The Cession of the District of Matavai in the Island of Otaheite [Tahiti] to Captain James Wilson

Commissioned by the Directors of the London Missionary Society (LMS) this painting records the arrival of British missionary activity in the Pacific. It was presented to Captain James Wilson by the Directors of the LMS in recognition of his service as commander of the Duff, the Society’s ship that carried the first thirty missionaries to the ‘South Seas’ (Tahiti, Tongatapu and the Marquesas). Commemorating the supposed grant of land at Matavai Bay, on the northern coast of Tahiti-nui (Society Islands), the painting inaugurates the first overseas mission of the Society and the first Protestant mission in Polynesia. It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1799, number 26.

Tahiti had been selected because of its association with the expeditions led by Samuel Wallis and James Cook. Their accounts suggested that Matavai Bay (see William Hodges’ 1776 painting, BHC1932) provided good anchorage, wood, water, and plentiful provisions through trade.

The Reverend Thomas Haweis (of whom the museum owns a portrait, ZBA5586), had been influential in establishing the Society in 1795 and also promoted Tahiti as the ideal location for their first mission, based on reports from Cook as well as the Bounty mutineers. The arrival of missionaries in Tahiti, Tongatapu and the Marquesas marked a significant turning point in the British travel and description of the South Pacific, eventually opening up Polynesian islands to increased settlement, resource extraction and colonization. It also shifted the nature of cross-cultural relations.

Robert Smirke (1753-1845) was commissioned to execute the painting. Originally from Cumberland, he had entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1772 and was elected full Academician in 1793. His reputation was built on literary and contemporary themes, such as the illustrations for John Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery and Robert Bowyer’s edition of Hume’s History of England. In accordance with the wishes of the LMS Directors, Smirke exhibited the painting at the 1799 Royal Academy exhibition with the following title: The friendly Reception of Captain Wilson, of the ship Duff, and the persons sent out by the London Missionary Society, at Otaheite; and the ceremony of the formal Grant of the District of Matavia for their use, in presence of the King, Queen, and Chiefs of that Island, March 16, 1797.

Smirke had never visited Tahiti, but the painting corresponds with the events of 16th March 1797, as described in the official narrative of the Duff’s voyage, A Missionary Voyage to the Southern Pacific Ocean (T. Chapman, 1799). An assembly of Maohi (Tahitians) and missionaries are gathered outside of the Fare Peretane (‘British House’), a wooden house built for Captain William Bligh near Point Venus at Matavai Bay. In Smirke’s canvas, the slopes of Mount Aorai and pinnacle of Mount Orohena rise sharply at the background as a crowd of Maohi and missionaries gather behind a rope cordon. Half-crouched, according to the textual description, the elderly Arioi priest Ha’amanemane conducts an elaborate oratory, in which he names all of the atua (deities) of the Society Islands, the districts, their chiefs and the European commanders, ending with Captain Wilson and the Duff.

The Maohi depicted among the crowd included individuals familiar to British navigators of previous voyages. A bearded Pomare I (called Otoo by Cook, and also known by the titles Vaira’atoa and Tu-nui-‘e’a-i-te-atua), standing behind Ha’amanemane with left palm open, was a favoured commercial and political ally of the British whose portrait had been previously painted by both William Hodges and John Webber. Pomare’s adolescent son Tu (Tu-nui-‘e’a-i-te-atua, who would later become Pomare II) had by this time inherited powerful kin titles. He and his wife Tetua (Tetua-nui Taro-vahine, are carried astride the backs of two large men because they are too tapu (sacred) to touch the ground. Pomare’s first wife Itia is one of the standing onlookers, distinguished by her string of pearls while her lover Fareroa stands to Tetua’s left. Paitia, the district chief of Matavai occupies a seated position at right.

The missionaries regard with rapt attention the events unfolding, translated by the Swedish beachcomber Peter Haggerstein, the European man in barkcloth dress. Among the assembled missionaries, Elizabeth Hassall forms a protective embrace of her infant child; awestruck William and Sarah Henry stand beneath the canopy of the breadfruit tree; to their left is John Jefferson, secretary; Rowland Hassall’s elder child and William Wilson, first mate and the captain’s nephew, look to the elder Wilson for his reaction. Captain James Wilson stands in profile with his hat in his left hand, in solemn observance of the priest Ha’amanemane’s oration.

The missionaries had assumed that Pomare I and Tu, chiefs of the Pare-‘Arue district, were sovereigns of Tahiti-nui and had ‘ceded’ Matavai to them. They were soon to learn that this ceremony had been an expression of hospitality and an invitation to enjoy the resources of the Matavai region (in the district of Haapape or Mahina), rather than a freehoold transfer of title in perpetuity. Shorly after the LMS Directors had commissioned printseller John Jeffryes to produce an engraving, the Society was informed that eleven of its missionaries–in addition to four women and four children–had fled to Port Jackson, New South Wales. The flight was precipitated by the ambush and stripping of the bretheren Broomhall, Jefferson, Main and Puckey, most likely a reaction to missionary interference in the trade for muskets with the crew of a visiting ship.

In spite of these events, a plate after the painting was prepared and engraved in stipple by Francesco Bartolozzi. With plain proofs selling at a guinea and a half, and hand-colored proofs selling at 3 guineas, the Society reported profit from the engraving’s sale in their 1804 financial records. New prints after Smirke’s painting appeared well into the 1850s, even reproduced as the frontispiece for a later edition of Polynesian Researches by William Ellis. The print adorned the sitting rooms of the Society’s metropolitan supporters as the LMS attempted to gain a foothold in the South Pacific. The original painting remained in the possession of the LMS and eventually came to the NMM as a gift of the Council for World Mission in 2013.
[Catalogue entry contributed by Julia Lum]

Object Details

ID: ZBA6683
Type: Painting
Display location: Display - Pacific Encounters Gallery
Creator: Smirke, Robert
Date made: 1798-1799
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Measurements: Painting: 2145 mm x 3055 mm x 34 mm; Frame: 2466 mm x 3400 mm x 158 mm x 113 kg; Overall: 142 kg

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