| Satire Based on Cook's Voyages, Part One: |
The Cult of Omai
Omai, a Tahitian, arrived in England on Captain Furneaux's ship in 1774 and returned with Cook on the Resolution in 1777. He was an object of fascination to London's high society, meeting with such figures as Mrs. Thrale, Fanny Burney, and Samuel Johnson. He also had his portrait painted by Joshua Reynolds. To the proto-Romantic thinkers, he represented the noble savage, a man untainted and uncorrupted by "modern" European society.
Omai appeared in print in different literary and dramatic productions, including epistles written in his name. These often served more as critiques of London society than as insights into the experiences of a Tahitian in eighteenth-century England. He also appeared in print and on stage as a character in dramatic performances purported to be about his experiences in England and his return to his native land.
Baston, Guillaume André René.
Illustration from Narrations d'Omai....,
Rouen and Paris, 1790
(item no. 42)
In this poem, Omai (or Omiah) is represented as depicting life in England in an unfavorable light as compared to the simple pleasures of Tahiti.
Omai was adored in London high society. In this poem, the Tahitian refers in a semi-anonymous manner to the ladies who received him warmly. For instance,
This copy is bound with another satirical poem, addressed to Omai, entitled, Seventeen hundred and seventy seven: or a picture of the manners and character of the age. In a poetical espistle from a lady of quality. The lady reminds Omai of the pleasures of his time in England and urges him to return.
Omai's visit to England and his return to Tahiti are depicted in this drama with little regard for historical accuracy. A second edition was also published in 1785 with the same number of pages but with several variations in the plot from this first edition.
The playbill for the 41st performance of this dramatic production advertises a procession "exactly representing the dresses, weapons, and manners, of the inhabitants of Otaheite, New Zealand . . . and the other countries visited by Captain Cook."
This four volume imaginary autobiography of Omai, "translated from the O--- Tahitian," was written by a canon of Rouen Cathedral. The portrait of Omai serves as the frontispiece for the first volume.
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© 1999 by the Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.