Three Lives in an Age of Empire
“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
This book tells the unlikely story of the connections in the eighteenth century between a Cherokee warrior in the southern Appalachians, a Raiatean voyager from the Tahitian archipelago, and the British artist who painted them both. It is a story about the globalizing force of the empire that touched them all, but also of the rich diversity of the eighteenth-century world. Told as three loosely linked biographies, the book gives equal weight to each man. It narrates for the first time the whole life of Ostenaco, tracing his emergence as a leading Cherokee warrior, his engagement with colonists throughout his life, and finally his rejection of all imperial politics during the American Revolution. It delves similarly into the full experience of Mai, exploring his youth in Ra‘iatea in the eastern Pacific, his confrontation with war and displacement, his voyage to London in the 1770s, and his return home again with a burning ambition to right past wrongs. Finally, it weaves throughout these biographies the imperial story of Joshua Reynolds, who was born near the bustling English port town of Plymouth, rose to the top echelons of British society and yet maintained always an ambivalence about his nation’s expansionist trajectory. This book shows how Indigenous people pushed back and shaped empire far more than is usually acknowledged. It also reveals how much more conflicted Britons were about empire in this era than credited, even while they witnessed its reach into every corner of the globe. The book is a timely history about Indigenous survival and imperial contingency, written through the portraits of three remarkable individuals.
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.”
A History Today podcast on the characters here!