Pacific Postcards

Aloha Tower: Hawai'i at the Center of the Pacific (T.A.)


The Pacific Ocean has thousands of islands scattered throughout its vast area. Out of these islands Hawaii is arguably the most important of the bunch. The Hawaiian islands are located almost directly in the center of the vast ocean. Since European discovery of the islands by James Cook in 1778, the Hawaiian islands have played an integral role in the growth and development of the Pacific. Hawaii’s strategic location has allowed the islands to become extremely important to ships that are traveling in the Pacific. Throughout history Hawaii has been a key trading center as well as a key stopping point for ships before their remaining journeys across the ocean. Furthermore Hawaii was very important during times of conflict, especially during World War two, as the United States had the famous and significant naval base that was known as Pearl Harbor. The image shows several large ships docked in Pearl Harbor in September, 1931.  Hawaii, like many other Pacific Islands, was no stranger to disease brought by explorers. The natives lack of immunity as well as Hawaii being a trading hub caused disease to run rampant throughout native populations. In David Igler’s The Great Ocean and James Fichter’s So Great a Profit they notice that Hawaii is an extremely significant island chain for all things such as trade, the mixing of peoples and the influence it has in the Pacific. Hawaii is one of, if not the most important of the Pacific Islands because of its generally central location in the vast ocean, its extreme importance to Pacific commercial trade and its increasing popularity  which allowed it to influence decisions made by world powers. 

Hawaii’s location in the Pacific plays an integral part in making the islands important because it's centrality allows for relatively easy access resulting in many different groups of peoples crossing paths on or near the islands. As the Pacific became more popular to explore Hawaii became very important due to its location. The islands were a popular stopping place for sailors as they were traversing the Pacific. As time went on the “Hawaiian Islands gradually became the center point destination… for sailors’ libidinous activities, naturalists’ investigations, and, by the 1820s, Protestant missionary activities” (Igler 9). Hawaii became an ever so important pit stop for the years to come as the Pacific became well traveled. As shown in the image, the large steam ships that are docked are most likely refueling and resupplying for their journey across the rest of the Pacific. Hawaii was a great place to resupply ships as well as a good place to rest from the grueling seas. Many different groups of peoples mixed on the islands which led to the exchange of ideas and more. The resting sailors would share tales of their separate adventures. There was also an exchange of native ideas and oral histories that some would bring back to Europe and America. Just like any place in the Pacific that was becoming settled on, there were missionaries attempting to convert the native population to their separate religions. With all of the people coming together, the Hawaiian natives were no strangers to disease that accompanied the sailors. Like many other early encounter experiences the native Hawaiians did not have built up immunity to the diseases that were brought to their lands. On large ships like the ones depicted in the image, there could be many diseases lurking, strains of fevers, measles, smallpox and many more that could decimate native populations. According to a detailed study of Hawaii “a strain of typhoid fever arrived in 1803 and took about 5,000 to 175,000 Hawaiian lives over the course of a year” (Igler 42). Like many other early encounters between foreigners and native populations, disease brought by the foreigners spread extremely quickly and took a large amount of the native population in just a short twelve months. Despite the mass casualties that took place in the early days of encounter, Hawaii remained extremely important to the entire Pacific world. Hawaii was in a generally central position when compared to the rest of the Pacific. The Islands had access to every rim power of the Pacific. Hawaii was closest to the United States, but it could also easily be accessed by Japan and China. Looking Southwest from Hawaii, the colonies held by separate European powers in Oceania also had quick and easy access to the Islands. Hawaii was where every voyage stopped to refuel or just take a break from sailing. As the years went on Hawaii remained relevant to nearly everything that went on in the Pacific. Hawaii's location was so attractive that the United States decided to annex the Islands in 1898. Hawaii then played an important role about forty years later as its location was perfect for a naval base for the Pacific campaign by the United States. Thus, the base at Pearl Harbor became an integral part for the United States war efforts. Hawaii remains important to this day as it is still a melting pot for peoples coming from all around the Pacific. Overall Hawaii is key to the entire Pacific because of its location. It is relatively close to all points in the vast ocean which allows it to be an important stopping place for all sailors. The location of Hawaii makes it one of the most significant places in all of the Pacific. 

