More on Translating the Pacific

Translating the Pacific is divided into two interconnected areas of inquiry. In a first step, I analyze how nature and the environment are described in expedition accounts, government reports, and natural histories emerging from the Spanish, Dutch, Russian, English, French, and American forays into the Pacific. In my second area of inquiry I examine the mediation and dissemination of the knowledge gathered in the Pacific through an Atlantic publishing network. Each empire’s incursion into the Pacific generated a vast body of writings and the information contained in these writings not only appeared in various forms in the imperial centers but also circulated across Europe and the Americas. In this process, translation emerged as an important vehicle for the dissemination of knowledge as well as one of its most destabilizing factors. Through the process of translation the reports of eighteenth-century naturalists could be silently altered, revised, and reworked to accommodate the specific needs of sponsors and government officials. Translation therefore emerges not only as a vehicle for (and at times a threat to) the dissemination of knowledge, but also as an important analytical tool that throws into relief patterns of meaning making and meaning manipulation.

Maritime traffic, trade networks, and the thirst for scientific discovery and commercial opportunity connected places as diverse as Alaska, California, the Hawaiian Islands, Acapulco, and Potosì with Canton, Macau, Batavia, and Manila. As my project crisscrosses across the Pacific from east to west and back, these places emerge as important ports of call, accidental discoveries, and natural treasure troves. Each of my chapters therefore focuses on some of these sites, highlighting the role of one specific phenomenon, organism, or resource as an agent of political and ecological change.

My introduction, “On Winds and Waters: Navigating Distant Seas,” analyzes the textual and graphic representation of ocean currents. Moving from Polynesian stick charts and accounts of wave piloting to western attempts at hydrography, this chapter explores how mastery of the oceans emerged as the ideological and economic foundation for European and early American incursions into the Pacific. As a case study, I juxtapose Bernhardus Varenius (1649), William Dampier (1699), and Georg Forster’s (1778) assessments of the Pacific Kuroshio Current with Walter Haxton (1735) and Benjamin Franklin’s studies (1762-1786) of the Atlantic Gulf Stream. In doing so, this chapter illuminates the transoceanic reach of early modern navigational sciences and provides us with a new approach for thinking about ocean surface, depth, distance, and the interconnectivity of different oceanic systems.

My first chapter, “Coining Global Currency: Latin American Silver, Asian Markets, and the Rise of the Spanish Dollar,” examines the ecologies and economies of empire through the transoceanic silver trade. Tracing silver in various forms (raw, refined, minted) from the mines in Mexico and modern-day Bolivia to Manila, China, and back to the eastern seaboard of the United States, this chapter considers how the metal itself and accounts relating its extraction, processing, and exchange described and created a global market place. I compare and contrast Spanish, British, South Asian, and North American assay tables, minting manuals, reports of counterfeiting, commercial handbooks, and currency conversion charts before and after George Anson’s spectacular raid on the galleon Covadonga (1743), analyzing how questions of value, wealth, and the latent elusiveness of both were negotiated across different empires and cultures. These discussions, I suggest, shaped and informed Alexander Hamilton’s Coinage Act (1792) and the United States’ future monetary policies.

Chapter Two, “Bioprospecting Breadfruit: From Pacific Colonization to Atlantic Slavery,” explores the transplantation of the breadfruit tree from the East Indian islands to the British Caribbean colony of Jamaica and uncovers the impact of this transaction on the Indigenous and enslaved communities in both oceanic sites and in the US South. Contextualizing English-language writings on the breadfruit tree (John Ellis, 1775; Joseph Banks, 1791-95; Thomas Jefferson, 1797) with sources from other linguistic and cultural backgrounds (Indigenous accounts from Tahiti, Vanuatu, and Hawai’i; Pedro Fernandez de Quirós, 1606; the bilingual Dutch/Latin publication Het Amboinsche Kruidboek/ Herbarium Amboinenese, 1741), this chapter focuses on the ramifications of “motivated mistranslation” for European and early American empire building and underscores the role of nature writing in facilitating and sustaining transoceanic plantation economies.

My third chapter, tentatively titled “Harvesting the Sea Otter: The North Pacific and the Creation of a Transoceanic American Empire,” looks closely at the United States’s entry into the global race for Pacific resources. After the discovery of valuable sea otter pelts in the North Pacific in the mid-eighteenth century, the Russians, British, French, and Spanish established a vibrant fur trade with China. In 1783, the Hartford, Connecticut publication of John Ledyard’s unauthorized report on the profitability of this trade captivated American sea captains, merchants, investors, and politicians. Bringing together the writings of some of the most important American agents in the US-China trade (e.g. Joseph Ingraham, Robert Haswell, Joseph Peabody, John Jacob Astor, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson), this chapter analyzes how the great hunt for sea otters and other Pacific fur animals not only transformed life in the cities along the Atlantic seaboard of the United States, but also impacted the new nation’s political and economic outlook as well as the country’s relations with China.

Chapter Four, “Depopulating the Archipelago: Disease Boats and Venereal Distemper,” examines the spread of pathogens as an important side effect of Pacific prospecting. The accounts of Louis Antoine de Bougainville (1771), James Cook (1784), and the American William Shaler (1808) all detail the impact of imported disease and uneven sexual relations on the native populations of Hawai‘i, Tahiti, and the Marquesas. Indigenous peoples especially feared syphilis, or the “Great Pox,” because this disease was responsible for the chronic ill health, infertility, and high infant mortality rates that were threatening the lives and futures of the island populations. By analyzing native assessments of syphilis, my chapter recovers Indigenous perspectives on the disease, its effects, and possible cures. Connecting the writings of the Mohegan minister Samson Occom (1754-1756; 1770s), the Pequot minister William Apess (1829), and the Black Pequot sailor Paul Cuffe, Jr. (1839) with the works of the Hawaiian authors David Malo (1830) and Samuel Mānaiakalani Kamakau (1841), I examine how Indigenous writers from the Atlantic and the Pacific worlds countered the fragmentation of their communities through imported diseases by forging transoceanic alliances of health and well-being.

My fifth and final chapter, “Mining Waste: Guano and the Hope for Ecological Redemption” examines the fetishization of guano as an agricultural miracle product. It traces the circulation of accounts on guano and guano mining (e.g. by Inca Garcilaso de la Vega (1604), Amadée François Frézier (1716), and Alexander von Humboldt (1807)), teasing out how these writings and their translations ultimately led, in 1856, to the passing of the American Guano Islands Act, a law that is still widely recognized as the United States’ s first true imperial policy (anachronistically so, I would argue). By analyzing reactions, responses, and critiques of the guano trade voiced by Herman Melville (1854), Frederick Douglass (1855), and Ralph Waldo Emerson (1859), this chapter demonstrates how guano connected indentured Chinese workers in Peru and enslaved people on the plantations of the US South.