Course description

At the end of the 18th century, the United States was recently successful in its struggle for political independence, but was then driven to establish its economic autonomy. New England's merchants needed a way to escape the depression that had followed the American Revolutionary War and had closed British ports to US imports. It was a need fulfilled and exceeded by the ever-shifting iterations of trans-Pacific trade, connecting Indigenous and settler communities in New England, the Northwest Coast, the Pacific Islands, and China. As the fledgling United States actively explored and exchanged goods with the islands across the great wide Pacific Ocean, it was New England—and Massachusetts in particular—that led the charge of exploration, exploitation, and expansion, resulting in massive accumulations of cultural collections and historical accounts of cross-cultural encounters. This history of exchange and contact has had significant impacts for both the Pacific and the United States, economically, culturally, and politically. Using a variety of sources, including items from Harvard's Peabody Museum, historical accounts, oral histories, and anthropological writings, this course illuminates some of these historical legacies and demonstrates how museum collections can shed light on the unique relationships and exchanges between Pacific Islanders and New Englander settlers. Specifically, the course investigates the China Pacific trade, the whaling industry, the foreign Christian ministries, and the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands as important events and spaces where the United States took its clumsy first colonizing steps towards becoming a global power.


  • Curator of Oceanic Collections, Peabody Museum at Harvard University
Enroll now.
Learn More