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Video clip synopsis – Omai, a young Tahitian warrior who joined Captain James Cook’s second voyage, had his portrait painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds and inspired a spectacular pantomime at Covent Garden.
Year of production - 2008
Duration - 5min 30sec
Tags - Australian History, Captain Cook, colonisation, discovery, empire, historical representations, Pacific region, portraiture, South Sea Islanders, see all tags


South Sea Islander in London

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About the Video Clip


From the series Hidden Treasures – Inside the National Library of Australia
The National Library of Australia is the country’s largest reference library with over nine million items in its collection, including a surprising number of art works. In a new series of Hidden Treasures, Betty Churcher presents an insider’s guide to some of the little known and rarely displayed art treasures held by the National Library. From her unique vantage point, Churcher makes intriguing historical connections between paintings and engravings, photography, manuscripts and artefacts, illustrated journals and diaries. These are fascinating tales about the creative process and the works themselves that offer a tantalising insight into Australia’s culture and heritage.

A Film Australia National Interest Program in association with Early Works. Produced in association with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. With special thanks to the National Library of Australia.

Curriculum Focus


Early exploration and ideas of the world


  • Knowing and understanding historical events
  • Using evidence to assist in the drawing of conclusions and understanding of the past
  • Demonstrate an understanding of motivation, causation and empathy to assist one in drawing conclusions about the past.

Teachers and students should consult their state’s curriculum and learning programs.

Background Information


A young Tahitian warrior named Omai enlisted as a crew member during Captain James Cook’s second circumnavigation of the world. On his arrival in London in 1774 he was welcomed into the highest social circles. England’s most sought-after 18th century painter, Sir Joshua Reynolds, painted his portrait in 1774, for which a rare sketch is held in the National Library collection. While Omai eventually returned to the islands, his story inspired a spectacular pantomime at Theatre Royal in Covent Garden. With costumes designed by Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg, the pantomime brought ethnographic realism to a somewhat farcical plot.

Classroom Activities

  1. The visit of Omai was a sensation in late 18th century Britain.
    1. Why would a visit by a person from another place arouse such interest?
    2. Can you suggest a comparable visit or visitor that might cause a similar sensation in our society today?
  2. An idea that was current during the time was that of the ‘Noble Savage’—people who were deeply in touch with nature, and who lived rich, fulfilling but perfectly natural lives.
    1. How might Omai have seemed to be an example of this idea?
    2. The ‘Noble Savage’ idea in fact did not take into account the complexity of the society that Omai had come from. What elements of this complexity can we see from this segment?
    3. Was Omai exploited or did he exploit the situation? Explain the reasons for your answer.
  3. Omai can be seen as representing some of the benefits and problems that came with culture contact between two different groups. Explain how Omai might have benefited, and how he might have suffered, from his attempts to live in two worlds.
  4. Summarise in just one or two sentences why this item is a ‘treasure’ in our knowledge and understanding of aspects of Australian history.

Further Resources


For more on Omai and Captain Cook go to The National Library of Australia