Hampton Sides has a unique gift for turning history into something alive and vibrant. In bestselling nonfiction classics including Ghost Soldiers, Blood and Thunder, and On Desperate Ground, he takes readers back in time and puts them right in the action. Sides does it again in his new Scribd Original The Exotic, about a downtrodden young man named Mai who hitched a ride from Tahiti with Captain James Cook and became the first South Seas islander to set foot on English soil. Strictly in the name of research, Sides traveled to some of Polynesia’s most idyllic spots, tracing Mai’s early life. In this photo journal, he shares some of his observations from the trip.
On New Zealand’s North Island: That’s me logging some extremely arduous research along the Bay of Islands, one of the many spots where Captain Cook anchored and interacted with the Maori. Across New Zealand today, the British voyager who circumnavigated, charted, and described New Zealand is equally loved and reviled.
This monument to Cook’s voyages is located at a tranquil spot called Ship Cove, deep within the Marlborough Sounds, a network of sunken river valleys on New Zealand’s South Island. Cook, who anchored here five times, considered this spot a favorite replenishing base. Mai spent weeks here as well, first with Captain Tobias Furneaux, then with Cook’s Resolution during the navigator’s final voyage.
Here I am at Tautira Bay, the first place in Tahiti where the returning Mai landed with Captain Cook’s Resolution. It was along this black-sand beach that Mai donned a suit of armor, mounted a horse, and fired his pistol into the air — terrifying the locals, who’d never seen horses and had scarcely seen metal or firearms before.
This traditional iri stool was auctioned at Christie’s to the Museum of Tahiti and Her Islands, outside French Polynesia’s capital city of Papeete, for £80,000 — roughly $120,000. In a famous painting done in 1776 by British portraitist Nathaniel Dance-Holland, Mai is pictured holding this same stool, an overt symbol of Tahitian royalty. In the social hierarchy of Tahiti, for a commoner like Mai to carry an object reserved for chiefs would have been considered tapu — a subversive act — for which he could be severely punished, perhaps even killed.
With a group of American friends, I sailed a catamaran through French Polynesia’s Leeward Islands, the most famous of which is this lovely green volcanic paradise — Bora Bora. When we anchored here, Covid-19 was just beginning to descend on the world, and this honeymoon destination was happily devoid of tourists. Here you see Bora Bora’s iconic peak, Mount Otemanu. In Mai’s day, Bora Bora was known for its fierce warriors. When he was a boy, his home island of Raiatea was attacked by Bora Borans, who killed Mai’s father and seized his family’s land. Mai spent the rest of his life seeking revenge.
That’s me aboard our catamaran, sailing past Mai’s native Raiatea. We spent a day exploring the ruins of the island’s famous Taputapuatea marae temples, now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Raiatea is considered the Ur of Polynesia, the cradle of this extraordinary seafaring culture. Mai, who became a refugee after the Bora Borans conquered Raiatea, spent most of his life trying to get back to this beautiful — and deeply spiritual — island, which in the Tahitian language means “faraway heaven.”
We anchored one night just off Raiatea’s gorgeous sister island, Taha‘a, seen here at sunset. It was near here that Mai is believed to have fulfilled his lifelong dream for revenge, using his British firearms and ammunition to defeat the Bora Borans in battle.
My wife and I spent a few days on Tahiti’s sister island, Mo‘orea. Cook, with Mai on board, moored the Resolution at this spot, known as Opunohu Bay. It was from this anchorage that Cook and Mai went on a scorched-earth rampage, destroying huts and canoes, in retaliation for a stolen goat.
This is the beach at Cook’s Bay, on the island of Mo’orea. My wife and I stayed at a little Airbnb not far from here and tooled all over the island on a rented motorcycle. Of all of French Polynesia’s islands, Mo‘orea was our favorite. The notched mountains in the background are the remnants of a massive ancient volcano that once soared more than 11,000 feet into the sky.
Here I am doing some more difficult research on the island of Tetiaroa, just off Tahiti. Marlon Brando bought this atoll in the 1960s, and it is now home to one of the world’s most prestigious eco-resorts. Barack Obama spent a month here recently, working on his memoir. I came here to write a story for Outside magazine about Brando’s big green dreams for the island — and to luxuriate in this spectacular lagoon, which Leonardo DiCaprio (a frequent guest) dubbed the Billionaire’s Bathtub.
The Exotic by Hampton Sides
This brief but thorough biography of Mai, the subject of one of England's most famous paintings, tells how a low-born Polynesian man made his way from poverty in Tahiti to upper-crust British society, where he charmed the king and plotted revenge against his enemies back home. Mai's story has largely remained a mystery, but adventure writer Sides sets the record straight and retells the whirlwind of events with flair.
About the Author: Hampton Sides
Narrative historian Hampton Sides is the bestselling author of Ghost Soldiers, Blood and Thunder, On Desperate Ground, In the Kingdom of Ice, and more. His book Hellhound on His Trail, about the manhunt for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassin, was the basis for the acclaimed PBS documentary “Roads to Memphis.”