The E.W. Clark Collection: New Zealand

Section of General Ethnology

Originally Published in 1911

View PDF

The most important acquisition made by the section of General Ethnology in many years is the E.W. Clark Collection of ethnological specimens from the South Pacific Islands, which, as was announced in the December number of the JOURNAL, was presented during the present year by Mr. Herbert L. Clark. In this collection are specimens from many of the islands, but, for the purposes of the present paper, those objects only which come from New Zealand will be described and illustrated.

Fig. 22. — Maori man with tattooed face, wearing robe of native flax.
Image Number: 10755

The first European to see the shores of New Zealand was the Dutch navigator, Tasman, who, in 1642, came in sight of the island and sailed along a portion of the eastern coast, but perceiving what he believed to be a hostile demonstration on the part of the natives on shore, he sailed away without attempting to make a landing. The island was not again seen by Europeans until 1770, when Captain James Cook, then on his first voyage around the world, circumnavigated the land discovered by Tasman and proved it to be a pair of islands separated by a strait. Cook and his men were the first Europeans to set foot on the land, and we have the great navigator’s own account of this memorable visit in the pages of his narrative.

Fig. 23. — Curved tail piece of a Maori canoe.
Object Number: 18126A
Image Number: 124/125
Fig. 24. — House post.
Object Number:P2244A
Image Number: 144
Fig. 25. — House post. (Collections: P2244B)
Image Number: 145
Fig.26. — Carved paddle blade.
Object Number:P2319
Image Number: 163

Since the first observations made by a European on a people living in a different state of culture, and just emerged from the unknown, have an interest altogether different from subsequent impressions, Cook’s account of the New Zealanders as he saw them is quoted here at some length.

“The stature of the men in general is equal to the largest of those in Europe: they are stout, well-limbed, and fleshy; but not fat, . . . they are also exceedingly vigorous and active; and have an adroitness and manual dexterity in an uncommon degree, which are discovered in whatever they do. I have seen the strokes of fifteen paddles on a side in one of their canoes made with incredible quickness, and yet with such minute exactness of time, that all the rowers seemed to be actuated by one common soul. Their color in general is brown; but in few deeper than that of a Spaniard who has been exposed to the sun; in many not so deep. The women have not a feminine delicacy in their appearance, but their voice is remarkably soft; and by that, the dress of both sexes being the same, they are principally distinguished: they have, however, like the women of other countries, more airy cheerfulness, and a greater flow of animal spirits, than the other sex. Their hair, both of the head and the beard, is black, and their teeth extremely regular, and as white as ivory: the features of both the sexes are good; they seem to enjoy high health; and we saw many who appeared to be of a great age. The dispositions both of the men and the women seemed to be mild and gentle; they treat each other with the tenderest affection, but are implacable towards their enemies, to whom, as I have before observed, they never give quarter. It may, perhaps, at first seem strange, that where there is so little to be got by victory, there should so often be war; and that every little district of a country inhabited by a people so mild and placid should be at enmity with all the rest. But possibly more is to be gained by victory among these people than at first appears, and they may be prompted to mutual hostilities by motives which no degree of friendship or affection is able to resist. It appears by the account that has already been given of them, that their principal food is fish, which can only be procured along the sea-coast; and there in sufficient quantities only at certain times: the tribes, therefore, who live inland, if any such there are, and even those upon the coast, must be frequently in danger of perishing by famine. Their country produces neither sheep nor goats, nor hogs, nor cattle; tame fowls they have none, nor any art by which those that are wild can be caught in sufficient plenty to serve as provision. If there are any whose situation cuts them off from a supply of fish, the only succedaneum of all other animal food, except dogs, they have nothing to support life but the vegetables that have already been mentioned, of which the chief are fern-root, yams, clams, and potatoes; when by any accident these fail, the distress must be dreadful; and even among the inhabitants of the coast, many tribes must frequently be reduced to nearly the same situation, either by the failure of their plantations, or the deficiency of their dry stock, during the season when but few fish are to be caught. These considerations will enable us to account, not only for the perpetual danger in which the people who inhabit this land appear to live, by the care which they take to fortify every village, but for the horrid practice of eating those who are killed in battle; for the hunger of him who is pressed by famine to fight will absorb every feeling and every sentiment which would restrain him from allaying it with the body of his adversary. It may, however, be remarked that if this account of the origin of so horrid a practice is true, the mischief does by no means end with the necessity that produced it: after the practice has been once begun on one side by hunger, it will naturally be adopted on the other by revenge. Nor is this all; for though it may be pretended by some who wish to appear speculative and philosophical, that whether the dead body of an enemy be eaten or buried is in itself a matter perfectly indifferent; as it is, whether the breasts or thighs of a woman should be covered or naked; and that prejudice and habit only make us shudder at the violation of custom in one instance, and blush at it in the other; yet leaving this as a point of doubtful disputation, to be discussed at leisure, it may safely be affirmed that the practice of eating human flesh, whatever it may be in itself, is relatively, and in its consequences, most pernicious; tending manifestly to eradicate a principle which is the chief security of human life, and more frequently restrains the hand of murder than the sense of duty, or even the fear of punishment.

