The Portraitist’s Dilemma
The Warrior, The Voyager and the Artist: Three Lives in an Age of Empire
by Kate Fullagar
Yale University Press
Published January 2020
The permanence of the past challenges every historian. Events happened and can’t ever unhappen. Those who write history must struggle against perceptions of inevitability, explaining why and how particular outcomes emerged without turning contingency into necessity.
In The Warrior, The Voyager and the Artist, Kate Fullagar invites us to rethink the British empire of the eighteenth century, understanding it not as the inexorable outcome of economic and technological superiority but as a more tenuous – even tentative – project, contested at its centre as well as its edges. She does this through a clever conceit, structuring the book around the intersecting lives of the Cherokee leader Ostenaco, the Pacific Islander known as Mai, and the man who painted them both, Sir Joshua Reynolds.
The career of Sir Joshua – perhaps the most acclaimed portraitist of the day – highlights the rapidity of change in early modernity. Born in 1723 to a schoolmaster and a vicar’s daughter in a small village near Plymouth, Reynolds began his working life as an apprentice ‘phiz monger’ (the splendid colloquial term for those who specialised in face portraits). He ended it as the artist-philosopher presiding over the Royal Academy of the Arts – an institution he and his fellows created as they transformed painting from a trade into a gentlemanly vocation.
They could do so because, in part, of the prosperity associated with what we might call early globalisation. International commerce did not merely enrich merchants and entrepreneurs. It engendered a new transnational infrastructure, with the navy required to safeguard growing investments, and it turned seaside towns like Plymouth into bustling industrial hubs. Throughout the country, foreign trade reshaped local tastes. Tea, for instance, became such a staple that some households devoted as much as ten percent of their budget to acquiring the stuff.
Portraitists were thus not alone in catering to the aspirations of the upwardly mobile. But the wealth that allowed kettles to be brewed and phizes to be mongered also disrupted the established order in alarming ways. In 1760, Reynolds and his painterly friends staged the first ever public contemporary art show, an exhibition that, rather to their surprise, attracted everyone from aristocrats to ‘menial servants and their acquaintance’. The new propensity of ordinary people to attend such events worried many artists, with the Royal Academy eventually constructed by a faction deliberately seeking to exclude any culturally-inclined menials.
Uncertainty about the consequences of a global economy meant that Tories like Reynolds’ friend Samuel Johnson opposed the imperial project. Johnson considered colonisers ‘mostly thieves and slavers’ and their settlements as a challenge to the monarchical authority upheld by Toryism. Conversely, the Whig Edmund Burke (a man who, as Fullagar rather sweetly puts it, ‘shared top billing in Reynold’s heart from the mid-1750s’) endorsed colonial expansionism precisely because it created other sources of power and so facilitated parliamentary dominance over the crown.
Our own political lexicon does not map neatly onto the uncertainties over eighteenth-century imperialism. Suffice to say that Sir Joshua – an inveterate, almost obsessional, trimmer – forged his stellar career by assiduously conciliating between his friends and the factions they represented. When, for instance, Reynolds painted the British officer Captain Robert Orme, he produced a portrait successful because it could be admired both as a celebration of the foreign wars in which Orme fought and as a warning against them, according to the taste of the individual viewer.
We might not expect to find the most eminent English portraitist of the day pandering to an anti-imperialist Toryism. But that’s because of a tendency to project the confidence of the Victorian age backwards in time, even though, as Fullagar tell us, Britons ‘had more conflicted attitudes toward empire in the eighteenth century than the record of later imperialism indicates.’
The responses of Indigenous people to colonial settlement were also more complicated than we might imagine. The Cherokee leader Ostenaco – the warrior of Fullagar’s title – provides a perfect example of the surprising provisionality of the white presence in the New World.
Born in approximately 1710, Ostenaco spent his youth engaged in the customary Cherokee preoccupations of trading and war, activities that increasingly involved the French and the English but did not yet centre on them. As a young man, Ostenaco devoted more attention to his traditional enemies, the Creek people, than he did to the settlers, who remained ‘bit players in the central business of Cherokee life’. The tenuousness of colonies meant that, ‘in many cases Europeans were the ones stumbling to understand the rules … and to get a foothold for themselves in the complex world of Appalachian America’.
