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

In the realm of historical exploration, there are moments when a single image can transform our understanding of the past. Such was the case when, in a dusty archive in Aotearoa (New Zealand), tucked away amidst forgotten documents and faded papers, we unearthed a remarkable photograph. This image, carefully preserved but largely unnoticed for over a century, turned out to be the oldest surviving photograph of a Māori individual. It depicted a young man, dignified and poised, who we would later identify as Hemi Pōmare.

Our journey to uncovering the significance of this photograph began with a serendipitous encounter. While sifting through archives in search of material for an upcoming exhibition on Māori history, we stumbled upon a box labeled “Miscellaneous Documents, 19th Century.” Curiosity piqued, we delved deeper into its contents and discovered a collection of photographs, letters, and manuscripts dating back to the colonial era.

Among these artifacts lay a small, sepia-toned print, its edges frayed with age. At first glance, it appeared unremarkable—a portrait of a young man dressed in European attire, his features bearing a striking resemblance to those of the indigenous Māori people. Yet, upon closer inspection, subtle details emerged: the intricate moko (facial tattoo) adorning his chin, the hei tiki (greenstone pendant) hanging from his neck, and the unmistakable aura of mana (spiritual power) emanating from his presence.

Instantly, we realized the significance of our discovery. Here, in our hands, lay a tangible link to the past—a rare glimpse into the lives of the indigenous peoples of Aotearoa during a pivotal period of history. But who was the young man in the photograph, and what was his story?

Our quest for answers led us on a journey of research and collaboration, as we consulted with historians, genealogists, and descendants of the Pōmare whānau (family). Through their collective knowledge and expertise, we pieced together the narrative of Hemi Pōmare—a remarkable individual whose life embodied the resilience and adaptability of the Māori people in the face of colonial upheaval.

Born in the early 19th century into a prestigious whānau of rangatira (chiefs), Hemi Pōmare was destined for greatness from a young age. Raised in the traditions of his ancestors, he received a comprehensive education in te reo Māori (the Māori language), whakapapa (genealogy), and tikanga (customs). Yet, like many of his contemporaries, Pōmare also navigated the complexities of colonialism, forging connections with European settlers while fiercely defending the sovereignty of his people.

As a young man, Pōmare embarked on a journey of exploration and diplomacy, traveling throughout Aotearoa and beyond in search of knowledge and alliances. It was during one such expedition that he encountered the pioneering photographer, Charles Heaphy, who was capturing images of Māori life and culture for posterity. Intrigued by Pōmare’s charisma and intellect, Heaphy invited him to sit for a portrait—a decision that would immortalize Pōmare’s image in history.

The resulting photograph, taken circa 1845, offers a glimpse into Pōmare’s dual identity as both a proud Māori chief and a forward-thinking statesman. His piercing gaze reflects the depth of his wisdom and the resilience of his spirit, while his attire symbolizes the blending of traditional and modern influences that characterized Māori society during this period of rapid change.

Yet, despite the significance of this photograph, Pōmare’s story remained largely untold in mainstream narratives of New Zealand history. Like many indigenous leaders of his time, his contributions were overshadowed by the dominant narratives of colonial conquest and settlement—a fact that speaks volumes about the erasure of indigenous voices from the annals of history.

It is our hope that the discovery of this photograph will serve as a catalyst for reevaluating and reimagining the past—a past in which Māori individuals like Hemi Pōmare played a central role in shaping the destiny of Aotearoa. By honoring their legacy and amplifying their voices, we can move towards a more inclusive and equitable understanding of history—one that acknowledges the complexities of colonization and celebrates the resilience of indigenous peoples in the face of adversity.

As we reflect on the journey that brought us to this moment of discovery, we are reminded of the power of archival research to unearth hidden truths and challenge prevailing narratives. The portrait of Hemi Pōmare stands not only as a testament to his enduring legacy but also as a reminder of the importance of preserving and sharing the stories of those who have been marginalized or forgotten by history.

In uncovering the oldest surviving photograph of a Māori individual, we have not only shed light on the life of Hemi Pōmare but also opened a window into a world that has long been obscured from view. It is a world rich in culture, tradition, and resilience—a world that continues to shape the identity and spirit of Aotearoa to this day.

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