A Sea of Savage Islands: How Antebellum Americans at Home Imagined the Pacific World

Michael A. Verney

Patent Office, Washington, c. 1855, by Edward Sachse & Co., National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

When most U.S. nationals in the early republic thought of the Pacific Ocean, they conjured lands instead: the tens of thousands of islands that comprise Oceania and that Epeli Hau’ofa once famously called “Our Sea of Islands.”[1] Writing in the 1830s, for instance, the writer and explorer Jeremiah Reynolds extolled the “vast expanse of the two Pacifics, with their countless summer isles.”[2] The emphasis on islands reflected a combination of hard commercial interests in the South Pacific—especially the whaling, sea cucumber, and sandalwood industries—as well as cultural fascinations with tropical climates and Oceanian societies. Indeed, antebellum citizens were captivated with the apparent incongruity between “the tempting Edens of the South Pacific” and the supposed “cannibal banquets” of those who dwelled in them.[3]

The collections of the National Gallery both reflected and reinforced these popular notions of a Pacific World centered on Oceanian societies. Located on the cavernous second floor, or “Great Hall,” of the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, DC, the National Gallery was the first publicly funded national museum of natural history in the United States. It showcased a wide array of specimens acquired by the War and Treasury Departments, U.S. diplomats, the National Institute for the Promotion of Science, and especially the United States Exploring Expedition.

Circumnavigating the globe between 1838 and 1842, the “Ex Ex” (as contemporaries referred to it), charted, surveyed, negotiated with (and sometimes massacred) Oceanian peoples, and collected specimens and artifacts from across the South Pacific and Northwest coast of North America. Over the course of four years, it directed homeward a torrent of plants, insects, crustaceans, mollusks, corals, fish, reptiles, birds, mammals, and human remains and artifacts. Indeed, one scholar concluded that the Ex Ex’s anthropological collection was “the largest ever made by a single sailing expedition.”[4]

The sheer size of the Ex Ex collection made it the largest single source for specimens in the National Gallery. In total, the Ex Ex provided the contents of at least one out of every three display cases in the National Gallery.[5] No wonder, then, that in 1843 Congress appointed the irascible commander of the Ex Ex, Charles Wilkes, to oversee the collections.[6]Wilkes moved quickly to ensure that his expedition’s materials achieved maximum credit; he arranged the museum so that its first eight cases were filled with Ex Ex artifacts from the South Pacific and mounted a handsome sign over the Gallery’s entrance with the words “‘Collection of the Exploring Expedition’. . . in large Golden letters.”[7] His actions ensured that the National Gallery would become a prominent source of public information about the Pacific world.

Wilkes’s exhibits portrayed Oceanian societies as dangerous and cannibalistic. They were carefully curated to appeal to western notions of what Gananath Obeyesekere has termed “savagism”—a means of perceiving Indigenous peoples as violent, primitive peoples in order to justify extermination and colonization.[8] The museum’s first two cases displayed Oceanian war clubs, including one that had killed an officer on the Ex Ex during an altercation in Fiji. A guidebook from 1855 described the weapons as the “most curious and frightful bludgeons . . . capable of crushing skulls.” Alongside these clubs were other implements associated with warfare, including a “War Conch,” spears, bows and arrows, and slings.[9] Even more sensational were the items promoted as evidence of cannibalism: a “necklace of human teeth” and a “set of teeth received from one of the great Chiefs, taken from the heads of prisoners that he had killed and eaten three days before.”[10] Buried deeper into the National Gallery was one of its most popular exhibits: a case of human skulls “collected by the U.S. Ex. Ex. from the Pacific Islands.”[11] Among them was the pickled head of a kidnapped Fijian noble named Veidovi, whose “sharp” teeth were “filed with the shark skin, so as to keep them ready for use.”[12] From these and other displays, tourists would walk away envisioning a Pacific world inhabited by the warlike, supposedly man-eating nations who threatened U.S. lives and limbs.

Plan of the National Gallery, Containing the Collections of the United States Exploring Expedition, c. 1840. Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 92, Image No. SIA_000092_S18_I007.

