Poedua [Poetua], daughter of Oreo, chief of Ulaietea, one of the Society Isles

John Webber1785

Te Papa

Te Papa
Wellington, New Zealand

<strong>This essay originally appeared in New Zealand Art at Te Papa </strong><strong>(Te Papa Press, 2018).</strong>

By the time of Captain James Cook’s third voyage to the Pacific, the role of the onboard artist was seen as crucial to the success of the expedition. Pictures from the voyage, when circulated, provided better knowledge of the places and peoples encountered than words alone ever could, and contributed to the public popularity of the expeditions. These two paintings by John Webber were made on his return to London, based on sketches done during the voyage. Both appear idyllic, yet both prove the ability of art to conceal as much as reveal.

Ship Cove in Queen Charlotte Sound was an important staging post on Cook’s voyages. When the <em>Resolution</em> and <em>Discovery</em> arrived in February 1777 it was Cook’s fifth visit. Webber presents a scene of congenial exchange: the crew busily setting up camp on the shore and Māori bringing fresh fish from the sea. Yet this visit was fraught with tension, as on the second voyage several members of the Adventure’s crew had been killed by Māori at nearby Grass Cove. Māori, as well as Cook’s crew, expected that Cook would seek to avenge their deaths. His failure to do so proved a turning point in his relations both with his crew and with Polynesians.

While Cook was anchored at Ra‘iātea towards the end of 1777, two of his crew deserted, preferring the lush tropical setting to the impending arduous journey towards the Arctic Circle and their captain’s increasingly irrational behaviour. To force the locals to help return them, Cook temporarily took chief Oreo’s daughter, Poetua, hostage, along with her husband and brother. Webber likely took this opportunity to sketch Poetua, and later presented her in a neoclassical pose, draped in tapa cloth and holding a tahiri, or fly whisk, a marker of her chiefly status. However, the pregnant Poetua was not surrounded by the lush foliage of her island home when she posed for this portrait, but rather detained on board a foreign vessel, accompanied by the wailing and laments of the local womenfolk onshore.1,2

Rebecca Rice and Nina Tonga 

1 JC Beaglehole (ed.), <em>The journals of Captain James Cook on his voyages of discovery, vol. II: The voyage of the </em>Resolution <em>and </em>Adventure<em>, 1772–1775</em>, Hakluyt Society, London, 1961, p. 131.
2 Michael E Hoare (ed.), <em>The </em>Resolution <em>journal of Johann Reinhold Forster, 1772–1775</em>, vol. II, Hakluyt Society, London, 1982, p. 269.

<strong>Text originally created for Tūrangawaewae: Art and New Zealand exhibition at Te Papa, March 2018.</strong>

A portrait of a Pacific princess conceals an early clash of cultures.

Poetua was the daughter of Oreo, a chief of Ra‘iātea. While British explorer James Cook was anchored there, on his third Pacific voyage, two of his crew deserted. To force the locals to help return them, Cook took Poetua hostage, along with her husband and brother.

Poedua was the first portrait to present a Pacific woman to European audiences – an image not of a pregnant captive, held against her will, but a placidly smiling ideal of exotic beauty.

Kei te hunaia ngā tukinga ahurea e tēnei kōwaiwai kiritangata o tētahi Pirinihi nō Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa.

Ko Poetua te tamāhine a Oreo, he rangatira nō Ra’iātea. Nō James Cook i reira, i tana haerenga tuatoru, i whakarērea ia e tētahi tokorua nō āna kaumoana. E huri ai ngā tāngata whenua ki te āwhina i a ia, i hopukina a Poetua rātou ko tana tāne, ko tana tungāne e Cook.Ko Poedua te kōwaiwai kiritangata tuatahi ki te whakaatu i tētahi wahine nō Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa ki te hunga nō Ūropi – ehara i te whakaahua o tētahi mauhere hapū, engari kē he wahine ātaahua e menemene ana.

John Webber’s <em>Poedua [Poetua], daughter of Oreo, chief of Ulaietea, one of the Society Isles</em>, was the first great portrait of an indigenous woman of the South Pacific presented to a European audience. It is now considered to be one of Webber’s most significant works, described as without doubt Webber’s ‘… most serene painting, perhaps the most arrestingly beautiful portrait that any Cook artist produced.' The portrait’s significance extends beyond its art historical value, for it is also a record of a clash of cultures that resulted from an early encounter between European explorers and the indigenous people of the South Pacific.

John Webber impressed botanist Daniel Solander who then recommended him for the position of artist on Cook’s third, ill-fated voyage of 1776–1780.Cook anchored at Raiatea, Tahiti, from 3 November 1777 until 7 December. On 24 November, two crew members deserted from <em>Discovery</em>. To ensure their return, Cook enticed on board Oreo's son and daughter, Ta-eura and Poetua, and the latter's husband, Moetua, and held them captive until this was accomplished. It was under these circumstances that Poetua, pregnant at the time, posed for Webber in a cabin on board <em>Discovery</em>. Cook’s plan was successful, the men returned, and the captives released to their village.

On his return to England, Webber painted three versions of the portrait from that original work (presumed lost). One version was presented to the Admiralty and is now in the collection of the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich; another is held by the National Library of Australia; and the present picture, the only one of the three dated (1785). This has descended from the collection of Princess Ariimanihinihi Takau Pomare (1887–1976), youngest daughter of Queen Marautaaroa I (1860–1934), the last Queen of Tahiti.


  • Title: Poedua [Poetua], daughter of Oreo, chief of Ulaietea, one of the Society Isles
  • Creator: John Webber (artist)
  • Date Created: 1785
  • Physical Dimensions: Image: 925mm (width), 1445mm (height)
  • Provenance: Purchased 2010
  • Subject Keywords: women | national dress | Pregnancy | Captives | Indigenous peoples | Discovery & exploration | Society Islands (Polynésie française) | Raiatea (Polynésie française) | British | Neoclassical | Captain James Cook
  • Rights: No Known Copyright Restrictions
  • External Link: Te Papa Collections Online
  • Medium: oil on canvas
  • Depicted Location: Society Islands (Polynésie française)
  • Registration ID: 2010-0029-1

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