Tomochichi was the chief of the Yamacraw Indians, a small tribe of about 200 people, which existed from 1728 until the mid-1740s in the area now known as the state of Georgia. From 1733 the chieftain acted as a diplomat, advisor and keeper of the peace between English settlers and the neighboring native population. It was largely due to Tomochichi’s assistance that the English, under command of General James Oglethorpe (1696-1739), founded the Georgia colony and later built the city of Savannah. Tomochichi continued to assist the colonists until his death in 1739.
Oglethorpe first met Tomochichi in February 1733, and was eager to form an alliance with the Yamacraws to help form a colony against close-by Spanish and French territories. An alliance was seen as highly desirable, especially with the South Carolina Yamasee War of 1715-17 still in recent memory. During the war colonial settlements had been destroyed by American Indian tribes due to a multitude of grievances felt by the native population against the settlers. In 1734 Tomochichi and a delegation of the Yamacraw tribe (including his wife and nephew) accompanied Oglethorpe to London in order to strengthen their bond and negotiate trade deals. During their stay Tomochichi met the Trustees of the Colony of Georgia and King George II, and he and his nephew, Tooanahowi, were painted by Willem Verelst. This is a mezzotint portrait after the painting, made by John Faber the Younger.
Tomochichi’s date of birth is not known. The idea that he might have been in his nineties when in died in October 1739 was made much of at the time and persists to this day, though more conservative estimates put him in his mid-seventies. It is difficult to gauge the man’s age from this portrait print: Tomochichi looks old, but not ancient, and even allowing for some artistic flattery, he looks more like a 65-70 year old than someone approaching 90. The features of the two figures are probably not entirely accurate in the oil painting or in the print, but they do exhibit signs of their cultural identity, including traditional hairstyles, tattoos and pierced earlobes. The portrait reveals the difficulty artists faced to depict exotic people within the conventions of Western portraiture. In the background of the portrait Verelst painted a fictitious, idealized wilderness in order to portray his subjects in a more “natural” state, and although the delegation probably adopted Western dress during their visit to London (earlier visitors had been portrayed wearing white linen shirts and frock coats), the artist has chosen to portray the two foreigners in their own clothing. However, although their appearance is alien, their poses are set within established portraiture conventions. The men hold significant emblems that reflect their background: Tomochichi has an animal skin (probably deerskin) draped around his shoulders (deerskins were one of the key items of trade between the Indians and the Europeans), and the boy holds an eagle, the symbol of peace and diplomacy. Because Tomochichi is portrayed with his nephew, instead of his wife or anyone else in the delegation, the portrait becomes a symbol of inherited roles and continued relationship with the English. By placing Tomochichi’s hand on Tooanahowi’s shoulder, the artist emphasizes the child’s future status.
The Yamacraws were in a long line of non-Europeans who visited London as a result of English colonial exploration and who were presented at court. Later in the eighteenth century, other visitors caused quite a sensation and achieved something of a celebrity status. Some visitors sat for oil paintings by leading artists of the day, and their likenesses were distributed through the medium of prints (some more expensively produced than others). The written responses to the visitors also ranged from popular to elite culture: from broadsheets and popular ballads to plays. Tomochichi’s visit was a serious diplomatic mission that was intended to strengthen ties between his people and the English administration, but outside court circles the delegation created a social stir. Print production was marketed at a public whose interest and curiosity had been piqued by the arrival of the strangers.
Tomochichi’s obituary in the Gentleman's Magazine in March 1740 (and indeed the lettering on this portrait print) translated Mico as ‘King’, when more accurately it means ‘chief’ or ‘leader’. Europeans often pinned this title or something similar (such as 'Prince' or 'Emperor') upon exotic visitors, demonstrating their lack on understanding about the person’s actual position in their society, or perhaps with the deliberate intention to romanticize the figure. In the past, biographers have sometimes heaped virtue on their subjects to the point of gross exaggeration in an attempt to make them acceptable to a Christian audience who might harbour preconceived ideas about foreigners as uncivilized, heathen or savage. Typically romanticised portrayals in literature and visual art of the 'noble savage' which use adjectives such as 'noble' 'mild' and 'sedate' were attempts to dispel the notion that an individual wasn’t a blood-thirsty barbarian. However, in doing so this reveals the inherent racism of the audience, who might have very well believed that the subject was cooperating not out of good business sense, or in mood of compromise, but because the white race was still recognised as supreme.
Museum Number P.54-1944
Other portrait prints of foreign visitors in the collection:
Sa Ga Yean Qua Rash Tow [Sa Ga Yeath Qua Pieth Tow], King of the Maquas. He was one of the ‘Four Indian Kings’ (American Indians who came to Britain to meet Queen Anne in 1710. The Queen commissioned Jan Verelst to paint small full-lengths portraits of her visitors. John Simon engraved the official portrait prints – this is a smaller version by John Faber).
The Three Cherokees came over from the head of the River Savanna to London, 1762
This print panders to preconceived ideas of American Indians as savages. It also confuses the men’s names.
Joseph Brant (1742-1807), or Thayendanegea of the Iroquois visited Britain twice (1775-6 and 1785-6). During his first visit his portrait was painted by George Romney, and was engraved by John Raphael Smith in 1779.