Brief encounters

Visitors from across the emerging empire came to this country in the 18th century. Exotic representa

They came as curiosities and left as celebrities. They were some of the first travellers from areas and countries previously unknown to the English public. They arrived from North America and from the South Pacific, from India and from Africa. Some of them came as supplicants and some as ambassadors; some dressed in the style of the English middle class while some retained their native costume. It did not matter. They were still exotic. They were the inhabitants of the newly emerging empire. They had become subjects in every sense, and were therefore worth studying.

The portraits of these travellers that have been brought together for the forthcoming "Between Worlds: voyagers to Britain 1700-1850" exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London bear the smudge or blur of inscrutability. Travellers are those who, by definition, pass through. They are strangers. They are outsiders. They may be temporarily in England but they inhabit the larger realm of difference. So, in these portraits, the subjects seem wary, their expressions indecipherable. They may have come out of curiosity. They may have come in search of pleasure or wealth or fame. But, once they had arrived, they were more looked at than looking. They were paraded in drawings rooms and in salons; they were discussed; they were presented at court.

And in the process, by accident or design, cultures were joined. It was an age when travel was difficult. Most people literally stayed at home, in the village or town in which they were born. So these travellers from distant continents had made a giant transition. They were almost freaks of nature, transcending the ordinary limits of the age.

Their individual adventures also had general consequences, because they were the harbingers of a general movement towards London by the other peoples of the world. By the 19th century the city had become a home for exiles and émigrés of every description. It had become a haven for refugees. The exhibition comes to its conclusion in 1850. By that time London had become the most cosmopolitan city in the world. And so it has remained, welcoming the distant relations of these first travellers.

The portraits included here are all studies in what we might call colonial life. They may have been curiosities but, like all artefacts of colonialism, they were also commodities. The travellers were etched and engraved and painted; their lives and exploits were printed on broadsheets and dramatised on stage. They became the material for cheap prints in which the subtleties of the painted image were supplanted by cruder and more stereotypical representations. The engravers, for example, used the medium of their trade to emphasise their blackness. So the appe tite of the public was assuaged.

The images of these travellers also helped to confirm the identity and dominance of the English people who came to gawp at them. By virtue of their clothes, or their complexions, they seemed to emphasise the difference between themselves and their hosts. But they had also come implicitly to pay tribute to England, and to kneel at the feet of their new masters. Many of them proceeded to imitate English manners and mannerisms; they dressed in English clothes, and became more courtly than the courtly. As many of them had come from cultures just as ritualised and stylised as that of 18th-century England, this was not necessarily a hard task. When a Tahitian traveller, known as Omai, was taken to Cambridge he felt quite at home. The procession of professors from the Senate House reminded him of the high priests at the ritual complex of Taputapuatea.

This complicity between cultures did on occasion, however, place the visitors in a difficult and unenviable position. They could not be themselves. They had to adopt a role or play a part. The slight falsity of these paintings suggests that they were not wholly at their ease. There is a portrait here by Sir Godfrey Kneller of Michael Alphonsus Shen Fu-Tsung, otherwise known as the "Chinese Convert". He stands with his right hand touching his breast; in his left hand he holds a crucifix. He looks sideways at a source of light, and one cannot help but suspect that Kneller is suggesting the indirect or oblique nature of the man's conversion. There is something odd, and unsettling, about the image. Most of the other travellers stare out from the canvas. At a much later date we might suspect that they had been caught in a police line-up.

There were some early arrivals. In 1710 four Native Americans, of the Mohawk and Mohican tribes, arrived in London in order to make an alliance with the English against the incursions of the French into their territories. They were given an audience with Queen Anne and, as they reported, "we readily embraced our Great Queen's instructions; and in Token of our Friendship we hung up the Kettle, and took up the Hatchet". They promptly became known as "the Four Kings". They were all painted, looking remarkably alike, and the arrival of these strange visitors opened up the discourse of difference. Joseph Addison concocted a fake "diary" of their sojourn in London, in which he marvelled, looking through their eyes, at the barbaric ways of the English. It was a technique employed by other writers of the 18th and 19th centuries, an exotic case of seeing ourselves as others see us. Yet cultural relativism can take other forms. Gangs of undisciplined and violent youths in the city soon became known as "Mohocks" and were compared to "Indian savages".

Another early visitor was William Ansah Sessarakoo. He was the son of a slave trader from West Africa who was himself captured and consigned to slavery. Ransomed by the Earl of Halifax, he sailed to England in 1749 in the resplendent dress of an English gentleman. Ansah Sessarakoo was immediately acclaimed as a prince when, in fact, he was nothing of the kind, and distinguished from the other black people of London who were employed as an invisible class of slaves and menials and crossing-sweepers. He filled the part. He arrived at a time when Oroonoko, adapted from Aphra Behn's novel of an African prince, was creating a sensation on the stage. He duly attended a performance, and wept at the appropriate moments, but his celeb rity did not change anyone's opinion of slavery, which remained a familiar English institution for another 80 years.

Some travellers claimed exalted social rank so that they might be treated with more civility. Some dressed for the artist in costumes that were highly unsuitable for their actual rank or position. It was all part of the theatre of their arrival. Some practised all the arts of genteel deportment. If it was a dramatic performance, it was one perfectly in keeping with the theatrical poses and postures often adopted in these paintings. Yet they were often confused and bewildered by their sudden immersion in an alien society. There must have been times when they were frightened. There must have been times when they believed themselves to be lost.

Cultural stereotypes seem to have been crucial to any understanding of the alien traveller. Our ancestors, without blinkers, could see nothing at all. Thus Omai, who arrived in London from Tahiti in 1774, was decorous and polite and charming. He copied the patterns of life he saw all around him. Yet this is the curious thing: he always wore the costume of an English gentlemen but, when he was painted, the various artists insisted on clothing him in what they considered to be native dress. It is a signal instance of cultural myopia.

Sara Baartman, from the Khoi-Khoi tribe of South Africa, was immediately put on display. She was exhibited in rooms along Piccadilly as the "Hottentot Venus". She was dressed in a transparent gown, so that the spectators might more easily see her prominent behind. Baartman was degraded into a sideshow and her characteristics were satirised in print and cartoon. She was regarded as a specimen of specifically ethnographic interest. It is doubtful if she was ever seen as a person at all. It was perhaps only to be expected that, after her sudden death on the exhibition trail, her body was dissected and her parts preserved in a French museum.

So this is in part a melancholy exhibition, in which pathos and curiosity are mingled. It would have been interesting to discover what happened to these unique travellers on their return to their native soil. But a collection of paintings cannot lead so far. All we have left is their gaze - quizzical or resigned or indifferent but, ultimately, incomprehensible.

"Between Worlds: voyagers to Britain 1700-1850" opens at the National Portrait Gallery, London WC2, on 8 March and runs until 17 June. For more information log on to: http://www.npg.org.uk