Fresh perspectives on ‘savage’ ground

Neil Rennie on the observers and the observed in global cultural exchanges of the 18th century

April 25, 2013

Michel de Montaigne, the 16th-century Frenchman who invented the essay, wrote one about Native Americans, the recently discovered people who seemed so new and young, he said, that they had yet to learn their ABC. He met three of them who were visitors to France and who had been asked what had most impressed them. Montaigne tells us their reply. They thought it strange, they said, that a child (the young King of France) should be in charge of the nation, and also strange that all the poor people that they saw did not take all the rich people by the throat, instead of begging at their doors. Visitors from other cultures are not always so observant and insightful about our own, or else are silent or silenced, but they can tell us something about ourselves, about our own “civilised” culture, as well as about their own “savage” one.

The stories of such visitors and observers, who were themselves curiously observed by ourselves, have mostly been told before, but Kate Fullagar’s The Savage Visit places a chronological and multicultural range of them into a common cultural context: the context of our own “civilisation” in the 18th century. The best known of these visitors was Omai, a Tahitian - more properly called Mai, from the island of Raiatea. Sponsored by Joseph Banks, a wealthy scientist who accompanied James Cook on his first voyage to the Pacific, Omai was presented to King George III, presumptuously shaking his royal hand and asking him familiarly, “How do ye do?” He also met the future novelist and busy diarist Fanny Burney, who admired Omai’s manners, which were so much better, she thought, than those of Lord Chesterfield’s son. Omai was not noble in Tahiti, but in London he was unambiguously the noble savage.

Diarist Fanny Burney admired Omai’s manners, which were so much better, she thought, than those of Lord Chesterfield’s son

Fullagar tells Omai’s tale carefully, although I would question her interpretation of William Parry’s portrait of Omai, in his robes of Tahitian “tapa” (paper cloth), grouped together with his patron Banks and Daniel Solander, Banks’ scientific assistant. In this painting Fullagar sees an apparently “melancholy” Omai, who thus “creates a more worrying atmosphere for the viewer” than he does in other portrayals. I find the atmosphere created by the portrait for the 18th-century viewer to be reassuring, however, not worrying. The two scientists in the painting are cataloguing the exotic visitor. Banks is not “gesticulating”, as Fullagar thinks, but pointing with his index finger to the tattoo on Omai’s hand, which Solander is drawing or noting on the paper in front of him. The portraitist is depicting this happily collaborating group, the scientists and their exotic subject: Omai. All is well, not worrying.

I’m quibbling here, but Fullagar is alert to the cultural contexts of the individual visitors and simultaneously alert to their receiving and absorbing culture in this country. The stories of her exotic visitors are moving as well as historically significant. Unlike many of the visitors, who had no immunity to British diseases, Omai survived his visit to the UK and was repatriated, on Cook’s final voyage, to an island near Tahiti, together with his collection of desired items from civilisation, some of which lasted longer than he did. When Captain Bligh enquired, while collecting breadfruit from Tahiti, he was told that Omai had died, mysteriously but not violently. Years later, after British missionaries had visited the Pacific islands, one of them, the Reverend William Ellis, reported what remained of Omai: the helmet of his fantastical British suit of armour, and, more significantly, his jack-in-the-box - a fitting relic of its exotic owner, Omai, the Tahitian who popped up in London.

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