Mai

'Omai', drawn by W.Hodges. engraved by J Caldwall
'Omai', drawn by W.Hodges. engraved by J Caldwall

Biography

Who was Mai?

Mai was the first Polynesian visitor to Britain, arriving in 1774.

He was born on the island of Ra‘iatea in the Society Islands. His father was killed in warfare with the nearby island of Bora Bora, and Mai, like many others, fled to Tahiti. He is thought to have been at Matavai Bay in 1767 when HMS Dolphin, the first European ship to visit the island, arrived.

Mai and James Cook’s Second Voyage

When James Cook’s second voyage visited the Society Islands in winter 1773, Mai was living on the island of Huahine. He became friendly with Lieutenant James Burney, brother of the novelist Fanny Burney, and decided to join his ship HMS Adventure, which was captained by Tobias Furneaux. Like many young men in the Society Islands, Mai was attracted by the idea of visiting Britain and he may also have hoped to gain British support to recover his family’s lands on Ra‘iatea.

The Adventure and Cook’s ship Resolution called at Tonga in October 1773 before sailing back towards New Zealand to prepare for a second summer searching for land in the Antarctic.

The first Polynesian visitor to Britain

During a storm off New Zealand the two ships were separated. By the time the Adventure reached the rendezvous at Queen Charlotte Sound, the Resolution had departed for the Antarctic. Furneaux decided to return home, without calling again at the Society Islands. Mai, who was still on board, thus became the first Polynesian visitor to Britain in 1774.

During the year he spent in Britain, Mai travelled widely and impressed many of those who met him with his courtesy and friendly manner. He became a celebrity and was often treated as an object of curiosity and entertainment. He was widely known as ‘Omai’, following a common British misconception about the pronunciation of names in the Society Islands.

Mai spent much of his time with Joseph Banks, who had sailed on Cook’s first voyage, and the Earl of Sandwich, the First Lord of the Admiralty. He was presented to George III and Queen Charlotte, attended meetings of the Royal Society, and dined with Samuel Johnson. He was painted by Joshua Reynolds and William Parry and was much discussed and written about. He learned to play chess, ride a horse and was tutored in the English language.

Mai’s return to the Society Islands

Mai returned to the Society Islands on Cook’s third voyage. He brought with him a wide range of European goods, many of which had been given to him by well-wishers. These included a globe of the world, fashionable clothing, toy soldiers and animals, a chess set, iron tools, a set of dinner plates, umbrellas and a suit of armour.

At Huahine the British constructed a wooden house for Mai and created a vegetable garden stocked with European crops.

Although Mai was offered protection by the chiefs of the island, his closeness to the British made him unpopular with some local men, and threats were made against him.

The expedition sailed in August 1777, and little is known of Mai’s life after this. When William Bligh, the captain of the Bounty, called at the island in 1789, he asked after Mai and was told that he had died a natural death.

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