Headhunter: the story of Horatio Robley (part 1)

From Black Sheep, 9:27 am on 13 February 2019

Horatio Robley witnessed the most famous battle of the New Zealand Wars, he fathered a child with the daughter of a sworn enemy, his sketching helped end a war and his book helped save the art of Māori tattooing.

But mostly he’s famous for his grotesque collection of nearly 40 human heads.

Listen to Part 2 here

A Wall of Heads

If you type Horatio Robley’s name into a search engine you’ll find a seriously disturbing image (a censored version appears above).

In the foreground is Robley, dressed in a fancy suit and sporting an enormous handlebar moustache. In one hand he holds a mere (Māori club) and behind him … 35 mokomokai - preserved Māori heads.

The heads are in various states. Some are well preserved; you can still clearly make out their facial features and the beautiful curved lines of their tā moko (facial tattoos). Others are harder to look at; the lips are drawn back from the teeth, mummified skin clings to the shape of the skull.

Horatio Gordon Robley

Most disturbingly, one head in the bottom right corner of the photo clearly belongs to a very young child, maybe even a baby.

For the better part of a century this image has defined Horatio Robley. It’s hard to look at a white guy sitting in front of a wall of Māori heads and see anything other than a monster.

“When [we] were younger he was described as a macabre predator of culture,” says Haami Piripi, a senior member of the mokomokai repatriation team for Te Papa museum.

But there’s a twist in this story.

“Over time, as we’ve got to know him more and understand his motivation, we see that he really became a friend of the Māori.”

So how do we go from a headhunting “predator of culture” to a “friend of the Māori”? That’s a fascinating story in of itself. It’s mostly been driven by the research of Tim Walker, a former curator at Te Papa who wrote his thesis on Robley in the 1980s.

“That’s the image that people have of him,” says Walker, gesturing to the gruesome black and white photo of Robley posing with his collection. “I think what we see generally is people’s projections of their own sense of what was going on onto that image.”

In Walker’s words, Robley was a man “out of time". His motives were often misunderstood in his own day and are even more difficult to decipher from the perspective of 21st century Aotearoa.

Disaster at Gate Pā

This painting was on the front cover of the London Illustrated News, the defensive trenches Maori used to take cover from British artillery are clearly visible.

This painting was on the front cover of the London Illustrated News, the defensive trenches Maori used to take cover from British artillery are clearly visible. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library

Horatio Robley’s ship sailed into Auckland Harbour on 8 January, 1864. The 25-year-old was a British Army Lieutenant, one of thousands of soldiers sent to Aotearoa from all over the British Empire to take part in the invasion of Waikato, the largest conflict of the New Zealand Wars.

Carrying the flag of his regiment, the 68th Durham Light Infantry, Lieutenant Robley marched up Queen Street. Somewhere in the parade was the regimental mascot - a fully grown Burmese black bear, a relic of the 68th’s previous deployment in Burma (now also called Myanmar).

As Robley settled in at Albert Barracks the war in New Zealand was expanding. Governor George Grey had accused Māori in Tauranga of supporting the Waikato-Tainui tribes so-called ‘rebellion’ against the Crown. The role of Robley’s regiment was to invade and conquer Tauranga Harbour.

Writing in his memoir, Robley was clearly aware of the impact this invasion had on Tauranga Māori:

“The military occupation of this important post was a severe blow to the natives as it was their only harbour to the magnificent belt of country to the back of the shores of the Bay of Plenty.” - Horatio Robley

In response, a confederation of Tauranga Māori built a new fortification. A Pā called Pukehinahina, it's more commonly called Gate Pā by Pākeha (non-Maori New Zealanders).

“It’s called the Gate Pā because it was built across an agreed gate between [missionary] land and Māori land,” explains Tim Walker. “It was just an assertion of an agreed boundary.”

The British prepare for an assault on Gate Pā, setting up the heavy artillery needed to blast through its wooden palisade. Robley was in command of the marksmen who tried to snipe Māori as they went down from the Pā to gather water.

He doesn’t seem to have found that job particularly interesting, so he passed the time drawing sketches of the surrounding landscape.

“The natives so employed generally kept well under cover and so only a few shots were obtained, but the sight of me in charge of the marksmen, and at work with my sketch-book, drew some volleys from the enemy.” - Horatio Robley

Robley’s mother was a professional artist and passed her talent to her son - although it’s doubtful she would have approved of Robley keeping up the hobby while in range of enemy muskets.

