- “Savages that are come among us”: Mai, Bennelong, and British Imperial Culture, 1774–1795”
In the summer of 1774, London welcomed its latest visitor from what was then the newest region of an ever-expanding New World. Mai, or Omai as he was mostly then known in Britain, was a young Ra’iatean man, come aboard the Adventure, one of two ships that constituted Captain James Cook’s second famous expedition to the South Seas.1 Upon arrival in Britain, Mai became the charge of well-known naturalist Joseph Banks, once a voyager with Cook and now notorious social and scientific grandee. In the company of such an illustrious patron, Mai gained easy early access to the highest echelons of the bon ton. Soon, however, he was commanding in his own right—as one newspaper put it—the “Attention of Philosophers, as well as the commonly-curious.”2 During his two-year stay, Mai met with the King, dined with noted literati, fascinated provincial professors, charmed country gentlemen, and drew crowds of onlookers wherever he went in villages, towns, and city streets. He was painted by the leading portraitist of the day, Joshua Reynolds, as well as by many lesser-known artists. He inspired several respectable literary pieces, including a poem by William Cowper and a libretto by John O’Keeffe, together with scores of broadside articles, cheap woodcuts, penny ballads, and other popular printed ephemera. By the time he returned to his home islands in 1776 with Cook’s third and final voyage of discovery, Mai had made a deep impression on a significant portion of the British populace.
Some twenty years later, in the spring of 1793, another visitor from yet another newly discovered region of the New World turned up in London. This was Bennelong, an Australian Aboriginal man, come under the patronage of the first governor of New South Wales, Arthur Phillip.3 Phillip was certainly no match in social terms for Banks; nonetheless, his middling status had been raised recently by his reputed accomplishments in the fledgling colony. Yet, despite Phillip’s position, the advent of Bennelong went almost entirely unnoticed. [End Page 211] The London Packet gave one longish account of his arrival, but there were no other public commentaries.4 Bennelong did not meet the King, he did not dine with any metropolitan dignitaries, his image was not drawn by artists, he did not feature in any contemporary literatures—popular or otherwise—and although he visited many of the same sites that Mai had—St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Houses of Parliament, Covent Garden, and others—his excursions were noted by neither crowds nor reporters.
Why was there such a big swing in interest from one New World visitor to the next in a relatively short space of time? Even after some scrutiny, Mai and Bennelong appeared to share many important similarities. Both visitors had been escorted by patrons of substance, both had resided chiefly in the capital, both had stayed for roughly two years, and both had toured prominent sites of national or cultural significance. Both, coincidentally, were roughly 21 years old at the time of arrival and each was reputed to be very handsome. Most importantly, both had come as a kind of representative of what the British thought of then as their newest New World—a role that conferred on each of them equally the momentous epithet of “savage.”
This essay seeks to explore and understand the discrepancy in fascination between the two visiting “savages,” Mai and Bennelong. It begins with a survey of the precedents for both visits, looking at earlier arrivals of New World peoples and identifying chief characteristics in their reception. It then turns to an analysis of each visit, discussing how each did or did not conform to type and why each should have had its respective effect. Underlying my argument is an insistence that the reputed savagery of Mai and Bennelong was critical to their popularity, or lack thereof. The markedly different reactions to embodied visiting savagery between the 1770s and the 1790s indicate, I contend, not so much a change in the meaning of savagery over this brief period but rather...