Portrait of Captain James Cook, circa 1780, Webber, John (1750–1793), England. Gift of the New Zealand Government, 1960. Te Papa

How were Captain Cook's voyages involved 

During Captain Cook’s first and second voyages to New Zealand, Māori human remains were collected.  The first time a Toi moko was traded occurred during Captain Cook’s first voyage onboard The Endeavour.  On the 20th of January, 1770, in Queen Charlotte Sound, Joseph Banks (a scientist participating in Cook’s first expedition) traded a pair of old white linen drawers for the preserved head of a boy aged around 14 or 15 years old.  

Cook sought to collect as much information as possible about the native people of lands visited during the voyages, and wanted his crew to make detailed observations of their experiences. 

An entry in Captain Cook’s journal from Saturday 20th January 1770 describes how Banks came to obtain a Toi moko: 

“Some of the Natives brought along side in one of their Canoes four of the heads of the men they had lately kill’d, both the Hairy scalps and skin of the faces were on: Mr Banks brought one of the four, but they would not part with any of the other on any account whatever, the one Mr Banks got had received a blow on the Temple that had broke the skull.” 

In March 1770, Banks wrote the following in his Endeavour journal:

 “…One I brought tho much against the inclinations of its owner, for tho he likd the price I offered he hesitated much to send it up, yet having taken the price I insisted either to have that returned or the head give, but could not prevail until I enforc’d my threats by shewing Him a musquet on which he chose to part with the  head rather than the price he had got, which was a pair of old Drawers of very white linnen. It appeared to have belonged to a person of about 14 or 15 years of age, and evidently shewd by the contusions on one side of it has receivd many violent blows which had chipped of a part of the scull near the eye”. 

Due to a lack of information associated with them, many Toi moko have been attributed to Cook’s voyages.  In some instances, false attributions were made in order to increase a Toi moko’s value, but it is difficult to determine where this has occurred.  It is also possible that other Toi moko may have been collected in secret during Cook’s voyages, and so although some crew members mention sightings of human remains onboard the ships, the trade was not actually recorded. 

Upon return to England, the human remains collected during Cook’s voyages were distributed as collectors saw fit, so here the trail runs cold.  Several museums worldwide have items from Cook’s voyages which may be of interest, although at this stage it has not been possible to positively identify any of the remains collected during Cook’s travels to New Zealand.  The provenance associating the Toi moko currently under Te Papa’s care with Cook’s voyages is incorrect.


Aranui, Amber. Of Mana & Muskets: Research into the Trade and Collection of Toi Moko, Wellington: Karanga Aotearoa Repatriation Programme, presentation 14 April 2011. 

Aranui, Amber. The Early Collection and Trade of Human Remains from Cook’s Voyages 1769-1771 & 1772-1775, Wellington: Karanga Aotearoa Repatriation Programme 2012. 

Orchiston, D. Wayne. “Preserved Maori Heads and Captain Cook’s Three Voyages to the South Seas: A Study in Ethnohistory”. Anthropos, Vol 73, no 5/6 1978, pp. 798-816.