“Among those who are accustomed to eat the dead, death must have lost much of its horror; and where there is little horror at the sight of death, there will not be much repugnance to kill. A sense of duty, and fear of punishment, may be more easily summoned than the feelings of nature, or those which have been engrafted upon nature by early prejudice and uninterrupted custom. The horror of the murderer arises less from the guilt of the fact than its natural effect; and he who has familiarized the effect will consequently lose much of the horror. By our laws, and our religion, murder and theft incur the same punishment, both in this world and the next; yet, of the multitude who would deliberately steal, there are but very few who would deliberately kill, even to procure much greater advantage. But there is the strongest reason to believe that those who have been so accustomed to prepare a human body for a meal, that they can with as little feeling cut up a dead man as our cook-maids divide a dead rabbit for a fricassee, would would feel as little horror in committing a murder as in picking a pocket, and consequently would take away life with as little compunction as property; so that men, under these circumstances, would be made murderers by the slight temptations that now make them thieves. If any man doubts whether this reasoning is conclusive, let him ask himself whether in his own opinion he should not be safer with a man in whom the horror of destroying life is strong, whether in consequence of natural instinct unsubdued, or of early prejudice, which has nearly an equal influence, than in the power of a man who, under any temptation to murder him, would be restrained only by considerations of interest; for to these all motives of mere duty may be reduced, as they must terminate either in hope of good or fear of evil. The situation and circumstances, however, of these poor people, as well as their temper, are favorable to those who shall settle as a colony among them. Their situation sets them in need of protection, and their temper renders it easy to attach them by kindness; and whatever may be said in favor of a savage life among people who live in luxurious idleness upon the bounty of nature, civilization would certainly be a blessing to those whom her parsimony scarcely furnishes with the bread of life, and who are perpetually destroying each other by violence as the only alternative of perishing by hunger.

“But these people, from whatever cause, being inured to war, and by habit considering every stranger as an enemy, were always disposed to attack us when they were not intimidated by our manifest superiority. At first, they had no notion of any superiority but numbers; and when this was on their side, they considered all our expressions of kindness as the artifices of fear and cunning, to circumvent them and preserve ourselves; but when they were once convinced of our power, after provoking us to the use of our fire-arms, though loaded only with small-shot, and of our clemency, by our forbearing to make use of weapons so dreadful except in our defence, they became at once friendly, and even affectionate, placing in us the most unbounded confidence, and doing everything which could incite us to put equal confidence in them. It is also remarkable, that when an intercourse was once established between us, they were very rarely detected in any act of dishonesty. Before, indeed, and while they considered us as enemies, who came upon their coast only to make an advantage of them, they did not scruple by any means to make any advantage of us; and would, therefore, when they had received the price of anything they had offered to sell, pack up both the purchase and the purchase-money with all possible composure, as so much lawful plunder from people who had no view but to plunder them.”

Fig. 27. – Carved heads of wooden statues. The weapon here illustrated is called the tiaha and its use was governed by rules analogous to those for broadsword service.
Object Numbers (left to right): P2199 P2200 P203 P2201 P2205 P2202
Image Number: 168

Later in his narrative, describing the custom of tattooing which in New Zealand reached a development unequalled in any other part of the world, Captain Cook makes the following remarks:

“The faces of the old men are almost covered with these marks; those who are very young, black only their lips, like the women; when they are somewhat older, they have generally a black patch upon one cheek and over one eye, and so proceed gradually, that they may grow old and honorable together. But though we could not but be disgusted with the horrid deformity which these stains and furrows produced in the ‘human face divine,’ we could not but admire the dexterity and art with which they were impressed. The marks upon the face in general are spirals, which are drawn with great nicety, and even elegance, those on one side exactly corresponding with those on the other. The marks on the body somewhat resemble the foliage in old chased ornaments, and the convolutions of filigree-work: but in these they have such a luxuriance of fancy, that of a hundred, which at first sight appeared to be exactly the same, no two were, upon a close examination, found to be alike.”

