Omai14 July 2006
Source: A Voyage Towards the South Pole, Joyner Rare G420/C66/1777
Staff Person: Ralph Scott
The image above is of Omai (ca.1751-ca 1779)
Omai (ca.1751-ca. 1779) was the first Polynesian brought back to England by Captain James Cook (1726-1779) following his 1772-1775 around the world voyage. It was thought by English followers of the Enlightenment that individuals like Omai lived in a “natural state” of the “noble savage.” This idea was first expressed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1788) in his work The Discourse on Inequality, (1754) in which he argued that civilization had destroyed man’s “natural goodness” and that this was the basis of social inequality. Rousseau noted in his Social Contract (1762), that “Man is born free and is everywhere in chains.” Rousseau’s Enlightenment thinking formed the basis for many tenants that were later expressed in the American Declaration of Independence (1776).
Omai was not the first nor the last person brought by the English back to the Old World. Indians from North Carolina as well as Eskimo families were transported eastward during the 16th through 18th centuries. Omai lived in England from July of 1774 until his return to Raiatea in August of 1777. In England under the guardianship of the Earl of Sandwich (he was from the “Sandwich Islands”), Omai went to balls, operas and the opening of Parliament. He also enjoyed attending parties of shooting, skating, picnicking, and great formal dinners. Several portraits of Omai were made including a famous one by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1712-1792) which was recently on the market for 12.5 million pounds Sterling. Omai was noted by Fanny Burney (1752-1840) to be “a perfectly rational and intelligent man, with an understanding far superior to the common race of us cultivated gentry.” Omai was the author of a number of epistles and poems and he appeared frequently on the London stage as a dramatic character telling the story of his experiences in England and native land. Among his more notable works are Omiah’s farewell to the ladies of London, (1776):
- To beauteous B******, and the courteous C******
His warmest, chastest, fairest thanks are due;
Be yours gay days of ease, and nights of pleasure,
And joys Elysian, flowing without measure.
Omai returned to Polynesia with Cook’s second expedition in 1776/7, where Cook helped Omai build a house on Raiatea. Cook was killed later on in his expedition by the natives and in 1783 when Vice Admiral Sir William Bligh (1754-1817) arrived in Tahiti on the Bounty, he was told that Omai had also died a “few years after Cook had departed.”
The image is from:
Cook, James, 1728-1779 A voyage towards the South Pole, and round the world. Performed in His Majesty’s ships the Resolution and Adventure, in the years, 1772, 1773, 1774 and 1775. London: Printed for W. Strahan & T. Cadell, 1777. 2 v. plates (part folded) ports, (incl. front.) maps (part folded) folded plan. 31 cm.
While there is no special finding aid for this item which is in the Rare Book collection, the item is cataloged in our online catalog under:
Joyner Rare G420 C66 1777