Wednesday, June 29, 2005

09: “From Caves to Warehouses: The Path of Civilization Through Trade” Part 9

The dominance over the oceans that master mariners like Sir Francis Drake and his Sea Hawk compatriots gave to England lasted for almost a century. Not long in the context of this series, but In between Drake and the 19th Century were a number of British mariners who did much to explore the “Great South Sea”, as the Pacific Ocean was called, and one Dane who sailed for Peter the Great, Czar of All the Russias.

Vitus Bering was born near the end of the 17th Century in Denmark. After a voyage to the Great South Seas for Denmark, he joined the Russian Navy and distinguished himself in several conflicts. Czar Peter I, known as the Great, and later known as Emperor, developed a plan of exploration to the east of Mother Russia. He chose the young Dane to lead the expedition. Bering was a meticulous man, and a great navigator, but, rather than sail around to the east coast of Asia, he mounted an expedition to reach there by land, across Asia on foot. Bering decided to take everything he needed to build the ship he would use, from Russia, clear across Asia. That is, everything, down to the last nail, rope, plank, beam, spar, sail, and drop of tar necessary to construct his ship of exploration, the St. Gabriel. The journey across two continents with that cargo took twelve years. Once he reached Okhotsk, he crossed to Kamchatka, and built his ship. In 1728 he set sail into the vast North Pacific Ocean on his first voyage. By the time he died in 1741 on the desolate island that would later bear his name, he had made several voyages of discovery. His Great Northern Expedition resulted in the discovery, exploration, and charting of most of the North Pacific Ocean, including Alaska, the Aleutian Islands, and many other archipelagos along the south Alaskan coast. His name is carried on sea charts for the Bering Sea, Bering Island, Bering Straits, and the Bering Land Bridge.

While his army and navy was otherwise engaged in attempting to put down a rebellion in the unruly American colonies, His Majesty King George III of England sought to expand his rule even farther by opening up new trading ports in the “Great South Sea”. And who better to accomplish this task than the fabled explorer, Captain James Cook. Cook had sailed around the world twice, becoming the first to do so on voyages from 1768-1771, and 1772- 1775. On his first voyage, he had a pair of officers along that would later go on to accomplish great things on their own, with great fetes of seamanship, and long voyages of exploration and trade. Also present was young Joseph Banks, a botanist, who would go on to become a peer, and would be responsible for several later voyages including those of Cook’s two officers, Sailing Master William Bligh and Midshipman George Vancouver.

During his first voyage, Cook discovered Australia, which the British promptly turned into a penal colony, sending their convicts there to remove them from British society. His second voyage nearly led him to discover Antarctica, but in the fog, and the ice, he turned around and sailed north, content with the discovery of some rather large islands. But his third voyage ended in disaster. After discovering the Hawaiian Islands, he sailed east to explore the west coast of North America as far north as southern Alaska. Returning south, he re-visited Hawaii. Cook got into an argument with a large group of Hawaiians over a stolen boat, and in the ensuing melee, he was stabbed with a spear, and died.

Banks, as a member of the British Royal Society and scientific advisor to King George III, was responsible for the colonization of New South Wales, as Australia was then known. Indeed, Botany Bay where the convicts were landed was probably named in tribute to Banks. Later, Banks would send Captain William Bligh on his ill-fated voyage to Tahiti, in order to obtain breadfruit trees for transport to the islands of the Caribbean in a grand experiment. Bligh’s crew would mutiny, and cast him adrift in a small open boat with 18 crewmembers, a sextant, and a pocket watch. Bligh then performed a remarkable feat. He sailed that open boat 3,618 miles in 41 days, until he reached a Dutch port on the Island of Timor. Captain George Vancouver would explore the American Northwest, and would negotiate a treaty with Spain for ownership of Vancouver Island.

In the 1840s, the United States would enter into the charting and exploration business, in particular with the voyage of Charles Wilkes, who finally put Antarctica on the map.

The explorations of these men led to the discovery and charting of the Pacific Ocean. It also led to the establishment of sea routes from Europe and the U.S. to the orient, for spice, and for a product of even greater value: tea.

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