Lady Henrietta Martha Hamilton (1781–1857) was an English amateur artist and portraitist who lived in Newfoundland with her husband, Sir Charles Hamilton, during his tenure as governor of the colony from 1818 to 1823. Hamilton is best known for her portrait of Demasduit, the only known representation of a Beothuk person rendered from life. The Beothuk people were Indigenous inhabitants of the island of Newfoundland who suffered from starvation, disease, and violence after the arrival of European settlers in the early sixteenth century. By the early nineteenth century, the Beothuk population had significantly diminished.
Hamilton’s miniature portrait of Demasduit as a youthful and demure figure bears no traces of the terrible events that led up to their meeting in St. John’s in the late spring of 1819. Earlier in March, the governor had authorized a group of English fur trappers to search for stolen items among the Beothuks of Red Indian lake. During an altercation between the two rival parties, Demasduit was captured and her husband, Nonosbawsut, was killed. Hoping for a reward, the fur trappers brought her to Government House in St. John’s, where the governor immediately ordered her to be returned home.
Hamilton painted this portrait of Demasduit while her trip was being arranged. As art historian Kristina Huneault notes in her book I’m Not Myself at All: Women, Art, and Subjectivity in Canada (2018), Hamilton’s consistent application of short brushstrokes throughout the composition produces a flattening effect. The two-dimensionality of Demasduit’s form and her placid expression conceal her story and personality. However, as the only existing depiction of a Beothuk person created from direct observation, this portrait provides a rare window into Beothuk-settler colonial relations in the early nineteenth century. Demasduit died from tuberculosis only a year after this portrait was created.