Ostenaco’s decision to visit London in 1762 reflected his recognition, after the Anglo-Cherokee war of 1760-61, of England’s rising influence in North America. He did not go to Europe as a captive paraded in imperial triumph but as something more like an envoy, a leader making peace with a rival power. That wasn’t self-deception, either: Francis Fauquier, the governor of Virginia, provided Osetenaco with letters of introduction, precisely because the British recognised that conciliating the Cherokee mattered so much to the colony.
Fauquier urged officials back home to impress the party with ‘the number of our people, the grandeur of our king, and the great warlike power we [have] at our command’. Yet the encounter between the crown and the Cherokee ambassador did not necessarily show the former to the hoped advantage. The shipboard death of the group’s translator draped a veil of unintelligibility over the whole tour, so that Ostenaco’s hour-long meeting with George III proved somewhat farcical, with the royal Gazetter complaining that ‘the man who assisted as Interpreter was so much consumed that [the king] could ask but few questions’.
That barrier of communication encouraged a fascinated public to project their own anxieties about imperial policy onto the Cherokee. The poet Oliver Goldsmith waited hours to greet the visitors but a kiss from Ostenaco smeared him with oil and red ochre, something that discomforted Goldsmith tremendously. Having anticipated innocents from a more natural and authentic land, he left the encounter troubled by a frontier that engendered dandies in make-up.
Nor was he alone in his apprehensions. Fullagar explains that:
[F]or every observer who believed the Cherokees were “utterly astonished” at the “magnificence” of Britain’s navy or monarchy, there was someone like the letter writer in the London Chronicle who felt that the frenzy around Ostenaco was similar to the frenzy the British state always now showed for “running after fights.” This latter was a “folly,” the letter writer went on, that other nations “reproach us with but too justly and which undoubtedly is pernicious as well as ridiculous.”
Sir Joshua met with Ostenaco on 1 July 1762. He chose, however, never to exhibit the portrait that resulted from his encounter with the man he called ‘the King of the Cherokees’, perhaps because he struggled to reconcile the contradictory sentiments provoked by his subject. When painting Europeans, Reynolds could smooth over the dilemmas of empire but his customary ambiguity proved more difficult when directly confronted with a sitter from the New World. Was the Cherokee leader a noble savage whom the British were benevolently guiding – or a foreign warlord entangling London in senseless conflicts thousands of miles from civilisation?
Reynolds – like many of his contemporaries – could not decide.
For his part, Ostenaco seems to have remained remarkably sanguine about the reactions he prompted. Fullagar suggests he departed from England with his attitudes largely unchanged. Yes, the Europeans were powerful and, as such, important allies. But if Ostenaco wanted to use the British, he felt no corresponding desire to become them.
For Fullagar, the ability of native peoples to retain their own world views in the face of Empire’s might shows, from a different perspective, the system’s fragility in the eighteenth century. ‘Indigenous people were,’ she argues, ‘less impressed with Europeans than Europeans were with them – or at least less impressed than Europeans have ever since liked to believe.’
She uses the subsequent visit by the Pacific Islander Mai to underscore the point.
Born in Ra’iatea, Mai fled to Tahiti after an incursion into his native island by the warlike Bora Bora people. He suffered a gunshot wound when Samuel Wallis’ ship The Dolphin fired upon a party of Tahitians, and the carnage resulting from a few volleys impressed him with the destructive power the British possessed. In 1774, he induced James Cook to transport him to England, seeking firearms and other supplies to deploy against the Bora Bora.
Even more than Ostenaco and his party, Mai was duchessed by Londoners, who were as fascinated by the supposed sensuality of the Pacific as they were disturbed by the rebellion brewing in their American territories. In such a context, ‘the figure of Mai,’ Fullagar says, ‘was often a lightning rod for ever-sharpening opinions.’ If one pamphleteer decried him as a representative of the ‘wanton tribes’ of Oceania, another used him to denounce those European adventurers who would ‘cross o’er the seas, to ravage distant realms/ And ruin thousands worthier than themselves.’
