The Pacific of the early eighteenth century was not a single ocean but a vast and varied waterscape, a place of baffling complexity, with 25,000 islands and seemingly endless continental shorelines. But with the voyages of Captain James Cook, global attention turned to the Pacific, and European and American dreams of scientific exploration, trade, and empire grew dramatically. By the time of the California gold rush, the Pacific's many shores were fully integrated into world markets-and world consciousness. The Great Ocean draws on hundreds of documented voyages-some painstakingly recorded by participants, some only known by archeological remains or indigenous memory-as a window into the commercial, cultural, and ecological upheavals following Cook's exploits, focusing in particular on the eastern Pacific in the decades between the 1770s and the 1840s. Beginning with the expansion of trade as seen via the travels of William Shaler, captain of the American Brig Lelia Byrd, historian David Igler uncovers a world where voyagers, traders, hunters, and native peoples met one another in episodes often marked by violence and tragedy.
Igler describes how indigenous communities struggled against introduced diseases that cut through the heart of their communities; how the ordeal of Russian Timofei Tarakanov typified the common practice of taking hostages and prisoners; how Mary Brewster witnessed first-hand the bloody "great hunt" that decimated otters, seals, and whales; how Adelbert von Chamisso scoured the region, carefully compiling his notes on natural history; and how James Dwight Dana rivaled Charles Darwin in his pursuit of knowledge on a global scale. These stories-and the historical themes that tie them together-offer a fresh perspective on the oceanic worlds of the eastern Pacific. Ambitious and broadly conceived, The Great Ocean is the first book to weave together American, oceanic, and world history in a path-breaking portrait of the Pacific world.