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Portrait of Hemi Pomara as a young man: how we uncovered the oldest surviving photograph of a Māori

It is little wonder the life of Hemi Pomara has attracted the attention of writers and film makers. 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.

Hemi has already been the basis for the character James Pōneke in New Zealand author Tina Makereti’s 2018 novel The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke. And last week, celebrated New Zealand director Taika Waititi announced his production company Piki Films is adapting the book for the big screen – one of three forthcoming projects about colonisation with “indigenous voices at the centre”.

Until now, though, we have only been able to see Hemi’s young face in an embellished watercolour portrait made by the impresario artist George French Angas, or in a stiff woodcut reproduced in the Illustrated London News.

Drawing on the research for our forthcoming book, Empire, Early Photography and Spectacle: the global career of showman daguerreotypist J.W. Newland (Routledge, November 2020), we can now add the discovery of a previously unknown photograph of Hemi Pomara posing in London in 1846.

This remarkable daguerreotype shows a wistful young man, far from home, wearing the traditional korowai (cloak) of his chiefly rank. It was almost certainly made by Antoine Claudet, one of the most important figures in the history of early photography.

All the evidence now suggests the image is not only the oldest surviving photograph of Hemi, but also most probably the oldest surviving photographic portrait of any Māori person. Until now, a portrait of Caroline and Sarah Barrett taken around 1853 was thought to be the oldest such image.

For decades this unique image has sat unattributed in the National Library of Australia. It is now time to connect it with the other portraits of Hemi, his biography and the wider conversation about indigenous lives during the imperial age. 1200w, 1800w, 754w, 1508w, 2262w" sizes="(min-width: 1466px) 754px, (max-width: 599px) 100vw, (min-width: 600px) 600px, 237px" />
‘Hemi Pomare’, 1846, cased, colour applied, quarter-plate daguerreotype, likely the oldest surviving photographic image of a Māori. National Library of Australia

A boy abroad

Hemi Pomara led an extraordinary life. Born around 1830, he was the grandson of the chief Pomara from the remote Chatham Islands off the east coast of New Zealand. After his family was murdered during his childhood by an invading Māori group, Hemi was seized by a British trader who brought him to Sydney in the early 1840s and placed him in an English boarding school.

The British itinerant artist, George French Angas had travelled through New Zealand for three months in 1844, completing sketches and watercolours and plundering cultural artefacts. His next stop was Sydney where he encountered Hemi and took “guardianship” of him while giving illustrated lectures across New South Wales and South Australia.

Angas painted Hemi for the expanded version of this lecture series, Illustrations of the Natives and Scenery of Australia and New Zealand together with 300 portraits from life of the principal Chiefs, with their Families.

In this full-length depiction, the young man appears doe-eyed and cheerful. Hemi’s juvenile form is almost entirely shrouded in a white, elaborately trimmed korowai befitting his chiefly ancestry.

The collar of a white shirt, the cuffs of white pants and neat black shoes peak out from the otherwise enveloping garment. Hemi is portrayed as an idealised colonial subject, civilised yet innocent, regal yet complacent.

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Angas travelled back to London in early 1846, taking with him his collection of artworks, plundered artefacts – and Hemi Pomara.

Hemi appeared at the British and Foreign Institution, followed by a private audience with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. From April 1846, he was put on display in his chiefly attire as a living tableau in front of Angas’s watercolours and alongside ethnographic material at the Egyptian Hall, London.

The Egyptian Hall “exhibition” was applauded by the London Spectator as the “most interesting” of the season, and Hemi’s portrait was engraved for the Illustrated London News. Here the slightly older-looking Hemi appears with darkly shaded skin and stands stiffly with a ceremonial staff, a large ornamental tiki around his neck and an upright, feathered headdress. 1200w, 1800w, 754w, 1508w, 2262w" sizes="(min-width: 1466px) 754px, (max-width: 599px) 100vw, (min-width: 600px) 600px, 237px" />
An idealised colonial subject: George French Angas, ‘Hemi, grandson of Pomara, Chief of the Chatham Islands’, 1844-1846, watercolour. Alexander Turnbull Library

A photographic pioneer

Hemi was also presented at a Royal Society meeting which, as The Times recorded on April 6, was attended by scores of people including Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, and the pioneering London-based French daguerreotypist Antoine Claudet.

