Faces of Empire: Three Eighteenth-Century Lives



The unlikely story of a Native American, a Pacific Islander, and the British Artist who Painted them Both

“At one time they were flesh and blood; then, what was left were memories, portraits … and their art.” — Natalie Zemon Davis, Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives (1995)

A forthcoming book from Yale University Press

A Native American, a Pacific Islander, and a European—three people from groups rarely considered in a trio, especially not in histories of the eighteenth century. This book, however, uncovers the unexpectedly connected lives of a Cherokee warrior called Ostenaco (c.1715-c.1779), a Ra’iatean traveller called Mai (c.1753-c.1779), and the famous British artist who painted them both, Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792). It is a narrative history of these three figures and their connections, as well as an exploration of the imperial past and of biography.

Ostenaco visited London in 1762 as part of an envoy to ratify the recent peace between British colonists and the Cherokee. Mai visited London twelve years later, arriving with the return of James Cook’s second voyage to the Pacific in 1774. During these visits, each man caught the eye of the most celebrated portraitist of the day, Joshua Reynolds. They both sat for Reynolds, who in turn produced two of the most remarkable paintings in the eighteenth century of what his contemporaries called “New World” people. These two paintings prompted my investigation into the three lives behind them.

Some pre-press from the anonymous reviewers: 

“This is a beautifully written, compelling account of three relatively marginal players in the early development of Britain’s global empire … [T]he book is admirably interdisciplinary, deftly combining indigenous studies, postcolonial perspectives, cultural history, and visual studies … The MS as a whole demonstrates a terrific grasp of the cultural and political stakes. By illuminating the period from three very different angles, the book produces a new portrait … that is both surprising and entirely convincing.”

“In less capable hands, such a sprawling story, spanning three landmasses, two oceans, and three very different characters, could easily spin out of control. Fullagar never loses control of the narrative, while doing justice to the uniqueness of her three characters—their native cultures, their far-flung geographies, their very different life goals … It frankly took me longer to get through the manuscript than I expected. That was because the narrative was so gripping. Skipping ahead simply wasn’t an option. I wanted to know what happened next … To sum up, this is a superb book.”