Where the sea breaks its back; the epic story of
pioneer naturalist and the discovery of Alaska
1966, 1992 (reprint)
Steller, Georg Wilhelm, 1709-1746.
Ford's Where the sea breaks its back draws a vivid picture of Alaskan
history, which is largely overlooked by many historians and history students.
In an article entitled Why the west is lost Hijia (1994) expressed his
resentment that many American history textbooks focus on only two regions: the
Northeast and Midwest. The Far West and Russians in Alaska are de-emphasized
or even ignored. In a similar vein, Smith and Barnett (1990) regarded "Russia
America" as "the forgotten frontier." This mentality is partly due to the
"Cold War syndrome," which has lead some Americans to bias against Russian
contribution. Where the sea breaks its back reminds readers the
importance of this "forgotten frontier" and the courage of its pioneers.
This book was first published in 1966. During the Cold war, it was a common
practice for the American media to portray Russians as "bad guys" and
Americans as "good guys." Although Ford revealed the aggressive exploitation
of Alaska by Russians, he did not cover up the dark side of Americans. In the
book Ford mentioned that the Russian American company persuaded his government
to forbid the use of firearms and protect the endangered species by rigid
conservation measures. This policy was reversed by Americans when they took
over Alaska in 1867.
The role of Bering
Many historians, especially Russian historians, credited
Bering and Chirikov for the exploration of Alaska (e.g. Malakhovski, 1983;
Shopotov, 1993; Peskov, 1993). Ford turned the focus of this historic episode
to Steller instead of Bering and Chirikov. This shift of focus is just because
it is substantiated by historical facts. After conducting extensive research
on the same topic, Frost (1994-95) drew the same conclusion as Ford's: The
tragic result of the expedition was caused by the personality clash between
Bering and Steller. Bering repeatedly allowed Steller to be humiliated by the
sailors, and their lack of communication led to several crucial errors
regarding the ship's course. After Bering's death, Steller assumed leadership
and used his scientific knowledge to save the remaining crew.
Nevertheless, Ford's comments to Bering are generous: "Despite the tragic
fate of the St. Peter, despite subsequent Russian efforts to disparage its
Danish captain and claim credit for themselves, historians rank Bering today
with Columbus and Cook among the great explorers of all time: 'The illustrious
commander of the expeditions which disclosed the separation of the two worlds
and discovered north-western-most America.'" (p. 134). Ford did not give the
citations of these assessments though he listed a bibliography at the end of
the book. Without sufficient references for tracing the sources, it is
difficult, if not impossible, to evaluate the preceding statement by those
It is doubtful whether Bering deserves the aforementioned historical
status. According to Rising (1999), the overall evidence concurs Ford's
description of Bering: He was worn out and ill, and thus he offered little
guidance as the ship sailed on a course one hundred miles South and parallel
to the Aleutian Islands and the Alaska Peninsula. The sailors did not accept
Steller's compelling evidence that land was to be found just to their north.
Even though the crew suffered from scurvy, the officers also did not adhere to
Steller's advice to improve the ship's water supply. Bering's indecision and
lack of leadership made the situation worse. Therefore, it is fair to conclude
that Bering could not be compared to Columbus or Cook at all!
The Chinese people always say, "Do not judge a hero by his failure." In
other words, a man who completely fails a mission could still be dubbed a
"hero" if he has noble intentions. However, the motivation of Bering's
exploration is to restore his personal honor while Steller is driven by
passionate interests in scientific inquiry. In Bering's first expedition,
Peter the Great ordered Bering to find out whether Asia and America were
joined. After Bering returned from his voyage without landing in the American
mainland, many people, including his superiors, considered his mission a
failure. It was thought that at most he determined the northern limits of
Kamchatka (Golder, 1914). Several Russian and Americans scholars asserted that
the purpose of Bering's second expedition was to get another chance to settle
the geographical question that he was accused of failing to answer (Fisher,
1977). Bering's rejection of Steller's requests is potentially explained by
the obsession of his personal aspiration. Hence, it is not surprising that
Bering gave Steller only a few hours to conduct scientific research; it was
most likely considered by Bering as irrelevant to his personal quest.
