Pacific Postcards

Olivia McBride - Essay 2

Subjugation of the Hawaiian Islands by Western imperialist forces was already deep underway by 1857. At this point, Western influence in Hawaii had been present for 79 years, the date at which Captain James Cook of England historically landed on Hawaiian shores. Following his landing, more ships from the United States and the rest of Europe followed suit, turning Honolulu’s harbor into a commercial traffic center for trade between Asia, North America, and Europe. The primary source drawing of the port of Honolulu from the digital archive of the University of California depicts both European, American, and native presence in the port at this time, and the westernization of the Pacific beach. The portrayal of the relationship between the Westerners and native people in the trading port reflects the stereotypical Western perspective of Pacific cultures and communities during the imperial era as primitive and inferior. This Eurocentric point of view is still present in modern understanding of the history of imperialism.


The image of the Honolulu port was drawn on stone by a British artist George Henry Burgess in 1957, as written on the bottom left corner of the image. The words “drawn from nature” expose that Burgess was physically in Hawaii when picturing the harbor, rather than drawing the scene from his imagination or from another drawing. The bottom right identifies that the drawing was printed by “Britton & Ray”, two highly regarded American lithographers, in San Francisco later that year (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco). At the time when it was published, Hawaii had not been annexed to the United States, and King Kamehameha IV and Queen Emma were the rulers of Hawaii at the time (Kamehameha IV). As a leader remembered for his efforts to lessen Hawaii’s dependence on the United States, it is interesting to view the bustling foreign activity in the port, as pictured by Burgess.

Upon inspection of Burgess’ drawing, a strong Western bias is clearly evident in the details of the image. The buildings surrounding the port are distinctly Western, whereas the land behind it is bare, land that was presumably left to the natives. On one of the buildings, a sign titled “Monsarrat’s Auction Room. A. U. Cartwright” is clearly visible. This auction room was most likely where trade between the natives and foreigners occurred. This distinction of western architecture suggests that the Europeans and Americans were the ones who had the power in the trading relationship, which historians argue was not necessarily true. In David A. Chang’s The World and All the Things upon It, he challenges the modern perspective that the Pacific islanders had little knowledge of the world around them, and were “brought into the light” by the Europeans by modernizing Hawaii. He instead argues that when you analyze global expansion from the perspective of the Kānaka Maoli, you see Pacific communities actively pursuing global expansion far before the arrival of the Europeans, as well as having their own distinct economic system (Chang). This distinction is necessary to understand when viewing Burgess’ drawing because it fails to acknowledge the complex culture of the Hawaiian people, instead picturing them as simplistic.

In the water, a number of canoes can be seen with men inside each one. However, Burgess drew the canoes with Hawaiian men and European and American men in very different ways. The native men appear to be naked with hair awry in less sophisticated boats. The way Burgess drew these men as barbaric and untamed is a distinct reflection of the way he perceived the native people as lesser-than and small-minded. His perspective is representative of the overall stereotype Westerners pinned on native Pacific people as primitive and animalistic. To contrast this image, the men in the other more advanced canoes are wearing westernized and sophisticated clothing and hats. To clarify that the “put-together” men are Westerners, there are American and French flags marking each canoe. The stark distinction between the depiction of the native islanders and the Europeans and Americans exposes the unfortunate depiction of the native people as uncivilized and inferior. 

Other details in Burgess' drawing expose his western view of imperialization. Specifically, the foreigners appear as if they’re heroically rowing their canoes into shore as if to “rescue” the native community from itself. The French and American flags proudly waving in the wind only feed into the savior complex that westerners had during imperialism. Unsurprisingly, the natives are depicted as the exact opposite of modernized and sophisticated. The men in the canoe are most likely searching for food, but appear to be failing to do so. Rather than highlighting the impressive nature of the native’s ability to live and eat self-sustainably, Burgess makes them look foolish. This depiction of native Pacific Islanders ignores the rich culture and deep understanding of the Pacific that the Hawaiian communities had. Damon Salesa argues in his novel The Pacific in Indigenous Time that Pacific communities had diverse cultures with intertwined genealogies that the Western world fails to acknowledge simply because their traditions were passed down orally rather than through the Western standard of written records of history. Different neighboring communities traded with one another, went to war with one another, and formed alliances and formed marriages with one another (Salesa). Salesa combats the exact portrayal of Pacific islanders that Burgess emphasizes - a primitive group of people with outdated social and economic systems.

G. H. Burgess’ drawing of the port of Honolulu provides insight into American and European perspectives about the Pacific beaches and islanders during the 19th century because of the way he drew the art through a uniquely western lens. Burgess was a British artist who followed his brother, a merchant in the Honolulu-California trade, to Hawaii in 1853 (The Society of California Pioneers). This suggests that when Burgess drew the image, he knew little about Pacific culture and was viewing the trading port through an inherently biased lens, having only a European background and a European brother involved in the trade relations. The middle-bottom of the drawing specifies that it was entered in the “Clerk’s office of the U. States District Court of the State of Cal''. This detail suggests that Burgess drew the scene with the intention of it being shared with the California state government. Perhaps the purpose of his drawing was to provide the state with a record of their overseas imperialist activities, or to flaunt their achievements in westernizing Hawaii and prove their global influence. Regardless of his intentions, his portrayal of the port clearly feeds into what westerners wanted to believe about the Pacific Islanders - that they knew little about the world around them and needed the civilized west to teach them modern practices.

It is important that we acknowledge that this harmful stereotype of Pacific people hasn’t faded with history, and is still heavily prevalent today. Imperialism is widely taught in schools stricting from the Western perspective, ignoring the rich culture and knowledge that the Pacific natives had. Westernized teaching also ignores the power the natives held in trading relations, instead warping history to appear as though the Pacific communities had no choice but to submit to the European powers when they landed on their shores. We are taught to view the indigenous people as victims of a power beyond their comprehension, which is simply not true. For many years, the Europeans had to tread lightly and adhere to the native communities’ customs. While this power dynamic eventually shifted, there was just that - a shift. These stereotypes layered in Burgess’ drawing only perpetuate a false narrative of native people and taint their legacy and accomplishments as established tribes. This is a mistake that history has yet to correct.

When breaking down the 1957 drawing of the Port of Honolulu, G. H. Burgess’ western bias is blatantly visible. His view of the Hawaiian people as less sophisticated simply because their culture looks different than what he is accustomed to is representative of the larger Western stereotype towards Pacific indigenous communities. While it is unfortunate that this skewed and false representation of Pacific communities is still taught today, by analyzing primary source records of imperialism in the Pacific through a critical lens, we can become more aware of the rich history of the Pacific prior to European intervention, and reform our perspective of history.

Works Cited

Burgess, George Henry. Port of Honolulu. Britton & Rey, 1857. 

Chang, David A. The World and All the Things upon It: Native Hawaiian Geographies of Exploration. University of Minnesota Press, 2016. 

“George Henry Burgess.” The Society of California Pioneers, Editors. “Kamehameha IV.”, A&E Television Networks, 9 Nov. 2009, 

Salesa, Damon.“The Pacific in Indigenous Time.” Pacific Histories: Ocean, Land, People. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, pp. 31–52. 

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