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Omai: The Prince Who Never Was

Omai: The Prince Who Never Was - Richard Connaughton This has to be one of the worst books I've ever been misguided enough to read. I say misguided because I knew it had bad reviews. I was just so interested in the life of Omai I couldn't resist. Since I've been through it, I feel I should try to explain what's wrong with it for the benefit of future readers.

First of all, for a history book it's very bad at explaining its sources, but I'm not really getting at it for that. Wherever I'm familiar with the primary sources, the actual facts given in Connaughton's book seem accurate enough. That doesn't guarantee the rest, but I'm prepared to buy the whole story provisionally.

The problem is that most of the book is given over to trying to establish a socio-political argument based on these facts. Let me see if I can express it:

Ignorant and not particularly bright low-caste Polynesian, Omai is tricked into attempting to bend absolute class boundaries in both Polynesia and Britain by the wicked British Imperialists who have their own agenda and fail to see through his cunning imposture or his self-interested motives which they knew were bound to fail.

There. Now, I'm no stranger to historical books that cast their narrative in terms of power, identity, colonialism, race, gender, you name it. Some of them involve brilliant and enlightening analyses. But they need to be coherent and consistent and Connaughton consistently is not. He can never even make up his mind whether Omai is an innocent simpleton or a devious and manipulative schemer. He can't keep his head in the maelstrom of competing individual and collective motives of the British, let alone keep track of his own. He manages to come across as a 21st century class essentialist, for pete's sakes! And he completely loses track of the fact that Omai was a person, making him nothing but a pawn in his attempted argument. I find that rather unforgivable.