Hawaii was tremendously important to trade in the Pacific because it was a key pit stop for traders heading to distant lands. Hawaii itself was also a bustling trading center where many goods were exchanged. As stated before, Hawaii had a prime location when it came to reaching distant lands. Journeys that would span the Pacific almost always stopped in Hawaii. These stops were mainly to refuel and resupply, but they were also for rest. With so many different journeys stopping in Hawaii, there became many ports and cities where trade occurred between different peoples from across the globe. On the left side of the image there seems to be a marketplace and that is where much of this informal trade between crews occurred. In these marketplaces many peoples mixed and exchanged goods from their separate journeys. Trade in Hawaii did not start with foreigners as trade took place long before contact as “Pre-contact Hawaiians also held regular market fairs… with vendors and consumers arriving from various islands with specialty goods” (Igler 21). Trade was always taking place in Hawaii, even if it was not on a large scale. Igler also brings up a point about Hawaii’s appearance on a map. He says that the Islands seem somewhat isolated but if one views the ocean as an “expansive expressway… Hawaii becomes the central point for exchange in the Pacific’s commercial world” (Igler 27). The idea that Igler is communicating is that if one viewed the oceans as a subway, Hawaii would be Grand Central Station. Being the essential center point of Pacific trade Hawaii became busier and busier every year. After the year 1820 Hawaii had the busiest ports in the Pacific and maybe even the entire world. Upwards of four thousand ships would stop in Hawaii each year. Over one hundred years later in September, 1931, the ports were still full of steamships making their way across the Pacific to trade. The image also has a tower on the left and this can be compared to a modern day air traffic control tower. Pearl Harbor was a port that never slept. Ships would come and go but there was never a down moment. In trade Hawaii was depended on for raw materials as “the sheer abundance of Hawaiian supplies sustained thriving trade” (Igler 27). Hawaiians would trade goods such as fruits, yams, and sugarcane. These raw materials would come from the rich Hawaiin land which can be seen in the image as the mountains are where these raw materials came from. Hawaii was one of the only intersections between the Pacific’s dominant shipping routes which made their supplies very valuable as sailors wanted to stay healthy and ships needed to resupply. The main commodity in Hawaii was sandalwood. “The other appeal of Hawaii was its sandalwood. American merchants swarmed the Pacific in search of it like locusts, trading fiercely for it on each island until the supply was depleted” (Fichter 219). Like the whaling and fur trade going on in the Northwest, the supply of sandalwood was abused until it was completely depleted. Hawaii being the only stopover in major shipping routes in the entire Northern Hemisphere made the islands extremely important to Pacific commercial trade. The raw materials that the islands had also allowed trade to take place within Hawaii. As trade increased Hawaii became one of the busiest ports in the entire world. Hawaii was ever so important to trade and this eventually led to the great powers of the world to start to look at Hawaii as a place of great influence. 

Hawaii became one of the most important Island chains in the Pacific and thus Hawaii influenced many decisions made by the great powers of the world. Hawaii became increasingly busy after the year of 1820, and this caused Americans and British merchants to look to Hawaii in order to capitalize from the heavy influx of trade and interactions of people. These eager entrepreneurs established merchant houses in Honolulu and “by the end of the 1830s at least two dozen merchant houses operated in Honolulu with a wide assortment of speciality items” (Igler 30). The Americans and British made this decision because they wanted to profit from the specialty items that came from Hawaii. This was one of the first instances where a foreign power was permanently located on the Islands. As time went on American captain Byron Smith came to the conclusion that the idea of manifest destiny would spread all the way to Hawaii and eventually wipe out their native population (Rouleau). In the United States “commercial and territorial expansion proved overlapping interests in Hawaii” (Rouleau 408). The US saw Hawaii as a very important area and saw great opportunity if they expanded there. Hawaii once again became extremely important during the Spanish-American war. That is when the naval base of Pearl Harbor was first used as a strategic location that eventually helped the United States win the war. The use of the harbor and the clear advantage it gave the US in Pacific campaigns convinced congress to annex Hawaii in 1898. Jumping to world War two, Pearl Harbor was once again in use by the US during their campaigns into the Pacific. The image predates World War two, but the amount of ships shown in the picture accurately depicts how busy it was during World War two. However the steam ships in the picture were substituted with naval ships during the war.  The strategic importance of Hawaii led Japan to attack Pearl Harbor in 1941, causing mass casualties. This bombing caused the US to declare war on Japan, formally entering into World War two. Hawaii has influenced many decisions throughout history due to its great importance and strategic location in the Pacific. Hawaii’s luxuries and mass amounts of people that pass through the islands also make it very influential. Overall the Hawaiian Islands have had a great deal of influence on multiple decisions made in the Pacific by great powers throughout its relatively short history. 

Hawaii is arguably the most important chain of islands in the entire Pacific Ocean because of its location, its great impact on trade and its influence on decisions made by powers such as the United States. Hawaii’s location in the Pacific gives it easy access from all parts of the globe. This allows people to spread ideas, but also allows for the spread of deadly disease to native populations. This location also makes Hawaii prime real estate for naval bases such as Pearl Harbor, as it is relatively close to everything in the Pacific. Hawaii also has a huge impact on trade as it is the only place in the entire Northern Hemisphere where major shipping routes intersect. As seen in the image Hawaii was always a bustling port, as steam ships would take up nearly every docking area. Hawaii traded many goods like sandalwood and provided raw materials for ships such as fruits and yams. Lastly, Hawaii, because of its importance, influenced great powers all throughout history. From the British and Americans developing merchant houses and the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii has been a key topic when it comes to decision making by powerful countries in the Pacific. The Hawaiian Islands are the most crucial islands throughout the entire Pacific Ocean.


Works Cited

Fichter, James R. So Great a Profit: How the East Indies Trade Transformed Anglo-American Capitalism. Harvard University Press, 2010.

Igler, David. The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush. Oxford University Press, 2017.

Rouleau, Brian. Maritime Destiny as Manifest Destiny: American Commercial Expansionism and the Idea of the Indian. 2010. 

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