When Ferdinand Magellan emerged from the 375 mile passage across South America that would one day bear his name – the Strait of Magellan – he famously dubbed the serene seascape that lay before him Mare Pacificum - Latin for Peaceful Sea. Historians have long delighted in the irony of the moniker, for the Pacific Ocean is frequently anything but peaceful. From nature's own tsunamis, typhoons and volcanoes, to some of history's bloodiest and most barbarous conflicts, violence is a fact of life on the world's largest body of water. Nonetheless, Magellan's first impression has its own truth about it. With their palm lined beaches and sparkling blue water, the islands of the Pacific are so enticing that they have become cultural icons of paradise.
My own fascination with the history of the Pacific began simply enough with the acquisition of a handful of envelopes one of which is pictured below. Posted from China in 1932, this bit of vintage paper once contained a letter home. It is notable to postal historians for a number of reasons, such as the use of stamps from two different countries and the various instructions and transit markings which have been applied. But at a more basic level this artifact is testament to how large the world still was in 1932 - that at a time generally considered modern, sending a letter across the Pacific was no small undertaking.
What follows are the collected impressions of my efforts to understand the role of this peaceful sea in human affairs, and of western civilization's centuries long quest to explore, tame, or sometimes simply to cross
the Pacific Ocean.
Life at Sea in the Time of Magellan
In 1519, when Magellan departed on his famous voyage to circumnavigate the globe, a sailor's daily life was not an easy one. Out at sea for months at a time, a ship's crew confronted on a nearly daily basis life-threatening danger, malnutrition, vermin, disease, filth, and exhaustion. The work of a seaman was hard and punishment for disobedience was brutal.
The Canton System of Trade
The Canton System of regulating foreign trade with China operated from the late 17th century until 1842. The system was restrictive by design, keeping foreigners confined to a small commercial district in Canton known as the Factories and prohibiting direct contact between foreigners and the Chinese. As the setting in which the Opium War erupted, the Canton System is a topic of frequent study and even debate.
The Great White Fleet Visits Japan 1908
In 1908 the United States Navy circumnavigated the globe stopping in 20 ports of call including Japan. Made in an atmosphere of uncertainty, the visit to Japan was a great diplomatic success.
The Dollar Steamship Company
At its height in the 1920s, the Dollar Steamship Company was the largest and most successful United States shipping firm, and its signature white dollar sign mounted on red-banded stacks was known around the world.