INDEPENDENT NEWS

History Spurned: Everhardus Koster & The Arrival Of Abel Tasman In NZ

Published: Sat 11 Nov 2023 10:49 AM
The exceptional genre painting of ‘The Arrival of Abel Tasman in New Zealand’ by Everhardus Koster cannot find a buyer. As Dr. Mark Stocker explains, this is not because of any aesthetic defects, but because of its subject matter and the fate of the Māori it depicts.First encounter
It is the morning of 19 December 1642 and the location is Golden Bay, Aotearoa New Zealand. The cast of characters is Dutch navigator Abel Tasman with the crew of two twin-masted galleons, the Heemskerck and the Zeehaen, and local Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri Māori. The previous evening witnessed an historic encounter between them, the very first step in what some historians pompously deem the ‘colonial project’. It certainly marked the first of many misunderstandings and is explained by an unsurprising ignorance of Māori protocol. On Tasman’s arrival, the Māori blew repeatedly on their conch shells, and a sailor on the Zeehaen spiritedly responded with his trumpet. Rather than creating the first symphony for putātarā and trumpet as Tasman might have fondly thought, the Māori meant war, not peace and harmony. As the historian Michael King observes, they were ‘asserting their identity, their mana [prestige] and raising their morale by challenging their visitors to fight’. With the response, they naturally assumed that this had been accepted. What happened next?Beating a retreat
A remarkable painting by Everhardus Koster (1817–92), The Arrival of Abel Tasman in New Zealand, depicts the morning after. When the Zeehaen’s cockboat was being rowed to its mother ship, a double-hulled waka (canoe) containing 13 Māori rammed it. In the ensuing melee, four Dutchmen were killed ­– the moment that Koster depicts – and one of the bodies was taken ashore. ‘The first of many European imports consumed in New Zealand was a dead Dutchman’, wrote historian James Belich with brutal wit. The current political correctness of Aotearoa has subsequently made any anthropophagic reference tapu (taboo) or at the very least ‘inappropriate’, but it probably happened. With almost comical understatement, Tasman wrote in his log ‘We could not expect to make here any friendship with these people’. The initial response was to send off musket and cannon shots – which missed. Eleven more waka then entered the fray and this time a Māori was killed, only for the flotilla to promptly withdraw, allowing Tasman to sail away without further pursuit. The retreat was in accordance with the instructions from his Dutch East India Company employers not to engage in warfare. No European would visit New Zealand again for another 127 years, but Tasman’s bloody encounter – and his circumspect navigation of New Zealand from the west – had permanently entered both the histories and maps of the world.History lessons in paint
Koster’s painting is a first-rate example of European ‘historical genre’ painting: it doesn’t attempt the heroism or scale of fully-fledged ‘history painting’ but tells a story with a didactic aim. Historical genre was immensely popular in 19th and early 20th century Britain and Europe: think Paul Delaroche and his Princes in the Tower and W.F. Yeames’s tear-jerking And When Did You Last See Your Father? Perhaps young people knew more about history – and were more enthralled by what they learned – than their counterparts in today’s information-saturated and politically tribalised world. Why should the Netherlands and her crucial 15 minutes of fame (it wasn’t much longer than that) in New Zealand be excluded from this kaleidoscope of art and history? It’s important to note the high technical quality of so much of it; we deride 19th century art at our peril, witnessed in David Olusoga’s ignorant aesthetic dismissal of Victorian statuary on a recent Radio Four Today programme. Koster, an outstanding maritime artist in world terms, rules the waves in this painting. It shows both compositional mastery and suffused golden light, such as Koster’s more famous predecessor Aelbert Cuyp would have saluted. Technical accuracy mattered considerably in historical genre: we can easily discern the ornately carved waka prows and the slightly attenuated mere (club) wielded by one of the Māori as he bashes luckless, recoiling sailors. Probably in the course of his research, Koster would have studied invaluable primary source material, the engravings made after Isaack Gilsemans, a merchant and artist aboard the expedition. Unlike these – yes – racist depictions of enemy savages with grotesquely enlarged heads, Koster paints believable humans, the ‘Other’, certainly, but co-equals of the Dutchmen. They are not demeaned like the emaciated wretches depicted in the famous but controversial painting The Arrival of the Māoris in New Zealand, by Louis Steele and Charles Goldie (1899), which probably postdates Koster by some 40 years. In what I would call its fair mindedness, our painting is closer in mood to William Strutt’s View of Mount Egmont (1861), a depiction of Māori scaring settlers’ cattle during the New Zealand Wars. Though it obviously lacks Strutt’s invaluable eye-witness component, it’s a better painting.A masterpiece for sale
