Tā moko is the permanent body and face marking by Māori, the indigenous people of New Zealand.
Traditionally the skin was carved by uhi (chisels) rather than punctured.
This left the skin with grooves, rather than a smooth surface.
Captain James Cook wrote in 1769:
"The marks in general are spirals drawn with great nicety and even elegance. One side corresponds with the other. The marks on the body resemble foliage in old chased ornaments, convolutions of filigree work, but in these they have such a luxury of forms that of a hundred which at first appeared exactly the same no two were formed alike on close examination."
The native people of New Zealand are world famous for their tattooing.
Though they do not cover as much of the body as many of the South Pacific people, the Maori developed an unusual style of tattooing.
The Maori had an unusual custom of removing the heads of their tattooed chiefs after death. These heads would stay with the family and be an honored possession. Until Europeans began to visit New Zealand and to settle there, heads were of sentimental interest only and had no commercial value. The museums and collectors desire to possess them as curiosities for caused a great demand to spring up. Although reluctant to part with the heads, the Maori were eager to obtain firearms, ammunition and iron implements. So a brisk traffic ensued and the demand began to exceed the supply. The Maori were known to fight one another in disputes over land and property. The heads of these war victims became part of the trade supply. This considerably reduced the population of New Zealand while stocking the museums of Europe with specimens of barbaric face-culture. As a commercial enterprise this traffic was not without monetary profit as well.
The first dried head ever possessed by a European was acquired on January 20, 1770. It was brought by Mr. (later Sir Joseph) Banks, who was with Captain Cooks expedition as a naturalist, and it was one of four brought on board the Endeavour for inspection. It was the head of a youth of fourteen or fifteen, who had been killed by a blow that fractured his skull. The three other heads, not for sale, seemed to have false eyes and ornaments in the ears.
The first head taken to Sydney, for which there is any record, was brought from Fouveaux Straits in 1811. It was obtained by theft, and the boat crews heads were nearly cut off for "utu" (revenge.) In 1814 heads were certainly not yet an ordinary article to trade at Sydney, but by 1829 it appears that preserved heads were not uncommon.
The Rev. J.S. Wood says: "In the first place no man who was well tattooed was safe for an hour unless he was a great chief, for he might be at any time watched until he was off his guard and then knocked down and killed, and his head sold to the traders."
But the trade began to grow in importance and at length agents were sent to select the best specimens, and "baked heads" acquired a separate entry among the imports at the Sydney customs, and it was not uncommon thing to find them offered for sale in the streets of that city.
Many a poor slave suffered a horrible fate - mokoed only to be murdered for his head. At one time forbidden, the pride of the noble and the free, the unhappy slave was not forcibly tattooed and when his scars were healed he was tomahawked, his head dried and then sold to the ever ready trader. A good looking slave might be elaborately tattooed so that as soon as required his head might pass as that of a distinguished rangatira. When the traffic in heads became general, the natives ceased altogether to preserve the heads of their friends lest by any means they should fall into the hands of others and be sold.
Slowly but surely the traffic became a public scandal. The Maori not possessed all the arms they wanted and discontinued the practice of trading, which was repulsive to their instincts and which they only adopted as a desperate measure to preserve their tribes from annihilation. In any case the practice was dying out. The credit for stopping it is due to Governor Darling of New South Wales. He was, it is said, exposed to very violent abuse, which continued for some time. Events however had occurred which brought public opinion to bear on a matter which put a stop to the "gainful" traffic, which undoubtedly ought never to have reached the position it occupied in 1831.
This human and courageous effort to stop the abomination of the traffic in heads, was shortly followed by an Act which passed into law before New Zealand became a separate colony and Governor Darling had the satisfaction of imposing a fine of 40£ as well as publishing the name of those concerned. Public feeling ultimately supported the cause of humanity and the trade faded away.