Frost, Alan, and Samson, Jane, eds. Pacific Empires: Essays in Honor of Glyndwr
Williams. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press. 320 pp. + index. $75.00 (hbk). $27.95 (pbk). ISBN 0774807571. 077480758X (pbk.).
Glyndwr Williams is an historian of wide-ranging interests. This Festschrift which ranges from New Zealand to the Arctic, from the Spanish explorations in the West to the English in the Eastern Atlantic, gives some idea of the breadth of his writing. The book is divided into three sections: “Explorations, Imperial and Scientific Ventures;” “Encounters and Transformations;” and “Reflections.” These in turn reflect the depth of his interest in every aspect of New World exploration.
Like all collections from disparate authors, the essays vary in depth and quality. Alan Frost’s “The Spanish Yoke” on the business aspect of the British drive to marginalize the Spanish in the New World is particularly well done; it underlines the search for the Northwest (or Northeast) Passage as appealing for the mercantile aspect of speed in reaching and returning from the new discoveries. The British firmly believed God loved them best of all, and although the Portuguese and Spanish had snatched off the southern routes, there surely was compensation to be found in the north. At the same time, more direct conquest was proposed by the upstart country, flexing its muscles.
Another excellent offering is from Andrew Cook in his straightforward account of Alexander Dalrymple and the founding of the British Hydrographic Office. The essay by Jane Samson on the voyage of HMS Herald, 1845-1851, shows how intertwined were early oceanographic science and imperial expansion.
William Barr is also traditional in his account of a ship’s carpenter, George Ford, whose daily letters survived after a disastrous Franklin search expedition on the Investigator, 1850-1854, during which the ship sank and the crew spent a terrible 18 months in the Arctic.
Greg Dening’s “Hegemony of Laughter” has an intriguing title but ultimately fails to convince. The idea that Queen Purea of Tahiti could possibly be regarded as a person of royalty was a very natural one to the English. They certainly would have laughed at the story of Joseph Banks sleeping with her and having his clothing stolen, but the ruling woman of a group of people would naturally be thought of as a queen. Mr. Dening obviously knows a great deal about the interactions of the early British and Tahitians; we hope he takes a different tack in the future.
This reviewer has a great difficulty with Robin Fisher’s “Vancouver’s Vision of Native People.” The thesis is excellent: in dismissing European accounts as so racist and bound by cultural constraints as to be worthless the pendulum has swung too far. It’s certainly true that the old concept of “savages” being encountered and deemed in terrible need of “civilization” has been exploded into the small pieces it deserves, but among those shards there are in many cases the only records extant of life before Europeans came. Surely both sides should sort through them.
There are some small errors of fact; although Vancouver did a superb survey of the area around Nootka and Southeastern Alaska, he did not “meticulously” chart the whole western coast of North America. He followed his orders to survey overlooked bits like the islands of Southeast Alaska, the huge expanse of Prince William Sound, and the head of Cook Inlet.
The chief objection is the generalization that Vancouver neither understood nor liked the people of the Northwest Coast but was on mostly warm terms with those of Hawaii. It is not pointed out that Vancouver, when told of the totally unprovoked attack on a surveying party in southern Alaska, said it was most likely unprincipled fur traders had abused the Indians. He said of the Prince William Sound, Alaska, natives that the lack of an interpreter “…prevented [Vancouver] acquiring the information which, from the intelligent appearance of these very civil and well-behaved strangers, we might otherwise have been enabled to obtain.” These are only samples of the view the captain took of Alaska natives.
As to his interest in the culture, Vancouver describes in great detail an abandoned grave they excavated in Prince William Sound. Since he became increasingly ill and unable to leave the ship, firsthand accounts after that are few, but that does not equate with Fisher’s thesis.
Christon Archer in “Whose Scourge?” puts up a spirited defense against the charge that the Spanish brought smallpox to Alaska and points a finger at the Russians. There may be no records of smallpox on the Spanish ships but neither are there records of poxed Russians. 1775, when the fur trader Nathaniel Portlock visited Sitka Harbor, is extremely early for Russians in the area; they were still quite busy in Kodiak and environs. However, the topic is interesting and the defense well done, although it ultimately fails to convince.
Native women who married white men who then became successful make a fascinating study. Sylvia Van Kirk traces the lives of five women married to founding fathers of Victoria, British Columbia, and has some excellent photographs.Discussions on the British in India and New Zealand are beyond the purview of this reviewer, so the only comment is that they made enjoyable reading and seemed extremely well-researched.
David MacKay defends the great Captain Cook very ably in “Exploring the Pacific, Exploring James Cook.” There is much criticism of Columbus for leading Europeans to the New World and resulting disasters to the original people, and this has been extended to Cook in the South Seas. Both strike this reviewer as inherently silly and would urge the critics to read Jared Diamond’s magisterial Guns, Germs and Steel for the answers.
The expansion of British imperialism is the common thread of these essays. All are well written and the index is useful; more illustrations would have been useful and help justify the surprisingly high cost of this celebration of the beginning of the great days of the British Empire.