Fig. 28. — Carved blade of Maori tiaha.
Object Number: P2199
Image Number: 164

The practice of tattooing the face with lines and patterns of a special type is so characteristic of the Maoris, as the natives of New Zealand are called, that it marks them off from other peoples of the Pacific more strongly than their natural physical characteristics and even more than their habits with regard to dress and ornament. The object of such an operation, which must have been very painful, has been the subject of much discussion. Among the suggestions that have been made, the desire for embellishment and to obliterate by artificial lines the markings of age, probably certain elements of truth, but it is clear that there were other motives of more far-reaching significance. William Ellis, who spent some years as a missionary in the South Pacific during the early part of the nineteenth century, says that the pattern thus produced upon the face served to distinguish the members of one clan from those of another, that is to say, each clan had its own pattern which was invariably applied to the faces of the men. It was thus analogous to the stripes of different color on the tartans of the Highland clans. It is not unnatural that a warlike people, among whom feuds were frequent, should find it important to bear upon their persons some distinguishing mark by which each man might be recognized by his fellow clansmen in battle, and no mark could serve the purpose better than a design indelibly tattooed upon the face. However, the regularity and symmetry of the lines and the intricacy of the pattern always employed shows that they were not indifferent to embellishment in this respect.

The dwelling house of the Maoris, whare (pronounced wharry) was a framed structure of wood covered with thatch and for the most part without ornament. The fortified village or pa was, on account of the frequent warfare and danger in which the local population lived, more common than the unfortified village, kinga. In either type of village was erected a structure of considerable dimensions built of wooden planks, covered with elaborate carving and called whare maire. This was the council chamber and guest house of the village. A pair of posts from such a house is shown in Figs. 24, 25. In these examples is seen to good advantage the characteristic ornament of a Maori house. The house of the chief, and especially the house in which his property was stored, a kind of arsenal, was likewise elaborately carved after the same fashion.

The Maoris took great pride in navigation and the canoe was not only an object of necessity, but one of their most prized possessions. The war canoes especially, of which hardly a perfect example remains, were admired by the early visitors to New Zealand as much for their wealth of ornament as for their seagoing qualities. Cook mentions having seen one 109 foot in length. Such a canoe was constructed out of a single tree and every step in the process was accompanied by fitting ceremonies. First the tree was felled to the accompaniment of a song prescribed by a tradition. It was hollowed out by means of fire and the stone adze, for the Maoris had no metals. The laying of the keel, the placing of the ornaments and the launching were all attended with religious ceremonies and festivals. The ship builders formed a caste by themselves with special privileges, and even the gods were said to build ships and undertake dangerous voyages.

Fig. 29. — An example of the mere or chief’s club of green jade
Object Number: P2311
Image Number: 172

All races of men have some story to tell about their own origin or early migration, but that told by ancient Maori tradition is one of the few that has got itself accepted by men of science as a reliable record. This tradition is a favorite theme of Maori songs, which tell how the ancestors, fleeing, as a result of a civil war, from their old home in a half mythical land called Hawaiki, built a fleet of canoes and launched upon the ocean. After a very long journey and great sufferings, they landed at New Zealand. Tradition gives the names of the canoes in which the voyage was made and tells how the seeds of the sweet potato and the gourd were placed on board as well as the sacred red paint. It also tells of storms encountered that scattered the fleet and how the during fugitives were assailed by doubt as to whether they should sail east or west; how there was mutiny among the crews; and how they halted at various small islands to repair their canoes as they went along, until, exhausted and starving, a remnant of the expedition reached New Zealand. The different tribes trace their descent from the different canoes and they point out the exact spot where each crew landed.

In the beautiful land of which they thus became the inhabitants, the Maoris found already provided for them a plant peculiarly adapted to their needs for the manufacture of clothing which, with industry and artistic skill, they wrought in the course of time into cloths of great beauty and fineness of texture, and garments of wonderful variety. This plant was the New Zealand flax, which was carefully cultivated by the Maoris and its fibre, prepared by their ingenious methods for the finer cloths, was as soft and lustrous as silk. The art of weaving was considered so important that in each community a specially constructed house called a whare pora was set aside for the instruction of pupils, who were initiated into its mysteries with secret rights conducted with great solemnity. After the young woman had graduated from the whare pora she was mistress of her art and there was nothing which she did not know about weaving, but in the exercise of that art certain forms and ceremonies peculiar to her calling must be observed through her life. Any omission on her part in this respect would cause her to lose all memory of what she had been taught in the whare pora.


Being frequently engaged in warfare, a profession which was considered most honorable and to which all men were carefully trained, an armory was an essential part of the Maori’s equipment. Without knowledge of metals, they were dependent for weapons of offense and defense on such materials as nature provided.. These were hard, tough woods, capable of taking a high finish, the bones of the sperm whale and the hard fine grained stones which the country afforded, including the much prized pounamu or jade.

