[Paleopsych] Common-place: Toward a Pacific World

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Tue Jan 25 14:52:56 UTC 2005

Toward a Pacific World

[I give only the introduction to Vol. 5, No. 2 (2005.1).]

First: News bulletin from the Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.1.25
A glance at the January issue of "Common-Place":
Approaching American history from the Pacific

Some historians are approaching American history from a new 
direction -- from the West, via the Pacific Ocean.

>From that perspective, the cast of characters in the nation's 
past is less familiar, say Edward G. Gray, an associate 
professor of history at Florida State University, and Alan 
Taylor, a professor of history at the University of California 
at Davis, in an introduction to an issue on the topic.

Instead of the Pilgrims and colonists of the Atlantic Coast, 
Pacific history is peopled by "Russian fur traders, Spanish 
missionaries, Japanese fishermen, French and Spanish explorers, 
British naval officers, American travelers, German naturalists, 
Tahitian translators, Aleutian hunters, Polynesian navigators, 
Yankee merchants, and that peculiar species of Pacific 
go-between, the beachcomber," they write.

Such figures were relatively obscure for too long, but they are 
now starting to get their due, says Peter A. Coclanis, a 
professor of history at the University of North Carolina at 
Chapel Hill, in an essay.

"Scholars have begun to take seriously, really for the first 
time, historical actors, actions, and processes both on the 
ocean itself and around and along the entire Pacific Rim," Mr. 
Coclanis writes.

"Almost 500 years after Balboa," he says, "American historians 
have themselves discovered the Pacific."


    Edward G. Gray teaches early American history at Florida State
    University and is writing a biography of John Ledyard.

    Alan Taylor teaches early American history at the University of
    California at Davis. He is the author of American Colonies: The
    Settlement of North America (New York, 2001), William Cooper's Town:
    Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic
    (New York, 1995), and Liberty-Men and Great Proprietors: The
    Revolutionary Settlement on the Maine Frontier (Chapel Hill, 1990).

    Edward G. Gray and Alan Taylor
    Toward a Pacific World

    Discovery, exploration, conquest. Settlers, pilgrims, natives.
    Colonies, plantations, empires. These are the terms we associate with
    the beginnings of American history. They bring to mind those early
    "plantations," as the English called them: Jamestown, Plymouth Colony,
    the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In these fragile settlements, we are
    often taught, English men and women planted the seeds of what would
    become the United States. They discovered new lands; they explored
    seas and rivers and backcountry; they conquered, they settled, and
    then they made a nation.

    How curious it is, for those of us reared on these old maxims of U.S.
    history, to contemplate parts of the present-day United States--the
    West Coast, Hawaii, and Alaska--where the story of our national
    origins is much less familiar. Approached from the Pacific (which, as
    [4]Mark Peterson's essay tells us, has not always been just the
    Pacific), our past has an unfamiliar cast of characters. There is no
    clear, dominant settler population and no distinct class of mariners
    maintaining communication with the so-called Old World. There are no
    familiar Native American heroes--no Squanto or Pocahontas--and there
    are no harassed religious pilgrims, fleeing the corruptions of the Old
    World for the promise of the New. There are swashbuckling Renaissance
    men: Sir Francis Drake, Thomas Cavendish, Magellan, and others. But at
    least in the case of the Englishmen Cavendish and Drake, they tend to
    be better known for their Atlantic exploits than their
    late-sixteenth-century voyages across the Pacific.

    The cast of characters who populate Pacific history includes
    [5]Russian fur traders, [6]Spanish missionaries, [7]Japanese
    fishermen, [8]French and [9]Spanish explorers, [10]British naval
    officers, [11]American travelers, [12]German naturalists, [13]Tahitian
    translators, [14]Aleutian hunters, [15]Polynesian navigators,
    [16]Yankee merchants, and that peculiar species of Pacific go-between,
    [17]the beachcomber. Some traveled in huge [18]treasure ships. Some
    rode in small seal-skin kayaks, others in grand outrigger canoes. And
    still others traveled overland along the coastal regions that form a
    massive arc from Cape Horn north to the Bering Strait and then south
    again toward China. Their purposes were as varied as their methods of
    travel. Some came seeking knowledge, others to settle new lands, some
    in search of game, and some to trade. Their routes were also widely
    varied. Some came across the vast middle of the Pacific, traveling
    between the Philippines and Mexico. Some traveled the Polynesian
    archipelago as if it was all one giant landmass. Others sailed from
    the Atlantic through the treacherous waters around Cape Horn. Some
    crossed the Bering Strait or hopscotched across the Aleutian Island
    chain and still others came from the Indian Ocean and the East China
    For those of us interested in the early history of the United States,
    these Pacific communities may not be as well known or as influential
    as their Atlantic counterparts, but their stories still have much to
    teach us.

