Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Images of Exchange; or, Hawaiian Sandalwood's Many Faces

I will be giving a talk this Saturday, April 17th, at Yale University as part of a one-day regional environmental history conference.

My talk is titled "Becoming Hawaiʻi, Becoming 檀香山 (The Sandalwood Mountains), 1790-1830." It is basically going to be a progress-report on my ongoing research on the history of the transpacific trade of Hawaiian sandalwood. While I will be confined to 12 minutes of speaking time on Saturday, I thought I might use this blog to share some of the images that I will be discussing for both advance and future viewing...

Furthermore, you can view conference abstracts for all ten of Saturday's graduate student paper-presentations in advance.

But for those of you who will not be in New Haven this weekend, here are some images of exchange; or, some of the many faces of Hawaiian sandalwood:

The Disassociated Consumer? The Alienated Object?
A Chinese man wearing a coat made of fur from sea otters harvested thousands of miles away on the distant Northwest Coast of North America. Portrait in embroidered silk by Wu Caixia of Changsha, c1790-1840. Washington State Museum.

# Coins = # Sea Otters?
A Chilkat Tlingit mask with Chinese temple coins for eyes. Sitka, Alaska, before 1886. Smithsonian.

How do we measure these exchanges? Chinese fur consumers gave up simple items (such as coins) to transpacific traders in exchange for the sea otter furs they wanted. But we must consider that these Chinese coins were just as, if not more, valuable to the Tlingit than their own indigenous sea otters were. These exchanges speak to the powerful influence of material culture - that is, what objects mean and how they are used by a people - on not just trade, but also environmental change, such as the depopulation of sea otters...

Two Views of Boki
(Top): John Hayter's 1824 portrait, Boki and Liliha. Hawaiian Hall, Bishop Museum.
(Bottom): Depiction of the Hawaiian delegation, from a London newspaper, 1824. Wikipedia. Boki is standing in the back, third from the left, next to the Caucasian man, while Liliha sits in front of him with the turban on her head.

Both of these views of Boki, the Governor of Oʻahu at the time, and his wife Liliha, are from the summer of 1824 while they were in London, England, as part of a diplomatic trip to meet with (and surprise) King George IV who did not expect them.

The romantic portrait above depicts them as timeless, static figures of indigenous power and status. In fact, the items they wear on their bodies are all powerful signifiers of mana in traditional Hawaiian material culture.

But this was the 1820s! And the reality is that Boki was want to wear European-style clothing not just in London, as shown in the bottom image, but in Honolulu, too. Hawaiian aliʻi (ruling chiefs) like Boki and Liliha were the most conspicuous consumers of foreign commodities in Hawaiian society at this time.

While the top image portrays a world apart from transpacific exchanges and interrelationships, the bottom image portrays something closer to the truth: the hybrid material culture forming among elite Hawaiian consumers at this time. These changes were financed with sandalwood.

IOU: I Owe You Sandalwood
This is just one piece of evidence demonstrating Boki's debts to Honolulu's American merchants. Hawaii State Archives.
It reads: “Oahu 10th January 1826 For Value receiving We Jointly and Severally (?) promise to pay to Mssrs (?) Josiah Marshall + Dixey Wildes or to their Order Five Thousand Four hundred and Eighty One piculs of good Merchant-able Sandall Wood on demand being for account of the late King [Liholiho] 5481 piculs [signed] Poki [Boki] (+) Kalaimoku [Kalanimoku] Witness Fran [Francisco] de Paula Marin.”

# Sandalwood = # Foreign Commodities?
The fact that Hawaiian aliʻi such as Boki purchased foreign commodities on credit, and in due course amassed sizable debts, led to the rapid harvesting of sandalwood in Hawaiian forests to pay back American creditors...

In a sense, American ecological imperialism in Hawaiʻi began with sandalwood. It would reach its awful climax with sugar over half a century later, but sandalwood was the first Hawaiian biological resource to ever matter so much that the U.S. sent their own naval gunboats to Hawaiʻi to make sure that sandalwood debts would finally be paid in full.

But for more on the many faces (the myriad actors, resources, and ideas caught in this web) of Hawaiian sandalwood, you'll have to come to Yale on Saturday to hear more about it!



  1. Hope the talk went really well! (I'm sure it did.) Say hi to Helen for me!

  2. Hey Anna!

    Yes, the talk went actually quite well. All of the graduate student presentations were really excellent, and they covered an incredible diversity of topics.
    Alas I did not say hi to Helen for you, but I'm sure she was wishing you were there!! Too bad Madison is not in the Northeast, because you should have presented a paper too!

    Have you thought about whether you would like to attend ASEH 2011? I've still got lots of good panel ideas!


  3. Yes, I'm sorry that I missed out (though I'm happy to be staying put and not traveling for a little while). No clear thoughts on the next ASEH just yet--so many decisions about near-future plans to make soon! Happy spring.