Impertinent Questions

Sea Captains Changed the Pacific World. David Igler Explains How.

Western Americanist and native Californian David Igler on sea captains who sought their fortunes

HUMANITIES, November/December 2014, Volume 35, Number 6

This time in IQ, David Igler takes us to the Pacific, where countless sea captains have sought their fortunes. Igler, a professor of history at the University of California at Irvine, received an NEH grant for The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush, published by Oxford University Press in 2013.

What drew you to the Pacific?

I was trained as a western Americanist and this training (in addition to being a native Californian) pulled me to the Pacific. One day I found myself looking at eighteenth- and nineteenth-century maps of North America and there it was—this vast expanse of ocean that I knew nothing about.


On which Pacific-going ship would you have wanted to serve?

Truth be told, I have a great fear of large bodies of water. This makes me an unlikely sailor. However, if forced to choose, I would have wanted to serve on the initial voyage from the Marquesas or Tahiti to settle Hawai‘i some thousand years ago. I would have jumped from most of the ships I write about. My paternal grandfather jumped ship in San Francisco around 1910. Perhaps jumping ship is in my genes.


What was the most unusual trade item you’ve encountered?

Human skulls from indigenous people. Few people actually used them as a trade item, but we find them appearing again and again in the historical record.


Your book draws on the writings of many captains, including one William Shaler. Was he representative of the free-for-all attitude regarding trade?

I think so. He also had exceptionally fortunate timing in terms of the North American coastal fur trade. Shaler traveled and traded where he wanted and didn’t think much about the consequences of his actions. Today he would fit in well among the Wall Street traders and the big banks.


How is it that Russians and Americans collaborated on the trade in sea otter pelts?

It was a simple division of labor and technology. The Russians who colonized present-day Alaska conscripted the highly skilled hunters, namely the Aleuts, who had hunted sea otters since time immemorial. But the Russians did not have seaworthy ships for extensive travel down the North American coastline, which was the sea otter range. American traders had the navigable ships but no way to hunt sizable numbers of otters. In 1803, an American ship captain named O’Cain struck a deal with the governor of the Russian-American Company, Aleksandr Andreevich Baranov. Aleut hunters traveled south on American ships, and the Russian-American Company received half of the sea otter pelts. Other American captains quickly followed, and within about a decade most of the sea otters were exterminated from Alaska south to Baja California.


Where does Magdalena Bay fit into world history?

Magdalena is a small bay on the coast of Baja California. It was one of the most obscure places in the eastern Pacific, almost unknown to anyone. And yet for a ten-year period following 1845 it attracted a fleet of whaling ships because all the gray whales in the Pacific went there (and two adjacent bays) to calve. Like the sea otters, gray whales were hunted to near extinction, and during this time period that small bay contributed to worldwide whale-oil markets. It’s an example of global issues playing out in very obscure localities.


You claim to have a slight obsession with whale blubber. Have you overcome this?

I don’t want to sound defensive, but is there a problem with my fascination for blubber? The real topic here is whaling, and I think it’s fair to say that many people across time—from indigenous whaling cultures to Herman Melville—have discovered tremendous meaning in Leviathan. Perhaps my obsession has lessened, but I reserve the right to return to the topic.


What does “I am shippy” mean?

One of the first topics I researched was the spread of epidemic diseases from Europeans to indigenous populations. Eighteenth-century Europeans had a premodern understanding (or misunderstanding) of disease origins and diffusion. Indigenous groups were similarly baffled, but they certainly experienced the catastrophic consequences. Many native groups came to associate disease outbreaks with the arrival of foreign vessels. Therefore, “I am shippy” revealed their understanding that foreign men on ships carried disease. A British missionary in the Cook Islands translated this expression.


Writing of venereal diseases, Captain Cook said, “the evil I meant to prevent” had been unleashed on the Hawaiians. Why was syphilis so devastating?

Where to begin? Native Hawaiians had never experienced venereal syphilis, and it spread rapidly after Cook’s sailors first introduced it in 1778—so rapidly that Cook could verify its path across the island within a year. Here and elsewhere, venereal disorders drastically reduced fertility rates as well as the births of healthy children. It’s really difficult to imagine the health consequences—and also the cultural consequences—that resulted from widespread infection.


En route from Canton to San Francisco in 1850, Captain Edward Horatio Faucon lost $15,000 in trade goods and his ship, the Frolic. Why did he set off with a sixty-year-old map?

Captain Faucon carried an old map on the Frolic because he had neither GPS nor a more recent and accurate map of the North American coastline. Ship captains in the Pacific tended to make do with whatever cartographic knowledge they could cobble together. Their knowledge was frequently wrong, sometimes disastrously wrong. Such was the case with the Frolic when it crashed into the northern California coast.