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  • With Sails Whitening Every Sea: Mariners and the Making of an American Maritime Empire by Brian Rouleau
  • David Head (bio)

Sailors, Maritime history, Manifest destiny, Diplomacy

With Sails Whitening Every Sea: Mariners and the Making of an American Maritime Empire. By Brian Rouleau. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014. Pp. 288. Cloth, $45.00.)

Herman Melville understood the role of sailors in imperial expansion. In Chapter 89 of Moby-Dick, narrator Ishmael holds forth on the nature of a “Fast-Fish,” a whale that “belongs to the party fast to it,” and a “Loose-Fish,” which is “fair game for anybody who can soonest catch it.” For Melville, himself a South Seas sailor, those two rules of whaling were the rules of the world itself, which, like a whale, belongs to those who seize it. “What is the great globe itself,” Ishmael concludes, “but a Loose-Fish?”1 [End Page 425]

Brian Rouleau’s book recovers the nineteenth-century world in which sailors helped catch those Loose-Fish territories for the United States. Unlike many modern histories that treat Manifest Destiny as a matter of acquiring more western land, Rouleau emphasizes that it was also a watery affair. Rouleau follows sailors traversing the globe and playing a variety of roles: interpreters of foreign culture for American audiences in numerous published stories of the sea; ambassadors of American race politics who performed minstrel shows for foreign audiences; advocates of Manifest Destiny who extended the subjection of American Indians at home to natives encountered abroad; brawlers who violently defended their right to enact their own notions of foreign relations; hedonists eager for sex with exotic women; and traders eking out an existence in an increasingly competitive global marketplace. Rouleau provides a subtle reading of sailors performing each of these roles, demonstrating the complex motivations that drove their work abroad and the multifaceted ways in which those roles were received by foreigners.

His discussion of maritime minstrel shows is particularly striking. For example, when Commodore Matthew C. Perry sailed to Japan in 1852 to establish commercial relations, the official statements and exchanges of gifts were accompanied by a minstrel show put on by the ships’ sailors. The show was a big hit with both sides. As the Americans capered about in blackface, the Japanese apparently howled with laughter, far more impressed with their visitors’ racial antics than with the guns, printing press, telegraph, and locomotive Perry brought to display American technology. American sailors, both in naval and merchant services, regularly staged minstrel shows for themselves aboard ship to break the hours of tedium at sea, and for foreigners to break the ice on meeting for the first time. Indeed, it seems minstrel shows succeeded like nothing else in bonding American sailors to new peoples not only in Japan but also in Fiji, China, and Tahiti.

Minstrel shows wowed audiences across the United States, so it is easy to understand why American sailors enjoyed performing them. But why did foreign audiences love them? After all, they lacked English as well as the cultural context on which minstrel jokes turned. Rouleau argues that the physical comedy of minstrel slapstick made the jokes more easily relatable, but more importantly audiences most likely received the minstrel’s message on their own terms. In Japan, for example, Kabuki theater featured masks, physical comedy, and singing similar to a minstrel show. Japanese culture also had its own tendency toward [End Page 426] looking down on foreigners in general and Africans in particular. The black-faced singers might have sounded familiar, then, even without understanding the words. Similarly, in Fiji natives had their own tradition of singing and dancing shows, and they seemed to have viewed the jokes at the expense of blacks as more about the lowly work status of African American sailors rather than as a function of their race. The meanings of minstrel shows were complex and contested for both performers and audiences, but the popularity of blackface as the go-to way to represent the United States abroad was ultimately imperialistic.

In addition, Rouleau pursues a secondary argument about the lives of seafarers, entering into the debate about the distinctiveness of sailors...


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pp. 425-428
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