‘Frown for the camera’: The unsettling gaze of the New Zealand wars wounded

‘Frown for the camera’: The unsettling gaze of the New Zealand wars wounded

Summer scholar Caitlin Lynch has taken a particular interest in a number of photos featuring soldiers badly wounded in battle.

Caitlin speculates on why these photographs were taken, particularly after the battle of Te Ngutu o te Manu. Did these photographs generate public sympathy and encourage pensions? Or was it a statement of bravery, commitment, and sacrifice?

Caitlin holds a photograph in the photography storeroom
Caitlin Lynch, 2018. Photograph by Rachael Hockridge. Te Papa

Post-hospital photo shoot

After the battle of Te Ngutu o te Manu, 7 September 1868, several men who had been admitted to the Whanganui hospital visited William Harding’s photography studio to pose for their portrait.

These cartes-de-visite depictions are curious, if not unsettling.

In one, Frederick Rowan, head bandaged from tip to chin, frowns out at the camera. In another, George Dore sits angled so that his ‘spectre of (an) empty sleeve’ takes centre frame [1].

Private D.H. Dore, Wellington Rangers. Severely wounded Te Ngutu o Te Manu Sept 7 1868, circa 1868, maker unknown. Purchased 1916. Te Papa (O.013003)
Private D.H. Dore, Wellington Rangers. Severely wounded Te Ngutu o Te Manu Sept 7 1868, about 1868. Purchased 1916. Te Papa (O.013003)

Below, a group of five men, Evans, Hamilton Geary, Edward Hope, Joseph Thompson, and Samuel Whiteside, grimly pose with an assortment of artfully placed crutches and walking canes.

Caitlin holding a photo of injured soldiers
Caitlin holding the photo of Evans, Geary, Hope, Thompson, Whiteside, wounded Te Ngutu o te Manu 1868, about 1900, by William Francis Gordon. Purchased 1916. Te Papa (O.011908)

These photographs are a stark contrast to the usual portrait of the soldier, standing tall, head held high, with a decorative sword or badge of honour. The motivation of which seems rather straightforward – you’d send it home to your proud mother, give to a girl you were hoping to impress, or just as a keepsake of your heroic glory days.

The purpose of the photographs of injured soldiers with their wounds emphasised are not so easy to guess, and invite questions about identity and public perception in a time of war.

Collage of officers
Group, officers, about 1900, by William Francis Gordon. Purchased 1916. Te Papa (O.011915)

In the wake of Te Ngutu o te Manu

There are a disproportionate number of images in the Gordon collection of those wounded after Te Ngutu o te Manu than other battles in the wars of the 1860s.

This could be due to several factors: there was a larger number of colonial soldiers wounded at Te Ngutu than many of the other conflicts; the wounded were hospitalised in a town with a photography studio; Gordon only moved to the region in 1875 and may have been more inclined to collect around later battles rather than those five years prior.

Another possible explanation arose when I began thinking about the soldier’s relationship with public opinion.

Hysteria-inducing press coverage

With the support of the imperial army only recently withdrawn from New Zealand, the battle of Te Ngutu was a chance for the government to prove themselves able defend the colony.

The defeat of the colonial forces therefore was a political disaster, not helped by the hysteria-inducing press coverage.

On 1 October, Wellington Independent reported that the ‘rebels’ now ‘threaten Wanganui with destruction [2].’

For many, the colony had never been in such a precarious condition – not only had their forces been defeated, but by a side with far fewer resources and men.

To the mind of a 19th-century settler, clouded by perceptions of racial inferiority, and without the insight of historical information we have today, Te Ngutu was not an indicator of Tītokowaru’s military skill but of colonial troops’ failure.

In parliament, in newspapers, on the streets, and in the military camps, accusations of blame were thrown around. Colonel McDonnell was deeply criticised and rumours arose of soldier’s drunken and disorderly conduct [3].

Why sit for a wounded photograph?

To those who had been in the confusion of Te Ngutu’s crossfire, carrying out bodies of the wounded with relentless bush-savvy opponents appearing at every corner, accusations of their disorderliness would have been hard to brush off.

These men, many young and inexperienced, had paid a heavy price for their service.

Perhaps this is what motivated Rowan, Dore, Hope, Whiteside, and the others to visit Harding’s studio.

Perhaps these injury-emphasising photographs were a statement of their commitment and sacrifice to the colony.

It’s less easy to dismiss someone as a drunken coward when the physical remnants of their painful experience are in black-and-white in front of your eyes.

Caitlin holds a portrait of Sub-Inspector Rowan and servant
Caitlin holds a portrait of Sub-Inspector Rowan and servant, 07 January 1869, Wanganui, by David Thompson. Purchased 1916. Te Papa (O.013492)

The financial and social consequences of being injured

Establishing your identity as a disabled NZ war veteran may have had financial consequences as well as a social.

In the same period over in America, identifying as an amputated Union veteran gave civil war soldiers better access to government-funded prosthetics and pensions [4]. Perhaps the situation was similar in New Zealand.

Images which connect disability to war, representing sacrificial limbs so to speak, may have generated public sympathy and advocated tax-payer funded pensions.

The unusual presence of a ‘servant’ in Rowan’s photograph expresses his dependence on paid help as an expense of war.

Sub-Inspector Rowan & servant, 07 January 1869, Wanganui, by David Thompson. Purchased 1916. Te Papa (O.013492)
Sub-Inspector Rowan and servant, 07 January 1869, Wanganui, by David Thompson. Purchased 1916. Te Papa (O.013492)

The connection between injury and financial aid is suggested in an article about Dore in the Nelson Evening Mail, who although has been “aged prematurely” by his experience at Te Ngutu o te Manu, is “enjoying a liberal pension bestowed on him by the government” for his services [5].

We can never know for sure…

It’s not known what happened to these images, and if they were ever displayed for the public eye.

We can’t know for sure why these men were photographed with their injuries, but making some guesses opens up a conversation about the effect of the New Zealand wars beyond the battlefield, on photography, on politics, and on people.


[1] Miller, Brian Craig. Empty Sleeves: Amputation in the Civil War South. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015, Page 6.
[2] Wellington Independent. “Nothing Extenuate; nor Set Down Aught In Malice.” Volume XXIII, Issue 2738, 1 October 1868. Wellington. Access via Papers Past
[3] Belich, James. I Shall Not Die: Titokowaru’s War 1868-1869. Wellington:Bridget Williams Books, 2010. Page 146.
[4] Miller, Brian Craig. Page 5.
[5] Nelson Evening Mail. “An Incident of the Maori Wars.”  Volume XXXI, Issue 53, 4 March 1897. Nelson. Access via Papers Past


This research was conducted in conjunction with Prof. Charlotte Macdonald and Dr Rebecca Lenihan’s ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Settler: Soldiers of Empire’ Marsden Fund research.


  1. The original negative for the carte-de-visite of Sub-Inspector Dore and servant is held at the Alexander Turnbull Library as part of the Harding Collection and has been digitised at https://natlib.govt.nz/records/23130399. The inscription on the negative names the sitters as Lt Rowan and Servant. What is not evident in the carte-de-visite is that the servant’s hands have been mutilated. The tips of the fingers holding the slate have been amputated. I have not been able to read what is written on the slate. It is fascinating to see David Thompson named as the photographer. It was known that Thompson used Harding’s studio, but without the evidence of the carte it is difficult to make out his work. Great blog!

  2. The servant in the Rowan CDV appears to be holding a writing slate. Presumably Rowan was unable to talk, perhaps due to injuries to his mouth or jaw.

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