It was around this time Claudet probably made the quarter-plate daguerreotype, expertly tinted with colour, of Hemi Pomara in costume.

The daguerreotype was purchased in the 1960s by the pioneering Australian photo historian and advocate for the National Library of Australia’s photography collections, Eric Keast Burke. Although digitised, it has only been partially catalogued and has evaded attribution until now.

Unusually for photographic portraits of this period, Hemi is shown standing full-length, allowing him to model all the features of his korowai. He poses amidst the accoutrements of a metropolitan portrait studio. However, the horizontal line running across the middle of the portrait suggests the daguerreotype was taken against a panelled wall rather than a studio backdrop, possibly at the Royal Society meeting.

Hemi has grown since Angas’s watercolour but the trim at the hem of the korowai is recognisable as the same garment worn in the earlier painting. Its speckled underside also reveals it as the one in the Illustrated London News engraving.

Hemi wears a kuru pounamu (greenstone ear pendant) of considerable value and again indicative of his chiefly status. He holds a patu onewa (short-handled weapon) close to his body and a feathered headdress fans out from underneath his hair.

We closely examined the delicate image, the polished silver plate on which it was photographically formed, and the leatherette case in which it was placed. The daguerreotype has been expertly colour-tinted to accentuate the embroidered edge of the korowai, in the same deep crimson shade it was coloured in Angas’s watercolour.

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The remainder of the korowai is subtly coloured with a tan tint. Hemi’s face and hands have a modest amount of skin tone colour applied. Very few practitioners outside Claudet’s studio would have tinted daguerreotypes to this level of realism during photography’s first decade.

Hallmarks stamped into the back of the plate show it was manufactured in England in the mid-1840s. The type of case and mat indicates it was unlikely to have been made by any other photographer in London at the time. 1200w, 1800w, 754w, 1508w, 2262w" sizes="(min-width: 1466px) 754px, (max-width: 599px) 100vw, (min-width: 600px) 600px, 237px" />
‘New Zealand Youth at Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly’, wood engraving, The Illustrated London News, 18 April 1846.

Survival and resilience

After his brief period as a London “celebrity” Hemi went to sea on the Caleb Angas. He was shipwrecked at Barbados, and on his return aboard the Eliza assaulted by the first mate, who was tried when the ship returned to London. Hemi was transferred into the “care” of Lieutenant Governor Edward John Eyre who chaperoned him back to New Zealand by early December 1846.

Hemi’s story is harder to trace through the historical record after his return to Auckland in early 1847. It’s possible he returned to London as an older married man with his wife and child, and sat for a later carte de visite portrait. But the fact remains, by the age of eighteen he had already been the subject of a suite of colonial portraits made across media and continents.

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. They make it clear that even at the height of colonial fetishisation, survival and cultural expression were possible and are still powerfully decipherable today.

For biographers, lives such as Hemi’s can only be excavated by deep and wide-ranging archival research. But much of Hemi’s story still evades official colonial records. As Taika Waititi’s film project suggests, the next layer of interpretation must be driven by indigenous voices.

Elisa deCourcy, Australian National University and Martyn Jolly, Australian National University

The authors would like to acknowledge the late Roger Blackley (Victoria University, Wellington), Chanel Clarke (Curator of the Maori collections, Auckland War Memorial Museum), Nat Williams (former Treasures Curator, National Library of Australia), Dr Philip Jones (Senior Curator, South Australian Museum) and Professor Geoffrey Batchen (Professorial chair of History of Art, University of Oxford) for their invaluable help with their research.

Elisa deCourcy, Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow 2020-2023, Research School of Humanities and the Arts, Australian National University, Australian National University and Martyn Jolly, Honorary Associate Professor, School of Art and Design, Research School of Humanities and the Arts, College of Arts and Social Sciences, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Comment by Tony Rackstraw on July 12, 2020 at 1:17

Message from yesterday - "Hemi took about six months to get back to new Zealand, and although there is no record of him stopping off in Australia, he may have."

