in the Island of Otaheité to Captain James Wilson, 16 March 1797

Greenwich, 19 September 2018

Matavai, 16 March 1797

The Cession of Matavai

by Robert Smirke, 1798. Oil painting commissioned by the Directors of the London Missionary Society.

Held at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich since 2012 and on display in the Pacific Encounters Gallery since 2018.


Taking in oceans and continents in a few strides, it was hard not to feel at the centre of things as I walked onto ‘the Great Map’. Covering the floor of the observation deck at the UK’s National Maritime Museum, it reduces the globe to something that can be over-seen and over-stepped.

The museum in which it takes centre stage looks up towards the hill on which the Royal Observatory is perched – home of the Greenwich meridian and zero point for a reckoning of time. Rooted in one location, at the middle of the map, the museum is a ship of time, with deck-like galleries of public display and dark hold-like stores carrying vast cargoes into the future.

I was there for the gala opening of the museum’s Pacific Encounters gallery. On a raised platform at the north end of the map, a pair of dancers wearing fibre dance skirts with shells around their necks were performing, accompanied by drummers from Beats of Polynesia, a London based collective whose Twitter profile suggests they exist to ‘bring a taste of the Pacific islands to the United Kingdom & Europe’. 

It was 19 September 2018, but their performance recalled other times and other places. In particular, it made me think of a painting, recently hung in a gallery on the other side of the Great Map – The Cession of Matavai – as it is often known. Painted by the English painter Robert Smirke, it commemorates the arrival of the first group of British missionaries at Tahiti in 1797, intent on taking a taste of the UK & Europe, and in particular Protestant Christianity, to the heart of the Pacific.

But the European perspective that the painting provides was only ever one side of the story – illustrating some of the ways in which Pacific islands and Islanders have been imagined and visualised in Europe over the past 250 years. The new gallery formed part of the Endeavour Galleries project, named for the HMS Endeavour, a British Navy research vessel that left the British Isles in 1768 under the command of Captain James Cook.

The Endeavour’s main mission had been to observe the passage of Venus across the face of the sun at Tahiti, on the other side of the globe. The story of Cook’s voyages has been so frequently told that it has become part of the myth through which Britain has come to understand itself and its encounters with other parts of the world. The heroic tale of the son of a farm labourer, who through his own ability and hard work rose to command a ship, to literally put Australia on the map, and who in the end was murdered on a beach in Hawai’i, remains hard for us to escape.

However, in recent years statues to Captain Cook across the Pacific have been a focus for protests about colonialism and its contemporary legacies. On Thursday 1 July 2021, a Cook statue in Victoria on Vancouver Island was torn down and thrown into the harbour by protesters highlighting the ongoing mistreatment of indigenous women and children in contemporary Canada.1

We clearly need to unpack the processes by which white European men were fashioned into the heroes around which so many of the tales of colonial history came to be told. In trying to develop accounts of the past that are recognisable to the descendants of the colonised, as well as the colonisers – as well as those of us whose ancestors came from both sides of what can, at times, feel like an unbreachable historical antagonism – we need to de-centre these historical celebrities within the tales that we tell.

Disrupting what Ann-Laura Stoler has called familiar stories with predictable plots, our challenge is to find other ways of narrating the histories of encounter between Europe and other parts of the world. As an artefactual history, with its primary focus on the things through which relationships between Europeans and others were mediated, this work is an experimental attempt to respond to this challenge.

A couple of weeks before the gallery opening at Greenwich, I left my job as a curator at the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology in Cambridge. The collection there includes a number of historic artefacts collected during Cook’s voyages that remain the celebrities of the collection. Regularly visited by researchers and loaned for exhibition around the world, their carbon footprint was significantly higher than mine in most of the years I worked at the museum, and in the anniversary year of 2018 in particular.

