On June 16, 1774, James Cook became the first European to catch sight of a tiny coral island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Navigators from Samoa and Tonga had settled Niue, as the island is known today, as early as 900 CE. Cook attempted to land in Niue no fewer than three times, but was kept at bay by the local inhabitants, painted in what looked like red blood. He named the unwelcoming place ‘Savage Island’ and sailed on. Nearly a century after Cook’s brief visit, more determined Spanish-speaking captains made landfall in Niue and kidnapped forty men to work in the silver mines and guano fields of Peru. One of these men was Taole, son of Hegatule. As High Chief of Avatele in the island’s southwest, Hegatule was a powerful man, but he stood powerless when a Peruvian ship took his son away. A three-masted, 400-ton barque, the Rosa Patricia was under the command of the Spanish Captain Marutani, who rivaled Cook’s dictatorial manners and outmatched his ruthlessness. As the flagship of a veritable fleet, the vessel had left the Peruvian port of Callao in early December 1862 in search of laborers from Pacific islands. After stops in Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and the Cook Islands, the Rosa Patricia reached Niue in January 1863.
When Taole and his fellow captives tried to escape from the ship, he was stunned by a blow to his head and thrown back into the hold. As he remembered years later, “three of our men were killed in the struggle, and two others were terribly wounded; and overboard they went, dead and dying.” Closely guarded by armed crewmembers, Taole remained locked under deck, as the brig continued its journey through Samoa and Tokelau. After a dreadful voyage across the vast Pacific Ocean, Taole finally reached the port of Callao, close to Peru’s capital Lima. Taole was made to work at the port, “digging and carrying stones, and carrying and wheeling loads of cargo for the ships.” Most of his fellow captives worked as domestic servants in town or as agricultural laborers in the cotton plantations further inland. “We worked every day, every day. We received no pay. We were worked until we nearly died,” Taole later recounted.
One day, years after his arrival, Taole was working on the Callao wharves, still under the watchful eyes of the Peruvian guards, when a whaling ship under the U.S. flag anchored at the port. As was common for U.S. whalers at the time, part of the crew consisted of Native Hawai’ians from Oahu. Taole struck up a conversation with a number of these fellow Polynesians and told them that he was forcefully taken from his native Niue and brought to work in Callao. Together, Taole and the sympathetic Hawai’ians pleaded the ship captain, who agreed to help him. Dressed in sailor’s clothes, Taole was smuggled past armed Peruvian guards on board the whaler, which immediately made off. A government vessel followed in hot pursuit, but the U.S. whaler eventually escaped. In Taole’s ecstatic words: “The government had given up the chase, and I, Taole, the slave, was now a sailorman and free!”
The whaler sailed north toward the Gulf of Alaska to hunt for whales, making Taole “all but perish in the terrible cold.” Then, leaving the subarctic latitudes, the ship turned south and Taole began working as a harpooner. After some successful hunts, the whaler continued south and finally reached Honolulu where Taole disembarked and stayed for a few years. Taole continued his life as a sailor, went to Starbuck Island to work for a British settler—this time voluntarily—and finally made it back to his home in Niue. After an odyssey through the Pacific, his return overwhelmed Taole: “I threw myself down and wept when I stepped ashore once more on the island of my birth.” Taole told the story of his spectacular escape from Peru wherever he went, and it has been retold many times and with many variations since. The ‘happy ending’ of Taole’s story fulfilled an important symbolic function for Pacific Islanders who craved it as evidence for successful, if rare, resistance against their exploitation by European and American outlanders. But as the liberatory U.S. whaling ship indicates, Taole’s story also offers a unique window into the Pacific World and the ambiguous roles Americans played in it.
The Civil War, Pacific Trade, and the Rise and Fall of Whaling
The mid-nineteenth century was a time of crisis around the Pacific. From the Taiping rebels in southern China to the Civil War in the United States, violence and social upheaval threatened the cohesion of entire societies. One of the lesser-known global effects of the U.S. Civil War was an increased demand in cotton around the world. As a result, cotton planters in places like Peru needed more workers to cultivate their expanding plantations. In the 1860s, the legal emancipation of African American slaves gave way to other systems of unfree labor around the Pacific and elsewhere. Taole was just one of many Pacific Islanders (and Chinese) pressed into work on plantations, ports, and domestic service around the Pacific.
At the end of the Civil War, long-standing U.S. trade links across the Pacific received renewed interest. Trade between North America and East Asia had reached back almost two centuries. As early as the late seventeenth century, ideas and commodities from East Asia, particularly from China, circulated in colonial America. From Boston to Philadelphia, colonial Americans were fascinated by China and were busy collecting china. This trade with China intensified after U.S. independence and throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, as the British forcefully opened up China to outside trade during the Opium Wars. By the 1850s, Lincoln’s future Secretary of State William H. Seward had become one of the most vocal supporters of U.S. trade in the Pacific. In several speeches, Seward supported the admission of California into the Union and called for the formal extension of the U.S. empire in the region. With the acquisition of Alaska from Russia and the annexation of the Midway Islands in 1867, the age of more formal U.S. imperialism in the Pacific had begun. As Seward well knew, U.S. whalers had been laying the groundwork for the Pacific trade for decades. And by the 1860s, the dusk of the U.S. whaling industry had given way to the dawn of U.S. empire in the Pacific.
