Faces of Empire: Three 18th-Century Lives


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…

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 Raiatean 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 engagement in certain debates about the imperial past and about 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.