Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.

ROBLEY, Major-General Horatio Gordon

(1840–1930).

Soldier, artist, and collector.

Horatio Gordon Robley was born at Madeira on 28 June 1840, his father being a captain in the Indian Army. In 1858 he purchased an ensigncy in the 68th Durham Light Infantry. After a short period of training he joined his regiment in Burma where he remained for nearly five years. In 1860 Robley was sent home to England for a period of sick leave. Later in the same year he was present at the siege of Delhi; afterwards, at Rangoon, he assumed command of the guard of King Bahadur Shad.

In 1863 the 68th Regiment left Burma for New Zealand and, in the following April, Robley took his troops to Tauranga to join General Cameron's forces attacking Gate Pa. Here he remained for 19 months during which his amazing series of sketches of Maori life were executed. On 28 June 1866 Robley returned to England, purchased a captaincy for £1,100, and transferred to the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders. In 1880 he was promoted to major and served in Mauritius. Later he was sent to South Africa and saw service in Natal and Zululand. He then went to Ceylon where, in 1882, he wrote his regiment's history. Robley was promoted to lieutenant-colonel and, in 1887, retired from the Army with the rank of major-general.

In New Zealand Robley had many opportunities of demonstrating his talent for drawing. At Tauranga, he made a sketch from an eminence of the inland view to the south-west with such accuracy that the troops were able to outflank the enemy's position. In the Dominion Museum, Wellington, there are seventy paintings by Robley – a remarkable historical record of the military occupation of Tauranga and supplying besides many intimate and casual details of early Maori life. Some years later a selection of his sketches provided a basis for Cassells' publication Races of Mankind. In Burma, as in New Zealand, Robley took every opportunity to observe the people and to learn their language.

By a special process the Maoris were able to preserve the tatooed heads of chiefs, which Europeans purchased for museums, and many such heads found their way to Europe before the trade was suppressed. In his retirement Robley decided to acquire as many of these as possible, and at length built up a unique collection of 35 heads. In 1908 he offered them to the New Zealand Government for £1,000; his offer, however, was refused. Later, with the exception of five heads, the collection was purchased by the Natural History Museum, New York, for £1,250.

Of his two New Zealand books, Moko or Maori Tattooing (q.v.) is the more outstanding. “His acknowledged object,” it has been said, “was to put together a text to support the specialised record he had drawn of tattoo patterns and of his collection of dried heads. On these two subjects he regarded himself as an authority, a claim not to be disputed provided we bear in mind that his awareness was that of a curio collector, and not that of a scholar”.

Throughout his life Robley remained the same capable officer he had been in his youth. Always “a soldier with a pencil”, he was ever indulging his delightful creative hobby – sketching the new and the curious in the strange native peoples he contacted. It was after his retirement that his main contributions to our knowledge were made. In his history of the Maori tiki, Robley reveals himself as a visionary. Briefly, he relates the Biblical instruction Moses gave to the Jews, forbidding them to cut their flesh in mourning for the dead – an old Maori custom – and suggests that this was sufficient to cause a whole tribe to migrate via India and Burma to the Pacific. In their wanderings the tribe encountered Buddha, whose figure created such an impression that ultimately, in New Zealand, they reproduced it in the tiki.

Until shortly before his death in England on 29 October 1930, Robley maintained a lively correspondence with distinguished New Zealanders. His interest in tattoo and in preserved heads never diminished.

by William John Phillipps, formerly Registrar and Ethnologist, Dominion Museum, Wellington.

  • Moko – Or Maori Tattooing, Robley, G. H. (1896)
  • Pounamu, Notes on New Zealand Greenstone, Robley, G. H. (1915)
  • Robley – A Soldier with a Pencil, Melvin, L. W. (Tauranga Historical Society) (1957).


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This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

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