It was March 29, 1777, that the lookout on HMS Discovery sighted land.
“The night was spent in standing off and on, and at day break the next Morning I bore up for the lee or West side of the island,” wrote Captain James Cook.
“We presently found it was inhabited by seeing men in all parts come out of the woods upon the reef to oppose (as we thought) our landing, for they were all armed with long pikes or clubs which they brandished in the air with signs of threatening.”
That island was Mangaia – and now, a never-before-seen watercolour painting of the island has been discovered in a box in an English home.
Dr Rod Dixon, the former director of the University of the South Pacific Cook Islands campus, has retired on Mangaia. He says the “snapshot images” of the island provide useful general information on Mangaia’s vegetation, its inhabitants, and some of the cultural artefacts of the time.
“For example, the dark profile of the Mangaian shore seen in Ellis and Webber’s drawings illustrates the dense littoral forest, a significant part of which was felled in the late 19th century to make way for a coastal road,” he said yesterday.
The European voyagers, not being able to land, set sail for Tahiti. Their next encounter would be at Atiu.
Nearly 250 years later, Jean-Anne Ashton of London, in the UK, was sifting through a box of paintings stored away by her late husband.
In the box was a small, unprepossessing watercolour signed by a W Ellis, and titled, Mangianooa.
She had inherited the watercolour and others from her husband, a lifelong collector and amateur archaeologist in the 1980s. She wasn’t aware of its earlier provenance.
Intrigued, she included it in the box she send to Chiswick Auctions for further scrutiny and research.
There, art specialist Rhydian Williams went through the four very large folders of “miscellaneous and lower quality pictures, mostly prints” to make the items into lots – but he kept the watercolour aside for research.
Williams says: “The signature, date and inscription on the back were quite clear, so I eventually identified it by comparing with similar examples in Greenwich Maritime Museum and the National Library of New Zealand.
“There are actually two similar examples of Mangaia in the latter:
“It was by comparing with these examples that I worked out that this must be after sketches originally taken in 1777. I then looked up Wade Ellis’s original account of the island for context.”
Williams said interest in the watercolour had prompted a few enquiries, ahead of the auction scheduled for March 31.
It has been given a conservative estimate of £600 to £800 (NZ$1235 to $1647) but, due to the interest in Cook’s voyages, it is estimated to achieve more.
“Despite its cultural significance, the estimate was conservative based on the fact that comparable examples couldn’t be found by Wade Ellis having sold at auction before, and so scope for comparison was limited,” said Williams.
Jean-Anne Ashton says she was “excited and surprised” to learn of the painting’s history.
She hopes the purchaser will publicly exhibit the watercolour, “so that it won't be hidden away for years as it has been up to now.”
As one of the first-known colour depictions of Mangaia, Ashton says it is historically “hugely significant”.
Ashton said she was now doing further research on the painting and the connection to Mangaia. “I’m on the case, so to speak!”
She is proud that her late husband recognised that this was a significant painting, “It could so easily have been lost over the years.”
Anthony Whyte, the executive officer of Mangaia, is supporting calls for the government to purchase Williams Wade Ellis’ painting at auction, and bring it back to Cook Islands.
“My opinion is it’s worth purchasing. especially since it was on Cook’s third voyage and his last,” Whyte argues.
“However, if it does come back, just where will it be shown to the public?”
At the Ministry of Culture in Rarotonga, Culture Secretary Anthony Turua agrees. He says he was surprised and pleased to read of the discovery.
“It is inspirational to have this painting recognising its originality of the island of Mangaia and the artist from the United Kingdom,” says Turua.
The Ministry of Culture doesn’t have a policy around procuring images by external artists – but he will ask his officials would investigate whether this might be possible.
“I am happy to have our office conduct research on how we can envisage the procurement of such identity from abroad.”
Back in 1777, the encounter made a lasting cultural impression on both the peoples of Mangaia and of England.
The HMS Discovery’s stay at Mangaia was short, says Rod Dixon, but the sailors were not forgotten.
The Mangaia leader Mourua, who had come on board and spoken with the crew, was a competent anthropologist in his own right.
He and his fellows sketched their own impressions of the European visitors.
And more than 50 years before the arrival of the missionaries, a new word entered the Mangaia language to describe these white-faced men of Britain.
They were the “Beretane”.
Melina Etches and Jonathan Milne report.