The Warrior, the Voyager, and the Artist: Three Lives in an Age of Empire.
Yale University Press.
This book brings together three 18th century lives in a fresh and unexpected way. Two of the individuals (the warrior and the voyager) were, respectively, from the Cherokee Indian nation in North America, and from Ra`iatea in the Society Islands archipelago in the Pacific. While the two people never met each other, their lives were connected through the facts that both journeyed to Britain, and both were painted by Joshua Reynolds while in London. The connecting theme between the lives of all three is the British Empire, its intrusion into the lives and lands of indigenous peoples, and the mixed views of the British themselves about their rapidly expanding empire. The author argues that using biography enables us to examine the empire from the viewpoint of indigenous peoples, and see the variety of ways in which they confronted, resisted or subverted colonial intrusion in pursuit of their own purposes or ambitions. While the evidence is inevitably fragmentary, interweaving these lives can help provide an alternative to relying on traditional stereotypes of indigenous peoples, and throw light on how they perceived and regarded the empire.
The warrior was Ostenaco, the utsidihi or chief warrior of the Cherokee nation, who was keen to establish clearer and more equal trading relations with the settlers bordering Cherokee Country in the Appalachians. He navigated both inter-tribal rivalries and colonial inter-state politics amid the complications of French threats and manoeuvres during the Seven Years War, with skilful calculation. The voyager was `Mai (Omai) who came to Britain with Tobias Furneaux in Adventure, and returned to Huahine in Resolution during Cook’s Third Voyage. The artist, of course, was the extraordinarily successful Joshua Reynolds, the first President of the Royal Academy, which he helped to found. For the readers of this journal, Cook’s Log, my review will concentrate on `Mai and Reynolds, though there is much of interest in the account of Ostenaco, and both the parallels and differences between their two visits illuminate the wider narrative.
Reynolds was the dominant influence in the development of art and art theory in the second half of the 18th century. He caught the spirit of the time and what his sitters wanted, as shown in his two early portraits of the dashing naval captain, Augustus Keppel. The first is static with the expected attributes showing the Keppel’s position and occupation. The second, by contrast, depicts a heroic figure striding forwards with a storm behind, embodying a sense of exceptional leadership in the face of overwhelming odds. Small wonder that Reynolds became the favourite portraitist of the elite, and his tactful equanimity and natural sociability helped underpin his success. Reynolds, however, had ambivalent views when it came to portraying empire, and his pictures could at the same time be read as critical of the mere glorification of military prowess. His closest friends spanned the political spectrum, from Dr. Samuel Johnson (a Tory) to Edmund Burke (a Whig). Reynolds was, the author argues, adept at providing portraits that played into both views of empire, of Tory support of monarchical authority but fears about over-extension, or of more bullish Whiggish support of imperial expansion. Reynolds’s theories about the purpose of art however posed thorny problems when portraying people from indigenous societies. Generally, he believed that a portrait should reveal the universal humanity of mankind, while also portraying those “particularities” that identified an individual. However, those “particularities” might involve a critical view from the sitter’s position as imperial subject. His portrait of Ostenaco, with rich ornaments indicating his status but an unnervingly direct gaze at the viewer, was never exhibited or sold. Painted in 1762, Reynolds kept it in his studio for the rest of his life.
`Mai’s story is then told in detail, and traces his growing up when the worship of the god `Oro was at its height, the complex background to his family’s loss of land on Ra`iatea to the islanders of neighbouring Bora Bora, and his removal to Tahiti. Crucially, he was present in Tahiti at the first three encounters between Europeans and Tahitians: the Wallis expedition in 1767, which saw the use of cannon-fire for the first time; Bougainville’s visit in 1768; and Cook’s first visit in 1769, to observe the Transit of Venus. `Mai would certainly have known about, and perhaps observed, the departure with Bougainville of Ahutoru, the first Polynesian to visit Europe, and then of Tupaia with Cook. `Mai’s decision to travel with the voyagers was not, therefore, so unusual, and he had seen clearly the superiority of European fire-power. His reasons for sailing centred round his desire to acquire firearms and, somehow, to employ European weapons in regaining his ancestral lands.
