Hongi and Waikato

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Oil on canvas
410 x 325mm

On 2 March, 1820, the two Ngāpuhi chiefs Hongi Hika and his nephew, Hohaia Parata Waikato, left the Bay of Islands on the whaler New Zealander to visit England in the company of the missionary Thomas Kendall. He took the two chiefs to Cambridge where they stayed with Professor Samuel Lee to whom they gave valuable assistance in his preparation for the Church Missionary Society of the book A grammar and vocabulary of the language of New Zealand.

Although Hongi’s health was seriously affected by the climate, he was well received in London society, being much admired for his princely bearing and interest in British military organisation. He was soon to convert many of the gifts showered upon him into cash, buying muskets and powder with it. After some delay Hongi and Waikato were able to meet King George IV, who presented them with a suit of chain mail armour and more guns. The two chiefs returned home in July 1821 and in less than two months Hongi had embarked on the prolonged campaign of death and destruction with which his name is inextricably linked to this day.

While in London the two chiefs were painted by John Jackson RA, a prolific portraitist whose sitters had included the Duke of Wellington and some noted Wesleyan ministers. It is believed that this unsigned double portrait was a commission from the Church Missionary Society, owners of the work until 1993.

This is not a painting in the ‘noble savage’ genre. Instead the artist has gone to some pains to employ his considerable talent in depicting his two subjects as characterful individuals. By cloaking them in a dramatically conceived but undefined space these rangatira appear both powerful and mysterious. Even today the painting evokes the sense of awe with which British people including the artist himself must have regarded them.