It’s lucky he did, because Robley’s sketches and paintings from the Battle of Gate Pā are by far the most detailed and evocative images of the New Zealand Wars. It’s also lucky Robley didn’t play any role in the actual assault on Gate Pā, which turned out to be the most famous British defeat of those wars.

The British bombarded Gate Pā with heavy artillery and then charged en masse, assuming the Māori warriors had been smashed to bits by their heavy guns.

Little did they know, the defenders of Pukehinahina had survived completely unscathed by sheltering in underground bunkers and trenches. Robley witnessed the disaster that followed as the troops crowded through a narrow gap in the palisade.

“The rebels were there in force and far from annihilated, and from their fire-pits discharged their weapons with murderous effect on a mark that was only too easy. The garrison of the small pa opened with such a hot and raking fire that in a few minutes numbers of our men had been laid low.” - Horatio Robley

The Māori defenders took careful aim. In the first few volleys all but one of the British officers were shot dead or mortally wounded. The leaderless soldiers routed and were gunned down as they fled. 35 British troops were killed and 75 wounded, Māori casualties are estimated at about half that number.

Overnight, Māori retreated from Gate Pā, leaving behind those warriors who were too badly hurt to move. Famously, before they left, some Māori gave water to the mortally wounded British troops on the battlefield. Some women even took wounded soldiers home to care for. 

The next day Robley enters the deserted Pā and returned the favour.

“By daylight I had entered the works from the rear and gave assistance to the wounded Māori. Having a plentiful ration of rum with me I was able to administer some of this to them.” - Horatio Robley

Next, Lieutenant Robley did something bizarre; he started drawing sketches of the dead and wounded Māori warriors, and of the slain British troops lying around the battlefield. 

“I commenced to make drawings of scenes in the pits. I remember while sketching [the Māori] how curiously they looked at me, perhaps wondering what use the pakeha soldier would make of it.” - Horatio Robley

It might seem insensitive to draw portraits of dead and wounded men but at least one historian thinks those images were instrumental in ending the war in Tauranga.

Horatio Robley's paintings of dead and dying warriors had "a strong effect" on the British public.

Horatio Robley's paintings of dead and dying warriors had "a strong effect" on the British public. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library

Victorian Vietnam

“There was no hiding what had happened,” says Tauranga historian Patricia Brooks. “It was brutally obvious to the whole world that the Māori had the upper hand in this engagement.”

The defeat of supposedly superior British troops by Māori ‘savages’ was an enormous scandal in London. Horatio Robley sent his sketches of the aftermath of Gate Pā to the London Illustrated News where they provoke outrage and horror.

Horatio Robley's paintings of Gate Pa are some of the most evocative images of the New Zealand Wars

Horatio Robley's paintings of Gate Pa are some of the most evocative images of the New Zealand Wars Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library

Alongside these evocative images the London Illustrated News carried a front page editorial slamming the war in New Zealand. 

“It is impossible to talk away the fact that the real cause of war is to be found in the coveting of their neighbours land by the English settlers. That territorial lust which we denounce in Frenchmen, Germans and Russians but to which we give free license when we come in contact with the brown man.” - London Illustrated News

British public opinion had already swung against the war in New Zealand due to its high cost in blood and money, but Robley’s images seem to have rammed home that this war wasn’t only costly - it was also immoral.

Brooks compares the impacts of Robley’s sketches to photos and videos which appeared in American media in the 1960s showing the brutal reality of the Vietnam War.

“A picture paints a thousand words,” Brooks says. “I think [Horatio Robley's] pictures were painting the terrible cost of the war for the Māori in New Zealand and I think British people just thought it wasn’t fair.”

The authorities in London took action. The Secretary of State for the Colonies wrote to Governor Grey, demanding he end the war as soon as possible.

“10,000 English troops had been placed at your disposal for objects of great Imperial concern, and not for the attainment of any merely local object … you will not continue the expenditure of blood and treasure longer than is absolutely necessary for the establishment of a just and enduring peace.” - Secretary of State for the Colonies, Edward Cardwell

But a "just and enduring peace" is not what happened.

In Part Two, Horatio Robley’s story continues with the devastating Māori defeat at Te Ranga, and the real story of how and why Robley collected human heads.