Pacific Postcards

Skylar Sepulveda Essay #2

Skylar Sepulveda

GESM 130: Pacific Beaches and American Imagination

Dr. Fraga

7 September 2021

The Clash of Two Worlds and Its Lasting Effects on History

The history of Pacific islands as seen through the Westernized lens has plagued our understanding of history for hundreds of years, and the knowledge Americans are taught about the colonization of Pacific Islands is deeply flawed. We only teach our Americanized version of history and thus miss the native islanders perspective of interactions, and how western presence affected the islanders lives. One example of this can be seen in the engraved illustration of An Offering Before Captain Cook in the Sandwich Islands. This illustration was done by an artist named John Webber around the year 1778, and depicts the scene of natives of the Hawaiian Islands bestowing gifts upon Captain Cook and his fellow crew. Although this image appears to depict a scene of seemingly excited native Hawaiians welcoming Europeans, tensions of the time actually reflect the reality of the violence European colonizers exacerbated, leading to the killing of Captain Cook. This engraving perfectly depicts the facade that Europeans were more civilized and superior to the Hawaiian islands who were portrayed to be savage and deemed beneath in terms of superiority by the Europeans. 

American ideas about Pacific beaches largely come from works of art, textual evidence and other artifacts produced from a Western perspective, largely affecting the American view of Pacific history. This engraved illustration displays Captain Cook along with three other Europeans surrounded by about seventeen natives who are preparing gifts and cooking a pig for their arrival. Cook and his men are portrayed in hierarchical scale compared to the natives, possibly alluding to their bias that they are superior to the indigenous people just because of their ethnic descent. All of the men are seated facing Captain Cook with his fellow men showing their attention on the newcomers, giving the impression that their presence is important. It seems as if the natives are also performing a sort of sacrificial ritual of the pig they are making to celebrate the arrival of the Englishmen. The image of a ritual sacrifice in preparation for the Englishmen gives the viewer the idea that the native communities enjoyed the presence of the European crews and openly welcomed Cook's crew. In reality, Cook and his men had exploited the natives and abused their kindness which led to many outbursts and sparks of violence between the two groups. So although this image appears to represent a friendly encounter between the voyagers and the natives, in reality there was much more violence and tension than what is normally shown in the Western history books. This specific source reinforces Americans' beliefs about the presence of Westerners in island nations before the twentieth century and didn't quite show the full story of how the natives were taken advantage of by the arrival of foreigners.

This image was created by artist John Webber in around 1778, when he voyaged with Captain Cook on his third expedition. Webber documented encounters with native people in order to account their journey in order to be engraved for the British Admiralty's account of the voyages. The intended audience was not for the world, but rather to be used as an account of events that occurred that could be seen by the British Admiralty without being in attendance. This image specifically represented the Englishmen in a respected and distinguished way in order to show the Admiralty in Europe the superiority the voyagers believed they had over the indigenous people. As well as to show they could commercially profit off of the so represented welcoming the natives had toward Captain Cook and his men. This art contributed to the modern beliefs America had on Pacific beaches before the twentieth century through its twisted representation of interactions between Cook and the Hawaiian people. 

In David A. Changs’ book, The World and All Things Upon It, further emphasizes the valuable history of native Hawaiian culture, especially the Kanakas, that is often overshadowed by Western telling of historical events. This rich book allows further exploration of the events surrounding Webber's engraving, An Offering Before Captain Cook in the Sandwich Islands, and allows individuals to understand more of the history surrounding the events displayed in the image. Chang writes in the first few pages of his first chapter that “those same stories and songs (of the Kanaka people), and the Hawaiian language, reveal that prior to the arrival of the Haole (Westerners) in 1778, Kanaka already had a deep and broad knowledge of the world” (Chang, pg. 3). This enlightenment on the Hawaiians people's established culture is generally forgotten and ignored by the teachings of history that is through a eurocentric point of view, Changs insight to this is critical to the contextualization of Webbers’ engraving. By showing the establishment of Hawaiian culture it contradicts the allusion of Webbers; the piece gives that Europeans are superior in knowledge and superiority through the specific details of the piece such as the symbolic meaning of the natives sitting on the floor almost as in obedience to Cook and his men. Chang's illustration of the Hawaiian people allows a greater story to be told that the image shows, it allows Americans to change their prior beliefs about Hawaiian culture prior to the twentieth century. Western teachings of history have notoriously not included native peoples perspective in order to protect the idea that Europeans had helped the natives by their arrival, and Change unapologetically challenges this notion. The natives are portrayed in a very savage and unestablished way in this piece because it was created by a European who had the idea that he and his fellow crew members were superior. Chang's enlightenment shows the ways in which Amercians have been taught a biased history of pacific beaches and islands prior to the twentieth century. 

Another great source that sheds greater light onto the problematic history of voyagers going to Pacific islands is David Igler’s, The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush. This book shows the truthful results of European exploration to idigenous islands and its effects, this book gives greater contextual information to the piece An Offering Before Captain Cook in the Sandwich Islands. Iglers’ book allows readers to see beyond what Americans have traditionally known about Pacific beaches prior the twentieth century, thus placing greater emphasis on indigenous history that has been overshadowed for many centuries. Igler states in his second chapter that, “While Cook's men were no more diseases than any other group of foreign Pacific voyagers, they nonetheless represent the tip of an epidemiological iceberg that ravaged and depopulated indigenous communities in the coming decades'' (Igler, pg. 44). While looking at the image of Cook and his men surrounded by the native Hawaiians one wouldn’t think that the Europeans would pass along diseases and sexually transmitted infections, but with Igler’s further contextualization readers can understand the severity and grave consequences that stemmed from the voyagers landing on Hawaiian soil. Americans tend to look at historical events through a eurocentric lens which usually disables Americans to evaluate events from the perspective of the natives. Iglers idea of generations of indigenous people around the world suffering from the direct exposure to the voyagers helps drive home the point that generally the severity of these issues is often skipped over, and thus resulting in America's perceived notions of bringing modernity and advancement to indigenous people. 

Americans' knowledge and point of view of historical events pertaining to Pacific beaches before the twentieth century has continually been shown to neglect the perspective of what the native people endured due to Europeans imposition and barbaric treatment of the native people. Time and time again it seems as if the consequences that came from Europeans voyages- such as diseases, sexually transmitted infections, violence, depletion of resources, and more.- are often failed to be recognized and the indigenous peoples viewpoint is not properly acknowledged. John Webber's piece, An Offering Before Captain Cook in the Sandwich Islands, alludes to the European view of indigenous cultures and people, and gives the idea that their arrival is important and should be celebrated, due to the fact that he was European. A fraction of the story of the Europeans voyage to the Hawaiian islands is told through this illustration, however it is still a significant account of an event that signified two worlds meeting for the first time. This engraving has a much longer and greater story of natives and Europeans relationship than this one image depicts, and it is key to understand the contextualization of other events around the same time to fully understand the image, and other sources of information allows Americans knowledge about Pacific beaches to continually grow. 







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