Story: Four Kings and One Queen

The Visit
In 1710, four young Iroquois men from North America made an extraordinary voyage. As Ambassadors for their people and their nations, the men made a long and dangerous ocean voyage to Great Britain. There they were presented to the recently widowed Queen and her court as “kings.” None of the Iroquois spoke directly to her and a speech was read on their behalf. In the speech, they asked for military help for themselves and their allies against England’s enemy, France. The speech also asked for missionaries so that the Iroquois people could find out more about the Protestant religion.

They signed the speech with their ‘dodems’, symbols of the animals that represented their families.

These Iroquois men astonished the English: they were very tall compared to the average Englishman, had dark skin and eyes, and displayed fantastic tattoos. Everywhere they went, people stopped to look. When they attended a play, the play was interrupted because the audience was more interested in the four young ambassadors than the play itself.

Their visit sparked the English imagination. Writers produced plays about the ‘kings’; there were poems and songs, and of course, people high and low wanted to have pictures of the men. Long before photography was invented, the Kings’ faces were recorded in portraiture.

The Portraits

Queen Anne commissioned four portraits of the ‘kings’. These were done with oil paints and were full-length – showing not just their heads, but their full bodies, a mark of respect usually reserved for royalty and military leaders. The artist, John Verelst, who had never been to North America, used his imagination to create the landscapes in the background. Verelst knew that the ‘dodems' of the men were important, and so he included them in the portrait as well, even though he’d probably never seen a bear or a wolf or a tortoise. In the background of the paintings, the weapons the kings are holding are shown in use – arrows killing a deer, a club used in warfare. The hatchet on the ground represents the friendly intentions of the four ambassadors.

The Iroquois men probably only met the artist and ‘sat’ for their portrait once or twice. The artist had to fill in all the details from his memory and sketches. Verelst had to use his imagination and creativity to finish the portraits long after the men sailed home. The four men never saw the finished portraits.

These paintings stayed in England for hundreds of years. Finally, in 1977, they were acquired by the Library and Archives Canada. Queen Elizabeth II, visiting Canada as part of her Silver Jubilee celebrations, officiated at the portraits’ unveiling in Ottawa.

In 2007, the portraits made another trip across the Atlantic. They are part of a special exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London, where the four Iroquois men from North America will again cause a sensation.

Portrait Gallery of Canada

© Library and Archives Canada / Portrait Gallery of Canada

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