Sailors, Scientists, and Speculators: Cooperating and Conflicting Maritime Networks in the Age of American Expansion

AHA Session 19
Thursday, January 5, 2012: 3:00 PM-5:00 PM
Belmont Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Tatiana Seijas, Miami University of Ohio
Rainer Buschmann, California State University, Channel Islands

Session Abstract

"Sailors, Scientists and Speculators: Cooperating And Conflicting Maritime Networks In The Age Of American Expansion"

The early nineteenth century saw British North Americans making forays into the wider world.  They sailed to China, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean to trade; they expanded their diplomatic feelers across the globe; they sought knowledge and achievement in the intellectual milieu of the time.  This panel will examine the creation of networks of sailors, diplomats and mercantile leaders, scholars and scientists in the expansive activities of the early United States.

The panel will address the common theme of the ways in which communication was facilitated by sailors even though it was often not under their control or for their own purposes. The networks of communication that began with sailors branched out into the highest corridors of government and commerce. It has been a truism that sailors brought with them to various ports news of other places. Their contributions were not merely as conduits of news or even as carriers of information. Sailors were the first interpreters of information. They bore information in multiple forms, from oral accounts to ships’ diaries, from official logs to unofficial commentary. Much of what came into the hands of government officials, merchants, scientists and scholars was filtered first through the experience of sailors.

Dr. Katherine Hermes will examine American reactions to the scientific and geographical discoveries of Captain Cook’s voyages in the Pacific.  Suspicion of military motives damped official American enthusiasm for the voyages, yet the scientific community and those fond of exotic adventure embraced news from the expeditions.  In this we see something of the international nature of the scientific community as well as the beginnings of nationalistic endeavors in that regard.

Dr. William McCarthy will discuss the networks established among sailors on Pacific whaling voyages—that became sufficiently integral to maintain some personal contacts via Honolulu newspapers.  Harsh conditions aboard ship led to only the most daring or desperate sailors to contract for duty.  The same conditions led many to jump ship throughout the Pacific.  In some cases, local officials helped to try to curb desertion and drunkenness, and pioneering missionary efforts were obliged to focus on drunkenness as well.  The result was a network of communication and acquaintance that allowed for the ready re-employment of recalcitrants and the coordination of efforts to restrain them.

Dr. Matthew Raffety will assess the situation at Havana in the 1830s in which the mandate and interests of the United States consul often conflicted with those of the representatives of American merchant houses already in situ.  Regional and political differences back in the United States were exacerbated by commercial competition in Cuba.  A significant aspect of this component of American expansion was the oft-competing goals of politics and commerce, and the gradual maturity of the American identity as these networks of operatives came into contact abroad.

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