Organized Panel Session
This paper seeks to illuminate the political uses of gods in the nineteenth century by examining three monarchies that adapted similar strategies of rule. In 1815 King Pomare of Tahiti ordered the destruction of god images around Tahiti. In 1818 the Hawaiian king Liholiho, who like Pomare faced internal rivalries and external threats, dismantled Hawaiian temples and abandoned the worship of gods. In the 1840s, beginning in Guangzhou and Guangxi provinces, Hong Xiuquan launched the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom in a paroxysm of image breaking. Each monarch improvised new forms of power against a wider background of destruction and upheaval. Comparison of these iconoclastic monarchies raises several important questions. What forces led different kings to embark on iconoclastic projects? What does the iconoclasm tell us about the power relations that had existed previously? What does it tell us about the nineteenth-century religious practices that the kings were abandoning?
In each case, new monarchs used iconoclasm to assert claims over temple space and resources, to displace their rivals, and to put themselves at the center of the destruction. Destroying gods was not a new practice, but in the nineteenth century it came to reenact wider forms of ecological and human devastation spreading throughout the Pacific. By examining this shift, we can see new perspectives on Taiping history as well as potential approaches to the study of destruction.