Sir Joshua, as was his wont, sought to provoke neither faction. He felt more comfortable with the canvas of Mai than he had with Ostenaco’s portrait, since in it he mashed together every stereotype of the New World into an anodyne depiction of ‘an everyman from everywhere’, incapable of offending anyone.
As his hosts debated the costs and benefits of their overseas commitments, Mai remained focused on his own mission. He stayed with Joseph Banks in a stately Mayfair townhouse; he underwent inoculation for smallpox; he visited the theatre. But when he met with George III, he said bluntly, ‘I am come here for gunpowder.’ To him, no banquet or opera or country estates rendered the British Isles more important than the island of Ra’iatea.
There were, of course, material limits to the independence First Peoples could maintain in the eighteenth century, as Mai’s subsequent fate illustrates. He returned to the Pacific with Cook, just as he’d hoped, only to learn that the British would not provide the assistance he believed they’d promised. Supplied with trinkets rather than muskets, Mai never regained his homeland from the Bora Bora.
Ostenaco, too, experienced repeated betrayal, with every treaty his people signed rendered immaterial by ongoing colonial expansion. From 1775, younger Cherokee leaders gave up the negotiations favoured by Ostenaco’s generation and launched a desperate war. They might not have been interested in empire – but they recognised that empire was interested in them.
Nevertheless, Fullagar’s account of the lives of Ostenaco and Mai challenges, as she says, ‘the sense of imperialism reigning supreme over everything in an Indigenous world’, encouraging us to reverse the European assumption that the arrival of white men set history in motion.
Yet the notion that Indigenous people responded to Britain less with awe than with a collective shrug poses obvious structural problems to the biographer who propounds it. Ostenaco and Mai did not keep diaries or write memoirs or pen letters. Most of the records about Ostenaco and (even more so) Mai come from their encounters with Europeans, precisely those interactions that Fullagar says didn’t mean that much to either man.
How, then, to write lives while simultaneously recognising that we don’t understand the imperatives that shaped them?
Fullagar says she seeks to uncover ‘the whole life’ of her Indigenous subjects, acknowledging that the imperialists they met ‘impinged [upon that life] as just one of many actors or for just a finite period’. Unfortunately, as she says, ‘there is very little direct evidence about Ostenaco’s early years and next to nothing on his domestic life’.
A passage describing Ostenaco’s infancy provides a sense of what that means for the book:
Various authorities imply that his mother would have stood, knelt, or sat to deliver him, allowing the baby to fall on leaves placed underneath her. Ostenaco’s first experience was almost certainly a cleansing dunk in the nearest stream, an experience he probably repeated at the hands of his mother every day for the next two years.
‘Would have’, ‘almost certainly’, ‘probably’: anyone who’s written a biography (and most people who have read them) will recognise the always unsatisfactory language used to leap across an evidentiary chasm.
The same methods feature in the presentation of Mai’s even more sparsely documented career. For instance, Fullagar chronicles Mai’s first morning in Joseph Banks’ residence in a distinctly novelistic mode:
When Mai awoke the next day he found himself alone for the first time in nearly a year. Perhaps the sun streamed in through a window onto his covers. Both the glass pane and the kind of bed would have been unfamiliar items, though not entirely novel after their approximations on the Adventure. The solitude was surely rare. It may have given him the opportunity to review his actions and plans thus far. He had made this decision to journey to Britain in the early weeks of Cook’s arrival in Huahine. These pale sailors, with their odd ways but impressive weaponry, promised the best means of assembling the mana required to regain his beloved Ra‘iatea. He had resolved to go all the way to their homeland to see about recruiting arms and possibly more for the purpose. After washing from the water jug provided by Mrs. Hawley and perhaps having eaten a breakfast brought by her to his room, Mai found Banks down-stairs. He learned from his energetic host that he was to meet with King George III the very next day. That was quick!
