Omai. The Prince Who Never Was. Connaughton, Richard. 2005

Omai. The Prince Who Never Was. Connaughton, Richard. 2005

Connaughton, Richard. 
Omai: The Prince Who Never Was.
Timewell Press.
ISBN 1-85725-205-5.

Omai was a commoner in his native land, but he so fascinated the people he met in London that they assumed he was a prince, and he encouraged this belief. This biography, the fourth about Omai, explains how this change came about leading to the performance in 1785 in London of a Christmas pantomime called "Omai, or a Trip Round the World", some five years after his death. There have been two exhibitions about Omai, in Auckland in 1977 and in Canberra in 2001. Connaughton brings Omai’s story up to date by writing about his portrait by Joshua Reynolds that was sold in 2001 for £10.3m, a record for this artist [See Cook’s Log, page 1917, vol. 25, no. 1 (2002)].

Connaughton begins the story with the arrival at Tahiti of Captain Wallis in the frigate Dolphin in 1767, and the cautious, fearful, mistrusting first contacts between two very different groups of people. When the ship fired a broadside at the Tahitians apparently trying to capture her, "among those injured ashore was a young man named Omai" who had come from "Raiatea after "warring tribesmen from Bora Bora… attacked the family home". For Omai, the driving force in his life "became a determination to exact revenge upon those who had killed his father and to recover the family’s land." Tupia later joined Cook on the Endeavour and would have been the first Polynesian to reach London had he not died at Batavia.

To help us understand Omai’s world, Connaughton describes the Polynesian class system, something of their religion, as well as important aspects of food, fishing, cleanliness, possessions and fighting.

Then we are introduced to the European idea of the noble savage as set out by the English poet John Dryden and developed by the Frenchman Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which coloured the views of Louis de Bougainville during his visit to Tahiti in 1768, which he "called Nouvelle Cythère after the small island off the coast of southern Greece which, in Greek mythology, provided a sanctuary for Aphrodite, goddess of love". Bougainville returned to Paris with the Tahitian Aoutourou who, despite having lessons throughout the eleven-month voyage, "could speak just ten words of French". The problem, we are told, "was that in their language there is no b, c, d, g, j, q or s, w, x y and z so that these sounds had to be learnt before inroads could be made into languages richer and more sophisticated than their own. The cultural gap was so broad that Tahitians found it a problem to visualise concepts that lay beyond their experience." He was introduced to Louis XV at Versailles but "overall, observers found his absence of interest and enquiry a disappointment". He was "soon ignored and destined to live a lonely life in Paris".

Connaughton summarises Aoutourou’s visit thus: "The first trophy out of Tahiti, their first noble savage, was therefore a failure. The idea had not been thought through to a proper conclusion". On the way home he died of smallpox.

Following a good explanation of the reasons for the Endeavour voyage and the preparations undertaken, the actual voyage is quickly dealt with, at times too quickly. "They sailed past New Zealand, Australia and New Guinea, exploring a new land, to arrive in October at Batavia in the Dutch East Indies, aware that all was not well with the hull of the Endeavour" (my underlining and exasperation). But I was pleased with the correct explanation that the Society Islands were "named by Cook due to their proximity one to another and not to any association with London’s Royal Society."

The early part of the Second Voyage is similarly dealt with until Tahiti where Furneaux (with Banks in mind) took on Omai, who wanted to see England. Although Cook was uncertain he "was senior to Furneaux by one day and therefore not in a strong position to intervene". During the journey home Omai was happier with the sailors than the officers.

To help us understand Omai’s new world, Connaughton describes the British class system, politics, etc., comparing it to that of Tahiti. Omai was inoculated against smallpox, which was endemic in England at this time, with a newly developed, but expensive and risky treatment. He met King George III, remembered Banks and Solander from Tahiti and was introduced to high society by them. The Earl of Sandwich became another patron. "What the literati and aristocracy found appealing were his manners, his courtesy and a vanity no less intense than their own… He became the foremost casualty of a social experiment that paid scant regard to its consequences. His presence in England for two short years had a profound impact upon romantic literature and inspired writers".

Omai grew in confidence so much that he was soon visiting people, such as the family of James Burney, by himself. He learnt backgammon and chess and defeated even an accomplished chess player. The book describes in much detail his time in England, but occasionally I got lost as some events are described twice in different contexts and out of chronology.

Omai’s return to Polynesia and Cook’s attempts to find somewhere suitable for Omai to live are explored in much detail. Connaughton notes "his own weaknesses, not least an ambition tempered by his apparent preference for being among the common people, his tunnel vision, and the strategic intention to invade Bora Bora without making the necessary preparations to do so, are among his many failings." The author’s aim was for this book to be "a lighter touch than the scholarly treatment of Cook and Omai found" in other books. He has achieved one that is easy to read, and leads the reader through the complex nature of those around Omai, as well as the simple man himself.

Ian Boreham

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 44, volume 28, number 3 (2005).

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