The cause of extinction and
Although Ford provided details of the expedition and its
consequences to the best of his knowledge, the book is by no means
comprehensive. For example, in discussing the tragic fate of sea otters and
sea cows, Ford gave readers an impression that excessive hunting is the sole
cause of the extinction or near extinction of several species around Alaska.
Conversely, scientists found that direct exploitation by humans may not be the
only cause of the decline in endangered species; the decline in Steller's sea
lions may be caused by competition from factory trawlers that catch Alaskan
pollock, which sea lions eat. It is commonly agreed that massive fishing
operations can alter food chains, but how it affects sea lions is not fully
understood (Carrel & Morgan, 2000). Using statistical modeling to eliminate
rival hypotheses, Pascual and Adkison (1994) suggested that some long term
environmental change may be responsible for the decline in sea lions. The
decline in Steller's eider is also an unsolved mystery. Although its territory
is protected from major development and being free from excessive hunting,
eider has disappeared from most of its Alaskan nesting grounds (Carrel &
Although Ford gave a horrifying account of how natives
were oppressed by Russians, more attention was given to endangered species,
especially sea otters. The concluding remark highlights the theme of the book:
"Perhaps for once, with proper conservation measures, we can reserve our long
sad history of despoliation and plunder, and restore this shy and beautiful
animal (sea otters) which, in the words of Alaska's first naturalist,
'deserves from us all the greatest reverence.'" (p. 204)
It is true that ecology is an important global issue and certain
counter-measures should be implemented to save endangered species. Yet, it is
strange that the suffering and recovering of Alaskan natives is not put into a
higher priority. Several years ago after a coup overthrew the President of
Haiti, he requested political asylum from the United States. When the Haitian
President accused the illegal government of chopping down too many trees in
Haiti and thus spoiled the environment, Rush Limbaugh wondered why he cared
about the trees while his people were terrified by the military-backed
tyranny. By the same token, I believe that the suffering endured by the
natives should have been given equal, if not more, attention by Ford.
Where the sea breaks the back illustrates a story
of dilemma that provokes mixed feelings. It is an epic of courage, a testament
to the human spirit, and a story of scientific discovery. This tale is also a
tragedy of poor leadership and a witness of greedy exploitation. Stellerís
objective is scientific research but the expedition led to the long term
suffering of both marine species and Alaskan natives. Perhaps, the most tragic
message implied by the book is: humans never foresee the consequence of
explorations though we always think that we know what we are doing!
Carrel, C.; & Morgan, L. (2000, June 4). The mystery
of Steller's curse. The Seattle Times. [On-line]
Available: URL: http://seatteltimes.nwsource.com/news/editorial/
Fisher, R. H. (1977). Bering's voyagers: Whither and
why. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.
Frost, O. W. (1994-95). Virtus Bering and Georg Steller: Their
tragic conflict during the American expedition. Pacific
Northwest Quarterly, 86, 3-16.
Golder, F. A. (1914). Russian expansion on the pacific
1641-1850. Cleveland: The Arthur H. Clark Company.
Hijiya, J. A. (1994). Why the west is lost? William and Mary
Quarterly, 51, 276-292.
Malakhovski, K. V. (1983). Russian discoveries in the pacific
ocean from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. Soviet
Studies in History, 21, 27-46.
Pascual, M. A.; & Adkison, M. D. (1994). The decline of the
Steller sea lion in the northeast pacific: Demography, harvest, or
environment? Ecological Applications, 4, 393-403.
Peskov, S. (1993). What is behind the ocean? Russkaia
Amerika, 1, 18.
Rising, G. (1999, August 9). George Wilhelm Steller. Buffalo
News. [On-line] Available: URL:
Shopotov, K. A. (1993). Sailing to the "big land." Russkaia
Amerika, 2-3, 3-5.
Smith, B. S., & Barnett, R. J. (Eds.). (1990). Russia
America: The forgotten frontier. Tacoma, WA: Washington State