Pacific Postcards

Jon Thibodeau: The effects of economic opportunity on human activity within the Pacific region in the 19th century

Do the ends ever justify the means? This question has been asked and debated upon by philosophers and scholars for hundreds of years. It can be applied to almost any influential development throughout human history, and can be asked in a multitude of settings. As a question of ethics, the answer tells more about the individual who responds than anything else. Unfortunately, history has shown us that more often than not, when “the ends” being added into the equation are economic opportunity and fame, the weight of the consequences and steps taken to achieve a certain goal are dimmed by the powerful force of ambition. Human greed, overconsumption, and consumerism has reared its ugly head repeatedly throughout history, and the Pacific world is no exception. 

Human intervention in the Pacific region has sadly done far more environmental harm than good, particularly in the mid 19th and 20th centuries. Rapid improvement in technology resulted in colossal changes for the global development of world powers, and many individuals took advantage of this opportunity, resulting in harmful effects towards various ecosystems as well as entire communities along with them. On the other hand, others who watched from afar noticed these effects, and expressed their opinions through creative outlets, such as political cartoons, lithographs, and photographs. In particular, the lithograph California Gold contributes to the idea that economic opportunity has resulted in a disregard for the consequences of human activity, which can be supported in countless events throughout Pacific history. 

The image shows a man sitting atop a giant heap of gold under an umbrella, while holding the reins to a harpooned Sperm Whale blowing water from its spout, struggling to tow the load.
The caption beneath reads: “An accurate drawing of the famous hill of gold, which has been put into a scow by the owner, and attached to a Sperm Whale who is now engaged in towing it around the Horn for New York.” The painting was created in 1849 by Nathaniel Currier using watercolor, ink, and pencil on a standard 9 x 11. Currier was an American lithographer from Massachusetts who spent time in California during the gold rush, often portraying those in chase of easy riches as unrealistic opportunists in his works. The year this particular lithograph was created is relevant to its message as well, as the California Gold Rush first began during this period. The image is intended to be ludacris, reflecting on the imaginative aspirations of more than 300,000 Americans who relocated to California in search of gold. Being a Massachusetts native with company ties in Philadelphia, Currier likely wanted to poke fun at the Californians to his target audience along the East Coast. While comedic and fictional, the story created through Currier’s lithograph creates a multifaceted dialogue relating to the history of the pacific world, including the interconnected issues of consumerism and human environmental impact on the world around us. 

When gold was first discovered in California, a hectic craze ensued, encapsulating the entire globe. According to established maritime trader Captain Edward Faucon, “the San Francisco waterfront looked like a bobbing forest of trees with its multitude of ships lashed together,” and “a bustle of constant activity vibrated through the commercial district” with “a garble of different languages spoken by gold rush migrants who arrived from all points around the globe” (Igler 182). San Francisco’s population exploded from 500 to a whopping 150,000 in the span of 5 years, which Captain Faucon observed first hand. The mere possibility of striking it rich led to an unprecedented growth of population, markets, and new investment capital, altering patterns and volumes of maritime commerce (Igler 183). While it is true that some did make fortunes off the Gold Rush, the darker and more harmful side still existed along with it. 

Intense discrimination against Native Americans and later Chinese men took place, particularly with a tax on foreign miners as well as the “relocation” of Natives onto reservations, which led to the destabilization and depopulation of their communities. In addition, the environmental effects were just as harmful: “rivers became clogged with sediment, forests were ravaged to produce timber, biodiversity was compromised, and soil was polluted with chemicals from the mining process” (Norwich). Furthermore, the sudden addition of copious amounts of gold into the economy resulted in higher prices for commodities as well as inflationary shock, as the supply was heavily disrupted. Currier’s image well represents the unrealistic ideals held by miners during the gold rush, and through over-exaggeration he helps to establish the intersections between economic gain and social and environmental harm. 

