How we discovered the oldest Maori photograph

We have drawn on our research for the forthcoming book Empire, Early Photography and Spectacle : the global career showman daguerreotypist J.W. Newland, Routledge, November 2020), and we can add a previously undiscovered photograph of Hemi pomara posing at a London street corner in 1846.

This daguerreotype is a remarkable example of a young man wearing his traditional chief’s Korowai. This daguerreotype was almost certainly taken by Antoine Claudet – one of the greatest figures in early photography history.

The evidence suggests that the photograph is not only the oldest Maori photographic portrait but it’s also the oldest known Maori photo. Up until now, it was believed that a photograph of Caroline and Sarah Barrett from around 1853 had been the oldest image.

This unique image has been unattributed for decades in the National Library of Australia. Now is the time to connect this unique image with other portraits, Hemi’s biography, and the broader conversation about Indigenous lives during the Imperial Age.

‘Hemi Pomare,’ 1846, quarter-plate, cased daguerreotype with colour applied. This is likely the oldest photographic image of Maori. National Library of Australia

A boy abroad

Hemi was a man of extraordinary character. Hemi Pomare was born around 1830. He was the grandson to the chief Pomara of the remote Chatham Islands, off the east coast of New Zealand. An invading Maori tribe killed Hemi’s family during his childhood. A British trader took him to Sydney and sent him to an English boarding school in the 1840s.

George French Angas, an itinerant British artist, had traveled through New Zealand in 1844 for three months, collecting cultural artifacts and completing sketches. Hemi was his next stop. He took care of Hemi while giving illustrated talks across New South Wales, South Australia, and Australia.

Angas has painted Hemi in the expanded version for this lecture series. Illustrations and Scenery from Australia and New Zealand, together with 300 life-size portraits of the chiefs and their families.

This full-length portrait shows a young man with doe-eyed, cheerful eyes. Hemi is dressed in a Korowai, a traditional white robe with elaborate trim.

The neatly black shoes, white pants cuffs, and the collar of the white shirt peek out of the otherwise enveloping garment. Hemi appears as an idealized subject of colonial times, civilized but innocent, regal, and complacent.

Read more: To build social cohesion, our screens need to show the same diversity of faces we see on the street.

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

Hemi was invited to the British and Foreign Institution and then had a private meeting with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. In April 1846, he was displayed in his traditional attire in the Egyptian Hall in London, alongside Angas’s watercolors and ethnographic materials.

The London Spectator praised the Egyptian Hall as “most interesting” for the season. Hemi’s portrait was engraved in the Illustrated London News. Hemi, who appears slightly older, has darkly-shaded skin, and is seated stiffly, holding a ceremonial stick, an ornamental tiki on his neck, and a feathered, upright headdress.

An idealised colonial theme: George French Angas’ ‘Hemi,’ grandson to Pomara Chief of the Chatham Islands, 1844-1846. Watercolour. Alexander Turnbull Library

Photographic pioneer

Hemi also received a Royal Society award at a meeting that, according to The Times on April 6, featured Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin as well as the pioneering French daguerreotypist Antoine Claudet, who was based in London.

Around this time, Claudet made the quarter-plate Daguerreotype of Hemi in costume, which was expertly tinted in color.

In the 1960s, the daguerreotypes were purchased by Eric Keast Burke. He was a pioneering Australian photographer and advocate of the National Library of Australia photography collections. The daguerreotype has been digitized but only partially cataloged. It has not been attributed until now.

Hemi, in a portrait that is unusual for this era, stands full length, which allows him to show all of the features of his Korowai. He poses in the studio accouterments typical of a metropolis portrait studio. The horizontal line that runs across the middle suggests that the daguerreotype may have been taken at the Royal Society Meeting rather than against a studio background.

Hemi’s grown in size since Angas painted the watercolor, but the trim on the Korowai hem is the same as that worn in the previous painting. The speckled bottom of the garment also makes it easy to identify as the one from the Illustrated London News engraving.

Hemi also wears an earring made of greenstone, which is of great value and reflects his status as a chief. He is holding a short-handled patu one close to his body and a feathered hat fanning out from beneath his hair.

The leatherette case, on which the image was photographed, as well as the silver plate, were all carefully examined. The daguerreotype was expertly colored to highlight the embroidered edge on the Korowai in the same deep shade of crimson as in Angas’s watercolor.

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