About the Pacific

PERHAPS the ancients never appear to us so intellectually limited as when we look upon those curious maps, resembling turtles or elephants, of the world as it was known to them. Popular knowledge in our own enlightened age, however, is in some respects not unlike the geographical science of Homer and Pliny in its real misconceptions of the earth and its inhabitants. To them the horizon of their fathers’ fields was the Mediterranean ; to our ancestors it was the Atlantic, and to us, to a considerable degree, it still is. In dignity and romance the figure of Columbus towers above all other voyagers so much, and his find of America was so far the most impressive, that the imagination naturally looks upon our ocean as the theatre of sea-discovery ; yet for the lonely island peak that greeted his eyes ten thousand have arisen from the Pacific to salute the adventurer. The name of Cook, it is true, has rendered the idea of lands beyond the capes not strange; but beside the Genoese, the Englishman lacks distinction, and his cocked hat and buttons are too near us to allow of any historic enchantment in the view. As one calls to mind the other great sailors, however, he sees that the world is round in fact, and that the fields of discovery were on the other side of it, the water side; and as he reads, after leaving the common schools, he learns that the Pacific is the place, par excellence, of surprises. At the antipodes it is not the head and feet of men alone that are beheld reversed ; generally speaking, most things are upside down, and if the reader will coast the Pacific in our cockle-shell of a leaf or two, he may conclude that all mundane affairs, like the earth itself, have properly no top or bottom at all.

In consequence of this easy transposition of all things, it is fitting that the jumping-off place should lie our startingpoint. It is Alaska, where the point of the compass known as the northwest ends. To ourselves we confess there was some surprise in finding that Alaska had a history; like Rip van Winkle, we rubbed our eyes, and this country of yesterday aged some centuries, and approached us with seven hundred and fifty pages well filled with annals, in which there was the usual assortment of successive eras of conquest and bloodshed, of trade, vice, and crime, which belongs to all well-regulated members of the family of nations. The indefatigable author of this account, in whose works it makes the thirty-third volume, has conferred a great gift on his country by his researches; and it is a pleasure to turn aside from our narrative at once, and thank Mr. Bancroft for that long labor which will cause him to be remembered as the Muratori of the Pacific coast. In the present case he had to collect his materials from St. Petersburg, Washington, San Francisco, and those Alaskans who have memories, — names which represent a dispersion, a Babel of tongues, and a reluctance of Nature herself to the undertaking which would seem insuperable. The results digested in this bulky volume,1 deficient only in the period of exploration, include all else of Alaskan history proper that is worth knowing upon any pretext. It is not our purpose — it would be impossible — to do more than advert to some of the more striking points. One of these, which, we risk nothing in saying, comes to correct the common notion that the Golden Gate opens into the western sun, is the statement that Alaska bears the stars and stripes as much farther beyond San Francisco into the sunset as that city is beyond Washington. After that no remarks respecting the size of our national fur-farm awake the least astonishment. Probably the popular error in regard to the real extent of the north shores of the Pacific is mostly due to that peculiar effect of what is known as Mercator’s projection, in consequence of which those regions are diminished to the eye of childhood on the map as known to the moderns, and remain diminished ever after. Science may tell us that Kamchatka is of the shape and size of Italy, but the imagination will never credit it. To pass this, however, — for we knew we were a great, country in a vague way, and millions of acres more cannot perceptibly add to our realization of our bigness, — let us notice a few of the other particulars that had dropped out of our memory.

Among these is the fact that Russia was a great colonizing power. Spain, and England, and Portugal, and Holland, and France were the modern Phœnicians ; but Russia also was not untouched with the general desire of appropriating the paternal acres of other races. As her expeditions were in the antipodes, the voyage was made by land, of course, and the direction of migration was east. In the seventeenth century, and later, the Czar’s power was thus extended over Northern Asia, and his monster prison-house secured, large enough, as it proves, to accommodate a nation of revolutionists. The motive of this conquest is sufficiently intelligible. It is always interesting to know for what prize men are ready to lay down their lives, especially when the founding of an empire is the last result. In this case it was the skin of the little sable. In search of this the Cossacks conquered Siberia; and in fact they were doing exactly as the Spaniards in Mexico, for since furs were the currency of Russia, the sable was the gold of the steppes. Thus, in course of years, they came to that Arctic Italy, Kamchatka. With men of that time, to see the sea was to cross it. Over they went, in such ships as they could build, Behring at their head ; and they found land, and Behring died and was buried there. This age of the discovery was a true Viking era, the last of all. Behring himself was a Dane. The story is the same as ever, — provisions short, scurvy, shipwreck, wintering, savages scared by firearms yet able to massacre, and in the spring the return on the rebuilt boat. The author expresses some wonder at the continuation of these voyages by the same sailors; but it is another popular fallacy to believe that life is held dear by men once accustomed to the idea of losing it, and when the choice lay between existence in Kamchatka and a warm grave in the waters of the Pacific Gulf Stream, the balances were not very uneven. The story, nevertheless, is one of heroism, of the savage fight with nature ; and if the race was not noble, the conflict was.