Hemi Pomara departed Gravesend on the ship "Glentanner" on 4 February 1847, arrived Sydney on 18 June 1847. Departed Sydney on the barque "Pestonjee Bomanjee", 30 June 1847, arrived Auckland 10 July 1847. Another passenger Peri Kawau (Piri Kawau), was at one time the Maori interpreter to Sir George Grey, Governor of New Zealand.

June 18.— Glentanner, ship, 610 tons, (P.O.P.)
Capt. Brock, from Gravesend the 4th Feb. Passengers — Edward John Eyre, Lieutenant-Governor of New Zealand; Mrs. Nailor, two children, and servant. Mr A. D. Lang. Mr. Gifford, Staff Surgeon Hartwell, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Phillips and son, Mr. Thomas McAuley, Mr. John Jones, Mr. Thomas Bull; and Peri Kawau, James Pomari, and George Seelenmeyer, three natives of New Zealand.
Sydney Chronicle (NSW), Sat 19 Jun 1847, Page 2

June 18 — Glentanner, ship, 610 tons, Captain
Brock, from London, having left the Downs on the 5th February. Passengers — Mr. Eyre, (Lieutenant-Governor of New Zealand) Mrs. Naylor, two children and servant, Mr. A. D. Lang, Mr. N. Gifford, Assistant Staff Surgeon Hartwell, Mr and Mrs. Phelps and child, Mr. T. Macaulay, Mr. J. Jones, Mr. G. Bull. Peri Kawau and Pomari, natives of New Zealand.
The Shipping Gazette and Sydney General Trade List (NSW), Sat 19 Jun 1847, Page 522

June 26. [departure was delayed until 30 june], Pestonjee Bomanjee, barque, 695 tons, Captain Austin, for Auckland, with Government Stores. Passengers — Mr. Eyre, (Lieutenant Governor of New Zealand) and
servant, Pomari and Peri Kawau, (New Zealanders) Major Bridge, Mrs. Bridge and child, Captain Thompson, Lieutenants Herbert and Edwards, Ensign Garstin, Mrs. Garstin, Quarter-Master Kirby, Assistant-Surgeon Bannatyne, Deputy Assistant Commissary General Solway, 174 rank and file, with 53 women and 79 children of the 58th Regiment.
The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW), Mon 28 Jun 1847, Page 2

ARRIVALS. August 7 ... Barque Pestonjee Bomanjee, 595 tons Austin, from Auckland. Passengers — His Excellency Lieut.-Governor Eyre, Mr. Gisborne, Private Secretary, Lieut. Col. Gould, Mrs. Gould, and five children, Capt. Marshall, Lieuts. Rattigan, Cuthbert, M'Gregor, Surgeon Prendergrast, Quarter Master Paul, Mrs. Paul and four daughters, Peri Kawau, and 13 other natives, 181 rank and file, with 35 women and 57 children.
New Zealand Spectator and Cook's Strait Guardian, Volume III, Issue 212, 11 August 1847

Comment by Michael Pritchard on July 10, 2020 at 15:46

One thought:  looking at some of the curtains/drapes Claudet was using I wonder if the two curtains shown in this Claudet dag may also be visible in the Pomera dag? The left-hand curtain may be an opened up version of that in the Pomera dag, but the right-hand curtain seems very close to that which is shown.