By the time of `Mai’s arrival in London in 1774, opinions about empire and the rights of American colonists were splintering. `Mai, however, received a rapturous reception in London (in contrast to Ostenaco), in part due to the fact that he was chaperoned by the influential Joseph Banks, who carefully ensured that `Mai was vaccinated against smallpox. An early audience with King George III was followed by a round of visits and meetings with society figures in London, and later visits to the country. There is much excellent information on the large number of squibs and scurrilous publications that accompanied his presence in the capital, and how these played into the political situation at the time. And, `Mai sat for his portrait by Reynolds.
The famous portrait of `Mai was again an attempt by Reynolds to portray human universality while saying something fresh, but acceptable, about Britain’s imperial status. Reynolds made several initial sketches, which together with Hodges’s earlier portrait of `Mai, probably reveal `Mai’s features accurately. The final portrait, however, had key changes. `Mai’s face was rendered both more European (his wavy hair hidden beneath an ambiguous turban) with higher cheekbones and a sharper nose, but at the same time more Oriental, with almond shaped eyes, creating what the author argues was “a conglomeration of a wide range of stereotypes”. The portrait, which is extraordinarily dramatic when you actually see it, aroused no particular mention when exhibited at the Royal Academy, and once again, Reynolds kept it thereafter in his studio. He did not again attempt to portray indigenous peoples as somehow the same as all humankind, while also pointing to the superior power of the British. This is all rather different to the standard views that the portrait was a magnificent depiction of the “noble savage” draped in a tapa cloth toga, standing in the pose of a Roman orator.1
The final chapters recount the return of `Mai to Huahine, the total failure of his hopes that the British would aid his cause, and what is known about the remainder of his life. He did apparently see Ra`iatea again, and participated in war against the Bora Borans, which was partially successful although he did not regain his ancestral lands. He died of natural causes before the age of 30, and was remembered with regret by his fellow islanders. The text rounds off with accounts of the other main actors in the book, Ostenaco lived until about 1780, and Reynolds until 1792.
Does the author achieve her aims of using these three lives to write a chapter in the history of the British Empire as seen through the experience of the indigenous individuals in question? In general, the answer is a definitive “yes”. It is well written, with a real sense of biographical narrative and drive, following the travellers on their voyages to Britain, and back to their homeland, and their subsequent lives. There is an acute awareness of indigenous protocols of behaviour, practices and language that on occasion led to disastrous misunderstandings with the British.
The book is a contribution to the debate about the British Empire, its character and its consequences for indigenous peoples. It points up the range of ambivalent attitudes to politics and empire, and sets out with clarity how fractured attitudes were to the extension of overseas dominions, which provides helpful political context that is sometimes missing in accounts of exploration. The British Empire is perhaps regarded as more planned and purposeful than it actually was, where in some respects it was the messy consequence of fighting the French in other places. The Seven Years War for example was a contest for supremacy that took place in different parts of the world. There are occasional oddities. The Eddystone lighthouse is described as “a marvel of bombastic confidence” emblematic of the growing empire, unlike the two earlier two lighthouses that succumbed to internal fracture and damage. This rather ignores the pressing need for a lighthouse in that location, and the innovative engineering which achieved an effective and far more long-lasting construction!
If there is a criticism, it is that some of the European characters featured in the book are reduced to stereotypes in the same way that the author criticises descriptions of indigenous peoples. Banks is vigorous, intemperate and energetic, which in many ways does describe the youthful Banks, but downplays his work and keen observation of everything he saw. Solander was not a “kind of secretary to Banks”, but a hugely valued fellow worker and taxonomist. Cook is generally described as dour, has a staid manner, or is plain-speaking, which speaks to old stereotypes of the typical Yorkshireman. Cook indeed may be hard to read, but was more than simply a dour Yorkshireman.
The narrative of indigenous lives is however always revealing. The author’s reading of art and portraiture is subtle and enlightening, and she succeeds through Reynolds in knitting together two very different indigenous lives, their depiction by one of the greatest artists of their day, and the multiple ways in which they navigated the hazards of life in an age of empire.
- Reynolds’s portrait of `Mai previously hung in Castle Howard, Yorkshire. It was purchased in 2001 by John Magnier, the Irish racing tycoon, who refused to accept the matching offer made by the Tate Gallery after a fundraising campaign. As noted on page 3, the portrait is still the subject of an export bar, and apart from display for nearly seven years in Dublin, and a short period in 2018 at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, appears to be kept in storage.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 27, volume 43, number 3 (2020).