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Newly Discovered Portrait May Be Oldest Known Image of Māori Person

The photo depicts Hemi Pomara, who was kidnapped and “exhibited” by British colonialists in London during the 1840s

This 1846 daguerreotype is likely the oldest surviving photograph of a Māori person. (National Library of Australia)
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Researchers in Australia have identified what they believe is the oldest surviving photograph of a Māori person. The 1846 daguerreotype depicts Hemi Pomara as a young man living in London: He wears a korowai cloak befitting his high rank and holds a patu onewa, or stone club, close to his chest. A kuru pounamu, or greenstone pendant, dangles from his ear.

Elisa deCourcy and Martyn Jolly of the Australian National University announced their find in a Conversation article earlier this week. The pair discovered the previously unattributed image while conducting research for a forthcoming book at the National Library of Australia. Previously, the oldest known image of Māori individuals was a photograph of two sisters, Caroline and Sarah Barrett, taken in 1852 or 1853.

“With the recent urgent debates about how we remember our colonial past, and moves to reclaim indigenous histories, stories such as Hemi Pomara’s are enormously important,” the researchers write. “They make it clear that even at the height of colonial fetishization, survival and cultural expression were possible and are still powerfully decipherable today.”

Pomara’s life story is a remarkable one. Born on the Chatham Islands east of New Zealand around 1830, he was just a child when his family was murdered by an invading group of Māori. In the early 1840s, a British trader kidnapped Pomara—the grandson of an Indigenous chief—and transported him to Sydney, Australia, where he was enrolled in an English boarding school.

Hemi Pomara watercolor
George French Angas, Hemi, grandson of Pomara, Chief of the Chatham Islands, 1844-1846 (Courtesy of the National Library of New Zealand)

In 1846, British artist George French Angas brought Pomara to Victorian London, where he put the young boy on display in a “living exhibition” of Native people at the British and Foreign Institution. Angas also presented Pomara during a private audience with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and at a Royal Society meeting attended by Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens.

Based on the photograph’s expert color tinting, DeCourcy and Jolly suggest it was produced by French daguerreotypist Antoine Claudet, reports Eleanor Ainge Roy for the Guardian. Other surviving images of Pomara include an Angas watercolor that depicts the boy as an “idealized colonial subject,” according to the researchers, and a woodcut published in the Illustrated London News.

“[B]y the age of eighteen [Pomara] had already been the subject of a suite of colonial portraits made across media and continents,” explain deCourcy and Jolly.

Following his stint in London, Pomara went to sea. As recounted in the Times, his ship “was wrecked at Barbados, and [he] narrowly escaped with his life.” The return to England was equally fraught: “The lad was exposed to much ill-usage on board the Eliza, was frequently assaulted, and his unprotected state created no sympathy.”

After Pomara moved to New Zealand in late 1846, he largely disappeared from the historical record. A family portrait dated to 1864 may depict Pomara with his wife and child; if confirmed, the snapshot would offer evidence of his eventual return to England.

Hemi Pomara daguerreotype
Researchers found the image while conducting research for a forthcoming book. (National Library of Australia)

Pomara’s life story served as the inspiration for New Zealand author Tina Makereti’s 2018 novel, The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke, which offers a fictionalized account of a Māori boy living in Victorian London.

Makereti reacted to the photo’s discovery in a Twitter post, writing, “This is extraordinarily moving to see and not something I had access to when I was writing the book. I want to be 100 [percent] clear though: Hemi Pōneke is a character of my imagining, though I began with the events of Hemi Pomare’s life.”

Separately, reports Ben Dalton for Screen Daily, Oscar-winning filmmaker Taika Waititi has announced that his production company, Piki Films, will fund three Indigenous-led artistic projects about the impact of colonization. The first of these ventures will be a film adaptation of Makereti’s novel—a “strangely timely” choice given the current “toppling of colonial statues and attitudes,” says the author to Screen Daily.

“It is little wonder the life of Hemi Pomara has attracted the attention of writers and film makers,” the researchers write. “Kidnapped in the early 1840s, passed from person to person, displayed in London and ultimately abandoned, it is a story of indigenous survival and resilience for our times.”

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