In time—for we have not seven hundred and fifty pages to spare — the islands and mainland submitted to the settlement of a few trading-posts, the natives were subdued, or terrorized, or made drunk, and the Russian Fur Company held delegated empire over all the region, for it was still fur, and not science, that the brave men were after; and then there came a man to the land, Baranof. The name of this extraordinary person the reader may recall out of Irving’s delightful narratives of the settlement of the northwest, in which he figures picturesquely, and by his antics is made to appear as the human, and scarcely human, embodiment of the traditional Russian bear. In Bancroft’s work the lines of his character are more complexly laid down, and a different judgment passed on him. Baranof is indeed the hero of the volume. He was a Siberian furtrader, verging on middle life, when Shelikof, who was the planner of the great corporation, selected him to be the executor of his ideas, and sent him to begin his autocratic rule in Alaska under the imperial ukase. For thirty years he remained in charge: he located posts, built ships, guided trade, made war and peace, settled disputes, and never failed to remit those dividends to the royal and noble stockholders on whose smile his tenure depended, and for whose luxury the Aleut hunters starved and slaved. He extended his commercial relations so far as to trade with the Boston men ” and Astor, and to attempt an opening of the Japanese ports and the annexation of the Sandwich Islands. The wider plans to found a Russian sea-empire in the North Pacific failed ; but within the proper limits of the fur country Baranof was completely successful, a great and honest administrator, the real lord of the world in that part. This practical success has impressed Mr. Bancroft, and led him into a kind of pœan over the man who achieved it. There is another side to the picture; nor was Irving in error when he caught and set down its grotesque traits. The anomalies of Russian character are better known to us now, and cause less bewilderment; but perhaps nowhere in Russian biography do the sharp contrasts and hard limits of the Slav nature stand out in such miserable irony of Western ideals of character, and nowhere in Russian fiction does the desolation of barrenness, both human and natural, so occupy the whole mental field, as in Baranof’s Alaskan career, of which glimpses are here seen. It would require more space than can be given to indicate even in faint outlines the wretched existence of this man, undoubtedly of great powers: the prey,alternately, of fits of deep melancholy and frenzies of the wildest intoxication; now driving his own women, even, out into a snow-storm, with blows and curses, and now extraordinarily kind, charitable, generous ; so used to endurance that Rezanof found him living in a miserable, rain-soaking hut, in which his bed floated in the water, and was told in answer to his question. " It is only the old leak.” The revels held there were more like diabolical than human orgies. Morals, of the Occidental variety, were unknown. Baranof and his officers were the fathers of their adopted country in a quite literal sense, and the so-called “ creoles,” who were their children, were provided for and educated at the company’s expense, after the approved fashion in Plato’s state. We leave it to the reader’s fancy to project this social condition upon the background of the Alaskan solitudes. Nothing of Tourgénieff’s suggests such mean and sordid reality, such debauched animalism of daily life, such poverty of the spirit; and in the centre of the scene this small, imp-like man, with his bald head ringed with a circle of reddish hair, seems by no means heroic, though for astuteness, fertility, and hardiness he may be reckoned great. In his seventy-second year he was relieved, on his return voyage he died, and the fishes of the Straits of Sunda made an end of him.

