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Imperial lives

Books | Three intersecting figures illuminate an age that is still with us

Nicholas Thomas 6 August 2020 1317 words

Seeking an alliance: detail from Joshua Reynolds’s full-size portrait of Mai, c. 1776. Wikimedia

The Warrior, the Voyager and the Artist: Three Lives in an Age of Empire
By Kate Fullagar | Yale University Press | $67.95 | 306 pages

Students in many countries have campaigned for the “decolonisation” of universities and their curricula. The debate following the death of George Floyd and the reactions against the protests have lent urgency to efforts to come to terms not only with racism but also with empire and its legacies. But what was colonialism? The obvious answers refer to states controlling and exploiting territories and peoples beyond their borders, and often overlook the substance of the many relationships, international and interpersonal, that made up whatever colonialism was.

Among the British, notwithstanding several decades of scholarship that has insisted on and explored the global relationships constitutive of modern Britain, a sense that empire was nevertheless an add-on has endured. Yet Edward Said demonstrated nearly thirty years ago, in the discussion of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park that kicked off his powerful and persuasive book Culture and Imperialism (1993), that slavery and commerce energised the most domestic and provincial dimensions of English life. If it does not make literal, geographic sense to say that the Caribbean was located in England, it was and is true in a more profound sense that England was in the Caribbean and that the Caribbean was in England.

Kate Fullagar is a historian of the eighteenth century who teaches at Macquarie University. Her first book, The Savage Visit (2012), reconstructed the stories of Indigenous individuals who visited Britain from the sixteenth century onwards, some of whom became objects of feverish interest and fantasy, the vehicles for whatever European theory of the exotic was most salient at that moment. If it drew attention to one sense in which empire might have been more a two-way street than is typically assumed, that book’s core argument retained a British focus: it dealt with changing metropolitan interests in the “savage” and exotic. The Warrior, the Voyager, and the Artist returns to some of the same characters and themes but exemplifies a more genuinely cross-cultural and multi-local history through three intersecting biographies.

The warrior is Ostenaco, a Cherokee born in the 1710s in territory that embraced parts of the modern states of Tennessee, Georgia and the Carolinas. He became prominent from mid-century in diplomacy and conflict with the British, which was complicated by British–French hostilities in the American southeast, the separate operations of colonial governors and other agents in Charleston, Williamsburg and elsewhere, and older rivalries among native nations.

Following a period of war, Ostenaco led peacemaking with the governor of the Virginia colony, and in early 1762 signalled his interest in travelling to England to meet George III. He undertook a nine-month trip and met the king twice before returning home to difficult years through the 1770s, marked by Indigenous resistance but also by successive Indigenous concessions in the face of the expansion of colonial settlement.

The voyager of Fullagar’s title is Mai, celebrated in Pacific history as Omai, and perhaps the best known of all Indigenous visitors to Britain in the eighteenth century. He was preceded by Ahutoru from the island of Ra’iatea, who was brought to France by Bougainville and spent a year there over 1769–70, and by Tupaia, a priest, navigator and artist whom Joseph Banks hoped to host but who died in Batavia on the Endeavour’s passage home. Captain Cook was disinclined to bring Islanders back to England, but Mai travelled with Tobias Furneaux, the captain of Cook’s consort, the Adventure.

Mai’s motivations for visiting England were well documented: he too was from Ra’iatea — like Tahiti, part of the archipelago of the Society Islands — and his community had suffered invasion by the warriors of Bora Bora. He sought an alliance with George III and weapons that might enable revenge. Hosted by Banks in London, his company was famously celebrated by high society. He joined Banks on several journeys, including a summer tour of Yorkshire, and eventually returned to the Pacific on Cook’s third voyage. Though he reached home with gifts of all sorts, including a suit of armour and a horse, he fell out with Cook as to where and how he should be resettled. He was afterwards able to launch some kind of assault against the occupation of his home island, but with inconclusive results.

Ostenaco and Mai were linked by “the artist” of the title, Joshua Reynolds, who painted them both during their London sojourns. Mai’s celebrity is reflected in the fact that he was depicted not only by the president of the Royal Academy but also by several other eminent painters of the period — Nathaniel Dance and William Parry as well as William Hodges and John Webber, the latter the official artists of Cook’s second and third voyages respectively.

Reynolds notably painted the Polynesian at scale — the finished work is nearly two and a half metres high, an ambitious portrait by the standards of the period. Fullagar is undecided as to whether it was successful. In the context of the twenty-first-century art world, the painting has become a hallmark of British interest in the exotic, though it has been controversially sequestered in a private collection. The contemporary response was apparently muted, though the artist kept the painting on show in his studio, implying that he personally considered it an important achievement. Its oddity is perhaps its relative neutrality: although the tattoos on Mai’s wrist and forearms are accurately depicted, Reynolds otherwise evokes an almost generic non-European, albeit one with a distinctively noble bearing. (A widely circulated print, based on a painting by Nathaniel Dance, localised Mai more explicitly, showing him holding Polynesian artefacts.)

In any event, the work was more successful than Reynolds’s portrait of Ostenaco, painted nearly fifteen years earlier, which the artist himself consigned to storage. In the context of this triple biography, Fullagar’s account of the painter’s career, commitments and interests is absorbing. While scholars have long regarded Reynolds from the vantage point of his success and his prescriptive Discourses on Art, he comes across here less as the establishment’s aesthetician than as an intellectual unable to make up his mind about the most burning issues of the day, and particularly the question that divided his friends Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke: was empire an expression of rapacious injustice or a progressive endeavour that advanced global civilisation through commerce? In fact, as Fullagar puts it, Reynolds was a consummate society artist who found ways of pleasing opposed political constituencies, and was able to sustain a “two-way position with more flair than flailing.”

The Warrior, the Voyager, and the Artist is imaginatively conceived and engagingly written. It builds on biographic experiments such as those of Natalie Zemon Davis and the historical anthropology of Greg Dening and Anne Salmond, acknowledging that the lives linked by Reynolds’s portraits were not all the same, and not those of “selves” of the modern individualistic sort. Any cross-cultural narrative will struggle to evoke the inner life of Indigenous subjects as precisely or persuasively as the motivations and reflections of those who left personal writings behind or were intimately described by others. If asymmetry is inevitable, it is nevertheless critical that historians attempt to do justice to the diversity of perspectives and experiences that made up “an age of empire” — not least because that age, of global interaction, commerce, conflict, exploitation and danger, is with us still.

In the latest round of the “culture wars,” colonialism has become a thing that people defend or condemn through posts on social media. No doubt contemporary polities and communities need to position themselves by, in effect, voting for or against passages in world history. But our understandings and imaginative lives are enriched not by those sorts of binary adjudications but by stories we weren’t aware of, by going the distance, as Fullagar’s book does. As Julian Barnes once wrote, “There’s one thing I’ll say for history. It’s very good at finding things.” •

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