The Great Map

at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, UK. With thanks to

Screenshot of Tweet

about Beats of Polynesia performance. 16 second video available here

A View of Matavai Bay in the Island of Otaheite

by William Hodges, 1776. Oil painting held by the Yale Centre for British Art


'[A] view of Maitavie Bay, [in the island of] Otaheite [Tahiti]'

by William Hodges, 1776. Oil painting held by the National Maritime Museum 


Greenwich’s Pacific Encounters gallery is framed by Cook’s voyages, showcasing the dramatic oil paintings of William Hodges, a young theatre scene painter who accompanied Cook on his second voyage from 1772 to 1775. Hodges was a romantic who depicted Tahiti as a latter-day Eden in the paintings he completed after his return to London, paid for by the British Admiralty. Hodges made a number of paintings of Matavai Bay and experimented with how to present this landscape – a natural paradise, untouched by European influence, or alternatively a backdrop against which to contrast the sailing vessels, forms of dress and buildings of one island people with that of another.

While the Cession of Matavai owes something to these paintings of the bay, it depicts events two decades after Hodges had left. I had last seen the painting halfway up the stairs of the library at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, where a number a palm prints suggested it was not quite out of student reach. Five years earlier I was involved in brokering the transfer of the painting, along with a number of other artefacts, across London from the Council for World Mission in Westminster to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

Since then, the painting had been professionally conserved, and I had been told that the removal of two hundred years of London grime had revealed previously obscure details. What this painting, alongside other missionary artefacts displayed in the gallery allowed the Maritime Museum to do for the first time, was to tell a story of Pacific Encounters that included Britain’s history of overseas missionary engagements alongside the naval history that had been central to the museum’s purpose since its establishment in 1934.

No less maritime in nature, missionary history has frequently been told through accounts of ‘heroes’ in the mode of Captain Cook. But it is also a history of encounter that extends far beyond fairly short-lived expeditions of exploration.

The Cession of Matavai

by Robert Smirke, 1798. Held by the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich


Missionaries generally stayed in the places they were sent for longer periods, and the success of their work – convincing people to convert to Christianity – depended on developing detailed understandings of the lives of the people amongst whom they lived, even if their ultimate intention was to transform these. If the museum was going to tell a story of Britain’s Pacific Encounters, I was pleased it now extended beyond the initial impressions of Captain Cook and William Hodges. But the Cession of Matavai, remains an initial impression.

With Hodges’ mountains in the background, it shows a group of people assembled around a clearing, where the light, undoubtedly signifying the presence of God, shines brightly. It is an image of missionary arrival that imagines a future which has become our history. The painting was commissioned from the London painter Robert Smirke by the Directors, effectively board members, of the recently established Missionary Society. Smirke had never been to Tahiti, although he had undoubtedly seen Hodges’ paintings. He was, however, experienced at creating images based on literary texts, from Shakespeare to Cervantes. In this case the text was the journal of James Wilson, captain of the ship that delivered the missionaries to Tahiti.

Captain Wilson, shown in profile, hat-in-hand at the centre-right of the painting, was in many ways a missionary Captain Cook, although his life story was one of sin and suffering, followed by conversion and redemption. A veteran of the Battle of Bunker Hill in the American War of Independence, he joined the East India Company as a naval officer, just as Warren Hastings was expanding the power base of the Company to some consternation back in London.

Captured by the French, Wilson escaped by swimming to shore where he was recaptured by the forces of Hyder Ali, Sultan of Mysore, and imprisoned for nearly two years. On release he enriched himself working for the Company in India, finding religion only after his retirement back in Britain, still in his thirties.

Wilson read in the Evangelical Magazine about the intention to send missionaries to the Pacific and volunteered his services. For evangelicals, motivated by an increasingly central understanding of divine Grace, it was precisely Wilson’s earlier life of sin followed by conversion that demonstrated he was God’s choice for the job.

The missionary movement gained significant momentum in the early 1790s, prompted, so the story goes, by the Christian cobbler, William Carey’s 1792 pamphlet ‘An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to use means for the Conversion of the Heathen’.2 This led to the establishment of ‘the Baptist Society for propagating the Gospel among the Heathen’ at Kettering, which sent Carey to India in June 1793. A letter home in 1794 prompted ministers from a range of churches in Bristol to think about what they could do to build on his efforts.