After Baranof’s disappearance the narrative loses interest, and it is needless to follow further the continued activity of the company until its charter finally lapsed, and in the course of time the imperial government made over its rights to the United States. The concluding pages of the volume summarize the resources and state of the Territory, and are less satisfactory in proportion and treatment than the earlier part. The neglect of the government to provide for law and order and the misconduct of the military during their occupation are reprehensible enough ; but the merits of the present Alaska Company might have been profitably less dwelt upon in favor of the voyages of exploration and discovery by others than Russians. The country seems, from the showing here made, to be a valuable acquisition, and one likely to increase in worth very greatly with time, especially to the States of the Coast. The condition of the natives is certainly not worse than under the Russians, and as public attention is more given to this distant dependency, as one may call it, schools and the other machinery for the reclamation or extinction of the primitive races are sure to do their work. The fishing and mining interests will come more to the front and share the fortune of the fur interest, which is now the principal resource. In the end it is not improbable that Mr. Seward will prove to be right in his prediction that the purchase of Alaska was his most memorable public act.

Lieutenant Schwatka’s narrative 2 of exploration along the Yukon River, a stream of above two thousand miles in length, reads like a mere brief episode of Alaskan history, after Bancroft’s compilation. An official account is hereafter to be printed by the government, and this one is little more than an itinerary of a rather monotonous voyage on a raft down an unexplored and mostly uninhabited stream. Adventures were few, and the attention of the reader is mainly directed to the sad and dreary scenery, the state of the weather and the virulence of the mosquitoes, the rapids, the fish, the confluence of the tributaries, the naming of prominences in the landscape after eminent persons of all nations, the sparse and degraded natives in their miserable villages, and the scanty game upon the banks. It is to be considered, however, that the expedition departed with such secrecy that it may be said to have stolen away almost unknown to the authorities, and was imperfectly provided. Its geographical results seem to have been very considerable, and will modify the map of the interior and diversify its emptiness with an addition of printed names. The lieutenant’s report of the resources of the valley of the Yukon is not likely to tempt emigration in that direction, as practically only miners can utilize the region, and the find of ore must be of a high grade to pay for work at such a distance from the base of all living supplies except fish.

From Alaska to Japan is a natural course, although against the current which so often bears the Japanese wrecks to the continent, by a mode of involuntary transport in which some writers find the original cause of the inhabitancy of our country in prehistoric times. Since Rezanof was so unceremoniously treated in his attempt to open the ports of Japan to the Russian Fur Company is not a long while ; but so great has been the change in the character of Japanese hospitality that Professor Morse begins his volume3 by urging

Western writers to take down the traits of Japanese civilization before its outward aspects perish through the impact of our own ideas and institutions. He himself sets the example by giving us a treatise mainly on Japanese carpentry, on how they build their houses; and by diagrams and very clear explanations he succeeds in affording even the unprofessional mind a conception of the art and its products. Now a Japanese house is not similar to an American one, as we are told with wearisome re peti, tion. Professor Morse apparently regards it as a better thing, and his work is devoted almost as much to downright denunciation of our own carpenters and furnishers as to praise of their far-off cousins in the craft. It seems that from structures of “ chips, paper, and straw,” as one not inconsiderable class of these edifices is lucidly described, the architecture of the Japanese rises to much greater things, and sometimes achieves a shadow of a three-story dwelling. The absence of mantel and fireplace, of tables, chairs, and windows, and similar familiar objects is amply made up for by the presence of refinement, taste, and flowerpots, the convenience of its being possible to take out the sides of the house and the partitions, and the delights of little gardens in the rear, in which dwarf trees, oddly shaped stones, flowers, and streams are artistically treated. The treatise, as a whole, is too professional for the ordinary reader, and is rather to he recommended to the curious architect. After a serious attempt to see the extraordinary advantages of Japanese house-building over that of the Occidental nations, we confess that they do not seem sufficient to justify the crusade which Professor Morse preaches. The things which delight him are due to elements of simplicity, decoration, and climatic conditions which our complexity of wants, tastes, and natural necessities would not allow of. He seems to think that it would be as easy a matter to borrow from the Japanese as it was for our ancestors to appropriate classical architecture. In its own country, it is clear, the old methods and arrangements are yielding in the houses of the upper classes to the influence of the Europeans. It may be that our race is lacking in fineness, subtlety, and in that softness of touch which is looked upon in these pages as a test of essential culture ; but, in the main, it is the colorsense which distinguishes the Japanese, and if we are to learn from them at all it should be indirectly by the reaction of their color-art upon our eyes ; any other appropriation of their work would be a slavish imitation. The superiority of the Japanese to the English, even in the matter of house-carpentry, is, we still think, something to be proved. In our finish there is, of course, room for improvement, and in our common furnishing ; but ideals of workmanship and the refinement of a simple and severe taste are not so far off from us as the antipodes, and perhaps a more disciplined historic sense of the life of Occidental nations both in crafts and in fine art might have made the author’s wholesale depreciation of his own race more temperate.

