Instead of a "Pacific system" in one way or another each of them has carved out a section--usually the southern islands--of the Pacific Basin for discussion, leaving the whole story for later writers to untangle.
Viewing the space between this line and the Pacific coast of the Americas as a coherent entity allows Igler to write an especially provocative book that opens much new material to view and forces us to rethink the meaning of this early nineteenth-century ocean world. Igler tells his story of the eastern Pacific through five themes that encompass the salient experiences of the region and devotes a chapter to each.
The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush
Trade was central to the eastern Pacific system, providing both the incentive for long and expensive ocean voyages and the connections that made the eastern Pacific into a loose network of widely scattered nodes. Especially after the close of the Napoleonic Wars in , east Pacific trade attracted a kaleidoscope of traders from Europe and Russia, but especially from American ports.
Although the British had been among the first in the ocean region following the Wallace and Cook voyages in the eighteenth century, after British interest and trade focused increasingly on their new empire in South Asia and Australia, leaving the bulk of east Pacific trade to others.
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As hundreds of ships swarmed the early nineteenth-century eastern Pacific, a system developed that was in many ways reminiscent of the early modern Indian Ocean system, with coastal trade ultimately more important to individual voyagers than the long slog to Guangzhou. Although one would have liked a little more specificity and some statistical analysis of the dual impact of STDs and non-sexually transmitted diseases, Igler is surely correct to argue that they covaried, each type of disease heightening the morbidity and mortality of the other.
This had important implications not just for the eastern Pacific, but for all areas of outsider-indigenous contact. Beyond arguing for the demographic importance of STDs in the operation of the east Pacific system and for the devastating impact of syphilis and gonorrhea on indigenous populations, Igler argues that one of the primary vectors for the spread of these diseases was an eastern Pacific sex trade in indigenous women.
Looking past the lingering presentism of this claim, this argument places Igler in more or less direct opposition to Pacific scholars such as Nicholas Thomas and Anne Salmond who, looking at an earlier period in the island south Pacific, offer a very different view of sexual encounters and their meanings. Igler elides this discussion, but it has relevance for his provocative sex-trade thesis.
D. Igler: The Great Ocean
Indigenous leaders encouraged sexual encounters with passing sailors as a means to gain trade goods, to cement alliances, and to enhance their positions in contested intergroup disputes. Most of the women offered to transient sailors appear to have been slaves or at least low-status commoners--people without strong lineage attachments to local ruling societies.
One can confirm this by the fact that elite women were tapu , that is taboo and thus systematically excluded from these interchanges. Were the early nineteenth-century sexual encounters that Igler discusses fundamentally different from those of the late eighteenth century?
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If so, what accounts for the difference? Igler gives a good glimpse at how it affected men on ships and how it spread STDs, but more work is needed for us to understand the indigenous context in which this system of sexual exchange operated. Closely related to the sex trade was the ubiquitous existence of unfree social positions in the eastern Pacific trading world. Lack of freedom had been a condition of often coerced service on sailing ships since ancient times and once on board ship crews were little better than slaves to the vessels captains and officers.
Igler hints at, but does not directly address this form of unfreedom, instead focusing on the ubiquity of local forms of unfreedom on which foreigners built. As in Africa, slavery was an indigenous institution, one that traders were more than willing to use for their own purposes. But even non-slaves were fair game to the information- and labor-hungry European, Russian, and American traders who plied eastern Pacific waters.
In time more of these captives would be used as unfree labor in trading and shoreline enterprises. As Igler points out, over the course of the nineteenth century, what began as small-scale capture led to growing violence and the colonial marginalization of whole groups of indigenous people throughout the eastern Pacific basin.
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