To celebrate the 250th anniversary of the start of Captain Cook’s voyages of exploration we take a look at the life of an exotic visitor to the region who became the first South Sea Islander to be seen in Britain. Omai is also known to have spent some of his time in Yorkshire where he stayed in York and at Mulgrave Castle, Skelton Castle and Kirkleatham Hall.
In September 1773, during Cook’s second voyage, Captain Furneaux of the Adventure – the ship that accompanied Cook’s Resolution – took aboard a young man, a native of the island of Huahine near Tahiti. This was Omai who had taken refuge on Tahiti when the men of Borabora conquered his island. He had known members of the previous Endeavour expedition and asked to be taken aboard the Adventure. Furneaux agreed and took him on as an able seaman to comply with regulations. The Resolution and the Adventure next sailed for New Zealand but were separated by the weather and did not meet up again. Furneaux eventually decided that it would be more prudent to return to England.
Although Omai was nominally a foremast hand he had been “indulged in the Captain’s cabin” so that by the time the Adventure dropped anchor at Spithead in July 1774 he had a fair understanding of English manners and conventions. Omai was described by Cook as having “a very good understanding, quick parts and honest principles; he is of good natural behaviour, which rendered him acceptable to the best company.” And it was to the very best company that he was introduced.
In his early twenties Omai became the darling of the London scene. He was introduced to the King and Queen, wined and dined in high society circles and was painted by the great artists of the time before being returned home in 1776.
On his arrival in Portsmouth he was met by Joseph Banks and Dr Daniel Solander (both of whom he had met previously from Cook’s first voyage) and he recognised them instantly. They travelled together to London where he was presented to George III at Kew. The King gave Omai a handsome sword, granted him an allowance during his stay, promised he should eventually be taken home, and recommended an inoculation against smallpox.
The inoculation went well and Omai spent much of that autumn and winter with Banks and Lord Sandwich in the country. Banks was then tasked with looking after Omai and he welcomed the opportunity to do so, making sure that he met with a great many interesting people. In this way Omai dined with Dr Johnson and it was here that he met Lord Mulgrave.
In the summer of 1775 Banks took Omai to Yorkshire as one of a party which included Constantine Phipps (son of the then Lord Mulgrave), Phipps’ younger brother Augustus, the playwright George Colman and Colman’s son George Jr who left an account of the visit in his Random Records.
George records that he and his father arrived in York a day or two before the races. They had arranged to meet with Phipps and accompany him, with the others, when the races were over, to his home at Mulgrave Castle, near Whitby.
George’s memoirs recall how, whilst in the North East, Omai swam in the sea at Scarborough, prepared food in a Polynesian earth oven during his time at Mulgrave, shot game birds on the moors and was also taken to visit the home of the Turner family at Kirkleatham, stopping at Skelton Castle on the way.
After the races the coach began its journey from York to Mulgrave Castle. “Instead of pursuing the direct inland route, through Malton and Pickering, to Whitby, we travelled coastward: at an elevated point of the road, not far from Scarborough, they told me, that there was a peep at the German Ocean: never having beheld the sea, I thrust my head out at the coach-window, with extreme eagerness.”
On arrival in Scarborough the coach put up at an inn and George ran immediately to the beach. He was initially disappointed with what he considered to be nothing more than a huge flat puddle but soon decided that it was “not to be sneezed at” after local fishermen explained that at the time it was dead calm. The next day he describes swimming in the sea with Omai.
George then describes how Omai calls out to him and suggests that he should get onto his back and that he would then carry him and swim out to sea. Although nervous about doing so George immediately accepted the offer “by springing out of the bathing-machine upon his back.” “The Scarborough Sands presented, as they still do, it is to be hoped, for the benefit of the bather there, a hard surface, beautifully level, which extended with a gentle declivity, very far into the sea. Omai, therefore, who was highly pleased with my confidence in him, walked a considerable way before the water came up to his chin; he then struck out, and having thus weighed anchor for this my first voyage, I found myself on board The Omai, decidedly not as commander of the vessel, but as a passive passenger.” Although George is apprehensive he says Omai “appeared as much at home upon the water as a rope-dancer upon a cord.”