This led to David Bogue, the Scottish Minister of an Independent Church in Gosport, Hampshire, to issue an appeal in the Evangelical Magazine, central to which was a sense of debt and obligation – both to God, and to early missionaries to the British Isles. According to Bogue, the spirit of Justice cried out:

Ye were once Pagans, living in cruel and abominable idolatry. The servants of Jesus came from other lands, and preached His Gospel among you. Hence your knowledge of salvation. And ought ye not, as an equitable compensation for their kindness, to send messengers to the nations which are in like condition with yourselves of old, to entreat them that they turn from their dumb idols to the living God, and wait for His Son from heaven? Verily their debtors ye are.3

Captain James Wilson and First Mate William Wilson (his nephew)

detail from stipple engraving of Smirke’s painting by Francesco Bartolozzi, 1803

UK Government Art Collection 1565


Missionary activity was imagined in late 18th century Britain as a ‘Gift of Grace’.4 But it was understood as a return gift, acknowledging an obligation placed on Christian Britain, ‘once an island of idolatrous barbarians’,  by a gift of the Word received by pagan ancestors, generations previously. As George Burder, an engraver who became a minister in Coventry, put it on the eve of the founding of the Missionary Society in 1795:

Let us in return “go and do likewise”.5

Established in 1795, the Missionary Society, as it was known at the time, consisted of Christians drawn from across the British isles, from dissenting churches as well as evangelicals within the established Church of England. Its constitution declared that ‘The sole object is to spread the knowledge of Christ among heathen and other unenlightened nations’.6

Although its model as a non-denominational society was the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, it was neither North America nor Africa that beckoned most strongly. The choice of Tahiti as the first location for missionary activity was influenced by the accounts of Cook’s voyages, which circulated widely, accompanied by prints, some of which were developed from the paintings of Hodges, and others from drawings by John Webber, an artist who accompanied Cook on his third voyage.

In the years after Cook’s death in 1779, Tahiti became central to the evangelical vision of Thomas Haweis, a Cornish Anglican. Haweis had been chaplain to Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, who had been part of the Methodist evangelical revival during the mid-18th century. She had supported missions in Sierra Leone as well as in North America to both Indigenous Americans as well as formerly enslaved people, and following her death in 1791, Haweis retained considerable influence as her principal trustee.

Haweis had previously tried, unsuccessfully, to send missionaries to Tahiti with Captain Bligh, so the establishment of the Missionary Society provided another opportunity. He argued that the main barriers to missionary work: inhospitable climates, absolute governments (as found in China and Japan), the prejudices of false religion (such as Islam), and the difficulty of learning new languages, could most easily be overcome in Tahiti where he thought weather was good, food plentiful, government mild, religious prejudices minimal and the language easy to learn. Haweis personally put up a sum of £500, nearly ten years wages for a skilled tradesman at the time, to fund the mission.

The problem with starting missionary work at Tahiti, however, is that it lies in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, so is far from easy to get to. The Directors of the society decided to buy a ship, the Duff. Preparations were overseen by Captain Wilson who recruited a crew of twenty-two, including his nephew William Wilson as First Mate. William is shown in the painting standing next to his uncle with his right hand in his waistcoat.

Meanwhile, the Directors recruited thirty missionaries. They including four ordained ministers, but also a roll of late-eighteenth century trades:  six carpenters, a cabinet maker, two bricklayers, a gardener, a cotton manufacturer, a linen draper, two weavers, two tailors, two shoemakers, a hatter, a shopkeeper, a harness maker, a surgeon, a blacksmith, a cooper, a butcher, and for some reason, a gentleman’s servant. These men had between them six wives and three male children, aged 12, 2 and 16 weeks. 

A Human Sacrifice, in a Morai, in Otaheite (with Captain Cook observing)

hand-coloured etching by William Woollett, 1784, after John Webber.

Illustration to A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean … in the years 1776-80 (abridged edition published by John Stockdale).

