Mai (c.1751-1780), mistakenly known as Omai in Britain, was a young Ra'iatean man who became the second Pacific Islander to visit Europe, after Ahu-toru who was brought to Paris by Bougainville in 1768. In August 1773 he embarked from Huahine on the British ship HMS Adventure, commanded by Commander Tobias Furneaux, which had touched at Tahiti as part of James Cook's second voyage of discovery in the Pacific. Omai travelled to Europe on Adventure, arriving at London in October 1774 where he was introduced into society by the naturalist Sir Joseph Banks.
During his two-year stay in England, Omai became much admired within London high society. Renowned for his charm, quick wit and exotic good looks, he quickly became a favourite of the aristocratic elite. Banks regularly invited Omai to dine with the Royal Society and arranged meetings with notable celebrities of the time, including Lord Sandwich, Dr Samuel Johnson, Frances Burney, and Anna Seward, among others. Richard Holmes remarks that Omai's idiosyncratic behaviour and distinctive bow were widely celebrated. Indeed, during one famed meeting with King George III at Kew, Omai is said to have delivered his bow then grasped the King's hand, declaring, "How do, King Tosh!"
His portrait was painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds among others, and his journey to England and subsequent return to Tahiti with Cook on his third voyage in 1776 became the subject of a theatrical production, written and directed by the dramatist John O'Keefe, entitled Omai – A Voyage ‘round the World that was performed during the 1785 Christmas season at London’s Theatre Royal in Covent Garden.
Omai served as an interpreter to Cook on both his second and third voyages. He settled in Huahine on his return to the Pacific. During the Bounty's visit to Tahiti in 1789, Captain Bligh was told Omai had died about two and a half years after Cook's departure in November 1777.
Sir Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Omai, a South Sea Islander who travelled to England with the second expedition of captain Cook, 1776
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- Salmond, Anne (2003), The Trial of the Cannibal Dog, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, p. 3, ISBN 978-0-300-10092-1
- Holmes, R. (2009) The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (London: Harper Press) p. 50
- O'Brian, P. (1987) Joseph Banks (Harvill Press) p. 181
- "Temporary Export Bar For 'Outstanding' Reynolds' Portrait Of Omai" (Press release). United Kingdom Department for Culture, Media and Sport. 17 December 2002. Retrieved 6 December 2008.
- Connaughton, Richard (2005), Omai: The Prince Who Never Was, London: Timewell Press, ISBN 1-85725-205-5
- Omai, Captain Cook Birthplace Museum website
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