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  • Workers of the World’s OceansA Bottom-Up Environmental History of the Pacific
  • Gregory Rosenthal (bio)

Fuji Hachitaro likely grabbed a bucket. As a steward aboard the uss Trenton, he was responsible for overseeing food and kitchen supplies, so he knew where to find one. The officers and seamen had by now lost their appetites. All this rocking and rolling on the waves. The tempest had ripped their ship to shreds—nahaha (“broken up” or “smashed to bits”), as the Hawaiian-language press later put it.1 The hause pipes had flooded. The boiler fires were extinguished. Everyone was bailing water.2 And there was Fuji Hachitaro, a Japanese worker on an American ship in a Sāmoan harbor in the midst of a massive tropical cyclone on March 16, 1889.3

On that same day, Mālietoa Laupepa, former “king” of Sāmoa, lingered on Jaluit Atoll in the Marshall Islands, over one thousand miles northwest of Sāmoa. He had no idea that a cyclone was then bearing down on his homeland. One and a half years earlier, the German Navy had captured and deported Mālietoa, sending him on a long exile that ranged across the world’s many oceans. As prisoner of the German Empire, he visited ports in Africa, Arabia, and ultimately Micronesia. When the cyclone hit, Mālietoa was on Jaluit Atoll and had been there for four long months.4 That a Japanese cabin steward experienced Sāmoa’s most famous hurricane, while an Indigenous leader of those islands did not, says something about the messy nature of Pacific environmental history. This is a history both in the ocean and outside of it; it is a history of environments at home, at work, and in exile; it is a history both Native and foreign and uniquely and incessantly mobile. As [End Page 290] revealed in these two stories that circled the eye of a hurricane, Pacific environmental history is a history of many movements and diasporas.

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Fig. 1.

Map of the Pacific Ocean with places mentioned in the text. Created by the author.

Studies of the Pacific Ocean represent a rapidly growing subfield of global environmental historiography.5 As a field, Pacific environmental history encompasses a broad compendium of stories. Here lie tales of goods, germs, and God—of both ideas and materials in transit.6 Here also lie tragic tales of enclosures of seas and lands, the dispossession of Indigenous peoples, and the militarization and securitization of the world’s greatest oceanscape, encompassing one-third of the earth’s surface.7 There is not much pacific in the history of this ocean.8 But workers’ stories and Indigenous perspectives reveal new ways of thinking about human relationships with nature. Behind such unpacific tales of dispossession, depopulation, and victimization, there are histories of [End Page 291] working-class and Indigenous resistance to economic and ecological injustices. To unlock these tales, we need to tell a bottom-up environmental history of the Pacific.

But what would this look like? Bottom-up histories of the ocean abound in various corners of the academy, although not specifically focused on the environment. Maritime and labor historians such as Marcus Rediker, Peter Linebaugh, Jeffrey Bolster, and Paul Gilje have written of an Atlantic proletariat, that floating world of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century migrant workers who set goods and ideas in transit. They made revolutionary history on the waves. They were slaves, sailors, commoners, and artisans.9 Rediker writes of seamen who experienced environments through work; they developed unique epistemological understandings of wind and waves through bodily experiences of shipboard nature.10 Others have written of work and workers in the Pacific—from South America to North America and throughout the Pacific’s many islands, from the coolie trade to blackbirding, historians Margaret Creighton, David Chappell, Ted Melillo, Lissa Wadewitz, and others write of a Pacific Ocean animated by histories of work and migration.11

For workers of the world’s oceans, environment was not so much a place fixed in situ but rather a constellation of experiences accumulated over a lifetime of journeys among islands, over continents, and on...


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pp. 290-310
Launched on MUSE
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