Book Review
 

 

Author

Corey Ford

Title

Where the sea breaks its back; the epic story of a
pioneer naturalist and the discovery of Alaska

Year

1966, 1992 (reprint)

Place

Boston, MA

Publisher

Little, Brown

Subject

Steller, Georg Wilhelm, 1709-1746. Kamchatskaia
ekspeditsiia. Exploration

ISBN

088240394X

Chong Ho Yu, Ph.D.

The forgotten frontier

orey 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 unknown historians.

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 near-extinction

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 & Morgan, 2000).


Human first?

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.


Conclusion

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!

 

 


References

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: http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~insrisg/nature/nw99/steller.html

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 Historical Society.


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