Omai Days: A History of Stan Culture

The Peculiar Past Column:

Ever sat down to a succulent meal, let’s say Pizza, and wondered where the ruby red tomatoes adorning your meal came from? How about those potato chips you had for lunch? Well, in CUB Magazine’s Column ‘The Peculiar Past’, columnist Hannah Cragg has all the answers to your questions. Follow her as she uncovers the dust-coated ancient civilisations, to which we owe our cuisine and modern luxuries. 

Today, ‘stan culture’ is as prominent as ever. with the figurative consumption of celebrities, their daily lives, thoughts, and fashion being almost a social expectation amongst the youth. Yet, while our methods of consumption have changed, with the rise of social media succeeding the magazines and newspapers that came before it, one thing remains our fascination with celebrities who are on the fringes of society. Before David Bowie and Freddie Mercury’s subversive anthems, before Charlie Chaplin’s black and white big screen hits and even before the time of 18th-century opera superstars like Jenny Lind, the origins of celebrity culture have their surprising roots way back in the late 1700s, with the rise of Omai, a Polynesian refugee brought back from the Pacific on Cook’s second voyage.


Who exactly was Omai of the Friendly Isles? How did he achieve celebrity status? He was, without a doubt, one of London’s first celebrities, and definitely the first person of colour, in London, to reach such popularity in high society. More than that, he was a refugee escaping conflict in his native Raiatea, where his family clan had been overthrown. By the time Captain Cook made his famous Second Voyage around Oceania, Omai had settled in the neighbouring island of Tahiti. The ‘Friendly Isles’ title, given to Joshua Reynolds’ famous painting, is actually a mistake on the artist’s part. It was actually Tonga that held that title, named because Cook’s crew had such a warm reception on their visit there; although I’m sure Tahitians are just as friendly. Either way, Cook decided to bring the twenty-something Omai back with him on the return voyage to Britain, mainly to impress King George III and to prove to all the haters that he actually voyaged so far away and wasn’t making the whole thing up… like some sort of human receipt. Needless to say, the royals were immediately impressed, having met the young Polynesian within three days of his arrival, in 1774. Taking up residence with scientist and socialite Joseph Banks, the word of the arrival of the ‘exotic’ Polynesian quickly spread, which was much easier considering that around the 1700s the population of London was less than a million. Soon enough, Omai was dining with London’s elite, sipping tea with scientists and aristocrats alike. He had a line of artists outside his door waiting to paint him. He quickly built himself a good reputation, with his charm, good humour, and manners, much to the surprise of those he met. His signature bow even became a fad among Londoners, copying it like a dance move. In short, Omai was received just like a modern-day tik tok star. 


Unfortunately for Omai, he was also the first to learn that when celebrities fall, they fall hard. After all, Omai’s main interest in London wasn’t to entertain its high society and keep up with the snobbery of its upper classes, but instead to swindle some fancy European weaponry to retake his homeland; if that meant being paraded around the streets and accustoming himself to a strange foreign land, then that’s what he was prepared to do. Yet the exotic charm and novelty of meeting someone from so far away quickly wore off. Omai soon grew out of fashion, with the Londoners moving onto the next new thing that excited them, tough crowd, right? Soon, Omai had very few visitors in his lodgings. It was decided that he would be taken back to Tahiti, on Cook’s next voyage. He had gotten what he had come for though – enough weapons to attempt to reclaim his island. 


While all the celebration Omai received in London was certainly impressive, it’s the unexpected impact his arrival, on political thought at the time, had that we should recognise. Omai was a perfect example of the increasingly popular ‘noble savage’ theory, which philosophers such as Rousseau pioneered; the idea that because they were untouched by the evils of European society and civilisation, indigenous islanders were the purest and most noble of all. His gentle presence in courts and tea rooms alike proved these notions to high society and perhaps helped to challenge the mindset of the large swathes of imperialists who felt it was their duty to impose their systems, language and belief onto foreign lands. Frustratingly for Cook’s crew and scientists at the time, Omai also proved something else: the local populations they encountered on explorations had a mind of their own. While Omai was certainly happy to entertain the rich Londoners and receive their gifts, he was notoriously stubborn when it came to helping the British with their aims. On the return voyage from England, there were several instances where he would refuse to translate for negotiations, perhaps best exemplified when Cook demanded to marry a chief’s daughter. Omai, thinking it was a bad match, kept silent. After being returned to Tahiti in 1777, being granted a European-style house on the island with all sorts of gifts from instruments to royal portraits to fireworks, Omai made attempts to retake his homeland Raiatea, with his new gunpower collection. He never quite succeeded, before his death some two years later.


Omai’s story is a rather untold one. However, his journey, both physically and figuratively, from refugee to London socialite, to yet another discarded celebrity, we can understand that celebrity culture has hardly changed over the centuries. The normalised toxicity of obsessively observing celebrities’ activities and ‘cancelling’ them when we see something we don’t like, or simply when we’ve grown bored of them, hasn’t changed since Omai’s days (although nowadays we don’t ship people to the opposite end of the world, with no communication afterwards). Perhaps this lack of change is not a good thing either. Maybe, the fact that the attitude towards the famous and celebrated hasn’t changed since the flush toilet was invented the same year that Omai arrived in England (1775), suggests we are overdue a shift from ‘Cancel Culture’.

 CUB’s Hannah Cragg is a QM historian with a passion for all things Incan. In writing ‘The Peculiar Past’ column she aims to spread her appreciation and passion of the Incan empire. Adding to her impressive character is her skill at playing the cello and her previous residence in five different countries.

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