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  • Trade, Time, and the Calculus of Risk in Early Pacific Travel Writing
  • Michelle Burnham (bio)

In the 2005 Common-place issue on early America and the Pacific, historians Edward Gray and Alan Taylor observe that the Atlantic studies paradigm, which moves “beyond nations and states as the defining subjects of historical understanding, turning instead to large scale processes” is also particularly “useful for understanding Pacific history” since “disease, migration, trade, and war effected [sic] the Pacific in much the way they effected [sic] the Atlantic.” A similar transfer of the Atlantic world model to the Pacific informs David Igler’s insistence that, like the Atlantic, the Pacific world was “international before it became national.”1 Igler notes that most scholarship on the Pacific has instead relied, however, on a national framework, leaving “too little of this work . . . cast in a comparative, transnational, or transoceanic mold” (par 5). As this critique suggests, it is time to consider not just the exchanges and processes within each of these oceanic worlds but between them as well. In this essay, I examine late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Pacific travel writing in precisely such a transoceanic context.

Many of the earliest European voyages into the Pacific were motivated by a desire to find the so-called Northwest Passage that was believed to connect the Atlantic with the Pacific through a series of waterways in the upper reaches of the North American continent. Pacific coast entrances to such a passage were reported by Juan de Fuca and Bartholomew de Fonte and were eagerly sought after—with varying degrees of eagerness and skepticism—by explorers from Martin Frobisher and Francis Drake to James Cook and George Vancouver.2 The myth of the Northwest Passage endured despite growing evidence against its existence because its discovery would have provided European ships with a quicker and less contested route to Asia and its desirable trade goods. But though such a passage was never found, the many voyages that set out either to prove or disprove its existence did in fact connect the two oceans—not through the geography of a [End Page 425] Northwest Passage but through commerce, politics, and writing. Published accounts of these voyages represent a fascinating and substantial transnational archive that as yet has barely been touched by early American literary scholars.3 My claim here is not that these texts should be considered in some special way American, but rather that the study of early American literature needs to include these transnational texts and to accommodate the pressures they apply to the literary and cultural histories of the Revolutionary and early national periods that currently inform our discipline. In the process, the transoceanic and intercontinental sweep of this early Pacific material might also offer one way to bring the two models of transatlantic and hemispheric early American studies into greater dialogue with each other.4

This essay begins with a brief transnational survey of Pacific travel writing between approximately 1760 and 1820, a period of international competition for scientific discovery and commercial profit that provided the context for these voyages and the publication of narratives about them. I pay particular attention to the subgenre of the state-sponsored Pacific travel narrative and examine the dynamics of trade and time embedded within its textual and narratological features. The often enormous returns of profit and knowledge from these voyages were made possible only by their lengthy duration, for it took anywhere from three to six years to travel through the Atlantic, past Cape Horn, and across and around the Pacific on voyages seeking undiscovered lands, resources, and trade goods. As a result, the sense of expectation and anticipation generated by these voyages and texts depended on considerable patience and prolongation. But that same temporal prolongation also worked to mask or minimize the violence that accompanied such returns, including the violent transoceanic movement of goods (such as fur, silk, and silver) and of bodies (especially the indigenous, women, and sailors). As I’ll argue, the narrative dynamics of this calculative logic relies on a new understanding of numbers and risk that subsumed violence and loss within the mechanics of long-run calculations.

Pacific Travel and Pacific Travel Writing...


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pp. 425-447
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