The Arrival of Abel Tasman in New Zealand is currently for sale. There were no bids for it at an Auckland auction in May. Moreover, the auctioneer, Ben Plumbly, has received no subsequent inquiries from public art galleries or museums in New Zealand. With an estimate of $NZ 130-180,000, it isn’t cheap; indeed, this represents a considerable mark-up from the price paid at an Amsterdam auction in 2022. But welcome to capitalism, and the vendor, ‘Private Collection, Australia’, stands to profit from its extreme rarity and, perhaps misguidedly, its potential popular appeal. The estimate is perhaps one-third of a good Gordon Walters abstracted koru (fern-frond) painting of the 1960s or ’70s, one of many. This makes it seem quite modest, though perhaps I am comparing apples with oranges. Its rarity value resides in the fact that while there were several significant New Zealand history or historical genre paintings (e.g. The Arrival of the Māoris mentioned above, and Walter Wright’s The Blowing Up of the Boyd, 1908), these were by English migrant or New Zealand English artists, not Dutch ones. And there’s no questioning its quality: my art history supervisor from undergraduate days simply pronounced it a ‘fabulous painting’.An appealing painting
On the face of it, Koster’s painting should have immense appeal. The public-spirited liberal in me makes me firmly believe that it is a painting destined for a public, not a private, investment geared collection. I can picture visitor hosts at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (Te Papa) having a great time exploring and explaining the painting, asking people at the end ‘What do you think?’ Some visitors will be Dutch, surely gratified to have such an attractive piece of their shared history as well as artistic heritage in the museum. Others will be young Māori, perhaps feeling a surge of pride that their people had defeated the Dutch 4–1! Still others may be more intellectual historians, drawing their conclusions on colonial and indigenous encounter and its depiction from the painting. It will perfectly articulate Te Papa’s aims, to stimulate hearts, minds and lives, and to consider ‘unsafe’ things (colonialism, warfare, race relations and even cannibalism) in a ‘safe’ space. A painting that is more ‘bicultural’ in its appeal, Te Papa’s most cherished, foundational aspiration, would be hard to find. Were it in the Suter Art Gallery, Nelson, its appeal would be similar, but it would have added interest through its locale in nearby Golden Bay. When I heard that the painting was for sale, I wrote not only to senior staff at three of New Zealand’s largest public art galleries but also composed an unsolicited report for circulation in Te Papa, where I once worked. I received polite acknowledgements, but that was that: nobody bothered to enter into discussion with me about the historical or aesthetic merits of the work. I felt some optimism that the new financial year, from 1 July 2023, would change matters, rendering the painting more affordable, but clearly I was mistaken.Why the silence?
This baffles me. It is not easy to second-guess opinions from people in pivotal positions who should have leaped at ­this remarkable opportunity. Silence is probably a convenient default position for them: condemn the work and you risk looking instantly and ridiculously woke. They probably believe that Koster’s depiction of Māori as co-equals simply isn’t good enough; they need to be in the ascendant and idealised, whereas Europeans are relatively played down. Over the past half-century, Māori ‘integration’ morphed into ‘biculturalism’, which in turn has morphed into the demand for ‘decolonisation’ which goes hand-in-hand with the recent mantra of ‘co-governance’. Like most of the New Zealand electorate, my scepticism about the last now makes me look at the very least behind the times. Perhaps some gatekeepers take an essentialist line and indignantly demand what right Koster had to depict who and what he did, though we’re over 160 years too late for that and this beautiful and important painting happened. Related to this line of argument is one that a historian friend suggests: ‘it may be that “Western” history is not valued – this is an argument that I have heard in a different context but I suspect the same principle applies’. If he’s right, the consequences are chilling; indeed, the very raison d’être of History Reclaimed is nullified should such an attitude predominate. A further complication lies in the fact that in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri were attacked and ultimately annihilated by waves of descending North Island tribes, including one that is an important presence today in the Golden Bay area. Tragically, they left no descendants to tell their version of the events of December 1642. Is it out of respect for them that the painting is now spurned? That would be understandable, but it would still remove a golden opportunity of reflecting on and learning from history. A less charitable explanation is that the present Māori of the area, and perhaps elsewhere, as ever joined by pious Pākehā (New Zealand Europeans), simply don’t welcome anyone dwelling on the inconvenient fate of Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri. Yet had any survived, they would surely want pride of place for this depiction of their ancestors’ mana and their decisive and fearless response to the first Europeans.

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