Sailors in Touch: Making Connections via Pacific Whalers, 1820–60

Thursday, January 5, 2012: 3:20 PM
Belmont Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
William J. McCarthy, University of North Carolina at Wilmington
The opening of the China trade in 1784 and the expansion of American whaling into the Pacific in 1796 brought about a vast expansion in the scope and imagination of the American maritime community.  The exchange of goods and information was paramount in the proliferation of these networks.  The Western world’s knowledge of the Pacific was filtered through the eyes of sailors.  Sailors brought small exotic trade items and knowledge of tattooing and what they perceived to be Polynesian sexual license.  Naturalists brought specimens and drawings of biological and geological finds.  Captains, pilots and political and commercial agents brought knowledge of goods, prices, trade routes and ideas for improved efficiency.  This news was eagerly received by parties across the world.

Pacific islanders who traveled returned with trinkets, western clothing, and often an increase in mana, or spirit with which to enhance their reputations among their communities.  Similarly, islanders initially viewed the west through the eyes of these travelers.

Grounding a portion of this story in the Pape’ete calaboose and Honolulu bars, I plan to describe and assess the connections made among sailors on Pacific whaling vessels.  The essential points to be made are that the sailors made contacts with each other that resulted in the formation of community as well as opportunities for employment, and that employment was still available despite records of imprisonment or excessive drunkenness.  The fact that sailors came to understand this gave them a certain degree of independence over the harsh working and living conditions found aboard whaling vessels of the time.

Archival research for this project is based in work conducted at the Archives d’Outre Mer  in Aix-en-Provence, France, the Newberry Library, the G.W. Blunt White Library at Mystic Seaport, and items contained in the nineteenth century Honolulu temperance newsletter, the Friend.