Johnson and Boswell: The Transit of Caledonia

By Pat Rogers | Go to book overview

4
The Noblest Savage of them All:
Johnson, Omai, and Other Primitives

On 9 September 1773 a young man from the Society Islands embarked on the Adventure and set out for England. This was the second vessel attached to James Cook's first voyage to the South Seas, under the command of Tobias Furneaux. The young man went by the name of Tetuby Homy or, as he became known when he reached England ten months later, Omai. On that same day Samuel Johnson and James Boswell were in the middle of their Hebridean jaunt. More exactly, they had reached the small island of Raasay, off Skye. The previous day Johnson had discussed Fingal, the great talking point of the moment, the embodiment of natural 'inspiration', disputing a local minister's comparison of Ossian with Homer. It had been raining heavily--this was, after all, Scotland in the autumn.1

Here is a collision that is worth exploring. It is a temporal convergence which, it might be thought, conceals a deeper divergence. On the one hand we have a youthful and ignorant primitive being dragged from a remote Polynesian island to London, which was arguably the capital of the civilized world (only Paris or, some would suggest, Edinburgh could put in a strong rival claim). Omai was taken across oceans, largely unaware of what he was involved in. On the other hand a learned, elderly man of the world was leaving his home in London for a trip, long planned and indeed meditated, to the most remote regions of Britain. It was a journey measured only in hundreds of miles. And the contrast could be extended: Omai never progressed beyond halting English, whereas Johnson was the codifier of the language in his great Dictionary, and a master of eloquent speech. He was bookish, sophisticated, and something of a polymath.

Yet the two journeys are, paradoxically, quite comparable from

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1
I should like to thank Barbara Looney for help in locating and transcribing material for this chapter.

-89-

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