Spatial Distribution of Whales, 1780-1920
Whaling in the Pacific had started in the last decades of the eighteenth century. In 1789, as French revolutionaries set out to storm the Bastille, the first British whaling ship rounded Cape Horn and entered the Pacific. This spelled the beginning of a different revolution that would bring European and American sailors into the Pacific World and its once enormous whale populations to near extinction. As the U.S. whaling industry grew, it linked one tiny island off the Atlantic coast of Massachusetts to the sea of islands in the Pacific Ocean. Nantucket emerged as one of the centers of the American, and indeed, global whaling enterprise in the first decades of the nineteenth century. After the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the New England whaling industry quickly bounced back and continued to expand to its peak in the mid-1840s with over 700 vessels. In 1845, Charles Wilkes, a U.S. naval commander sent on an exploring mission through the Pacific, had noted the omnipresence of U.S. whalers in the Pacific: “Our whaling fleet may be said at this very day to whiten the Pacific Ocean with its canvass.” After the late 1840s, however, the U.S. whaling industry gradually sunk into oblivion. Its early hunting success devastated entire whale populations in the Pacific, while the Civil War and the discovery of alternative sources of oil further weakened the industry.
Pacific Islanders on New England Whalers
While reduced in number, dozens of U.S. whalers were still ploughing the waters between Hawai’i and Peru in the 1860s. It was a great stroke of fate that Taole escaped on one of them. It was no coincidence, however, that Taole made first contact with the Hawai’ian crew on board the whaler. Hawai’ian sailors were among the first Pacific Islanders to man the whaling and trading ships that crisscrossed the Pacific at the end of the eighteenth century. These kanakas—from the Hawai’ian word for men—would come to include recruits from other Pacific islands as well as Maori from New Zealand. American captains recruited Pacific Islanders because they could pay them less than their mainland counterparts and because they valued their bravery and navigational skills. As privileged travelers who saw parts of the world no one at home had seen before, these islanders continued a long tradition of skillful navigation and courageous seafaring. At the same time, kanakas were proletarian seamen and constantly exposed to the harsh environment of ship life, poor hygiene, widespread diseases, and brutal work discipline.
Pacific Islanders like Taole who joined Euro-American whaling ships in the nineteenth century lived between worlds. Like all migrants, they left behind some of the strictures of their home societies for adventure, status, and wealth. More importantly, they also played crucial mediating roles in the encounters between white Europeans and Americans, on the one hand, and Pacific Islanders, on the other. As members of whaling crews, more than a few Pacific Islanders travelled to the U.S. mainland themselves and left lasting impressions on the locals whom they met. Perhaps the most well-known example is the Polynesian harpooner Queequeg, whom the narrator Ishmael befriends in Herman Melville’s classic Moby-Dick (1851). In becoming a harpooner on a U.S. whaler, Taole—like Queequeg and many other Pacific Islanders before him—joined a circum-Pacific, and increasingly global, circuit of trade and travel. New England whalers, like Protestant missionaries who arrived in the Pacific around the same time, helped pave the way for more assertive political and economic claims on the region and its resources, even as they offered new opportunities for Pacific Islanders.
Lessons for U.S. History in the Pacific
Taole’s life can serve as a case study for approaching U.S. history from a Pacific perspective. There are a host of historical events, developments, and debates in U.S. history that would benefit from greater attention to the Pacific. First, the story of Taole reveals the longer history of the United States in the Pacific. From colonial trade with East Asia and whaling in the early republic to the global cotton boom during the Civil War, the Pacific has long been a central arena of U.S. interests and imagination. Too often, an Atlantic-centered history of settlement, slavery, and revolution has obscured this crucial involvement to the west. Second, as part of the globalization of U.S. history under way in recent years, historians would be well-advised to adopt what might be called a ‘trans-Pacific’ approach to U.S. history.
Taking its cue from parallel debates on Atlantic History, a trans-Pacific perspective would situate the history of colonial North America and the United States within a wider Pacific World. Central to this Pacific angle would be issues such as early trade with China, Protestant missions in Hawai’i, plantation labor before and after slavery, representations of the Pacific and its peoples, as well as environment changes. A trans-Pacific approach to U.S. history would help us rethink, among other things, still-prevalent distinctions between ‘continental expansion’ and formal U.S. imperialism after 1898. As Columbus’s search for a Northwest Passage reminds us, Asia and the Pacific had been on the minds of Europeans conquering the ‘New World’ from the very start. Finally, a Pacific perspective on U.S. history is particularly pertinent at the dawn of the twenty-first century. At a time when the U.S. Pentagon is ‘pivoting’ towards the Pacific—including redeploying military assets around the region to balance growing Chinese influence in the region—providing historical perspective to the longer involvement of the United States in the Pacific becomes a highly political issue. To avoid the danger of perpetuating reductionist views of the Pacific and its peoples, a trans-Pacific approach to U.S. history needs to humanize and critically historicize the recent ‘Pacific pivot.’ As Pacific Islanders from Guam to American Samoa are all too aware, U.S. military and economic interests often clash with local concerns about political self-determination and environmental protection. As these battles continue into the still-imperial present, stories such as Taole’s—with their ambiguous legacies of oppression and liberation—deserve a wider audience.
For more information:
- Visit the U.S. History Scene reading list for the Pacific World.
Holger Droessler is a Ph.D. Candidate in American Studies at Harvard University. Before coming to Harvard, he received a Master of Arts in American Cultural History, American Literature, and Political Science from the University of Munich, Germany. His research centers on the history of the long and global nineteenth century, especially U.S. and European imperialism in the Pacific. In his dissertation, “Workers of the Pacific: Land, Labor, and Difference in Colonial Samoa,” he explores the crucial role of labor in the making of empire in the South Pacific. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.