Volume 40 1931 > Volume 40, No. 157 > Obituary, p 39-43
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[See illustration at the end of previous article]

THE late Major-General Horatio Gordon Robley, son of John Horatio Robley, a retired officer of the Indian Army, was born at Madeira on 28th June, 1840, not a year after the founding of the New Zealand Company's first settlement at Wellington.

When the unfortunate second Maori War, 1860, broke out, Ensign Robley, then a young man of twenty, was stationed at Burmah with the 68th Regiment, now known as the Durham Light Infantry; and, subsequently to the siege of Delhi, Robley was in charge of the guard placed over the old and senile king, Bahadur Shah II, on his capture and exile to Rangoon.

On the outbreak of the Maori War, British soldiers were poured into New Zealand, about 6,000 being sent from England, India, China, and Australia during the first two years of the trouble. In 1863 the 68th Regiment was ordered from Burmah for active service in New Zealand, and with the headquarters staff went Ensign Robley, landing at Auckland from the transport Australian on 8th January, 1864. He purchased a Maori vocabulary and Judge F. E. Maning's Old New Zealand (then recently published), and these two introduced him to the language and the manners and customs of the people with whom he had so much to do.

By April, 1864, the war, which had spread into the Waikato, was practically scotched, when General Cameron moved his headquarters to Tauranga, where an outbreak was threatened, the 68th, commanded by Colonel Greer, being ordered there. Then soon followed the campaign made memorable by the disastrous reverse of the Pakeha troops at Gate Pa, and the victory of Te Ranga. Robley, who was now a lieutenant, and instructor in musketry, served through the whole campaign, and left on record scores of drawings and water-colours depicting scenes - 40 experienced and personalities encountered, among the latter being Captain Gilbert Mair, another veteran of the wars.

He came through the campaign unscathed, and humourously attributed his un-Hauhau-like invulnerability to a little mystic ceremony undergone in Burmah, where an old, yellow-robed Buddhist monk in Rangoon, in whose monastery he had been permitted to make sketches, had persuaded him to have pricked on his right arm a sacred red emblem which would make him invulnerable to all weapons—an operation which he latterly thought not altogether fair to the Maori.

Following the capitulation of the Maori chief, William Thompson, in June, 1865, the necessity for British troops in New Zealand was past, and the 68th was ordered to England. In 1870 Robley was promoted Captain, and in that year he exchanged into the 1st Battalion Princess Louise's Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. During the next ten years he was on home service, was promoted to Major in 1880, and detailed to Mauritius. In the middle of 1881 he rejoined headquarters at Capetown, and during the next year served as Lieutenant Colonel in Cape Colony, Natal, and Zululand. By 1883 he was commanding officer, and wrote the history of his famous regiment, extending from 1794 to 1887, in the latter year retiring with the rank of Major-General, taking up his residence in London, where he died on 29th October, 1930.

Apparently his artistic sense was particularly attracted by the Maori art of tattooing—moko; and in 1896 he published has book Moko, a monograph on that art as practised in New Zealand. The second part of the book is devoted to a subject usually considered to be rather gruesome than attractive, but which Maning, in Old New Zealand, contrived to invest with some grim humour—the subject of dried heads. During his residence in London he had acquired, from dealers and others, a unique collection of thirty-five of these heads, all tattooed more or less, and some of them very finely tattooed, so that, since the art was even then an art of the past, and has since practically died out, he was in a better position than anyone else was then or will ever be to make a thorough study of the various patterns of the moko.

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In 1908 he concluded the time was come that his collection should be permanently preserved; and whilst he twice offered it to the New Zealand Government for the sum of £1,100, the offer was not accepted. In 1909 the collection was on view in the Liverpool Museum, where it was seen by a representative of an American Museum. Learning it was on sale he cabled to his principals, who immediately instructed him to buy. The whole, with the exception of five heads, finally went to the United States for the sum of £1,250. The five best heads were reserved, Robley hoping that these would eventually return to New Zealand; but, notwithstanding that he gave New Zealand every opportunity to possess them, no practical interest was shewn, and they found ready purchasers abroad.

The result is that there are perhaps not more than seven preserved Maori heads in the whole of New Zealand. The Auckland Museum has two, of the chiefs Moetarau and Koukou, who were killed in a fight at Opua about 1820. The Christchurch Museum has two, but these, like those at Auckland, are not of the best. There is an inferior specimen in the Hocken Collection at Dunedin, procured from Robley, and two in the National Collection, Wellington, both secured directly or indirectly from Tasmania. A number of European Museums possess specimens; the Paris Museum of Natural History has six, obtained by early French voyagers; the Berlin Museum has two; while there are at least sixty in the various Museums of the United Kingdom.

Following the publication of Moko, Robley, who considered the work hastily written, assiduously collected information for a second edition; but he found that increasing age had put the task beyond him, and when Dr. T. M. Hocken was in England he secured the whole of these notes, with Robley's own copy of Moko, and with characteristic thoroughness he also purchased from the publishers the complete set of the original blocks of the illustrations. His hope of issuing the second edition was however, frustrated by his death in 1910.

In 1905 the New Zealand Government purchased seventy of Robley's water-colour sketches, which are now in the Dominion Museum; they depict scenes in the Tauranga campaign. He prepared illustrations for Maning's book, - 42 Old New Zealand, and these he presented to the late Sir R. Douglas McLean of Hawkes Bay, and four of them were used in the 1922 edition of the book, published by Messrs. Whitcombe and Tombs.

He made water-colour drawings, full and side face, of the best of his Maori heads and of those seen by him in various European Museums, and forty of these he offered the New Zealand Government, in 1918, for the modest sum of £20, but the offer was unfortunately declined.

He published a volume, Pounamu: Notes on New Zealand Greenstone, in 1915, profusely illustrated with photos and sketches by the author. The work has not been placed on sale in New Zealand, where very few copies of it are to be seen. It is dedicated to Mrs. R. D. Maclean (later Lady Maclean) through whose interest, and that of her husband, the work was published.

From 1886, and onward to at any rate 1894, Robley contributed eighty drawings to the London Graphic, but they do not relate to New Zealand; many of his drawings and verbal sketches were published in the Illustrated London News during the Maori War period, 1864-1866.

Following his retirement from the Army his interest in it was continued in many ways, and during the Great War he particularly interested himself in New Zealand troops in London; and, whilst not belonging to their generation and unknown to most of them, many New Zealand soldiers many recall the visits of an elderly civilian, possessing some-what the cast of countenance and build of the late Lord Roberts, who interrogated them regarding their disablement, and presented them with postcards, painted or ornamented in some characteristic way by himself.

The Turnbull Library acquired many of the letters written by Robley to Mair, his friend and companion during the Maori War; and as his many correspondents know, his letters, and envelopes too, were usually sprinkled with sketches of Maori ornaments, artifacts, and tattooing patterns—his letters being often on mere scraps and wisps of paper apparently picked from anywhere. The old man was active to the end.

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Most of the above details were supplied by Mr. Horace Fildes of Wellington, who spent some time with Robley when in London in 1919, and again in 1930.

The book Moko does not contain a complete list of the names of the various patterns making up the full face-tattoo, so, as an illustration to this note, is inserted the copy of a sketch by Robley of a well-adorned face, with a numbered list of the patterns corresponding to the numbers on the sketch. Four of the patterns—nos. 4, 19-23—have no recorded names. The comparative list in A. Hamilton's Maori Art, pp. 312-3, is given in synopsis in the last column of Robley's list.