Ship Cove, Queen Charlotte Sound

John Webbercirca 1788

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 placid picture of Māori trading with British sailors hides a more troubled reality.

When British explorer James Cook moored the Resolution at Meretoto, or Ship Cove, in February 1777, it was his fifth visit to the tranquil Marlborough anchorage.

During his second voyage, in 1773, on the Adventure, several members of the crew were killed at nearby Wharehunga Bay by local iwi [tribe] Ngāti Kuia and Rangitāne. Cook refused to avenge their deaths, leading to a loss of mana [authority] in the eyes of his crew, as well as iwi.

He pikitia mārire o ngā mahi hokohoko i waenganui i te Māori me ngā kaumoana Pākehā, he raru anō kei muri.

I te taunga atu o te waka o Resolution ki Meretoto (Ship Cove) i te marama o Huitanguru i te tau 1777, koinā te taenga tuarima a Cook ki te taunga mārire o Tōtaranui.

I tana haerenga tuarua i te tau 1773, i runga i te waka o Adventure, tokomaha āna kaumoana i kōhurungia ki te Whanga o Wharehunga e Ngāti Kuia me Rangitāne. Kāore a Cook i ngaki utu, ko tōna mana te utu i te mutunga iho.

<strong>This essay originally appeared in </strong><strong><em>Art at Te Papa</em> </strong><strong>(Te Papa Press, 2009).</strong>

Ship Cove in Queen Charlotte Sound was an important staging post on Captain James Cook's voyages. When the <em>Resolution</em> and <em>Discovery</em> arrived in February 1777 it was Cook's fifth visit there. It was not a completely welcome prospect, however, as several members of the <em>Adventure's</em> crew had been killed by Maori at nearby Grass Cove on the second voyage. Initial interactions between the two peoples were cautious, with Maori expecting that utu or recompense would be sought for the deaths. No reprisal was issued, however, and the tensions soon abated. The sailors were able to cut timber, make astronomical observations, brew beer from what they called spruce (probably rimu) and engage in commerce with local iwi. While the crew had come prepared for this, they were surprised to find that prices had increased since their last visit: what used to cost a nail now had to be paid for with an adze.

Documenting all of this was John Webber, official artist for the third voyage. The Admiralty had instructed Cook that Webber's task was 'to make Drawings and Paintings of such places in the Countries you may touch at in the course of the said Voyage as may be proper to give a more perfect Idea thereof than can be formed by written descriptions only'.(1) The images produced by Sydney Parkinson and William Hodges on the previous voyages had already shown that the role of artist was vital to the public success of the expeditions. In his account of the fortnight spent at Ship Cove, Cook confirmed this, writing in his journal that 'Mr Webber has made a drawing of one of these Villages that will convey a better idea of them than any written description.(2) Painted following his return to London after a number of such sketches produced at the scene, <em>Ship Cove, Queen Charlotte Sound</em> was probably exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1789, where it would have found an audience with a burgeoning appetite for images of exotic scenes and peoples.

William McAloon

1. Admiralty to Cook, 24 June 1776, cited in JC Beaglehole (ed.), <em>The journals of Captain James Cook on his voyages of discovery, vol. III, part 2: The voyage of the Resolution and Discovery</em>, 1776-1780, Hakluyt Society, London, 1967, p. 1507.

2. Cited in ibid., part 1, p. 61.


  • Title: Ship Cove, Queen Charlotte Sound
  • Creator: John Webber (artist)
  • Date Created: circa 1788
  • Location: England
  • Physical Dimensions: sight: 762mm (width), 584mm (height)
  • Provenance: Purchased 1991 from the Bishop Suter Art Gallery, Nelson, with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds; gift of Sir Francis Henry Dillon Bell to the Bishop Suter Art Gallery, 1931
  • Subject Keywords: Landscape paintings | Discovery & exploration | Indigenous peoples | Canoes | Marlborough (New Zealand) | Māori
  • Rights: No Known Copyright Restrictions
  • External Link: Te Papa Collections Online
  • Medium: oil on canvas
  • Art Genre: landscape
  • Support: canvas
  • Depicted Location: Marlborough (New Zealand)
  • Registration ID: 1991-0005-1

Get the app

Explore museums and play with Art Transfer, Pocket Galleries, Art Selfie, and more

Flash this QR Code to get the app
Google apps