The Great Ocean

Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush

GUARNERI] Igler - The Great Ocean (Cover Image)
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David Igler, New York: Oxford University Press, 2013, 255 pp.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Guarneri

In The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush, David Igler proposes that we engage with the Pacific “world” not as an interstitial space, but rather as a series of interlocking and overlapping spaces that were rapidly drawn together in the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries. Joining a growing body of scholarship on Pacific history, Igler presents us with a world that is home to a multiplicity of peoples, cultures, and empires populating the expanse of the Pacific Ocean. This review will suggest how Igler’s monograph can be useful for courses on maritime history, the history of empire, and global history, as well as for encouraging undergraduate students to engage with themes that exceed the bounds of nation-states and terra firma alike.      

Igler explores the history of the Pacific through European and American naturalists, indigenous traders and islanders, the exchange of pathogens, and Euro-American empires, beginning with the voyages of Captain James Cook in the 1780s and ending with the California Gold Rush of 1848, and linking the United States with China, Russia, Latin America, and Oceania. The cast of Igler’s narrative is a diverse lot, ranging from venereal diseases that hindered fertility amongst Oceanians, to Russian traders that negotiated with natives of the Pacific Northwest for animal pelts. By emphasizing the Pacific world as a maritime space of encounter between these myriad things and peoples, rather than a series of islands in isolation from one another, Igler presents readers with a Pacific Ocean that serves as the site of a robust history instead of the “flight from history and humanity” it is typically used to represent (8).

The Great Ocean is an excellent study in connected histories, and its component chapters can be used as introductory or advanced readings in maritime history. The emphasis on encounters between Igler’s historical actors allows the book to serve well in illustrating maritime spaces as places where historical events took place, rather than merely the spaces between one nation-state (or archipelago) and the next.  This is an important theme in helping students to think of history in non-terrestrial terms, without leaving them with no ground to stand on, so to speak. Igler’s first chapter, “Seas of Commerce,” is especially useful in this regard: rather than focusing solely on discrete locales, Igler emphasizes the intensification of trade in the Pacific that resulted in ocean crossings, vessels passing from port to port and owner to owner, and other exchanges that highlight connections between his actors (American sailors, Hawai’ian merchants and crews, Russian and Native American traders, etc.) as part and parcel of Pacific history, a history that derives from connections between its locales rather than from isolated events around the Pacific Basin.

By focusing on a period of intense traffic and imperial expansion into the Pacific (1770s-1848), The Great Ocean also constitutes an excellent fit for courses on Euro-American empire.  The inclusion of traders and naturalists alongside sea dogs the likes of Captain Cook allows Igler’s narrative a breadth of coverage across various manifestations of empire, be they survey missions (Chapter Six), the exoticization of the Pacific Islands and their peoples in the Euro-American gaze, or the forceful territorial acquisitions and economic encroachment upon the places and peoples dotting the Pacific. Igler also amply demonstrates the role that Euro-American expansion into the Pacific played in decimating the whale population there (Chapter Four, “The Great Hunt”), allowing the book to be used beyond the territorial and economic contexts of imperial expansion and into the realm of the environmental impact of commercial and political expansion into the Pacific.     

Igler’s monograph also addresses global concerns through its emphasis on the Pacific as a site into which European and American powers emerged, but also as a place in which they converged, operating and interacting with and against one another. Be it the pursuit of globally circulating commodities such as whale blubber, or the quest to catalogue the natural world on the part of Euro-American naturalists, the themes explored in The Great Ocean address concerns that exceeded the fluid bounds of Pacific Basin. The author engages with these concerns in ways that amply highlight key themes for courses on global history, such as how commodities linked far-away places as Boston and Canton (Guangzhou), or how pathogens brought by European sailors were injurious to the reproductive capacities of indigenous peoples in the Pacific Islands.  The latter process, the transfer of disease agents, is amply illustrated in the book’s second chapter (“Disease, Sex, and Indigenous Depopulation”), which serves as an excellent framing for discussions of potential for disease transmission that comes with intense contact and commerce.  Such discussions, in turn, can be placed in larger comparative contexts, such as the role that the Silk Road played in transmitting the bubonic plague from Central Asia to Europe.   

Despite Igler’s efforts to paint a picture of a more comprehensive Pacific world, the author’s subjects are nevertheless chosen in relation to places and peoples touched by Europe and America. For example, China plays a prominent role in Igler’s narrative because it was the China trade that dominated European and American commercial concerns in the Pacific, and yet Chinese traders come into view only insofar as they interacted with Euro-American merchants.  Even some areas of the Pacific, such as southwestern Japan, that were quietly essential sources of globally circulated goods such as silver are scarcely mentioned, perhaps because of the author’s overall emphasis on Anglophone, Russian, Pacific Northwest, and Polynesian sources.  The attention given to Igler’s actors are by no means unwarranted; they simply betray a certain bias toward the European and American Pacific worlds. Lastly, while the wealth of illustrations serve to amply demonstrate the multiplicity of peoples and cultures that comprise Igler’s narrative, there is only one map in the entire volume (at the beginning). The book is one about movement across oceanic spaces, and instructors might have an easier time anchoring Igler’s themes and subjects by supplementing the author’s prose with additional maps that more fully capture these various movements.

The above considerations notwithstanding, The Great Ocean constitutes an important addition to the important body of scholarship that is maritime history. The Great Ocean has a place in a wide array of undergraduate and graduate courses alike, and succeeds in encouraging readers to view the vast Pacific not as an empty expanse, but rather a series of intersecting histories and webs of interactions.

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