The idea of human overconsumption shows its colors again and again within Pacific history in particular, and Currier’s lithograph portrays the consumerist perspective of both gold mining as well as whaling in the mid 1800s. Coinciding with the California gold rush, the whaling industry in America boomed and saw its greatest peak between 1840-60. New technologies like gun-loaded harpoons, the point of which can be seen in Currier’s image, turned whaling into a multi-million dollar industry.
Whales provided great economic value, as almost every part of the whale could be used for a multitude of purposes: “Meat, skin, blubber, and organs were eaten as an important source of protein, fats, vitamins, and minerals. Baleen was woven into baskets and used as fishing line. In warmer climates, baleen was also used as a roofing material. Bones were used primarily for toolmaking and carving ceremonial items such as masks” (Marrero, Thornton). While an argument could be made that whaling had the potential to provide various resources if done sustainably, overfishing became an extreme issue quite rapidly. In fact, it is estimated that more whales were hunted between the mid 1800s and early 1900s than the previous 400 years combined (Marrero, Thornton). Whaling in the 19th century was described by documentarian Ric Burns as an "‘extraordinarily primal, existential confrontation between human beings and what was really the last frontier of untamed nature, the oceans of the world’” (Evans). The innate desire not only to explore these last frontiers, but to economically benefit from them as well led to a cruel and environmentally detrimental war waged on marine ecosystems. The violent slaughter of countless whales, which resulted in the endangerment of multiple whale species, speaks towards man’s disregard for environmental harm when clouded by a lust for riches. 

Today, whaling is illegal in most countries, yet ambiguous loopholes coupled with hostile and dangerous environments at sea lead to the practice continuing in some regions, particularly countries like Japan, Iceland, and Norway. Despite the laws, these areas have objected to the ban, with claims of performing scientific research, or continuing to hunt under a “reservation” of the ban (Evans). While individuals like Currier had clearly seen the bloody effects of whaling first hand, the practice has continued to the present day, only further contributing to the idea that economic opportunity has resulted in a disregard for the consequences of human activity throughout history. 

Through images like the one created by Nathaniel Currier, there is much to be unpacked regarding the external perspective of those who may have recognized the effects of the aforementioned activities as harmful, and sought to raise awareness or facilitate change in whatever way they could at the time. Today, more technology and information is accessible at our fingertips than ever before in human history, and yet there still exists those who blindly chase after a small green piece of cotton without giving a second thought towards the impacts of their actions, continuing to exacerbate problems that began with our ancestors. One’s personal sphere of influence has only grown larger and larger as time has progressed into the modern era, and while an individual such as Currier may not have had the agency to create lasting change, his art and messages contained within shine a long lasting light on the pressing issues of the time. 

The promise, idea or even remote possibility of substantial economic gain has clouded the judgement of a great many individuals throughout Pacific history, particularly seen through the overconsumption of goods, dismissal of environmental consequences, and exploitation of native communities as well as natural resources. Currier’s lithograph California Gold illuminates this concept through the lenses of the California gold rush as well as the whaling boom of the mid 1800s. While Currier’s influence and capabilities for change were limited by his time, any average individual today can influence thousands across the globe in seconds. Rapidly developing technology in the current era can flip the script written in the 19th century, and instead of novel technology being used for environmental and political exploitation, this time the potential for positive change rises above all else. 



Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Currier & Ives". Encyclopedia Britannica, 19 Feb.

2020, Accessed 23 September 2021.

Currier, Nathaniel. California Gold. N.p., 1849. Print.

Evans, Lauren. “Commercial Whaling 101.” NRDC, 6 May 2020, 

“Historical Impact of the California Gold Rush.” Norwich University Online, 2 Oct. 2017,


Igler, David. The Great Ocean : Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush, Oxford 

University Press USA - OSO, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Morrero, Meghan E, and Stewart Thorton. “Big Fish: A Brief History of Whaling.” National 

Geographic Society, 15 Oct. 2012, 

Link to primary source -


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