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Rethinking foundational histories

by Kate Fullagar, 21 January 2019

Captain James Cook, 1837 by Nathaniel Dance, William Holl, Fisher, Son & Co London
Captain James Cook, 1837 by Nathaniel Dance, William Holl, Fisher, Son & Co London

The National Portrait Gallery rehangs its permanent galleries at least twice a year. This summer, the Robert Oatley gallery, which typically displays the ‘earliest works from the NPG collection’, is curated with a particular focus in mind. Titled Facing New Worlds, the rehang centres on the relationships forged between Europeans and Indigenous people during the formative Age of Empire – roughly the 1760s to the 1840s – and pivots around small clusters of individuals rather than moving from one important person to the next. A joint effort by scholars, curators, and Indigenous researchers, it explores both how those clusters formed through relations of mutual interest, and what effects these had in the making of modern life in the southern hemisphere. Facing New Worlds borrows nearly 35 items from sister institutions to complement over 40 works from the Portrait Gallery’s own collection.

With an emphasis on relationships, the rehang pushes us to think about Australia’s foundations in new ways. We see that Indigenous people were involved in every aspect of Europe’s rediscovery of the Pacific world, contributing knowledge, assistance, and diplomacy at critical junctures, but also, at times, re-routing, resisting, and re-configuring imperial ambition. The story of early Europeans in the Pacific was the result of countless negotiations with the first inhabitants rather than a sum of isolated colonial achievements. By the same token, the story of Indigenous experience during the Age of Empire was larger than dispossession alone. It included tales of Indigenous people handling, influencing, using, or otherwise surviving European onslaught from the mid-eighteenth century. Portraiture, curated in clusters, helps us see these influential relations between newcomers and natives. It points simultaneously to the human face of our region’s imperial past and the intertwined nature of that history.

Otaheite: Dancing girl, and Chief mourner, 1769 Tupaia

Few early European navigators became as intertwined with Indigenous people as James Cook. Though often lauded for his unique personal insights and abilities, Cook would simply not have learned all he did about Pacific peoples and islands – and arguably about Pacific navigation – without his Indigenous associates. During his first voyage, Cook famously befriended a Ra‘iatean priest called Tupaia, who shared a wealth of knowledge with him about the Tahitian archipelago and its oceanic surrounds – the best routes, the best harbours, the most notable features, and so on. Cook offered Tupaia a berth on his Endeavour because he discerned that the Ra‘iatean knew ‘more of the Geography of the Islands’ than anyone else. Later, Tupaia also proved essential in brokering peaceful relations with the Māori in Aotearoa. For his part, Tupaia wanted the berth because he saw that European knowledges, and probably European arms, might prove critical in his bid to retain power as a refugee leader in Tahiti. One of the knowledges Tupaia learned on the Endeavour was representational art. His drawings of a dancing girl and chief mourner were the first naturalistic portraits of everyday life ever produced by a Pacific person.

Omai, 1777 by William Hodges, James Caldwall

Sadly, Tupaia died from disease before reaching Britain. Cook, though, recognised the boon he had been for the six months they were together. During his second voyage, Cook offered passage to another refugee Ra‘iatean. Mai – often known to the British as Omai – was more explicit in his desire to travel to Britain. He wanted to procure arms for his own bid to reclaim Ra‘iatea from Bora Boran invaders. He joined Cook’s Adventure in late 1773. Not only did Mai survive his trip to Britain and back, he aided Cook enormously during both voyages. He served as translator, fisherman, hunter, and chef as well as – least anticipated but perhaps most importantly – a morale boost to the British able seamen who enjoyed his company.

William Hodges RA, 1808 (dated 1810) by George Dance, William Daniell

Cook’s official artist, William Hodges, spent a deal of time with Mai, portraying his image at least twice during their acquaintance. He sketched this picture while on board the Adventure, and undertook an oil painting in Britain. Trained in the fashionable neoclassical aesthetic of the era, Hodges developed a uniquely stylised ethnographic approach by studying Pacific peoples. Mai and the other Islanders he depicted in the 1770s helped Hodges discover a way of marrying the prevailing grand artistic mode of the eighteenth century with Britain’s emerging scientific realism. His style became one of the most distinctive of the Age of Empire. Hodges was elected a member of the Royal Academy in 1787.

Hodges may not have given Mai much in return – except perhaps a contribution to his enduring fame as a noble figure. But his influence on another member of this Pacific cluster, namely Cook himself, is evident if seldom appreciated. A labourer’s son from Yorkshire was unlikely to have written about an Antarctic iceberg in the eighteenth-century language of the sublime without earlier conversing with someone trained in the field. Cook’s assertion that the polar scene ‘exhibits a view which can only be described by the pencle of an able painter and at once fills the mind with admiration and horror’ bears the imprint of Hodges.