Such almost totally-imagined scenes give The Warrior, The Voyager and the Artist its page-turning pace. Yet the literary verve comes at a cost, with the novelistic reconstructions offering the reader a too-easy access to Mai’s consciousness, undercutting the book’s central thesis about the distinctiveness of Indigenous selfhood during the early colonial period by making Mai seem entirely contemporary.
Fullagar describes the text as ‘an experiment in New Biography’, one that emphasises ‘the historical nature of selves’. She notes that because the modern, western sense of subjectivity was still cohering in the eighteenth century, ‘assumptions about a life’s beginning, ending or motivation start to come undone’, when describing a Reynolds as much as an Ostenaco or a Mai. Yet, in practice, overcoming biographical conventions proves fiendishly difficulty.
Mai’s breezy observation (‘That was quick!’) in the scene with Banks illustrates the problem. Contemporary phrases of that kind occur throughout the book. The youthful Mai ‘makes a smart move’ by befriending a certain captain. When he leaves with Cook, it’s ‘the moment of truth. He was really going to go through with it.’ Mai is ‘playing a long game’; he knows ‘he just had to keep his head down and endure’.
Fullagar’s work recalls that of the late Inga Clendinnen, who, in Dancing with Strangers and other books, attempted to excavate, from the most fragmentary descriptions, an Indigenous perspective on first contact. The anachronisms Fullagar employs should be understood in that light: an effort to counter perceptions of Mai and Ostenaco as capricious and childlike by encouraging readerly identification with their deliberations.
Unfortunately, that identification has the contrary consequence of diminishing the very cultural differences it is intended to stress, so that the distinctive values of men dissolve into comforting familiarity of contemporary individualism. For instance, Fullagar describes the ‘rough, multiply reproduced images’ of the Cherokees circulating in the London press and suggests ‘Ostenaco may have been less thrilled about [them]’.
Not only were these scrappier representations clumsy, they didn’t seem to Ostenaco very reverent about leadership or great values. They didn’t hang in frames on governors’ walls but were glued up on print shop windows or clutched in the hands of ordinary people on the street. Their only effect, in Ostenaco’s eyes, was to goad the crowds further in their passion to follow his party wherever it went. The Cherokees were growing tired of the impositions of celebrity.
Now that might be how you or I might react to drawings lampooning us, especially if we were representing our nation on a diplomatic mission. But we can’t actually know what Ostenaco thought, since he seems to have left no record (the passage remains entirely unsourced) of his assessment of the caricatures. By imaginatively presenting him as a modern statesman conscious of his dignity, the book cuts against more traditional assumptions about the servility of Indigenous visitors to Britain. Yet in doing so, it prevents readers from confronting the more challenging notion that an eighteenth-century Cherokee warrior might think about, say, celebrity in ways so different that we can’t easily reconstruct them.
Interestingly enough, Sir Joshua wrestled with a similar problem. As a neo-classicist, he believed portraitists should eschew facile representation and instead convey the essence of their subject, encouraging viewers to recognise something of themselves in the person depicted. In practice, however, that universalism meant stripping away cultural particularities (such as Ostenaco’s tattoos) to reproduce classical forms, as if an abstract humanism could only be represented by the invocation of ancient Rome.
We might smile at Reynolds’ preoccupations (Fullagar notes he rendered Mai’s robe suspiciously like a toga) but the problem he confronted remains germane today. How does a portraitist – or, for that matter, a biographer – create intimacy while also fostering the estrangement necessary to invoke fundamental difference?
The Warrior, The Voyager and the Artist works in overturning any sense of British imperialism proceeding methodically according to a schema mapped out in advance by London. Later claims about the inevitability of empire emerge more from ideology than the reality of the eighteenth century. ‘The British empire’, Fullagar explains, ‘did not rise like the sun, uncontested by either its perpetrators or victims. It was, and is, resistible.’
Fullagar’s achievement lies in the decentring of an expansionist England, showing its colonists and explorers not simply as agents but also as objects, facing opposition from their own compatriots and repeatedly challenged by the Indigenous people they sought to subdue. If the book sometimes struggles with the biographical tasks it sets itself, it succeeds as a work of history, challenging us to think differently about the past in ways that matter for the future.