Written by Betsy Inlow, University of Glasgow Museum Studies Placement Student.

Horatio Gordon Robley with his collection of toi moko. Source: Wellcome Library no. 664088i (https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/V0031271.html)


When I first typed “Major General Horatio Gordon Robley,”  1st Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, into a search engine, I was bombarded with images of a man in front of a collection of mummified human heads.

Needless to say, I was confused.

When I first heard I was given an exhibition development placement at the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Regimental Museum, I was not expecting my project on a soldier-artist to involve a collection of human remains.

Upon further investigation, I discovered the heads behind Robley were toi moko, or preserved tattooed heads of the Māori people of New Zealand.  Toi moko, created by boiling in water followed by smoking over a fire, are made in traditional Māori culture for two very disparate reasons: to venerate a loved one, or, in wartime, to humiliate an enemy.  Toi moko could also be used in peace treaties, their return to their whānau, or extended family, serving as a sign of reconciliation.[1]

Upon first contact with Europeans, however, toi moko became an international trade commodity reaching its peak in the early 19th century, most notably in exchange for guns.  It was this trade which caused an intense demand for toi moko, resulting in creation of toi moko for non-tradtional reasons and by non-traditional means.  There is evidence of practices such as slaves being killed with fake moko, or traditional Māori tattoos, being added to the face postmortem, and there is even evidence of living people with moko being auctioned off as toi moko before being murdered.[2]  In 1831, Governor Ralph Darling of New South Wales imposed a ban on the trade of toi moko, though the effectiveness of this ban was limited.[3]


Illustration showing the sale of a head of a living person. Source: Moko; or, Maori Tattooing (http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-RobMoko.html)


So, why would an Argyll be photographed in front of toi moko?

Before Robley was an Argyll, he was a soldier in the 68th Durham Light Infantry.  He served with the DLI in New Zealand during the Māori Land Wars, during which time he painted his experiences as a soldier and his interactions with peoples and cultures.  Robley took a particular interest in the Māori people and their moko, and he remained interested in Māori culture and tattooing throughout his life.  He began collecting toi moko in London upon his retirement from the Argylls in 1887.  He wrote a book on moko entitled Moko: or, Māori Tattooing, in which he included many of his own illustrations of moko both from his time in New Zealand and his toi moko collection.  Robley offered to sell his collection to the New Zealand government for £1,100 in 1901, having gone into debt adding to his collection, but the offer was declined.  The collection of 35 was bought later by the American Museum of Natural History, though Robley kept the five toi moko he deemed of the best quality for himself, allegedly with the hope for at least these to return to New Zealand.[4]


Watercolour painting by Robley of Māori chief Te Kuha, showing the chief’s intricate moko designs. Source: Durham Light Infantry Collection, Accession Number 416


An illustration from Robley’s book, Moko: or, Māori Tattooing, showing an upper lip and chin moko design from a toi moko in his own collection. Source: Moko; or, Maori Tattooing (http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-RobMoko.html)


An illustration from Robley’s book, Moko: or, Māori Tattooing, showing moko on the right cheek of a toi moko in his own collection. Source: Moko; or, Maori Tattooing (http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-RobMoko.html)


The toi moko from Robley’s collection purchased by the AMNH have now all been repatriated to New Zealand through the Karanga Aotearoa Repatriation Programme, a programme based at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and funded by the New Zealand government for the return of Māori and Moriori ancestral remains from overseas institutions.[5]  The 35 toi moko were returned to Te Papa in December 2014 where they were welcomed with a powhiri, or a traditional welcome ceremony.  All Māori ancestral remains returned to Te Papa undergo conservation and provenance research before being returned to their whānau.  At the time of the repatriation of the Robley collection, Te Papa had successfully returned 104 Māori and Moriori remains to their ancestral homes, and it was estimated that 650 remains had yet to be returned from overseas institutions.[6]  Te Papa is continuously working to reduce this number, and, indeed, as recently as May of this year roughly 60 more remains have been repatriated to New Zealand.[7]

Photograph of the powhiri which took place to welcome home the toi moko previously a part of Robley’s collection. Source: Laura Bootham, Radio New Zealand


The more I research the Robley exhibition, the more I realize the depth of the complexity of Robley’s story.  His is a story far beyond military history, extending into fine art and culture, as well as important and difficult issues such as colonialism and repatriation of human remains.  Studying Horatio Gordon Robley’s life has taught me in a very tangible way how the past continues to affect us today, whether positively or negatively, and that we need to acknowledge and respond to this past.  I hope that through sharing his story I can show how much the world has changed from Robley’s time to ours, the progress we have made as well as the journeys we still need to take.  Robley, a man who, in my mind, wanted to show people the real, unromanticized lives of both soldiers and local people through his art, I think would be proud to know his story continues to promote cultural diversity and inter-cultural co-operation in a modern world where such values continue to be enormously important.


If you’re interested in learning about Robley’s story serving with the Argylls and seeing a collection of his original watercolors, come to the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Regimental Museum to explore the exhibition Horatio Gordon Robley:  An Argyll’s Encounters in Watercolour.


[1] Christian Palmer and Mervyn L. Tano, Mokomokai: Commercialization and Desacralization (New Zealand Electronic Text Centre, 2007).

[2] Horatio Gordon Robley, Moko; or, Maori Tattooing (London: Chapman and Hall, 1896).

[3] Palmer and Tano, Mokomokai.

[4] L. W. Melvin, Robley: Soldier with a Pencil (Tauranga Historical Society, 1957).

[5] Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, The Karanga Aotearoa Repatriation Programme, https://www.tepapa.govt.nz/about/repatriation/karanga-aotearoa-repatriation-programme.

[6] Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Repatriation Questions and Answers, https://www.tepapa.govt.nz/sites/default/files/media-release-repatriation-qs-and-as-2014.pdf.

[7] Radio New Zealand, Powhiri to Repatriate More Remains to Te Papa, http://www.radionz.co.nz/news/te-manu-korihi/331810/powhiri-to-repatriate-more-remains-to-te-papa.

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