    These travelers did not come in one, continuous wave. Their journeys
    are separated by years and, in some cases, millennia. And, unlike the
    more familiar characters in the story of America's beginnings, these
    travelers often ended their travels where they began them. How
    different from the Pilgrims of Plymouth or many of the young gentlemen
    of Jamestown.

    For all these differences from the stories and characters who populate
    the well known ground of America's early history, there are striking
    parallels. As we have learned in recent years, the history of the
    earliest European settlements in America can no longer be told as the
    history of small, isolated bands of desperate women and men,
    struggling against nature and themselves to survive. These European
    colonizers, their servants and slaves, and the Indians with whom they
    came into contact were in fact drawn into processes that far
    transcended their tiny American settlements. Those
    processes--including the movement of goods, of disease, of biota, of
    cultures, of free and unfree people--drew together a diverse array of
    people from throughout the Atlantic basin.

    Over the previous two decades, scholars have begun to focus on this
    remarkable Atlantic World as a discreet area of study. And they have
    found that in the age of sail, oceans often did more to unite than to
    separate. They have also raised important questions about the tendency
    to divide people according to readily identified nations--with clear
    boundaries and distinct governments. For the people of the early
    Atlantic World, we now know, such divisions were often arbitrary. What
    those people did, where they traveled, with whom they did business,
    against whom they waged war--all often had little at all to do with
    the conventions of political geography. Who they were was as often a
    function of what language they spoke or how they made their living as
    it was of the government that ostensibly ruled them.

    This sort of insight proves especially valuable when we approach
    Pacific history. There we find few of the nation-states that once
    defined European and American history. To be sure, some of the players
    in the Pacific sailed under European flags, but until the late
    eighteenth century few of them made any serious claim to territory
    abutting the Pacific. Relative to the Atlantic, then, the European
    presence there was paltry in every way. But it is precisely this fact
    that makes Atlantic studies so useful for understanding Pacific
    history. If we continue to move beyond nations and states as the
    defining subjects of historical understanding, turning instead to
    large scale processes, we can begin to see in Pacific history a vital
    analog to the much better known history of the Atlantic. As the essays
    in this issue of Common-place make clear, disease, migration, trade,
    and war effected the Pacific in much the way they effected the
    Atlantic: they drew together vast, diverse collections of human
    beings, whether stretching from Easter Island west to New Zealand, or
    from coastal California north and then west to the Kamchatka

    For those of us interested in the early history of the United States,
    these Pacific communities may not be as well known or as influential
    as their Atlantic counterparts, but their stories still have much to
    teach us. At the very least, they invite us to contemplate exactly
    what American history is and where it began. Hence, the double
    entendre of this issue's title: Pacific Routes. The stories told here
    deal as much with historical roots as they do the routes their
    subjects traveled. And we invite readers to carry this sense with
    them, as they make their way into the lives and stories of the


    4. http://common-place.org/vol-05/no-02/peterson/index.shtml
    5. http://common-place.org/vol-05/no-02/miller/index.shtml
    6. http://common-place.org/vol-05/no-02/hackel/index.shtml
    7. http://common-place.org/vol-05/no-02/benfey/index.shtml
    8. http://common-place.org/vol-05/no-02/mapp/index.shtml
    9. http://common-place.org/vol-05/no-02/igler/index.shtml
   10. http://common-place.org/vol-05/no-02/frost/index.shtml
   11. http://common-place.org/vol-05/no-02/gray/index.shtml
   12. http://common-place.org/vol-05/no-02/liebersohn/index.shtml
   13. http://common-place.org/vol-05/no-02/newell/index.shtml
   14. http://common-place.org/vol-05/no-02/namias/index.shtml
   15. http://common-place.org/vol-05/no-02/dening/index.shtml
   16. http://common-place.org/vol-05/no-02/demos/index.shtml
   17. http://common-place.org/vol-05/no-02/salesa/index.shtml
   18. http://common-place.org/vol-05/no-02/coclanis/index.shtml

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