Indigenous Agency and the Contingency of Empire
December 10, 1776: one day—three vastly distant corners of the world. In the southern-most peaks of the American Appalachians, a Cherokee warrior called Ostenaco sits before the fire in his winter house, churning over the biggest decision of his eventful life—to concede defeat to the revolutionaries or to make a break for independence. In the middle of the Indian Ocean, a Pacific Islander called Mai stands upon the deck of a 100-foot sloop looking forward to re-entering home waters after three long years abroad. And in a droughty old palace in central London, the president of Britain’s arts academy, Joshua Reynolds, regales his students about the merits and dangers of highlighting cultural differences in their portraits of non-European people.
Most people today understand the significance of 1776 in the making of the United States of America. Fewer have considered what it felt like for non-combatant Britons to witness the splintering of their controversial empire. Even smaller numbers have pondered how the year played out for Indigenous peoples either directly or indirectly touched by colonial upheaval. The unexpectedly intertwined biographies of Ostenaco, Mai, and Reynolds offer fresh ways to appreciate the wider context of the revolutionary age. They offer insight into the nuances of British imperial expansion, which has so often been caricatured as bombastic and consensus-driven. More importantly, they reveal the contours of Indigenous agency amid those nuances—a perspective too frequently lost in surveys of both empire and republic.
Ostenaco was a battle-worn elder by 1776. He had been born in the 1710s in the highest reaches of Appalachian Cherokee country. An early negotiator with the colonists at Charles-Town, he had become a renowned warrior, or utsidhi, by the 1740s, a frequent combatant for George Washington and other British colonels during the 1750s, but then a staunch enemy of the British during the fateful Anglo-Cherokee War of 1760. Though often depicted as a pragmatic opportunist, willing to switch sides according to prevailing political winds, Ostenaco rather behaved according to a steadfast loyalty to an ever-expanding notion of Cherokee identity. He was the leader of a three-man envoy to London in 1762 to secure the peace made after the Anglo-Cherokee War, even though he had been a principal prosecutor of the battle. While in London, Ostenaco sat for the leading portraitist of his day, Joshua Reynolds.
Ostenaco returned home to face greater losses from settler incursion. Eventually he felt forced to make a decision during the winter of 1776, whether to side with his ageing contemporaries who had long enacted a policy of appeasement, or to join the young firebrands among his people who were advocating armed defiance and wholesale refusal. By spring, Ostenaco had plumped for independence. He was one of only a few older Cherokees to decamp completely from the Appalachians in 1777 to set up new “Chickamauga” towns in an effort to save his cultural heritage. The Chickamauga continued to resist the revolution for another two decades.
Mai was more than a generation younger than Ostenaco, born in the 1750s, but to equally turbulent times. The tumult of his life, however, had been forged by neighbouring Islanders more than by rapacious Europeans. His island home of Ra‘iatea had been overrun by Bora Borans in the 1760s. Mai had seen in the newly arriving European ships a means to avenge his forsaken birthrights at Ra‘iatea. He jumped aboard James Cook’s second Pacific voyage in 1773.
In London, Mai too sat for Reynolds. Like Ostenaco, he also survived his visit, though his lasted two years where the Cherokee’s lasted only three months. British officials had hoped to mould Mai into a useful native informant for future imperial deals. Instead, they found a young man persistently uninterested in their politics, religion, or mores. It is true that Mai failed in the end to acquire British arms or men for his liberationist cause. But significantly the British, in turn, failed to acquire in Mai a means of advancing their claims in the Pacific. Mai’s experiences revealed an agent just as able to use empire for his own ends as empire was to use him.
Reynolds’s portraits of Ostenaco and Mai were mixed. In them, the artist struggled to balance his conflicting opinions about empire. In other works he had been able to combine both measured admiration for Britain’s imperial forces and some reservations about his country’s methods, propriety, and destiny. But in his portrait of Ostenaco, the front-facing gaze of the subject conveyed too overtly a question about the logic of a liberty-loving state taking over other people’s land. Reynolds never displayed the portrait during his lifetime. His rendition of Mai was marginally more successful—he showed it at least in the 1776 annual Royal Academy exhibition—but in his effort to remove all sense of Indigenous agency he created instead an empty conglomeration of cultural types. For such a public-oriented and efficient painter, it is notable that Reynolds never sold the work.
Reynolds’s ambivalences about empire were apparent in more than just his paintings. They were evident in his management of the Royal Academy as both a jingoistic (pro-imperial) and universalistic (anti-imperial) establishment, as well as in his friendships with both Whiggish pro-expansionists and Toryish empire skeptics. They were even evident in the lecture he gave to students on December 10, 1776. Reynolds argued that some signs of human difference, such as ochre facepaint on a Cherokee, were to be celebrated by artists since they showed that all humans, together, had their superficial quirks, and thus in fact they highlighted human universality. But he warned against depicting supposedly abhorrent practices, such as tattooing on a Pacific Islander, for such indelible customs reminded viewers that humans could be radically different from each other. Reynolds had a hard time deciding on the exact nature of human universality. He hated to emphasize human differences too far, but only a notion of human differences (and potentially graded differences) could justify the colonization of others. His nation’s empire project interfered with his aesthetics. No wonder he left off painting Indigenous people for good after Mai went home.
Surprisingly interlinked biographies of unlikely figures can shed new light onto well-worn eras. Ostenaco and Mai suggest that empire was more contestable than often depicted. This is not to diminish the destruction of empire but to help explain and honor Indigenous survival into the present. Reynolds’s life suggests that empire at home could be more controversial than is usually framed. To recognize these fault lines is to see more clearly the contingency of a phenomenon that appears in all other senses inevitable and intractable. It is to see that empire was not a natural outcome of British history, nor even of Indigenous history. Empire was and remains resistible.
Kate Fullagar is an associate professor of Modern History at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. She is the author of The Savage Visit, the editor of The Atlantic World in the Antipodes, and co-editor of Facing Empire