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Omai, A Native of Ulaietea, 1774

Nathaniel Dance and Francesco Bartolozzi (engraver)

engraving (sheet: 52.0 cm x 29.1 cm)

Mai (c.1753–c.1779), a native of Ra‘iatea, arrived in Britain in 1774 with the partial return of Cook’s second Pacific voyage. He had joined the expedition in Huahine in the Tahitian archipelago because he sought British arms to avenge the Bora Boran takeover of his father’s land in Ra‘iatea. Cook had assented to his joining, reluctantly, because Mai promised insider knowledge and comraderie for the rest of the Pacific tour. Cook also knew that the naturalist Joseph Banks, back home, yearned to examine a Pacific Islander ‘specimen.’ Banks assumed responsibility for Mai’s stay as soon as the Islander disembarked in London. Banks introduced him to King George III and accompanied him on trips to various English towns. Banks’s fascination dulled after some months, however, and he had set Mai up in a house of his own by early 1775.

Mai sat for many artists during his stay, including the Royal Academician Nathaniel Dance. In Dance’s portrait, Mai carries a feather necklace and a wooden stool from home. He later gifted this stool to his voyager friend Tobias Furneaux, whose descendants in turn sold it in 1986 to the Musée de Tahiti. Dance depicted Mai in tapa cloths and with tattooed hand-markings similar to those shown in Joshua Reynolds’s portrait.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery
Purchased with funds provided by Robert Oatley AO 2007

Accession number: 2007.29

Currently not on display

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Artist and subject

Nathaniel Dance (age 39 in 1774)

Francesco Bartolozzi (age 47 in 1774)

Omai (age 24 in 1774)

Subject professions

Indigenous identity

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