Comment by Martyn Jolly on July 10, 2020 at 2:01

Hi Ken,

Thanks for your reply. Elisa deCourcy and myself look forward to a similar careful scrutiny of our forthcoming Newland book! We agree with you that Beard and his sublicensees, Kilburn, Mayal and Williams are unlikely. We have no record of Hemi Pomare travelling provincially in the UK, he wouldn’t have had much time, he arrived in London in March, leaves for Barbados by June at the end of the Adelaide Gallery session, is back in November, and has left by December. But of course we would be interested to hear of provincial candidates from mid 1846. We agree with you that occasionally some cases were unstamped  by the photographer. We note that from our experience even at this early stage there was quite a transaction in different mats, preservers etc, and quite a bit of variation therefore. Hemi took about six months to get back to new Zealand, and although there is no record of him stopping off in Australia, he may have. In our first reply we went through the possible daguerrreotypists from Australia and New Zealand and eliminated them on the basis of plate size, style, colouring, timing and location. We didn’t mention Douglas Kilburn in Melbourne, but his extant images are uncoloured and are of a very different plate size, casing and compositional approach (without, for instance the studio accoutrements). Hemi did not return to the UK after he left in late 1846, a different group of Maori did visit later and were the subject of a carte de visite, but Hemi was not among them. The ceremonial cloak, the korowai, Hemi is wearing is specific to each individual, and is identical to the one worn in the watercolour  by Angas and the ILN illustration. So we return to the very compelling coincidence that the image is of a fifteen year old Hemi Pomare posing exactly as he was described as posing at the Egyptian Hall in mid 1846, at the same time as the nearby Claudet was advertising in the same sources, such as The Times and the Athenaeum, his abilities as a colourist.  As well we know that they both even attended the exact same Royal Society event, Hemi wearing his korowai.

We would love to get a few pointers for the objects' possible provenance before it was acquired for the Library by the pioneering Australia photo historian Keast Burke, if anybody has any ideas.

Comment by Ken Jacobson on July 9, 2020 at 16:50


A short PS. You mentioned cases for London photographers. Most of the major daguerreotypists did indeed have their logo stamped on their cases. I have known a few exceptions where the image is clearly by Kilburn or Beard and lacks the photographer's imprint but this appears to be rare.


Comment by Ken Jacobson on July 9, 2020 at 12:57

Thank you for your detailed response to my queries, Martyn. Based on what you have said, I still have no definite conclusions but at the risk of boring everyone, present more conjecture. My observations are based on a modicum of research, my own experience and being able to look at British daguerreotypes we have for comparison.

1. On London candidates as the possible author of the daguerreotype:

Beard. He had a number of studios so it is difficult to generalise. In any case, Beard’s colouring started at an early date but the coloured examples I have seen have quite a different feeling to the tinting in the Hemi Pomara daguerreotype.

Kilburn. Exquisite coloured daguerreotypes but, as you indicate, he probably opened too late to be the author of this example. Also, Kilburn/Mansion’s colouring is usually very precise and covers the entire plate. It does not have what one might call the subtlety seen in the portrait under consideration.

Mayall. Also, probably too late and his earliest London examples, bearing the logo of ‘Professor Highschool’, tend not to be tinted. Mayall apparently was worried about the effect of colouring on the plate at this stage in his career. You may know that by at least 1848 Mayall displayed a range of what sound like spectacular portraits and views in his studio. I have a copy of the list of items in this exhibition. Hemi Pomara is not listed and it seems very likely Mayall would have made another daguerreotype of Hemi Pomara to exhibit in his gallery if he was indeed the photographer for the daguerreotype you are researching.

Claudet. History suggests Claudet could have accomplished more or less anything he set his mind to. But it is odd that we see very few coloured daguerreotypes by him during this period.

T.R. Williams. Capable of making beautiful coloured daguerreotypes, but almost certainly too late and mostly made stereoscopic daguerreotypes.

Daguerreotypists in Scotland and provincial England should not be overlooked as possibilities. 

2. On my comment that hallmarks are never on the reverse of a plate, many apologies. I bow to the exemplary work by Chiesa and Gosio. I only have the first edition of their book so I can’t see the page to which you refer.

3. I know nothing of the history of Hemi Pomara but in your blog you state, ‘But the fact remains, by the age of eighteen he had already been the subject of a suite of colonial portraits made across media and continents.’ Is it not therefore possible that Hemi Pomara had this daguerreotype taken somewhere in Australia or elsewhere in Asia between 1847 and 1850?

Unless you tell me that the daguerreotype in question shows clothing that was exclusively worn by Hemi Pomara on his trip to London, it seems to me that daguerreotypists from other places, like Australia, should perhaps be carefully considered again. This is because, despite me being unsure without seeing the object itself, this daguerreotype seems a bit unlikely to me to be as early as 1846. I also go back to this seemingly trivial matter of the mat which is quite unusually flat at the top.