Such depictions of the Pacific world were highly influential for at least three reasons. First, the National Gallery was extremely popular. In 1856, the Gallery’s chief curator estimated that 100,000 people visited the National Gallery each year. Although this number was likely an exaggeration, visitors’ registers preserved by the Smithsonian Institution Archives suggest that he was not far off; in March 1845, for instance, 10,323 visitors toured the Gallery. While most patrons listed domiciles in and around DC, there were many who came from every corner of the United States and beyond.[13] They brought the Gallery’s presentation of the Pacific world home with them.

Second, the Oceanian exhibits reinforced what most U.S. visitors had expected to see. Missionary and mariners’ accounts already portrayed the Pacific as a series of “desolate or savage islands” where the lives and fortunes of enterprising U.S. mariners were at special risk.[14] Even sympathetic beachcombers like Herman Melville, who described his time in the Marquesas in his immensely popular Typee (1846), presented Oceanians as “child[ren] of nature” and “idle savage[s]” who had little need of Western influences.[15] The National Gallery reinforced such deep-rooted prejudices.

Finally, the National Gallery’s portrayal of the Pacific world mattered because visitors likely trusted what they saw. While virtually every antebellum travelogue opened with a claim to authenticity, a guidebook for the National Gallery declared that seeing the specimens firsthand meant realizing “convincing and incontrovertible” truths about the world.[16] Thus, while modern scholars struggle to envision a single, interactive Pacific world, tourists left the National Gallery with clear notions of what that world contained. No doubt they left feeling like Melville’s Ishmael when he encountered a wall of Oceanian weapons at a New Bedford inn: trembling as they “gazed,” pondering “what monstrous cannibal and savage could ever have gone a death-harvesting with such a hacking, horrifying implement.”[17]


[1] Epeli Hau’ofa, “Our Sea of Islands,” The Contemporary Pacific 6 (Spring, 1994), 148–61.

[2] J. N. Reynolds, Mocha Dick: Or the White Whale of the Pacific (1839; New York, 1932), 90.

[3] William Reynolds, The Private Journal of William Reynolds: The United States Exploring Expedition, 1838–1842, ed. Nathaniel and Thomas Philbrick (New York, 2004), 85, and Herman Melville, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846; New York, 1972), 37.

[4] Adrienne Kaeppler, “Anthropology and the U.S. Exploring Expedition,” in Magnificent Voyagers: The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838–1842, ed. Herman J. Viola and Carolyn Margolis (Washington, DC, 1985), 120.

[5] This estimate derives from a guide book held by the Joseph F. Cullman III Library of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution Libraries, Washington, DC, and entitled A Guide for Visitors to the National Gallery (Washington, DC, 1856). It described sixty-four numbered and thirty-four unnumbered cases. Of these, twenty-one were explicitly described as coming from the Ex Ex, while another eleven seem highly likely to have originated with the Expedition.

[6] Douglas E. Evelyn, “The National Gallery at the Patent Office,” in Viola and Margolis, Magnificent Voyagers, 236.

[7] Charles Wilkes, Autobiography of Rear Admiral Charles Wilkes, U.S. Navy, 1798–1877, ed. William James Morgan, David B. Tyler, Joye L. Leonhart, and Mary F. Loughlin (Washington, DC, 1978), 528.

[8] Gananath Obeyesekere, Cannibal Talk: The Man-Eating Myth and Human Sacrifice in the South Seas (Berkeley, CA, 2005), 1.

[9] Alfred Hunter, A Popular Catalogue of the Extraordinary Curiosities in the National Institute (Washington, DC, 1855), 12–13.

[10] Hunter, Catalogue, 14.

[11] Hunter, Catalogue, 49.

[12] Hunter, Catalogue, 49.

[13] Visitors Registers of the Smithsonian Institution and the United States National Museum, 1852-1913, Record Unit 62, Smithsonian Institution (SI) Archives, Washington, D.C.

[14] Jeremiah Reynolds to Mahlon Dickerson, June 29, 1837, reprinted in Jeremiah N. Reynolds, Exploring Expedition. Correspondence between J. N. Reynolds and the Hon. Mahlon Dickerson (New York, 1838; Google Books via Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, California), 8

[15] Melville, Typee, 134 and 265.

[16] Hunter, Catalogue, v.

[17] Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, or, the Whale (1851; rep., Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2001), 13.

13 June 2022

About the Author

Michael A. Verney is assistant professor of history at Drury University.

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