John Rutherford – The Pākehā–Māori

In 1826, an American expedition landed in Aotearoa, greeted on the shore by a Maori tribe in full warrior dress. Nothing too out of the ordinary so far, but then the American Captain noticed something strange about one of the Maori warriors – he was a white guy from Bristol.


John Rutherford – The White New Zealander

John Rutherford claimed he had arrived in New Zealand ten years previously, and his ship had been attacked by the tribe, who killed everyone bar half a dozen men, himself included.

Shortly after being captured, Rutherford said he and the others were forcibly tattooed, and described the experience in detail in his book.

“The whole of the natives having seated themselves on the ground in a ring, we were brought into the middle, stripped of our clothes and laid on our backs, and held down by five or six men, while two others commenced the operation of tattooing us. Having taken a piece of charcoal, and rubbed it upon a stone with a little water until they had produced a thickish liquid, they then dipped into it an instrument made of bone, having a sharp edge like a chisel, and shaped in the fashion of a garden-hoe, and immediately applied it to the skin, striking it twice or thrice with a small piece of wood.

This caused a great deal of blood to flow, which they kept wiping off with the side of the hand, in order to see if the impression was sufficiently clear. When it was not, they applied the bone to the same place a second time. They employed, however, various instruments in the course of the operation; one being made of a shark’s tooth, and another having teeth like a saw. They had them also of different sizes, to suit the different parts of the work.

While I was undergoing this operation, although the pain was very acute, I never moved or uttered a sound, but my comrades moaned dreadfully. Although the operators were very quick and dexterous, I was four hours under their hands; and during the operation, the chief Aimy’s eldest daughter several times wiped the blood from my face with some dressed flax. After it was over, she led me to the river, that I might wash myself (for it had made me completely blind) and then conducted me to a great fire.

We were now not only tattooed, but what they called tabooed, the meaning of which is, made sacred, or forbidden to touch any provisions of any kind with our hands. This state of things lasted for three days, during which time we were fed by the daughters of the chiefs. In three days, the swelling had greatly subsided, and I began to recover my sight; but it was six weeks before I was completely well. I had no medical assistance of any kind during my illness; but Aimy’s two daughters were very attentive to me, and would frequently sit beside me, and talk to me in their language, of which, as yet, however, I did not understand much.”

John Rutherford – lying bastard

Rutherford claimed to have lived with the tribe for another 10 years, evening marrying the Chief’s eldest daughter. This didn’t stop him jumping on the American’s ship and escaping back to England.

Back home his Moko tattoos were quite the attraction, and crowds would come to see him and hear his stories about living with the natives of New Zealand.

Rutherford was likely tattooed voluntarily, like many sailors of the time, but a more realistic explanation is he jumped ship and took up with a Maori tribe to avoid court martial.

Rutherford became one of the first “tattooed entrepreneurs” by recognizing that a profit could be made by exposing a population to tattoos and crafting a tale of capture, cannibalism, and forced tattooing in order to draw in more crowds — paving the road for a new career path in later years for tattooed men and women.