The weapon always carried by persons of distinction, which served also as a sign of rank, was the tiaka, which consisted of a staff of very hard wood, about five feet long, carefully shaped and polished throughout the entire length, except at the head, which was carved in the manner shown in Fig. 27. The rest of the weapon was either polished, or, in rare cases, carved throughout the entire length, as the specimen shown in Fig. 27, No. 1. The other end of the same specimen is shown in Fig. 28. Such a carved tiaka would be carried by a great great chief as his insignia. The tiaka was also indispensable to the Maori orator, who held it in his hand as he delivered his speech. As a fighting weapon the management of the tiaka was studied and practiced with as much care as that given by the expert swordsman to the mastery of his blade. It had its traditional rules and usage, with various guards and points. The same: at the point where it was grasped by the hand it was round, and the other end took the form of a blade. Like certain sword of European tradition, the taika was an oracle to its owner, possessing great powers in the way of augury.

Fig. 30. — Clubs of polished whalebone
Object Numbers (left to right): P2214, P2215, P2216, P2218, P2217
Image Number: 170

Another important class of weapons called patu, a kind of short club carried in the belt. The greatest weapon of this class was the mere, a club with a flat blade made of the precious jade of New Zealand. This material, it appears, was obtained with great difficulty and tradition ascribes an extraordinary value to a piece that was suitable for a chief’s mere. Around certain famous meres which became celebrated on fields of battle, Maori history, as related in the songs and ballads of the people, seems very largely to center. The renown of such meres was like that of certain swords and battle-axes used by the heroes of European rornaries. The stone from which they were made is one of the hardest known to lapidaries, but, nevertheless, it was shaped with great skill and wrought into an object of beauty by the New Zealand craftsman. A very fine example of this famous weapon is shown in Fig. 20. This specimen is 16 1/2 inches in length.

Another form of patu was made from a fine grained basaltic rock, and other forms were made from the bone of the sperm whale (Fig. 30). One of these was a peculiar fiddle-shaped club with a short handle, called kotiar (Fig. 30, No. 5).

Still another form of patu was the curved weapon made either of bone, as in Fig. 30, No. 4, or wood, as in Fig. 31, Nos. 1, 2 and 3. This weapon, often beautifully carved, was much used in the dances, where it was brandished in the hand.

Fig. 31. — Carved wooden damning clubs
Object Numbers (left to right): P2219, P2314, P2315 (no longer in collection).
Image Number: 171

Carved Boxes

Fig. 32. — Carved wooden boxes
Museum Objects (top to bottom): P2313A, P2240B, P2240A
Image Number: 160
Fig. 33. — Carved wooden boxes
Object Numbers (top to bottom): P2312B, P2312A, P2313B.

The skill of the Maori woodcarver was frequently displayed to great advantage and perfection in carved wooden boxes. These were used for holding meres, the feathers used for decorating the hair on great occasions or valuable possessions of any description.

The Heitiki

Captain Cook, in common with all the early visitors to New Zealand, mentions the heitiki as the characteristic personal ornament of the Maori. All of them noticed that each heitiki was regarded with great affection by its owner. In fact, it was one of the most prized possessions, for, in addition to the amount of labor and skill which was required to shape the object from jade, it was associated with ancestral history of the owner, being handed down from generation to generation, as a family heirloom. The shape of the heitiki was always that of a grotesquely conventionalized human figured and the material was almost always jade. It was suspended round the neck by means of a plaited cord of flax. One end of the cord has a piece of bird bone attached which is passed through a loop at the other end by way of fastening. The eyes are sometimes decorated with rings of haliotis shell inlaid in the stone. The heitiki was worn about the neck in remembrance of dead relatives, by each of whom it had in turn been worn. A fine specimen in the Clark Collection is shown on the cover of the Journal. It was brought from New Zealand by Midshipman Burr, of the “Discovery,” one of the two ships of Captain Cook’s third voyage around the world. The specimen remained in the family of Midshipman Burr until it became the property of the University Museum. It measures four inches in length and is carved out of a beautiful green jade.

Fig. 35. — Carved wooden box.
Object Number: P2238
Fig. 34. — Carved wooden box.
Object Number: P2241
Image Number: 161
Fig. 36. — Detail of the border or a Maori robe woven from native flax.

Cite This Article

"The E.W. Clark Collection: New Zealand." The Museum Journal II, no. 2 (June, 1911): 30-42. Accessed June 19, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

Report problems and issues to