Kōkōwai (red ochre), obtained from clays rich in iron and aluminium silicates, was highly prized by Māori; depending on chemical composition, reds, oranges, yellows and browns were produced. Onekaka and Parapara in Golden Bay were important resource areas. The clays were dried and ground, then mixed with oil for various purposes.

Tomb of HuriwhenuaAngas, George French 1822-1886) Tomb of Huriwhenua, a late chief of the Nga ti toa tribe, Queen Charlotte Sound
Alexander Turnbull LibraryClick image to enlarge

One use was personal adornment. A crew member on one of Captain Cook's ships said: “They paint their faces with a coarse red paint, and oil or grease the head and upper part of the body”.1

Simonov, on Bellingshausen’s 1820 expedition, said that Māori “allowed the hair to descend in long locks at the back, but they cut it shorter at the front and either powdered it red or smeared some sort of red colouring substance over it”.2

Lesson, with D'Urville in 1827, compared Māori and Aboriginal practices:

“… the New Hollanders dust their faces with powdered ochre. The New Zealanders … usually use it in an oily paste, which they smear on their foreheads and their hair … on feast days a New Zealander does not think he has carried out a full toilette until he has anointed his whole body, and especially his face and hair, with fish oil and ochre”.3

He remarked on fish oil’s “disagreeable smell”.

European settlers did not approve. William Wakefield criticised Admiralty Bay Māori in 1839: “… Their faces were painted like an European buffoon, and their bodies thickly anointed with whale oil and ochre …”.4

Barnicoat, near Port Gore in 1843, concurred. “Three women were perfectly red with their red wash. On our expressing disapprobation of this kind of cosmetic however, they rubbed it off their faces with their mats”.5

And Sarah Stephens wrote of Motueka Māori: “…they are fond of oiling themselves when they can get it – from the head to the foot – and with it they put a red dye – I believe it is to keep off the sandflies – but I do not know if it answers the purpose …”; and said being enclosed in a small room with ten or twelve oiled visitors was quite unpleasant.6 

Fish, shark, dolphin and whale oil are all recorded. Dieffenbach, in Queen Charlotte Sound in 1839, described a more fragrant balm made from pitoko seeds (titoki or Alectryon excelsum).

The use of kōkōwai as personal adornment died out soon after European settlement, perhaps because of Pakeha attitudes.

Carved image of Te Rauparaha fixed in his canoeAngas, George French (1822-1886): Carved image of Te Rauparaha fixed in his canoe [1844], Alexander Turnbull LibraryClick image to enlarge

kōkōwai was also used to decorate (and preserve) waka, buildings and tombs. Barnicoat admired Te Rauparaha’s canoes in Nelson: “… perfectly clean, newly reddened …”. 7

At Anakiwa in 1853, John Park Salisbury saw a fine war canoe “… over seventy feet long, the gunwale … neatly lashed with dressed flax, and latticed with straw, … a good effect against the bright red sides …”, and at Waikawa “… lots of canoes shining in the sun, painted bright red ochre – a compound the natives manage to burn into their crafts all hot”.8

Angas’s painting (above) of Huriwhenua’s magnificent “gaily ornamented tomb” in Tory Channel illustrates the use of kōkōwai on the monument itself, as a decorative frieze, and as fence paint. 9

As well as ochre Māori created strong black dyestuffs from muds and colouring agents derived from tree bark and other resources.


Updated April 2020

Sources used in this story

  1. Ledyard, J (February 1777) Journal of Captain Cook's last voyage. Doc 980:Co4/L1B1. Mitchell Library, Sydney, p.14, and Mitchell, H. & J. (1994) Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka, vol.I. Wellington, N.Z. : Huia, p.180
  2. Simonov Journal (29 May-4 June 1820), in Barratt, G, (1987). Queen Charlotte Sound The Traditional and European Records, 1820 Ottowa: Carleton University Press, p. 18-27, Mitchel, H.&J..l (2004) Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka, vol.1, p. 205
  3. Lesson in Ollivier, I (2001) Research notes relating to French explorers to New Zealand. Doc No. MS-Group-0078, National Library New Zealand,p. 825-826; Mitchell H. & J. (2004) 227
  4. Wakefield, W Dispatch 1.9.1843 in Ward, J (1839) Supplementary information relative to New Zealand, compiled for the use of Colonists. London : New Zealand Company; Mitchell, H. & J. (2007) Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka, vol .2, p. 143
  5. Barnicoat, J. (17.3.1843) Journa l ; Mitchell(2007) v.2., p. 143
  6. Stephens, Sarah to her mother, 29.9.1843. in Stephens, Samuel Letters & Journals; and Mitchell v.2. 143
  7. Barnicoat (11.3.143) ; Mitchell (2007) v. 2 167
  8. Salisbury, J.P (1907) After many days. London: Harrison & Son,p.: 73 ; Mitchell (2007) v. 2, p. 167
  9. Mitchell (2007) v.2 p. 439-40

Want to find out more about the Kōkōwai ? View Further Sources here.

Do you have a story about this subject? Find out how to add one here.

Comment on this story

Post your comment


No one has commented on this page yet.

RSS feed for comments on this page | RSS feed for all comments

Further sources - Kōkōwai



Unpublished sources (held Nelson Provincial Museum)

  • Barnicoat, J.W.(1843). Journal qMS Typescript
  • Stephens, S. Letters & Journals. NPM: Bett qMS Stphens. Four volume typescript

Web Resources