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Ocean of history

By David Igler


On 8 June—a day known around the world as World Oceans Day—we should take a few moments to consider the history as well as the plight of our watery globe. The earth is mostly covered by water, not land, and that water is largely responsible for all forms of human and non-human life. The oceans are instrumental to everything; they form the basis of the earth’s water cycle, provide sustenance to much of humanity, and serve as a barometer of the mounting climate crisis. Humans have not been kind to the oceans during the past century. Industrial pollution as well as the historically unprecedented harvesting of world fisheries represents only two in a long list of severe threats to our oceans’ health. Despite these challenges, which are threatening in every conceivable way, we also have an opportunity to think about oceans from a different vantage point.

I tend to think historically—call it an occupational hazard. And my historical thinking for the past ten years has focused on the Pacific Ocean, that vast stretch of water covering one-third of the earth’s surface. It’s not an expanse of blue on the map. Instead, the Pacific is dotted by tens of thousands of islands and occupied by a dizzying complexity of humankind. And it’s been that way for a very long time. Because of this human past and ecological significance, it’s important to think historically about the Pacific as well as other oceans.

And yet, to imagine oceans as possessing rich histories may run counter to some peoples’ sense of traditional historical and geographic space. The geography upon which our histories usually take place—nations, regions, and localities—has fixed borders encompassing land, and we almost exclusively write about the peoples’ history in relation to that landed space. Landed geography connects nations and people (their ideas, commodities, politics, etc.) across distances near and far. But until recently historians have expressed little interest in imagining the ways that oceans connect people and polities. Oceans, it would seem, hardly register on historians’ mental maps of places that truly matter because we so often imagine the sea as a flight from history and humanity.

The Pacific holds many distinct and overlapping histories. For instance, during the early 1800s the Pacific waterscape witnessed one of history’s greatest convergences of humankind, as well as their commodities, microbes, ideas, and thirst for marketable commodities. Indigenous islanders and mainlanders discovered Europeans, Americans, and Asians, and recognized in them terrible new forces of historical change. Natives were subjected to the deadly viral and bacterial loads carried by these foreigners. Diseases swept through indigenous communities again and again, waves of depopulation documented by Spanish, British, French, American, and native chroniclers. Foreigners also created new seas of commerce that soon criss-crossed the “Great Ocean,” bringing the Pacific into the trade patterns that define this period of world history. The Pacific, in this way, entered and influenced the global history of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The impact of the global convergence was not limited to people. Those mammals that lived in the Pacific’s great and ceaseless currents—whales, sea otters, seals, and more—faced an assault without parallel in history. In a matter of decades numerous marine mammal species neared extinction due to the value of their skins, hides, and blubber. Offshore islands once filled with fur seals and their deafening roars were described as eerily quiet by the 1820s. The history of this “great hunt” is one of brutal, industrial-scale violence, vividly captured in the logbooks and diaries of sea captains and common sailors.

The world’s oceans contain innumerable histories. Some of them were written and published while others were transmitted orally from person to person. Some focus on the advance of empires around the globe. Others recount the resistance to such empires, especially during the past five centuries in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. The new oceanic history incorporates many themes and subjects: social affairs, environmental conditions, mass migrations, forced diasporas, and cultural exchanges. These histories can be global in scale and encyclopedic in content, or they can tell the story of an individual vessel on a particular voyage to a certain locality. The local informs the global, and vice versa. The oceans present us with a whole new perspective on history, and World Oceans Day is an excellent reason to delve into this literature.

David Igler is Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush (Oxford, 2013) among other books. He is currently on sabbatical and living in Madrid with his family, where he is researching a new book and enjoying Spanish wines.

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Image credit: Guam Sea Ocean Water Rocks Rocky Sky Clouds. Public domain via Pixabay.

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