The Warrior, the Voyager and the Artist: Three Lives in an Age of Empire by Kate Fullagar

‘A portrait, through three lives, of the British Empire in the eighteenth century.’

The title of this book caught my attention, the cover held it.  I know who Joshua Reynolds was, but I had never heard of Ostenaco and Mai.   In this book, Ms Fullagar brings together their stories.

Who were these three men?  Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) was a British artist, Ostenaco (1703-1780) was a Cherokee warrior, Mai (c1753-1780) was a Pacific Islander from Ra’iatea.

How did they meet? Ms Fullagar traces the lives of each of the men.  Ostenaco, a Cherokee warrior, emerged as a diplomat who eventually rejected imperial politics during the American Revolution. He met briefly with Joshua Reynolds in 1762, when he had travelled to Britain leading a Cherokee delegation to meet King George III.  Mai, in exile on Tuahine after his home island of Ra’iatea was invaded and conquered by the people of Bora Bora, encountered James Cook during his Pacific expeditions.  Mai, whose aim was to seek vengeance against the Bora Borans, travelled to London in 1774.  Here he met with King George III and, moving amongst aristocratic circles, met Joshua Reynolds in 1775.

Two Indigenous men, from different parts of the world, each travelling to Britain.  Both had their portraits painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, by then the President of the Royal Academy.  Three quite different individuals, each caught (in different ways) within the British Empire. 

My focus, in reading this book, was to learn about Ostenaco and Mai and their interactions with British imperialism.  While I was interested to read that Reynolds was ambivalent about British imperialism, this was of less interest to me.

I finished the book wishing there were more Indigenous biographies available from this period.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith