865'.18 There are plenty of examples of European culture-shock at the practice, abstinences of opinion, or uninformed theories as to the meaning of these symbols. Yates reported 'that in all mission stations tattooing has been forbidden, and that it is generally understood that any person coming to live at a mission station must no longer submit himself to 'such a savage and debasing performance'.19

In the 1900s, at the Maori congress, chiefs lamented the passing of the practice of Moko and it was suggested by one chief that all Maori should be tattooed in future, 'so that a Maori would be able to recognize another of his race a mile away'.20 Pei Te Huinui Jones noted non-Polynesians had trouble relating to the oral nature of the Maori with their reliance upon memory, unfamiliar words, constructs and various genealogies.21 A parallel could be made with the practice of Ta Moko; a series of meaningful designs engraved into the skin which again, reflected genealogies to a large degree, 'it was by a virtue of skills and levels of knowledge attained that markings were placed within a Moko … recognition was afforded to such learning or qualification and in terms of participation, if a wearer, was to bear some authority over any hapu oriented skills, as in being an page 44 authority to speak or to teach, the markings to symbolize their progression, growth and rankings was apparent'.22

Moko experienced a revival in the 1930s with the renaissance of Maori carving. There was also a revival when Maori moved to follow their religious leaders: Ratana, Rinatu, Paimarire, and Tariao. 'Ta Moko is … a language of symbolic designs accorded to the expertise of tohunga, initiation and achievement, the mediation between the person and the spiritual realm and more recently the assertion of tino rangatiratanga'.23

Ta Moko represented more than the familial affiliations of a clan tartan or ancestral coat of arms might. It represented ancestral information from both sides of the family; the father's side was represented on the left of the face, the mothers on the right. It also embodied aspects of the individual who wore the Moko and their skills, rank and personal achievements were often added as they accumulated. These are extensively explained and illustrated in D.A. Simmons's book Ta Moko: The Art of Mäori Tattoo (1986).

The major fields are the left and right forehead down to the eyes, and below the eyes to the chin. Both areas are largely symmetrical. The secondary areas, at the junction of major fields, may have individual motifs that are not symmetrical when reflected in the opposite field. Each area held a specific meaning, such as: tribe, work, marriage, birth status. The designs used within these image areas define the elements more closely. As with typography, where the spaces between letters and around words enhance readability, the same applies to Moko. Using the right letters conveys the correct message, just as the correct placement of designs in the correct image area does with Moko. Various skills or achievements 'had the markings in Moko. This was their individual participation within whanau, hapu or iwi activity.'24 These examples are but a few of the many possibilities. All of these subtle messages were conveyed through specific designs engraved in particular areas of the face.

From a print culture perspective, one of the most intriguing aspects of the Moko story is the purpose of its representation on paper, drawn by the wearer's hand. There are many accounts of observations and impressions of the practice of Maori drawing their Moko as a signature. Rev. Samuel Marsden recorded witnessing the use of Moko as a signature in 1815: 'the chief has signed the grant in a manner extremely original, He has displayed the ingenuity which is a page 45 characteristic of his countrymen in a minute and laborious copy of the tatu marks upon his own face.' John Liddiard Nicholas who accompanied Marsden on the voyage and wrote his own narrative of the journey, described this as 'one of the more curious documents ever yet presented to the public.'25 There is evidence of such transactions occurring between whalers and Maori. 'The Maori used a kind of hieroglyphic or symbolic way of communication. Thus a chief inviting another to join in a war party sent a tattooed potato and a fig of tobacco bound up together.'26 A note from Dr. T.M. Hocken, attached to Hocken Ms 108/90 (dated Otago 1839), says, 'Specimens of tatu signatures where the natives unable to write, signed deeds by drawing their tatu marks. The method was adopted long before the days of colonisation when traders, chiefly from Sydney, purchased land.'

