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Moko; or Maori Tattooing


In 1814, the year in which Senior-Chaplain Marsden first preached the Gospel to the heathen of New Zealand and brought back a cargo of pork and pine, another pioneer showed something new in art to the connoisseurs and dealers of Sydney. This was William Tucker, to whom the South Island Maoris amongst whom he had lived for some time had given the more poetical name of Wioree. Amongst other articles of trade Wioree brought up with him a masterpiece of savage art. On an oval surface had been traced a bewildering variety of designs in which a spiral that might have been inspired by the just uncurling baby fronds of the tree-fern was conspicuous. Other curved lines recalled the arabesques of Moslem art, while the color scheme was a rich blue on a brown ground.

It was, in fact, a Maori head, a fine specimen of the tattooer's art, carefully smoke-dried and preserved. Art collectors were rare in the Sydney of that day, but such a work as this was bound to attract respectful attention. If local patrons failed, there was a market overseas for such a treasure. So Wioree benefited by his enterprise to the extent of £20, which gave a very fair profit on the few shillings' worth of old iron which he had laid out for the head in New Zealand.

But like many another before and since, Wioree lost his head as a result of his success. In 1817 he sailed with James Kelly, master mariner, of Hobart Town, on a sealing and trading voyage to New Zealand. The Otago Maoris, no doubt resenting Tucker's earlier interference with the Dunedin art gallery of the day, fell upon the unlucky dealer and clubbed him to death.