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Moko; or Maori Tattooing

Boom in Art

Boom in Art

In spite of this untoward ending for the pioneer in the popularisation of Maori art, the trade in heads flourished apace.

Dried heads soon took their place with pork, pine spars, and flax amongst the chief exports of New Zealand. It was not necessary to rob the tribal art galleries of the ancestral heads, for the eminent Maori who loved a fight for its own sake, but liked to make war pay, too soon took to this new trade. After eating the rest of his slaughtered enemies he could sell the heads to the Sydney traders at a good price in gunpowder and other munitions of war, and thus acquire the means of collecting more heads. A raid was an easier and more sporting way of securing muskets, powder and tomahawks than the alternative of scraping flax or cutting and hauling spars.

Sometimes a chief would enter into a contract to supply so many heads, at that moment still on their owners' shoulders, taking payment in advance. He always tried to deliver the goods, but occasionally lost his own head instead.

It is related of the chief Te Hiko that he used to parade his moving pictures before the dealers, who picked out the heads that pleased them best. Te Hiko would then have them taken off and nicely dried all ready for export.

It must be admitted that trickery did occasionally creep into art, and that old masters were faked. Slaves were usually not tattooed, but some unscrupulous chiefs had the heads of their slaves specially tattooed and then cut them off, dried them, and sold them as genuine works of art. Apart from the doubtful morality of this practice, the slaves sometimes ran away with their master's property after their heads had been tattooed and before the next step was taken.

One or two chiefs of the baser sort descended to even greater depths of trickery. They had the heads tattooed after they had been cut off, and tried to pass them off as genuine works of art. Such a fraud was soon detected, for tattoo marks made in this way faded after a short period.

With the waves of war and slaughter which rolled over New Zealand just about a century ago as a result of the introduction of firearms and of the organisation of raids on a great scale by such chiefs as Hongi Ika and Te Rauparaha, the supply of heads began to outrun the demand. The price, once as high as £20, slumped to £2. Art was brought within the reach of the middle classes.

In 1826, when the bottom was nearly out of the market, a Sydney merchant was walking down George-street when he met a seaman with something rolled up in a handkerchief. Thinking that it was a cocoanut or some such thing from the islands he asked the sailor what he was carrying. The latter obligingly unrolled the bundle and displayed a dried head with long black hair. This, he said, was the head of a New Zealander which he was going to sell for two guineas to a gentleman about to embark for England.