Excellent examples of Moko signatures can be seen in the 1979 Nag's Head Press publication of The Wentworth Indenture, which was recreated from the original in Sydney's Mitchell Library. William Wentworth and John Jones bought the South Island from several Maori chiefs for £100 on 15 February 1840. Generally, as in other examples of Moko signatures from other land deeds, the Moko is drawn without any of the wearer's physical features.27 The lines of the Moko, which would normally curve to the geography of the face, lie flat and spaces left for the eyes and mouth remain empty except where the lips have been coloured.

So, evidence survives on documents of land purchases, and in the observations of explorer's, and transcriptions of conversations and letters of Maori to suggest that Moko had a precedent as a readable form of communication. Regardless of medium, common threads tie all of these expressions together, be it Moko, the painted kowhaiwhai (rafters), tukutuku (weaving), or carved poupou figures.28 There is also evidence that people could identity others by their Moko without having met them: Polack reported that on several occasions he showed likenesses of chiefs, resplendent with Moko, to Maori living as far as 400 miles distant. These Maori were able to identify the men by name from reading their likeness, having never met them previously.29 So, although a tohunga-ta-moko was the only person able to apply the Moko, it appears that Moko literacy was relatively wide spread.

page 46

Craik, writing in 1830, describes how Te Pehi Kupe, who traveled to England, was known to draw his Moko for people without the aid of a mirror. Te Pehi reportedly also drew the Moko of his father and his sons. In one instance he was said to have wept and kissed the image before relinquishing it.

'Portrait of Tupai Cupa [i.e. Te Pehi Kupa]', and Tattooing on the face of Tupai Cupa, from a drawing by himself,John Lillie Craik, The New Zealanders (London: Charles Knight, 1830), pp.331 and 332. McLaren Collection, University of Melbourne

'Portrait of Tupai Cupa [i.e. Te Pehi Kupa]', and Tattooing on the face of Tupai Cupa, from a drawing by himself,
John Lillie Craik, The New Zealanders (London: Charles Knight, 1830), pp.331 and 332. McLaren Collection, University of Melbourne

A black and white image of a moko map drawn by Te Pehi Kupe of his facial moko.

Polack, writing in 1840, observed that Maori 'took pride in adding the various curvatures of the Moko to their signatures'.30 He continues, describing an endearing image: 'and our risibility has often been excited in viewing an aged chief, whose scant locks had weathered upwards of seventy winters, drawing with intense care, his signature, with inclined head and extended tongue, as is the wont of young page 47 European practitioners in the art of penmanship'. Like many other nineteenth-century visitors to New Zealand who published their observations, Sir David Munro (1842) described Moko as ingenious, elaborate, drawn with mathematical exactitude and varying amongst individuals. He also noted that by this time, the young men were spurning the idea of taking on the Moko.

The meanings of the designs used and placed within the context of established image areas must have been intimately understood by Maori to not only be recognised, but to be drawn accurately in all their complexity by the wearer. This suggests that a Moko orthography existed in the nineteenth century.

I suggest Moko, like the book, is a physical structure capable of being read by others. In the nineteenth century at least, it was a means of communication just as paper and ink were. This suggests levels of textual literacy. Moko was a living ephemeral document that could be added to as the wearer grew in status and achievements as a person. Unless a facsimile was made — either by drawing a copy of it as a signature, reproducing it in a portrait or carving or literally capturing and preserving it as Mokomokai, it was lost on the wearer's death. There are several reasons to argue that Moko can be construed as indicative of a pre-European textual culture in New Zealand:
  • The system of Moko involves image areas and designs with specific meanings;

  • Early reports indicated that Maori could read Moko and identify people they had never met in person before, which suggests a complex language that could be learnt and read;

  • Ta Moko was used to fulfil the role of a signature on documents signed with Europeans; and

  • Ta Moko is different method of application than tattooing, and has more in common with the method of intaglio printing.

