Alfred Burton's photographs, taken on a four-week cruise on the Wairarapa, are characteristic of nineteenth century travel photography. At each destination he recorded images of colonial industry, officialdom, distinctive foliage, and local people.
Burton's photograph of Suva shows a Europeanised township with shop fronts similar to small New Zealand towns of the time. Near Suva, he photographed men at work in the Fijian sugar industry. In Tonga, he photographed King George and his family and a group of 'notables' made up of religious and government ministers. Burton's photographs are not unmediated documents of the islands. Compared with Thomas Andrew (1855-1939), whose photographs portray strong engagement with events, communities, and daily life in Samoa,
Burton's images represent a tourist's view. Burton took a number of photographs of local women, who he selected and posed outside traditional houses. He described his method as arriving at a local village and 'persuading' selected women, 'the prettiest and the shapeliest', to 'sit' for the camera. After being in Fiji and Samoa, he was surprised that Tongan women wore clothing that covered their breasts and that they regarded him as taking 'a liberty' to suggest they did otherwise. A newspaper review of the photographs at the time describes the passengers as 'innocents abroad'. This refers to an impression given of the Europeans looking 'very cool and comfortable' - both with the environment and 'the dusky sons and daughters of the soil'.
The Union Steam Ship Company benefited from the public reception of Burton's photographs, which documented its Pacific cruise - demand increased for the service. Burton had also been willing to conduct fact-finding on behalf of the company. At Levuka, he discussed itineraries for future cruises with the German Consul. Burton's photographs convey both the familiar and the exotic. And the ease with which the Wairarapa's passengers seemed to fit in would have made the South Sea Islands appear to the public as a real and appealing destination.
1. 1884. The Camera in the Coral Islands: A Series of Photographs illustrating the Scenery and the Mode of Life in The Fijis, Navigator Islands (Samoa), Friendly Islands (Tonga)., Dunedin: Burton Brothers, p10 2. Ibid, p17 3. Ibid, p3