The National Gallery recently purchased from a British private collection this significant colonial portrait of the famous Maori chief Hohepa Te Umuroa. Painted in Tasmania in 1846 by Australian artist William Duke, it is one of the earliest known oil portraits of an individual Maori and a tragic record of our colonial past.
Te Umuroa was a Maori political prisoner who had taken part in an armed resistance against the Pakeha (white soldiers and settlers) in the Hutt Valley in May 1846 during the New Zealand wars. He was one of the five Maori captured defending their land and sentenced to be transported to Tasmania ‘for the term of their natural lives’.
Maori author Witi Ihimaera has brought Te Umuroa to life in his 2009 historic novel The Trowenna Sea. The book describes how Te Umuroa learnt to speak English and was baptised a Christian, taking the name Joseph (Hohepa). Te Umuroa worked as an emissary with fellow Maori attempting to negotiate a treaty with the Pakeha over ownership of the land. The Maori were the rightful owners of the land, which had an especially important role in nourishing and providing for them. But he was betrayed.
After the Pakeha shot Te Umuroa’s much-loved wife, Te Umuroa understandably turned against them. He began to take part in the raids to claim back Maori land, which had been stolen from them, and to avenge the murder of his wife, participating in the attack in the Hutt Valley in 1846 that resulted in his capture.
When the Maori prisoners arrived in Tasmania in November 1846, many Australian colonists objected. The Maori had been sent to Maria Island, the more humane Tasmanian prison, and were given separate huts from the main dormitory that housed the convicts. But many Tasmanians criticised the sentence and petitioned the British government to issue a pardon, arguing that the Maori were patriots fighting for their own land and that their transportation and imprisonment was illegal—they should be repatriated to their homeland in Aotearoa New Zealand.
While in prison, Te Umuroa became ill with tuberculosis (or pneumonia) and died in custody on 19 July 1847. He was buried the next morning in the small public cemetery on the island, where his remains stayed until his bones were returned home in 1988. As a result of the colonists’ petitions, the other four Maori prisoners obtained their freedom and returned to Auckland in March 1848.
In this powerful portrait, Duke shows the 26-year-old Hohepa
Te Umuroa in a stylised pose holding his sacred tokotoko, his symbol of authority and status, and dressed in a traditional cloak (kaitaka). Duke conveyed the feisty spirit of the tall, broad-shouldered young man, his an air of authority and determination.
Duke was born in Ireland in 1814 and arrived in New South Wales in 1840 as an assisted immigrant. He worked briefly in Sydney as a scene painter and mechanist at the Royal Victoria Theatre before moving to New Zealand in 1844, where he established himself as a portrait painter. He moved to Hobart on 7 May 1845, where he remained for seven years. Duke is largely known for the whaling images that he produced during his stay in Tasmania. Following the gold rush, he moved to Victoria and continued to paint portraits and landscapes and worked as a scene painter. He died in Melbourne in 1853, aged 38, leaving behind a young family.
This is the largest and most significant of three Maori portraits that Duke painted in the 1940s. Two smaller portraits from the same decade, Portrait of Maketu and The celebrated chief Hone (or John Heke), are in the collection of the National Library of Australia.
The Gallery’s portrait, Hohepa Te Umuroa, will have an integral place in our displays, honouring this Maori chief and the colonial ties between Australia and New Zealand.
Anne Gray Head of Australian Art
in artonview, issue 69, autumn 2012