Princess Poedua would have probably remained a mystery to us if she hadn’t crossed paths with the British explorer Captain James Cook.
On 3 November 1777, James Cook moored his ships at Raiatea (French Polynesia). On 24 November, a midshipman named Alexander Mouat and a gunner’s mate named Thomas Shaw deserted from the ‘Discovery.’ To ensure that they would return, James Cook enticed Raiatea’s chief Orio, his 19-year-old daughter Poedua and her husband Moetua, and his son Ta-eura on board. They were held hostage in a cabin until the two men were returned. Also on board was John Webber, who documented the landscape, its inhabitants, costumes and houses they saw.
John Webber used the opportunity to sketch Poedua for a painting though it is unlikely that he finished the entire painting on board. Poedua appears with bare breasts, wearing a white drape of tapa cloth as her long hair falls over her shoulders. She also wears jasmine blossom in her hair and holds a so-called fly whisk in her right hand which signifies chiefly rank. She has tattoos on her arms and hands. The background is imaginary. It is known to be one of the earliest images of a Polynesian woman produced by a European painter for a western audience. A total of three paintings were produced; one is in private hands, one is in the National Library of Australia, and one is in the National Maritime Museum in London.
It is known that Poedua was pregnant when she was sketched by Webber. Nevertheless, the painting was made to represent all women of her race, despite her married status and pregnancy. Her expression is one of mystery – is she indignant at being held captive or has she submitted?
Unfortunately, we don’t know more about Poedua, but her image lives on.1
- Read more:
South Sea Maidens: Western Fantasy and Sexual Politics in the South Pacific By Michael Sturma p. 23-24