But if Professor Morse had a surprise in store for us for which we were, so to speak, unprepared, there is nothing of such doubtful entertainment in Mr. Lowell’s volume,4 on the neighboring country of Korea. Here is terra incognita. That Professor Morse, whose acquaintance with things in the Orient is so exhaustive, is obliged to refer to this work as his sole source of information in respect to the Korean house is a striking mark of its novelty. So little of the accessible world remains undescribed, and the difficulties and dangers of penetrating into unknown regions are usually so great, that Mr. Lowell is to he congratulated on his good fortune in

finding a new land of such interest, in the capacity of a guest of the state, to whom observation was made easy. Instead of the ordinary fatigues and anxieties, he had apparently nothing worse to endure than dinner-parties, and there were no foes to resist except the geishas, with the soft blandishments of their broken Japanese. At the very beginning of his narrative one notices that something besides the land and the people is unusual, namely, the narrator himself; and as one reads on he discovers in his author a rare combination of qualities, a threefold strain, poetic, scientific, and human, running at the will of an exceptionally active intelligence. The work is not a diary, or a view of externals, into one or the other of which descriptions most books of travel fall. It is constructed not without care as a whole ; and, to begin with, an atmosphere is first diffused over the plains and mountains, and what in literary criticism is called its sentiment is given at once, quite simply and effectively. A desolate, sad, and lonely land it was, and yet with the color which invests Oriental things like a spell : and this landscape touch is essential to the effect of the whole, for it emboldens at once that leading and significant trait of the Eastern peoples, in whose spirits nature takes the place of humanity as the object of contemplation; and the ever-present sense of this distinction between them and us is necessary, if one would have any sympathetic understanding of their art or thought. In the same way, though more obviously, the author continues, in unfolding his narrative, to emphasize the differentiating general principles which underlie Eastern civilization, and account for those oddities in detail which make antipodal life appear, as he says, “ like a photographic negative of our own civilization.” We are told, of course, of the familiar reversals of our habits and customs: how, for example, blind men only are allowed out after dark, and the teacups are put under the saucers instead of on them, and so through the long catalogue of opposites. But the main thing which is aimed at is not the piecemeal information involved in these or any similar congeries of fact incorporated into the text. The author wishes to know, most of all, the reason and binding principles of these things, and desires that his reader should have this knowledge, too, so far as he can enlighten him. This is the scientific spirit to which we have referred, showing itself not merely in the explanation of physical phenomena of climate or in the technical interest exhibited in Korean mathematics, but thoroughly and, so to speak, structurally in the volume. The result is a philosophy as well as a description of Korean life, in the course of which ethnological and linguistic problems rise to the surface, but without interrupting the flow of a vivid and entertaining narrative, of which the changefulness is perhaps the most striking characteristic.

It goes without saying that in acquainting the reader, both by word and plentiful photographic views, with a country and city that have practically never been seen and written of by any of English race before, Mr. Lowell has novelties to record. A certain general resemblance with institutions and habits Chinese or Japanese was to be expected, but Korea has much that is its own ; and this, even when most strange to the European mind, has been closely apprehended and put upon these pages with the touch of life. The artistic sensibility by virtue of which the visible garb of nature and humanity has been depicted in both its glow and its earthly stain, and the poetic sentiment which has interpreted this sight of the far East to the feeling of a Westerner, lend charm to the study as a whole, and the ever speculating and reasoning mind that lies behind the eye gives a certain intellectual weight to it; but its humanity, the last quality which we mentioned as distinguishing this volume, is its most agreeable feature. It is not merely that the natives and their queer ways are tolerated by their visitor; there is evidently a sympathy, a real perception and acknowledgment of the pervasive human bond, which is a mood of mind rarely to be observed in a cultivated man actually in contact with an alien race. This temper, the sign of a true assimilation and conversion of knowledge into the energy of life, makes the volume peculiarly pleasurable, while it partly accounts for the author’s success as an observer.

But enough has been said to show our appreciation of the spirit and workmanship of a book, of which the blemishes are due only to the excess of individuality ; its value, both in the way of information and entertainment, does not need any imprimatur.

