Sunday, April 21, 2013

David Igler's "The Great Ocean"

David Igler is Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. His books include Industrial Cowboys: Miller & Lux and the Transformation of the Far West, 1850-1920 and The Human Tradition in California.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush, and reported the following:
It’s a good thing that Ford Madox Ford did not make his test based on page 98, which is left blank in The Great Ocean. I might have had nothing to say at all. Instead, page 99 opens a chapter titled “The Great Hunt” and it begins with one of my favorite lines in the entire book: “Tiger, 1845-1848. Like many whaling voyages, this one involved a fair measure of human bloodshed and an enormous amount of blubber.” The Tiger was a whale ship out of Stonington, Connecticut, and alongside the various crewmembers (who spent almost three years killing whales in the Pacific Ocean) was the captain’s wife, Mary Brewster, who kept a superb journal of the voyage. I use her experiences and observations as a narrative device for much of the chapter. It was a true pleasure to have such an articulate voice for the exceedingly grim subject matter of whaling.

This chapter of The Great Ocean focuses on whaling as well as the wholesale slaughter of other Pacific marine mammals during the early 19th century. The book, however, is a broader history of the Pacific Ocean from the 1770s to the 1840s. Structured thematically rather than chronologically, the chapters deal with exploration, trade, the introduction of diseases to indigenous populations, the taking of captives, the work of trained scientific naturalists, and of course, the “Great Hunt” for marine mammals. As much as anything else, it’s a history of what happens when Pacific indigenous groups encounter foreigners (mostly Europeans and Americans). Diseases decimate many native populations. Atlantic-based empires extend their power into the Pacific. Violence in its many forms is rampant throughout the Pacific.

And Mary Brewster directly observes some of this violence. She watches from the Tiger’s deck as a young man name John Perkins (also introduced on page 99!) is crushed by the tail of whale. Weeks later she witnesses the first whales taken by the ship’s crew and describes the killing, the “cutting in” process, and the arduous “boiling down” of blubber into whale oil. Months after that the Tiger arrives in a small bay on the coast of Baja California, and Mary sees men killed by whales as well as many, many gray whales slaughtered while they attempt to protect their newborn calves. If not quite a Herman Melville, Mary Brewster is certainly a capable narrator for this heyday of whaling in the Pacific Ocean.

No single page can encapsulate an entire book, but page 99 (and the chapter it opens) certainly invites a conversation about the Pacific Ocean and the American demand for various natural resources, including blubber.

Excerpt from page 99 of The Great Ocean:
Tiger, 1845-1848. Like many whaling voyages, this one involved a fair measure of human bloodshed and an enormous amount of blubber. The profitable cargo at the journey’s end delighted Captain William E. Brewster, but his wife, Mary, expressed no particular sentiment as the Tiger entered the harbor of Stonington, Connecticut, on March 8, 1848. “We went in so quickly and so still—We soon left our old home [the Tiger] and found our friends all well—and glad to see us,” she wrote in her journal. Mary Brewster had certainly anticipated this homecoming for well over two years. She was now a seasoned voyager, a “sister sailor” who experienced the extremes of oceanic conditions and witnessed the gruesome business of whaling as well as the depravity of masculine behavior aboard ship. Very little could now startle this twenty-five-year-old woman, and perhaps this explains her lack of sentiment. It had been a long voyage.

Two years earlier the Tiger entered the Pacific with a typical complement of experienced officers, skilled tradesmen and harpooners, and novice crewmen who signed on with varying degrees of willingness. Headed for the Northwest Coast of North America and planning to hunt sperm whales on the way up the South American coast, the Tiger’s crew was notably unsuccessful through the spring of 1846. Some crewmembers quietly spoke of deserting the ship at the first opportunity. There was “not very good feeling between the officers and boatsteerers,” noted John Perkins, a Yale College dropout and twenty-year-old green-hand sailor. Mary Brewster only made matters worse: a woman’s mere presence on the ship, Perkins alleged, turned “every danger double.” The Tiger’s whaleboats chased numerous whales in the southeast Pacific but came up empty, forcing the captain to report “clean”—the whalemen’s term for “no oil”—during a stopover in Hawai‘i.
Learn more about The Great Ocean at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue