Omai goodness: a ‘noble savage’

At the end of 2001 Sir Joshua Reynolds’ portrait Omai rejuvenated the British art market when it sold for more than £10m. It was not the first time that its turbaned subject had taken London by storm.

Although dressed more like an Afghan warlord – or an extra from Lawrence of Arabia – Omai was actually from the Society Islands, west of Tahiti. He was brought to Britain by Captain Tobias Furneaux, arriving in the Adventure on July 14, 1774. Furneaux was James Cook’s fellow captain on his second voyage to the South Seas.

Omai – or Mae, as he was known on Tahiti, where he had been assistant to the queen’s chief priest – was greeted on his arrival by none other than the fourth Earl of Sandwich, the First Lord of the Admiralty who had financed Cook and Furneaux’s voyage. Omai proceeded to become the doyen of London society: in addition to dwelling with Sandwich and the scientist Joseph Banks, he met George III twice and dined with Samuel Johnson, Fanny Burney and, presumably, Sir Joshua Reynolds himself.

Reynolds’ portrait encapsulates the warm response Omai received everywhere he went – indeed, his entire three-year visit is almost universally recorded in the same soft-focus tones of the painting. Novelist Fanny Burney, for example, wrote of his “understanding far superior to the common race of us cultivated gentry”. Even Lord Sandwich, who is innocently remembered for his snacking today but was the epitome of treachery in his time, fondly observed on Omai’s departure from the Sandwich estate near Huntingdon: “I am grown so used to him and have so sincere a friendship for him that I am quite depressed at his leaving me.”

David Moore-Gwynn, the head of early pictures at Sotheby’s, commented on the sale of the painting that Omai embodied the Enlightenment concept of the “noble savage” – but it’s hard not to see this whole view as pre-packaged before Omai even reached these shores.

Only a decade earlier Louis Antoine de Bougainville had caught the popular imagination when he brought the Tahitian Ahu-toru to the salons of France, and such silent, wide-eyed visitors only served to confirm Rousseau’s philosophy of “man in his natural state”. But Rousseau had never left the comforts of European society, even when he fell from favour.

The idea of the “noble savage” seems a necessary foil to the excessive cultivation of 18th-century society. The presence of these people from vastly different cultures affords the elite the opportunity to flatter themselves by irony: see how he has a natural grace, which we can only acquire by education. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if we could live a simple life hunting for fish and wearing next to nothing, instead of having to put up with all our riches and sophistication?

Only Dr Johnson offers a grumpy voice of dissent. When one of his hapless conversationalists, in Boswell’s words, “expatiated on the happiness of a savage life”, Johnson replied: “Do not allow yourself, Sir, to be imposed upon by such gross absurdity. It is sad stuff; it is brutish.”

And when Johnson met Omai himself, he was more inclined to see the visitor as a mirror of his guardians: “He had passed his time, while in England, only in the best company; so that all he had acquired of our manners was genteel. As a proof of this, Lord Mulgrave and he dined one day at Streatham; they sat with their backs to the light fronting me, so that I could not see distinctly; and there was so little of the savage in Omai, that I was afraid to speak to either, lest I should mistake one for the other.”

For all the tales of the South-Sea islander politely greeting the king and charming everyone he met with his “natural” grace, it is hard to conceive of him as a real individual.

One account alone adds a little complexity, but it is of dubious origin, coming from an epistolary novel written almost immediately after the murder of Sandwich’s mistress, Martha Ray, by her other lover, the Rev James Hackman – a huge sensation in 1779. In a letter dated December 1775, she is supposed to have written to Hackman of her concerns that Omai has observed their clandestine relationship: “Come then tomorrow: and surely Omiah will not murder love! Yet I thought the other day he caught our eyes conversing. Eyes speak a language all can understand.”

And on Christmas Day, she wrote: “Omiah’s simplicity is certainly very diverting, but I should like him better, and take more pains with him, if I did not think he suspected something.”

Again, though, perhaps he is a mirror to the company he keeps, in this case reflecting the inevitable fear of being caught that Miss Ray felt. If this is a language all can understand, why did no one else see them making eyes at each other?

Captain Cook wrote in A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean that “Omai left London with a mixture of regret and satisfaction”: it is hard not to see this, too, as an expression of the writer’s own feelings.

Only when Omai returns to Polynesia do we see a different picture of his character. His home island, Ulaietea, had been overrun by rival tribes and in order to help him recover it, Lord Sandwich had furnished him with a suit of armour, a pistol and a pike. When he returned in 1777, he caused “uproar and confusion” by riding fully armed and on horseback – horses were at that point unknown in the region. John Rickman, second lieutenant on the Discovery, compared him to St George “going to kill the dragon”.

Cook provided Omai with a house and garden as well as advice on steering clear of local politics: “I knew, and saw, that the farther he was from his native island the better he would be respected. But Omai rejected my advice, and conducted himself in such a manner as… to lose the friendship… of every person of note in the island.”

Omai died around two years later, sick and with most of his possessions raided by his jealous fellow islanders.

And so it is that Omai becomes more a symbol of Englishness than a “noble savage”. In London, he is charming, graceful and cultivated – and when returned to Polynesia, he is more like an invader. At this point, of course, the islanders become thieves and knaves – while the Europeans return to their salons, confidant of their superiority.

Sotheby’s notes on the painting coo about Omai’s “inherent nobility”, falling straight into the trap created by the Enlightenment world view. Omai may well have had a calm and graceful personality – why not? – but he was also clearly corruptible, given his arrogance upon returning home. This is quite understandable, given the riches he has been exposed to – but beyond these superficial observations, a true portrait of the man is not as easy to paint as Reynolds implies.

The story of Omai’s visit to Britain, then, reveals more about us, the savage nobles, than him. His is the grace we avowedly envy, but secretly attribute to ourselves; his the simplicity we ultimately deride. It is tempting to see Omai reflecting on his deathbed, and crying out with Shakespeare’s Caliban: “The red plague rid you for learning me your language!”

This in no way undermines the beauty and value of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ painting: it is a fine self-portrait.

(Written in 2002)