British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)


Map of Cook's Three Voyages

showing the location of Tahiti at the centre of the Pacific Ocean

With thanks to Astrofella

On 10 August 10 1796, the Duff sailed down the Thames with its godly passengers and crew, flying the mission flag – three doves on a purple background, each carrying an olive branch. By the time the ship left English waters on 24 September, the butcher and his wife, struck down by seasickness, had returned to shore and the twelve-year-old boy, already ill, had died of consumption.

By mid-November the ship was at Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, and having struggled to round Cape Horn, Captain Wilson took an easterly route south of the Cape of Good Hope, Australia and New Zealand before heading north to Tahiti. The missionary ship sailed nearly 14,000 miles in 97 days without sight of land, encountering only one other vessel.7

When the sun rose on Sunday 5 March 1797, the Duff lay off Tahiti. The ship was visited by people in canoes, intent on trading. Trade was refused, it being the Holy day, but they remained on deck to observe a religious service.

The following day, Captain Wilson landed with a number of others, and was taken by two Swedes who had been living on the island for some years to see a large building at Point Venus in Matavai Bay – built for Captain Bligh and known as the British House. The missionary party returned again the following day to take possession of the house and begin preparing it for the eighteen missionaries as well as their five wives and two children who planned to make it their home. They added sleeping compartments, a store room, medical clinic, library and chapel.

The two children are shown in the foreground of the painting, close to their kneeling mother, the wife of Rowland Hassell, an ‘indian weaver’.8 All three are dressed, rather impractically, in gleaming white cloth, a symbol of virtue, but also a bright point in the painting. The presence of children in a painting depicting the birth of a missionary endeavour anticipates the future. The elder child seems to have his gaze directed beyond the frame of the painting, with a finger pointing to something that others do not yet see.

Ha’amanamani, who had established a formal taiyo exchange relationship with Captain Wilson, of a kind that had become central to the connections of previous European captains such as Cook, is said to have played a prominent role in making these arrangements. He is shown in the painting as a bearded man on the left of the painting in the act of speaking, the object of Wilson’s attention. Although a local priest at the neighbouring island of Mo’orea, he squats in a shaft of light, suggestive of the influence of God.

In fact, written accounts of the event on 16 March, depicted by the painting, make it clear that Ha’amanamani had his own agenda. Having been exiled from the island of Ra’iatea, he was keen to use his relationship with Wilson to gain access to firearms as well as equipment to fit out the European style ship he was building to invade Ra’iatea. According to Mr Bowell, the shopkeeper,  a rope was stretched around the British house on the day in question to keep the crowd of Tahitians a suitable distance from the missionary party, with Ha’amanamani the only Tahitian to cross the rope.

He evidently “sat in an odd posture, half bent upon his heels, holding with one hand the rope, and frequently scratching his head and rubbing his eyes with the other”.9 While this posture is reflected in the painting, the rope is hard to make out in reproductions, but possible to see when standing in front of the painting itself. Ha’amanamani evidently gave a long speech, describing the Gods and important men of the surrounding islands, as well as the European ships and captains that had visited them.

Ha’amanamani then declared that the missionaries could take the house, trees, fruit and pigs they thought necessary at Matavai, but asked for military support in his campaign to retake Ra’iatea. When this was refused by Captian Wilson, he negotiated for assistance in his shipbuilding efforts, as well as a promise of diplomatic assistance.

The Directors of the Missionary Society had issued instructions to Captain Wilson in which they declared that:

As an inducement to us to prefer their island, they must give us a full title to the land we may have occasion for, guarantee to us the safety of our property from plunder, the enjoyment of our laws and customs, and the undisturbed exercise of our religion…

we recommend that the land shall not be purchased but required, as the condition of us remaining with them: and that the presents we make should not be considered as payments, but as gratuities, the expressions and pledges of our good will.10

A gift of grace clearly anticipated significant gifts in return, but the thing that Ha’amanamani was most interested in – European military might – troubled the missionary party.

This group, shown standing behind Mrs Hassell and the Wilsons, is represented most clearly by the depiction of the carpenter William Henry and his wife, who rather anxiously holds onto his arm, near the front of the group.

The missionaries are flanked on one side by Peter Haggerstein, one of the Swedes, whose bare chest contrasts with the fuller dress of the missionary party, but whose tattoos, described in written accounts are hard to make out in the painting.