It is with some hesitation that we have decided to admit Mr. Froude’s work5 among our geographical tales; but if he is more the politician than the traveler in his journey, he marks the end of an era in the Pacific. He takes us to the Southern Ocean, to Australia and New Zealand ; and his thoughts are principally concerned with a new stage of civic development there. The age of the discoveries is over, and that of the settlement in the south, at least, is far on its course ; now Mr. Froude appears on the scene to urge a beginning of the last and crowning work, — the confederation of the islands under England’s primacy, and the consequent strengthening of the vast and scattered empire which English trade and enterprise have called into being. Mr. Froude seems to have taken the voyage to help on this movement and he was mainly interested in interviewing. the colonists on their feeling in regard to it. He found the usual loyalty to the homecountry coupled with the equally omnipresent desire not to be interfered with by the authorities in Downing Street. This branch of the subject, the future of the great Pacific islands, is too large and vague to be treated in these paragraphs ; and it may be left to those who are more directly interested in it. The state of society in Australia and New Zealand is all that concerns us, and unfortunately the volume gives us practically no light on this point. Seldom, indeed, has it been our fortune to meet with a book by a man of reputation which, judged by itself alone, displays more incompetency either to see, or to take pains, or to be accurate, in matters of fact. The author serves as a very perfect type of the British traveler of the old style, not yet extinct. His superiority to the colonists — which cannot be said to be assumed, for it is unconscious— is a superb exhibition of that sort of insolence which offends the Irish at the Castle and all non-Anglicans in every part of the world. It reduces all things colonial below the level of that scrutinizing eyeglass in the most amusing impartiality; it reaches its climax of absurdity, perhaps, in the assumption, made in a chance and entirely offhand manner, that brains for the colonists must come from London. Mr. Froude has occasion, from time to time, to note the existence of a man of capacity there, but he does this with a touch of surprise, and he draws sad auguries for the next age, when the home-bred stock — that is, the colonists born in England — shall be dead, and those who saw the light in the country itself come to be the majority. He saw for the most part only official and high life, and was as well taken care of as an Eastern capitalist on an inspection tour over the West. One searches his pages in vain for anything except the plea for federation (which on the whole he unintentionally makes ridiculous before he gets through with it) and the philippic, after the Carlyle receipt, against all modern ideas, and in particular popular liberty in politics and the right of private judgment in religion. The chapters are much more melancholy than were Carlyle’s, and the bull-dog growl of the master seems to degenerate at times into a sort of second-hand whine from the disciple. Such characteristics one might pass by unmentioned, were it not for the unabashed arrogance with which Mr. Froude announces his views and what he is pleased to accept as facts, as if his opinion were the final consummation of all things. In not a few instances his statements are ridiculously ignorant, and his flings at men and things petulant with the triviality of old age. It is needless to attend to his rampant old Toryism at this late date ; but if any one is curious, perhaps the pages on California, and the inferences made from the Palace Hotel and kindred phenomena in regard to the morals of the coast, will be as interesting reading as an American can find in the book. But we, desiring not to exceed our limits of the Pacific, will take space only to acquaint our readers with a curious fact from the central portion of that ocean, which may be regarded as a sign of hope for the future of that vast new world. Mr. Froude reports, on the authority of an Englishman who has lived long in Samoa and translated the Bible into the native language, that “ the natives had bought thirty thousand copies at two dollars apiece, with gilt edges.

. . . Fifteen hundred pounds he had been able to remit annually from this source to the parent society.” This fact is our last surprise. It seems that the missionary cause in Samoa is actually a source of income to London ; in the end — who knows? — the selling of Bibles to savages may be more profitable to the British than the old trade in rum !

  1. The Works of Hubert Howe Bancroft Vol. XXXIII. History of Alaska, 1730-1885. San Francisco : A. L. Bancroft & Co. 1886.
  2. Along Alaska’s Great River. A popular account of the travels of the Alaska Exploring Expedition of 1883 along the great Yukon Elver, from its source to its mouth, in the British Northwest Territory, and in the Territory of Alaska. By FREDERICK SCHWATKA. New York : Casseil & Co. 1885.
  3. Japanese Homes and their Surroundings. By EDWARD S. Mouse. With illustrations by the author. Boston: Ticknor & Co. 1886.
  4. Chosön. The Land of the Morning Calm. A Sketch of Korea. By PERCIVAL LOWELL. Illustrated from photographs by the author. Boston: Ticknor & Co. 1880.
  5. Oceana; or, England and her Colonies. By JAMES ANTHONY FEOUDE. New York : Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1886.