Whalers, Wrecks, and Maritime Networks in the 19th-Century North Pacific: Rethinking Models of Pacific Integration

AHA Session 10
Thursday, January 7, 2016: 1:00 PM-3:00 PM
Room 304 (Hilton Atlanta, Third Floor)
William Tsutsui, Hendrix College
Michael Dyer, New Bedford Whaling Museum

Session Abstract

This panel considers how weather patterns, current systems, port networks, and shipping lanes in the nineteenth century North Pacific shaped its cohesion in ways distinct from the South Pacific, but with implications for the integration of the Pacific Ocean basin as a whole.   It juxtaposes oceanographic, diplomatic, and economic history to explore Japan as a critical nexus of North Pacific flows of people and vessels, both northward to Arctic seas, and eastward to the coasts of the Americas. One collective goal of the papers is to identify interconnections between whalers, castaways, and shipwrecks from Hawaii northward as a key to understanding patterns of seaborne cultural and material exchange in a region with specific hydrographic and meteorological characteristics.

This framing emerged in response to a flurry of recent scholarship on Pacific maritime history, which the panelists find does not fully explore the role of Japan, and Japanese sailors, as core actors in mediating human and capital flows in the North Pacific region.  Much has been written about the function of China as the origin of west-to-east commodity and silver maritime streams.  Japan, the northernmost point off the Asian mainland with established commercial ports and a vibrant coastal shipping industry, has received less attention in maritime histories of the Pacific even as it served as a destination for hundreds of US and European whalers, and the origin of a myriad of castaways and shipwrecked sailors who populated the Pacific islands and western shores of the Americas.  The panel reveals how weather and water patterns in fact integrated a “closed off” Japan into regional maritime flows on a significant scale.   It also suggests that informal interaction between Japan and foreign actors, including US whalers who had entered the Pacific at Cape Horn, created systems of exchange and contact linking the Pacific from south to north on a new scale.

The three papers draw on diverse, but complementary, source bases, to consider these themes.  Arch’s paper, “Cast Adrift and Coming Home,” offers a novel oceanographic and meteorological lens to analyze cultural exchange among non-state actors as environmental history.  Wilson’s paper pulls from whaling logs and diplomatic records to integrate the Arctic region into both Asian, and broader trans-Pacific, streams of people, cargo, and vessels. Dudden’s work juxtaposes narratives of castaways (both Japanese and foreign) with Tokugawa governmental records to explore how the cultural knowledge gained from shipwrecked sailors informed the Japanese government’s diplomatic stance when negotiating the first treaties with the United States.  These projects collectively craft a maritime history of the North Pacific that identifies cultural flows, and knowledge networks, previously unexplored, which the authors find suggestive for histories of other ocean spaces.   In the aggregate, this panel plants the seed for a new international history of the North Pacific

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