It is important to gain a contemporary perspective of Moko to increase our understanding of the past and to broaden our Western view of literacy to include the pre-textual and visual literacy of indigenous cultures. A comprehensive study of Ta Moko from a print culture perspective would serve to broaden and strengthen the history of print culture in Aotearoa New Zealand.

1 D.F. McKenzie, Oral Literacy and Print in Early New Zealand: The Treaty of Waitangi, Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1985, p.9.

3 Elsdon Best, 'The Uhi-Maori, or Native Tattooing Instruments', Journal of the Polynesian Society 13, l904, pp.l66-72.

4 Colin Hayes, The Complete Guide to Painting and Drawing Techniques and Materials, Oxford: Phaidon Press, 1981, p.199.

5 Monkhouse's Journal in Cook's Journals, vol.1, p.586, cited by Harriet Guest, 'Curiously Marked: Tattooing and Gender Difference in Eighteenth-century British Perceptions of the South Pacific', in Written on the Body: the Tattoo in European and American History ed. Jane Caplan, California: Reaktion Books, 2000, p.95.

6 A. Purdie, 'Moko or Maori Tattoo'. The Public Service Journal, February 1940, p.106; Hocken Library Archives, Ms 582/A/19, 106.

7 Tom Riley, Otago Witness July 14 1889; Hocken Library Archives, Ms 582/A/1, 31.

8 John Lillie Craik, The New Zealanders, London: Charles Knight, 1830, p.145.

9 Major-General Robley, Moko; or the Art of Mäori Tattooing, London: Chapman & Hall, 1896, p.15.

10 James Cowan, 'Maori Tattooing Survivals: Some Notes on Moko', Journal of the Polynesian Society 30, 1921, p.242.

11 Hans Neleman, et al., Moko-Mäori Tattooing, Zurich: Stemmle Publishers, 1999, p.28.

12 Michael King, Mäori Tattooing in the twentieth Century, Wellington: Alister Tyler, 1972.

13 Recorded by Moana &, the Moa Hunters. Music & Lyrics by Moana Maniapoto from the Cd "Rua". Available on Tangata Records. Moana Maniapoto, 'Moko' Mokomokai: the documentary http://www.digitalus.co.nz/ mokomokai/moana.html [Accessed 11 November 2002]

14 King, Mäori Tattooing.

15 D.R. Simmons, Ta Moko: The Art of Mäori Tattoo, Auckland: Reed, 1986, p.23.

16 Maj.-Gen. Robley, Otago Witness 24 Dec. 1902; Hocken Library Archives, Ms 582/A/3: 102.

17 Simmons, Ta Moko, p.150.

18 Simmons, Ta Moko, p.151.

19 Yates, cited by Robley, Moko, p.121; of. Dr Sir David Munro, Journal of Dr Sir David Munro on the Coast of New Zealand 1842; Hocken Library Archives, Ms 0509, 121.

20 The Ensign 22 July 1908; Hocken Library Archives, Ms 582/A/5.

21 Danny Keenan, 'Aversion to Print? Maori Resistance to the Written Word' in A Book in the Hand: Essays on the History if the Book in New Zealand, ed. Penny Griffiths [sic: delete], Peter Hughes & Alan Loney, Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2000, pp.25-26.

22 Uruora, Tamoko, 2000. http://www.crossroads.net/[unclear: ~]tamoko/moko.html [Accessed 12 October 2000]

23 Ta Moko - Mäori Tattooing Today. http://www.culture.co.nz/ta-moko/modern.htm [Accessed 12 October 2000]

24 Uruora, Tamoko.

25 Narrative of a Voyage to New Zealand, London: James Black & Sons, 1817, p.193.

26 Rev. Mr Taylor, quoted by Robley, Moko, p. 19.

27 An exception is the portrait of Patuckie, sans Moko, but depicting hair, eyes and lips.

28 Jenkins 1991, pp.7-8.

29 J.S. Polack, Manners and Customs of the New Zealanders, London: James Madden, 1840, p.43.

30 Polack, Manners and Customs, pp.43-44.