On their other side the missionary party are framed by the seated figure of Paitia, chief of Matavai. They find their reflection in the group of Tahitians gathered behind Ha’amanamani, representing potential converts. This group also includes two children with their mother, the elder of whom also looks, like the eldest Hassell child, beyond the frame of the image, into the future.

At the centre of the painting, in a seeming pool of darkness, are two figures, covered from the neck down and sitting on the shoulders of others. These are the young king, Tu (also known as Pomare II), and his wife Tetua, both around twenty years old at the time. The missionaries were surprised to see them carried on land, but happy to bail their own canoes on the water.

On either side of them are Pomare I and his wife, Itia, who had engaged with Captain Cook and Captain Bligh, and were said to have approved the grant of land at Matavai, when told of the missionaries’ intentions.

The missionary ship "Duff" arriving at Otaheite

colour engraving by J. M. Kronheim and Company, c. 1840

National Library of New Zealand


The Cession of Matavai

by Robert Smirke, 1798. Held by the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich


Outline showing figures in Cession of Matavai

1. A daughter of Teu 9. Itia (first wife of Pomare I)
2. Ha’amanimani, Arioi priest 10. Mrs Hasall and child
3. Teu, chief of Pare 11. William Wilson, First Mate
4. Tu (Vaira’atoa, Pomare I) 12. Child of Rowland Hassall
5. Tu (Pomare II) 13. Captain James Wilson
6. Tetua (Tu’s concubine) 14. Mrs Henry
7. Faretoa (Itia’s paramour) 15 & 16. William Henry & Mrs Henry
8. Peter Haggerstein 17. John Jefferson

From The History of the Tahitian Mission, 1799-1830, edited by C.W. Newbury

p. xiii

The Cession of Matavai

by Robert Smirke, 1798. Held by the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich


As I looked at the detail of tattoos on the legs of the Tahitian crowd, revealed by the work of museum conservators, I was tempted to see this widescreen image as a snapshot of the meeting of missionaries and Polynesians in 1797. But I had to remind myself of its artefactual nature.

It was after all a painting created in London by an artist who hadn’t seen any of the events he depicted. It owes its setting to the paintings of Hodges, but was also clearly influenced by the ‘epic representations’ of Benjamin West, an American artist and the official history painter to King George III, who was made President of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1792.

His most famous work, The Death of General Wolfe, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1771, showed a crowd arranged around the dying general at the Battle of Quebec in 1759. West’s depiction of a seated Native American is echoed by the seated Tahitians in Smirke’s painting.

The Cession of Matavai is, however, much closer to West’s subsequent painting, Penn’s Treaty with the Indians, depicting a 1683 event when William Penn entered a peace treaty with Tamanend, Chief of the Lenape.

The painting was commissioned by Thomas Penn, William’s son, who in 1737 used an unsigned and disputed 1686 deed to claim land extending as far West as a man could walk in a day and a half – the so-called “Walking Purchase”.

Thomas Penn allegedly hired three men to run on a prepared trail, one of whom managed to cover 70 miles. Displaced from their land by this act of trickery, the Lenape allied with the French and attacked Penn’s Creek in 1755, prompting Benjamin Franklin to establish a militia in what had previously been a pacifist Quaker settlement.

The image of a peaceful treaty and grant of land, painted nearly ninety years later, was a piece of idealistic propaganda that glossed the more complex history of exploitation, expropriation and violence that followed this hopeful initial moment. 11

Like Penn’s Treaty with the Indians, the Cession of Matavai is a charter painting, depicting a moment of Christian good faith, while at the same time staking a claim to land, as well as a glorious imagined future. Unlike West’s painting, it was made very soon after the events it depicted. The Duff arrived home in July 1798, and by the end of April 1799 the Cession of Matavai was on display at the Royal Academy in London.

Looking back from our contemporary vantage point, two and a quarter centuries in the future, we can ask how the future that was anticipated by the painting actually unfolded. How do we now remember British overseas missionary activity of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? How far and how quickly did it depart from its early ideals?