Cook travelled with a third key Islander during his voyages. Only a few weeks after adding Mai to his expedition, he found room also for a Bora Boran called Hitihiti (Cook called him Odiddy). As a member of the Indigenous group that had conquered Ra‘iatea ten years earlier, Hitihiti was the sworn enemy of displaced Ra‘iatean Mai. It’s unclear what motive Hitihiti had in joining Cook’s voyage, since he had no ancestral lands to reclaim or refugee status to defend. Possibly he wanted only to keep an eye on Mai, whom he had heard was currying British assistance for an armed attack on the Bora Borans at Ra‘iatea. If so, it escaped the notice of all the British officers on board, and all their subsequent historians, because Indigenous-centred reasons for Indigenous behaviour do not fit typical narratives of European exploration.

Hodges sketched a young and confident Hitihiti (O-Hedidee) on board Cook’s ship, but he did not depict him in Britain because the Bora Boran decided after nine months to leave the expedition. Hitihiti hopped off when Cook circled back to Tahiti in 1774. He had evidently gathered all the information and prestige he needed from the Europeans to continue his life of an Islander elite.

Arthur Phillip Esq., Captain General and Commander in Chief in & over the territory of New South Wales, 1789 by Francis Wheatley, W Sherwin

Tupaia, Cook, Mai, Hodges, and Hitihiti form one cluster of entangled influence and advancement. Another coalesced during the early years of one of the key outcomes of Cook’s voyages – the settlement of New South Wales. The British Government appointed Arthur Phillip, loyal naval officer and sometime spy, to command the first fleet of convicts to NSW in 1786. Artist Francis Wheatley painted this rather sombre image of him upon his appointment, showing Phillip holding Cook’s charts in his hands.

Portrait of Bennilong, a Native of New Holland, c.1810 by an unknown artist

Under official instruction, Phillip tried to forge workable relations with the Indigenous people unsuccessfully for over eighteen months. The local Eora were uninterested or resolutely wary of the British newcomers. At length, Phillip resorted to kidnapping two Aboriginal men at Manly Cove. These men happened to be the Cadigal leader Colebee and the Wangal warrior Bennelong. Almost immediately, Colebee escaped from his leg irons. But Bennelong, intriguingly, chose to remain – he sought ways to turn his rude introduction to British colonial society to his community’s benefit.

For six months Bennelong studied Phillip’s language and mannerisms. Phillip felt confident that a breakthrough was imminent. He did not count on Bennelong’s own twist to the diplomatic process. Suddenly, in mid-1790, Bennelong departed Government House. Phillip feared he was back to square one. ‘I think that Mans leaving us’, he sighed in a letter to Joseph Banks, ‘proves that nothing will make these people amends for the loss of their liberty’. Bennelong, though, was planning an event that would make at least some amends. A few months later Bennelong ordered a speared attack on Phillip. To his mind, this cancelled out the offence of his original capture. Phillip declined to issue reprisals, and afterwards Bennelong helped ‘bring in’ the Eora to the colony. Phillip finally achieved then – if just for a short time – his desired détente.

David Collins Esq, 1804 by Anthony Cardon after John T. Barber

When Phillip returned to Britain in 1792 he took Bennelong with him, whereupon the Eora man sat in European clothing for at least one unknown artist. Bennelong wished to further his knowledge and utilisation of the British. Phillip wished to cultivate a possible treaty-broker with London.  The colony’s judge, David Collins, watched their departure, noting that Bennelong appeared cheerful, despite the ‘united distress’ and ‘dismal lamentations’ of his wife and friends.

Collins made his own brief return to Britain in 1797. In London, he also sat for a portraitist. This image went on to illustrate his Account of the English Colony in New South Wales (1798-1802), one of the most popular contemporary narratives of the new British venture. In it, and to his great bewilderment, Collins observed that when Bennelong returned to Australia in 1795 he eschewed the colony and resettled with his own Wangal people. ‘Instead of … shewing the least gratitude for the attentions which he received from every one’, Collins spluttered, Bennelong seemed to prefer the ‘dangerous society of his own countrymen’. Even though Collins also admitted that the colony had by this time descended into ‘open war’, he had not learned to appreciate Bennelong’s world as much as Bennelong seemed to have taken the measure of Collins’.

Port Jackson, a native, 1802 by
William Westall

Ironically it was Colebee, the captive who had first refused the colonists, who stayed in touch with them the longest. He had made cautious peace with the colony during Bennelong’s détente, and now continued Bennelong’s role of political broker. The artist William Westall sketched this (probable) image of him in 1802. It shows the typical scarifications and strong physical frame of a notable Aboriginal leader. Evidently a relationship with the British had not hurt Colebee’s status with his own people.

Bennelong and Colebee played key roles in the trajectory of European history in New South Wales, just as Tupaia, Mai, and Hitihiti a generation earlier affected the shape of European experience in the wider Pacific region. Needless to say, European imperialism made massive dents on Indigenous life everywhere in the southern hemisphere from the mid-eighteenth century onwards. But without a close look at the personal relations between imperialists and Indigenous people, we lose sight of the ways Indigenous people maintained their humanity, and above all endured the force of modern colonialism into the present age. Clusters of early portraits are instructive, showing us alternative visions of our conjoined beginnings.