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  • Alex Watson

Languages and Culture seminar at La Trobe University (23 March)

Updated: Feb 20, 2023

I will be traveling to Australia next month!

On March 23 at 1:00 pm, I will be giving a paper at the Languages and Culture Seminar at La Trobe University. The seminar will be held through Teams and Zoom. Please let me know if anyone is interested to check it out so that I can share the links.

Characterizing the Pacific: Phillippe Jacques de Loutherbourg and John O’Keefe’s Omai, or a Trip Around the World (1785)

Phillippe Jacques de Loutherbourg and John O’Keefe’s highly popular 1785 pantomime Omai, or a Trip Around the World retells the famous real-life visit of the Pacific Islander Mai (c. 1751-1779) to Britain in the mid-1770s. The play also featured a procession of eighty-two cast-members dressed as different indigenous peoples. At its end, a painting entitled The Apotheosis of Captain Cook was lowered onto the stage. This displayed Cook floating above the site of his death, Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii, flanked by allegorical figurations of Britannia and Fame.

Reviewers of the time delighted in Omai’s museological spectacle. The Morning Post enthused “‘tis an assemblage of the most beautiful scenery”.[1] For the stage design, costumes and props, de Loutherbourg drew on a range of sources, including Ann Seward’s poem Elegy on the Death of Captain Cook (1780), John Webber’s ethnographic illustrations of James Cook’s account of his first expedition A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean (1785) and artefacts contained in the Holophusicon: a collection of around twenty-five thousand natural-historical and ethnographic exhibits assembled by Sir Ashton Lever (1729-88) and located at Leicester House on Leicester Square, next to de Loutherberg’s own workshop. De Loutherbourg even employed Cook’s illustrator Webber to help paint sets and to design the painting. In so doing, de Loutherbourg did not simply adapt images, words and sounds, but constructed a Pacific intermedial network, encompassing texts that are themselves intermedial, reworking Pacific content from one media into another.

Reviewers also claimed that Omai’s incorporation of ethnographic information imbued the popular form of pantomime with new cultural prestige. The Morning Post observed that “Pantomime Entertainments…are generally degraded” yet “[t]he general effects of the pantomime were instructive, interesting, magnificent, and characteristic”.[2] In this talk, I examine what Omai’s attempt to characterize the Pacific via a distinctive fusion of pantomime and ethnographic exhibition shows us about Enlightenment approaches to the indigenous. Daniel O’Quinn describes the play as aiming “[t]o render the Pacific islanders as natural objects designed for visual observation alone”, and thereby depriving them of agency.[3] However, as I will show, Omai does not simply transform Pacific peoples into static ethnographic artefacts, it also imbues ethnography with theatricality, highlighting a performative dimension within Enlightenment imperial representation strategies. In so doing, I will consider to what extent Omai’s characterization of indigenous peoples via its procession could be said to prefigure nineteenth-century “human zoos” such as P. T. Barnum’s infamous “Freak Shows” and the 1895 Africa exhibition in the Crystal Palace, London, in which around eighty people from Somalia were displayed in an exotic setting.

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