Not quite the same as the mat in this example is flat at top and bottom but interesting as it is also a portrait of indigenous people. Douglas T. Kilburn, the photographer, brother of William Edward Kilburn was a capable daguerreotypist and had studios in Melbourne and Sydney from 1847 to 1850.

This mat in the link below is more similar to the one in the Hemi Pomara daguerreotype. Unfortunately, this daguerreotype is not signed.

By the way, I look forward to your Newlands book. He was quite an interesting character and I’m sure you’ve found out many new things!


Ken Jacobson

Comment by Martyn Jolly on July 8, 2020 at 8:53

Hi Ken,Thank you for your interest in the work of Elisa deCourcy and myself on this daguerreotype. It is part of a larger book project 'Empire, Early Photography and Spectacle: the global career travelling showman daguerreotypist J W Newland' which should be out later this year with Routledge. 

The size of the plate is 8.3 x 11.0 cm and the outer case is 10 x 12.5, so that is why we have described it as a quarter plate.

We are suggesting that this daguerreotype may be by Claudet based on a process of elimination, and coincidence. We have based our deductions on reading newspapers, and looking at the object itself and comparing it to other daguerreotypes we know of from the same period, so we would welcome other sets of eyes to contribute as well, as this is an extremely significant object for the indigenous people of New Zealand, and the history of photography and the Pacific. Hemi Pomare was reported to be fifteen years of age when he was displayed by George French Angas at the Egyptian Hall in mid 1846. After a disastrous voyage to Barbados he is reported to have come back to London over to leave again in December 1846 under the care of Edward John  Eyre, who arrived back to Auckland in July 1847. 

To us the mat and case looks similar to other less decorative mats from the period. We are happy to provide images of these if anybody is interested. We can’t find evidence of Kilburn and his colourist Mansion operating until 12 February 1847, which is about the same time as Bernard and Pauline Heathcote have Kilburn starting in their ‘The Faithful Likeness’ directory. For Mayall as well, we can’t find him advertising until April 1847 in the Strand. We understand that before that he worked for Claudet’s studio. So in the period when Hemi was appearing in London we think we have Claudet and Beard two sub-licensees (Joesph, and Barratt) and the indepdent Egerton, offering colour daguerreotypes. Although Beard advertises colour during 1846, our understanding is that it was characteristic at this time for Beard and his patentees to stamp their cases. Our case is unstamped (and not stamped Claudet either, of course). We note that Beard sues Egerton repeatedly between 1845 to 1849, but we can’t find Egerton advertising colour before 1847. Similarly Barratt opens in October 1846, when Hemi may have been back in London after his Barbados trip, but we can’t find him advertising colour until 1847 after Hemi’s has left. So we have a boy who looks fifteen, photographed in a pose we know he posed in for several months at the Egyptian Hall, and we know that at on at least one occasion Claudet and Hemi Pomare and Angas attended the same event at the Royal Society. We also know that Claudet was We also know that Claudet was vigorously advertising his expert colouring of daguerreotypes at this time as well as lecturing on colour and the daguerreotype process at The Society of Arts in early 1846, and exhibiting his daguerreotypes during this period when Hemi was on exhibition himself at the Egyptian Hall. 

There is a very slight possibility that the photograph was taken in Sydney in the early 1840s, when Hemi was younger than he looks in the portrait, between about 11 and 14. There were three dagurreotypists working in Australia during this period, George Goodman, Isaac Polack and Thomas Bock. However, at this time neither Goodman or Polack were advertising coloured daguerreotypes, or photographing with elaborate studio accoutrements as far as we know. Bock, who was based in Hobart not Sydney, was making some small 1/6 plate images which were lightly coloured, but none survive from this time. His later coloured daguerreotypes are distinctively different in terms of the application of colour and style of image.

There is a possibility that Hemi was photographed in Sydney if he stopped off there on his return to New Zealand with Eyre, but this is still at least ten months before Polack advertises coloured daguerreotypes. The other significant daguerreotypist J. W. Newland, the subject of our forthcoming book, was in the Pacific and the very north of New Zealand - the Bay of Islands - when Hemi could have been coming back through Sydney. 