George and Omai were met on the sands by Augustus who was vexed to have missed such an opportunity. The party spent the rest of the time “lounging on the sands til late in the day” before they resumed their journey towards Mulgrave via Whitby, the last four miles of which George describes as being perilous.
“ From Whitby to Mulgrave there was then, but one road, most of which was, in fact, no road at all. On leaving the town of Whitby, we descended a hill called the Up-Gang which was, and is, still almost perpendicular.” If you “got to the bottom of the precipice without breaking your neck, you are to pass over about three miles of no very wide way, full of quicksands, bounded by the Ocean on one side, and impervious cliffs on the other; you must make haste, too, if the sea be coming in otherwise you will be caught by the tide.” “With some difficulty, the post-boys … forced the horses inland, dodged the quicksands upon shore, as well as they could, in the dark, and set us down safe at Mulgrave.”
George was not too impressed with Mulgrave Castle which he described as being “a common modern habitation, upon much too small a scale, more like a dwelling-house upon the limited acres of a private gentleman, than a mansion which harmonises with a lordly domain. The best apartments were in front, and looked upon nothing that I remember but a bowling-green, that dull vegetable gaming table, on which nobody plays when it rains; the back rooms, which seemed to be little, or not at all frequented by the family, commanded, by a strange perversion in taste, a fine view of the German Ocean. The stone stables were handsome enough in themselves, but they elbowed the front of the house, staring on the one side of it; and between these and the woods beyond them, something, I forget what, interposed, so that the woods, in which the old Castle had been built, irrigated by romantic streams and cascades … were shut out.”
The first activity of their visit was a visit to the Mulgrave alum mine. The boys were also tasked with collecting plants early each day from the woods. The group also spent some time excavating local tumuli. Various small objects were discovered but nothing of any considered value. On each field-day, whenever a tumulus was opened, all of the party attended with pick-axe and a spade, and as the operation, which occupied several hours, was at some distance from the house, a tent was pitched at the scene of the action, under which they dined. It was during these excursions that Omai “shone most conspicuously; and, in the culinary preparations … beat all his competitors.”
George goes on to describe Omai’s cooking.
As it was late August the party were also occupied by grouse shooting on the neighbouring moors. By September, with the holidays drawing to a close, the group left Mulgrave and set out once more. George and his father had invitations further north but were accompanied by their friends for the next twenty miles of their journey during which time they made two halts over two days. We do not know which road they travelled but on the first day they arrived at Skelton Castle where they dined and slept overnight.
From Skelton Castle they left to visit Kirkleatham Hall, the family home of Sir Charles Turner (1726–83) who was one of the great reforming landowners of the time and continued the development of the family’s estate. In the mid-1760's he enlarged and gothicised Kirkleatham Hall with castellations. The Hall was demolished in 1956. The party stayed at the hall for a further three or four days before George and his father left to travel northwards, while Banks, Phipps and Omai began their journey back to London.
After a short period society lost interest in Omai and it was decided that he should return home with Cook on his third great voyage when the ships sailed in 1776.
In 1777 Omai returned home to Huahine with his gifts of: port wine; gunpowder, muskets and bullets; a hand organ; some tin soldiers; a globe of the world; crockery and kitchenware; a variety of fancy goods; animals, including a horse; and a suit of armour. Omai was settled back on Huaheine in a house and garden built for him by Cook’s men in the Harbour of Huaheine. The final parting when the ships sailed on 2nd November 1777 was ‘a very Afecting Scean’. 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.
George Colman’s account of Omai’s visit to Yorkshire can be read in full here: Chapter XI of the Memoirs of the Colman Family.