On 6 March 1798, a year after the missionaries arrived, Tahiti was visited by the Nautilus, a trading vessel from Macao. Missionary efforts to prevent the Captain supplying weapons and gunpowder to the Tahitians angered Tu, engaged in his own campaign of expansion and conquest enabled by his access to European weaponry. In fear of possible reprisals, most of the missionaries, their wives and the children left Tahiti on the Nautilus, bound for Port Jackson, as Sydney, Australia, was known at the time.

The Death of General Wolfe

by Benjamin West, 1770. Oil painting held by the National Gallery of Canada


Penn's Treaty with the Indians

by Benjamin West, 1771-2. Oil painting held by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts


Before the Duff arrived back in London, the Tahiti mission had been reduced to a carpenter, a bricklayer, a cooper, three ministers and a minister’s wife. In late 1798, a second shipload of missionaries set sail for Tahiti in the Duff, but the ship was captured by a French privateer near Rio de Janeiro, and the crew and missionaries offloaded at Montevideo, Uruguay.

The Royal Academy catalogue from spring 1799 lists the painting as follows:

  1. 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 Matavai for their use, in presence of the King, Queen, and Chiefs of that island, March 16th 1797.12

Only in August 1799, after the Royal Academy exhibition had closed, did news reach London that the majority of missionaries had abandoned Tahiti, and it wasn’t until October that the second group of missionaries managed to find their way back to London from South America. By the end of the year, one of the remaining ministers at Tahiti had died and the cooper had left on another visiting ship.

Those missionaries that remained rapidly discovered that although they had been allowed to stay and to eat food produced at Matavai Bay, they were definitely not regarded as owners of the land.

The mismatch between imagery, created in London, and reality, experienced in Tahiti, could not have been starker as the eighteenth century drew to a close. It was the following century, however, that would see missionary activity become increasingly central to British understandings of, and engagement with other parts of the world.


engraved by M.A. Rooker from a sketch by William Wilson during the first Duff voyage.

Published in 1799 as an illustration in:

A missionary voyage to the southern Pacific Ocean, performed in the years 1796, 1797, 1798, in the ship Duff, commanded by Captain James Wilson. Compiled from journals of the officers and the missionaries [chiefly by W. Wilson]. And illustrated with maps, charts, and views, drawn by Mr. William Wilson, and engraved by the most eminent artists : with a preliminary discourse on the geography and history of the South Sea Islands, and an appendix, including details never before published, of the natural and civil state of Otaheite.




1 See,

2 William Carey, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens In Which the Religious State of the Different Nations of the World, the Success of Former Undertakings, and the Practicability of Further Undertakings, Are Considered, (Leicester: 1792).

3 Richard Lovett, The History of the London Missionary Society 1795-1895, 2 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1899), 8.

4 Boyd Hilton, The age of atonement : the influence of evangelicalism on social and economic thought, 1795-1865 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988).

5 George Burder, An Address to the Serious and Zealous Professors of the Gospel, of Every Denomination, Respecting an Attempt to evanglize the Heathen, (London: 1795), 9.

6 Lovett, The History of the London Missionary Society 1795-1895, 30.

7 Lovett, The History of the London Missionary Society 1795-1895, 133.

8 The Directors of the Missionary Society, A Missionary Voyage to the Southern Pacific Ocean: Performed in the Years 1796, 1797, 1798, in the Ship Duff, Commanded by Captain James Wilson (London: T. Chapman, 1799), 5-6.

9 Society, A Missionary Voyage to the Southern Pacific Ocean: Performed in the Years 1796, 1797, 1798, in the Ship Duff, Commanded by Captain James Wilson, 77.

10 Society, A Missionary Voyage to the Southern Pacific Ocean: Performed in the Years 1796, 1797, 1798, in the Ship Duff, Commanded by Captain James Wilson, xcix.

11 Beth Fowkes Tobin, Picturing Imperial Power: Colonial Subjects in Eighteenth-Century British Painting (Duke University Press, 1999), 56-80.

12 The Exhibition of the Royal Academy – the Thirty First, (London: The Royal Academy, 1799), 3-4.. See: