26.1.09

People out of place

I find unusual lives very interesting. I can't even remember how I learned about Omai, a Polynesian who traveled to Britain in the 18th century. Oh yes, he apparently knew Tupaia who traveled with Cook to New Zealand. This turned out lucky, because Tupaia could speak with the Maori. He unfortunately died of illness later on in the journey. It's still not entirely clear how Omai ended up on another ship bound for Britain. It seems that things didn't work out entirely too well for him, but the only information I have is what I have been able to read of Richard Connaughton's Omai: The Prince Who Never Was on Google Books. This book seems very readable and entertaining, but it hasn't impressed me with the quality of its analysis. Anyway... what would really interest me is to know what Omai made of Britain. How would he tell his own story and the story of the strange country he visited. It's rather like an Erewhon in reverse.


Connaughton's primary thesis has to do with class identity. According to him, Omai's low class in Tahitian society was permanently engrained in his tatoos, and he was 'spoiled' by being received as a 'prince' in British society. It's difficult to comment without more information.

It was while reading Connaughton's book that I discovered another person out of place. The second ship to visit Tahiti was the Etoile, captained by Bougainville. The botanist and doctor's assisstant was a Jeanne Baré. She was dressed as a man and apparently fooled the entire ship's crew, until she reached Tahiti, and was instantly recognised as female by the Tahitians. She became the first woman to circumnavigate the world and seems to have enjoyed it rather. I would love to hear her story too. I think the discovery to her female identity may have posed her some problems too. I also wonder how the rest of her life played out. Graham Robb's book, The Discovery of France paints a rather grim picture of the lives of ordinary French people at the time, and it does seem that she didn't adopt a male identity solely so she could go off on adventures. That's why we had a revolution as I recall.