There is an even smaller possibility that the image was made in New Zealand, by an Australian and  New Zealand dagurreotypist such as Lawson Insley. But Lawson Insley didn’t arrive in New Zealand as far as we know until early 1851, when Hemi would have been in his early 20s and none of his coloured daguerreotypes survive for comparison. Some scholars have commented that Insley’s boast of colouring was just a boast and not a legitimate offering. There is one Daguerreotype made in New Zealand perhaps made in 1850 attributed to Eyre himself, (please see, which was made of a man called Taratoa, however this seems to be very different in terms of style and mounting to the image we are suggesting may be by Claudet. We note that the attribution and dating are also not confirmed. There has been no research done, as far as we know, to support the claim of Eyre being taught the daguerreotype process before leaving England. 

With regards to the ‘hallmarks’, these are on the reverse of the plate. We consulted Gabriele Chiesa’s and Paolo Gosio’s 'Daguerreotype Hallmarks' (2019), they reproduce numerals very similar to ours on page 90 of their book. They say: ‘Engraved on the back of the plate, top left hand corner. Some Heavy early plates of English origin have the punch on the verso of the plate, not on the recto as is the norm’.  We are aware of course that plates were imported and exported. 

We would welcome any comments or suggestions on our work. Since we have discussed this image publicly it has excited considerable interest. We are very interested to see if we can learn more about the object’s provenance, all we can find out  is that it was acquired for the Library in the mid 1960s by the pioneering Australian photo historian Keast Bourke, who, although he spent most of his time in Australia was a good international correspondent. We are also looking forward to the chance to discuss our upcoming work on J. W. Newland when it is published later this year.

Comment by Ken Jacobson on July 7, 2020 at 14:17

Thank you for your account, Martyn Jolly. As well as its clear historical importance, this looks to be an extraordinarily beautiful daguerreotype.

I have read your serious attempts at attribution. My musings lack the rigorous and no doubt lengthy analysis done by the curators, and are offered despite my inability to see the original; nevertheless, perhaps the following comments might be of some interest:

 1. From the catalogue of the National Library of Australia, it seems that this is quite a large daguerreotype (larger than half-plate) though you say in the article it is quarter-plate. Can we be told the exact dimensions if you have them? Both possibly the size (if it is large) and the high quality of the colouring seem somewhat atypical for a date of 1846, however, they are by no means impossible, especially given that this would be considered by any daguerreotypist to be an important and atypical portrait commission. I wonder if Hemi Pomara could have been photographed somewhat later, either on a second trip to the UK, or later in Australia, for example?

2. I am puzzled by the description of the plate itself. Certainly, some of the best daguerreotype plates in the world were made in England but in my experience few hallmarks are specifically identifiable as being from plates manufactured in England. Can you state which hallmark is on the plate, please? Also, you refer to ‘hallmarks on the back of the plate’. The back of a daguerreotype plate is usually copper but silver hallmarks are on the front (silver side) of the daguerreotype plate. Can you explain, please? Also, why is the case (which I cannot see) particularly typical of Claudet’s studio? I note that the relative ‘flatness’ of the arched top of the mat is quite unusual for any studio.

 3. In terms of coloured daguerreotypes, this technique was certainly developed long before 1846. But rave reviews in the British press for spectacular quality coloured plates only started to emerge around 1847, particularly mentioning the studios of Kilburn and Mayall. Claudet certainly could produce coloured portraits by 1846 (and he advertised as much) though we see few extant coloured works by him until he opens his 1851 Regent Street studio. Confusingly, a Mr. Mansion is said to have worked as a colourist for a number of the top studios, thus making it difficult to necessarily determine the identity of the studio based on the colouring alone.

 4. I take your point about the setting being atypical of a London studio in the 1840s. Also, it is interesting that Claudet attended the April 6 Royal Society meeting though that does not alone seem sufficient proof that he made the daguerreotype.

In any case, just musings as I say but I hope helpful in securing the date and photographer for this exquisite portrait.

Ken Jacobson


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