Horatio Gordon Robley was born in Funchal on the island of Madeira on the 28th. June 1840. His birth is recorded in the archives of the British Consulate. He was the son of John Horatio Robley and his wife, Augusta June Penfold and the grandson of John Robley and Caroline Blake of Aldersgate, London and the island of Tobago. His grandfather, John, was the nephew of Joseph Robley who owned extensive plantations on Tobago and was one time Governor of the Colony.
His father, John Horatio, was a Captain in the East India Service who retired to the island of Madeira where he established himself as a ‘Merchant’ probably as a Ship’s Chandler and Agent to service the lucrative trade between Europe and the Far East. Prior to the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Madeira was an important port of call as well as being the source of the highly prized Madeira Wine.
His mother, Augusta June Penfold was the daughter of William and Sarah Penfold of Madeira and was said to be a close friend of Queen Adelaide. John and Augusta married in the Church of the Undivided Trinity in Funchal. While fire and flood have destroyed many records in Madeira, the births of three of their five children, Horatio Gordon (1840), Sarah.C. and Ardaire is recorded in the official records of the British Consulate. Their daughter, Anna, was born in Southampton, Hampshire in 1853.
Augusta was a talented artist and her book, ‘A Selection of Madeira Flowers Drawn and Coloured from Nature’ was published in 1845 and it was from his mother that young Horatio Gordon was to learn and develop his considerable love and talent for drawing and painting. His father, John Horatio, was something of a recluse, cutting himself off from the rest of the family and was said to have never recovered from the shock of his mother’s death.
In 1858, at the age of 18 years, Horatio Gordon purchased an Ensigncy in the Durham Light Infantry and after a short period of training he joined his Regiment in Burma where he served for about five years. It was in Burma that he first made use of his artistic talents to sketch the local people and to learn their language and customs. Sketches made at this period formed the basis for his contribution to the Cassells and Co. publication, ‘Races of Mankind’
In 1860 Horatio returned home for a period of sick leave. Later, the following year, he was in India at the conclusion of the Indian Mutiny and was in command of the guard of Bahadur Shah, the aged titular Emperor of Delhi and the last of the Moguls, until the latter's death in 1862. At this time he purchased a commission for second lieutenant.
During his sketching around Burma he became friendly with some Buddhist Monks so that when he left for New Zealand they invoked Buddha to make him invulnerable. To mark the occasion he had a red Buddha image tattooed on his right arm.
In 1863 the Durhams left Burma for New Zealand and Robley arrived in New Zealand on 8th. January 1864 as part of a British force to subdue the Maori in the Bay of Plenty area. He was involved in the battles at Pukehinahina on the 29th. April and at Te Rangaranga on 21st. June of the same year.
In 1865 Robley joined the Imperial and Te Arawa troops formed to peruse the dreaded, head hunting Hau Hau who had killed the Rev. C.S. Volkner on the 2nd. March.
He spent much of his spare time at Otumoetai, Matapihi,Maungatapu and Maketu. There he remained for nineteen months taking the name ‘Te Ropere’ during which time his amazing series of sketches of Maori life were executed and he became a recognised authority on Maori art and in particular tattooing.
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 southwest with such accuracy that the troops were able to outflank the enemy's position. Today, 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.
During this time he met Harete Mauao of Matapihi and fathered her child in 1865 or 1866. His son was named Hamiora Tu Ropere.
He wrote a book about the art form of tattooing, painting and sketching early Maori Moko and scenarios of the preservation of the dead. Through his frequent forays into Maori villages and moving among the inhabitants Robley was able to cull knowledge reserved for the select few. He lived and ate with the Maori of Ngaiterangi and with his knowledge of Kaumatua and tribesmen alike, was taken into their confidence. The birth of his son Hamiora further consolidated this acceptance.
On the 28th. June 1865, when his Regiment returned to England, Horatio Gordon went with them never to return to New Zealand. He purchased a Captaincy 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. Of his two New Zealand books, Mako or Maori Tattooing is the more outstanding. As well as this book he wrote 'Notes on New Zealand Greenstone in 1915, was the author of a book on the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders as well as being a regular contributor to 'Punch'.
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.
By a special process the Maoris were able to preserve the tattooed heads of chiefs, which Europeans purchased for Museums, and many such heads found their way to Europe before the trade was suppressed. . Back in London he sought out examples of Mokomokai in curio shops and soon had an extensive and unique collection of 35 heads. The majority of his collection of heads came from former whalers and other seafarers. Over a period of years he toured Medical Schools in Britain and held an exhibition at the GuildHall in London. In 1908 he offered the heads to the New Zealand Government for 1,000 pounds; his offer, however, was refused. Later, with the exception of five heads, the collection was purchased by the Natural History Museum, New York.
It was after his retirement that his main contributions to our knowledge of Maori culture were made. In his history of the Maori tiki, Robley reveals himself as a visionary. Briefly he relates the Biblical instruction that 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.
Major General Horatio Gordon Robley died on the 29th. October 1930 in London at the ripe old age of 90. His son, Hamiora Tu, married Te Pokohino and they had two children, a son, Hepeta Hamiora Tu and a daughter, Te Hepiwhara Hamiora Tu.
On many occasions Horatio asked that his grand daughter travel to England to be with him but she refused to go. He also wished his grandson to travel to Britain to attend an English school but these things never came to pass. No doubt he would have been very proud of his son who turned out to be a most learned person with a gift for oratory.
Despite never returning to New Zealand, Robley kept in touch with Until shortly before his death in England on the 29th. October 1930, Robley maintained a lively correspondence with distinguished New Zealanders, his family and friends and in particular his son Mamiora Tu.
His interest in tattoo and in preserved heads never diminished.
Mako - or Maori Tattooing, Robley G H (1896); Poumanu, Notes on New Zealand Greenstone, Robley G H (1915);
Robley - A soldier with a pencil, Melvin L W. (Tauranga Historical Society) (1957).
Website. ‘A personal reflection of Horatio Gordon Robley by his nephew in law ,Maui Dalvinus Prime’.
Written by John Robley 2001