Topic: Horatio Gordon Robley (1840-1930)

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Horatio Gordon Robley recorded many Tauranga scenes and people around the time of the Battle of Gate Pā at Pukehinahina on 29 April 1864. Much of his spare time was spent at Otumoetai, Matapihi, Maungatapu and Maketu. Story by Debbie McCauley.

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Horatio Gordon Robley (1840-1930)

Horatio Gordon Robley was born at Funchal, Madeira, on 28 June 1840 to Captain John Horatio and Augusta June Robley (nee Penfold). Captain Horatio was in the Madras Infantry in India whilst Augusta was an artist. Her book, ‘A Selection of Madeira Flowers Drawn and Coloured from Nature' was published in 1845.

In May 1858 Horatio joined the 68th Light Infantry, serving in Burma for five years on garrison duty. During this time he became an enthusiastic amateur artist, sketching and painting the local people and exotic landscapes that surrounded him. He also became fascinated by tattoos and had an image of the Buddha tattooed on his right arm. 

At the end of 1863 the 68th Light Infantry were sent to New Zealand. They arrived in Auckland from Burma in January 1864. In April 1864 Robley took his troops to Tauranga to join General Cameron in the attack on Gate Pā at Pukehinahina. He remained at Tauranga for 19 months until the beginning of 1866.

An accomplished sketcher and watercolourist, Robley completed a series of detailed sketches of the Māori defences at Gate Pā, Māori wounded, surrender and other scenes of the time. He used his rum ration as payment and later many of his drawings were published in the 'Illustrated London News'. His other work included:

  • Moko – Or Maori Tattooing, Robley, G. H. (1896).
  • Pounamu, Notes on New Zealand Greenstone, Robley, G. H. (1915).

Robley spent much time with Māori at Otumoetai, Matapihi, Maungatapu and Maketu, living with them and sketching and studying their way of life, their art and especially their tattoos. They called him 'Te Ropere'. During this time he met Herete Mauao. They had a son together whom they named Hamiora Tu Ropere.

In early 1866 Robley's regiment was withdrawn from Tauranga and returned home. He maintained contact with his family in New Zealand by letter. Robley then served with the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders.

In 1896 his book on Moko was published and over 70 of his paintings were sold to the New Zealand Government.

In his book Robley describes the traffic in smoke-dried Māori heads (mokomokai) as ‘gruesome,’ ‘sordid’ and replete with ‘abominations’, a trade that ‘repulsive to [Māori] instincts and which they only adopted as a desperate measure to preserve their tribes from annihilation.’

In England, Robley started to purchase mokomokai, and by 1908 had rescued over 30 heads.

As he grew older, Robley became a pauper. He asked the New Zealand government to purchase the mokomokai collection from him so it could come back to New Zealand (and he had something to live on!). They refused and so Robley had no choice but to sell his collection to the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Robley died in London, England, on 29 October 1930. He was aged 90 years old.

The funeral was held at Stretham Park Cemetery. His pauper’s grave is unmarked, although a project by Tauranga historian Patricia Brooks seeks to have a headstone erected.



McCauley, Debbie (5 August 2011). Identity and the Battle of Gate Pa (Pukehinahina), 29 April 1864 (Tauranga Memories: Battle of Gate Pa, 1864 kete).

Melvin, L. W. (1957). Robley: Soldier with a pencil.

Phillipps, William John (1966).  Major-General Horatio Gordon Robley. (Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand). 

Robley, Horatio Gordon (2003, originally published 1896). Maori Tattooing (pp. 175, 177, 178 & 181).


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Horatio Gordon Robley (1840-1930)

First Names:Horatio Gordon
Last Name:Robley
Date of Birth:28 June 1840
Place of Birth:Funchal
Country of birth:Madeira
Date of death:29 October 1930
Place of death:London, England
Occupation:soldier and artist
Spouses name:Herete Mauao
Fathers name:John Horatio Robley
Mothers name:Augusta June Penfold
Name of the children:Hamiora Tu Ropere
Military Service:New Zealand Wars and 68th (Durham) Light Infantry Regiment