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Omai

1750 – 1778

Omai (Mai) (c. 1750-1778), the first Polynesian to visit Britain, was a young man of middling social standing who volunteered to sail from Huahine to England with Captain Furneaux on the Adventure (the ship accompanying James Cook's Resolution on Cook's second voyage of discovery (1772-1775). On board the Adventure - where he was known variously as Tetuby Homey, or Jack - Omai was tutored in English by the brother of Fanny Burney, the diarist, novelist and friend of Samuel Johnson and Joshua Reynolds. Arriving at Spithead in 1774 he was greeted by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Sandwich, and placed in the care of Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, who were amongst the few able to communicate with him. He was ubiquitous on the London social scene in 1774-1776, being presented at Court to George III, enjoying the close attentions of society ladies and staying at Hinchingbrooke, the country house of Lord and Lady Sandwich. Omai returned to his birthplace with James Cook on his third voyage (on the Resolution) in 1776. By the time Cook was killed on that voyage in 1779, Omai is also thought to have died, sadly isolated despite Cook's strong efforts to establish him comfortably and promote his social re-acceptance. Omai had perfectly encapsulated conflicting philosophical ideas of the Enlightenment. On one hand, he was the first 'wild' visitor satisfactorily to embody Rousseau's ideal of the 'noble savage', untainted by the corrupting influences of contemporary social life. On the other, opponents of such Romantic sentiment (for instance Dr Johnson), believed it was not surprising that Omai was civil and gentle, as following his arrival in England he had moved only in the best circles. Posthumously, he was the fictionalised hero, with Cook, of the imperialist pantomime OMAI: or, a Trip Round the World, which ran intermittently in London from 1785 to 1788 and was both a popular and critical success.

Updated 2018