North Pacific's history is vast as its area

October 28, 1993|By Alexander Frater | Alexander Frater,Los Angeles Times

Walter McDougall, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, is plainly a big-canvas man. His last book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Heaven and the Earth," was a sweeping history of man's activity in space. Now he takes on man's adventures in the North Pacific, an area occupying one-sixth of the Earth's surface.

It's a huge, illuminating work, ranging through four tumultuous centuries and countless extraordinary places. The reader, by the end, is time-warped, battle-hardened and travel-worn -- but exhilarated, too.

Dr. McDougall's energy and curiosity are awesome. He has spent five years on this project, and the volumes quoted in his acknowledgments section would, if placed end to end, stretch clean across the Bering Strait.

But he's turned this tidal wave of material into a tale as riveting as any blockbuster novel. "Let the Sea Make a Noise" -- a quote from Psalm 98 -- is, by any standards, a remarkable book.

In the 16th century, the North Pacific, lying far from the European centers of population and power, was a largely disregarded area. Eventually Europe's imperial powers began to smell profits and busy themselves acquisitively around the region.

The Portuguese, French, Spanish, Dutch and Brits all played roles in the North Pacific story; but ultimately, its outcome would be decided by three nations possessing North Pacific seaboards: America, Russia and, recurring through the narrative like a silk thread through worsted, Japan.

The idea that would unlock the region was first conceived far away -- in the pretty little English town of Chipping Camden, by a clock repairman named Newcomen. He began pondering the revolutionary notion of a mechanically powered ship but found the problems insurmountable. They were resolved, eventually, by the Americans, who ushered in the Age of Steam Navigation with the launch in 1807 of Fulton's Clermont. (One Hudson Valley yeoman, spying it from the bank, rushed home to tell his wife he had "spotted the devil paddling to Albany in a sawmill.")

Steamships would traverse the North Pacific, but steamships needed coal. After pondering their charts, the Americans decided the perfect place to establish a major coaling station would be Japan. The Japanese, then passing through one of their more introspective, xenophobic phases, didn't want to sell coal to the Americans, regarding them as "stupid and simple and incapable of doing great things."

Admiral Perry, charged with the task of changing their minds, told Washington he needed steamships since they would produce "astonishment and consternation" among the Japanese. Steamships and cannons "would do more to command their fears, and secure their friendship,

than all the diplomatic missions have accomplished in the last hundred years."

And so it proved. The appearance of Perry's fleet in Edo Bay in July of 1853 terrified the population. Panic-stricken mothers fled with their children, priests tolled temple bells and prayed for deliverance. Perry got his coaling station and the humiliated Japanese their first glimpse of advanced Western technology and the raw power it represented. It was one of those confrontations that would change the world.

An American consul, Townshend Harris (whose Puritan New England grandmother exhorted him "to tell the truth, fear God and hate the British") went to Japan to negotiate trading rights. That done, he sent California a delegation of 77 samurai who wanted, quite simply, to learn everything the Americans could teach them; Japan suddenly yearned to shed its insular, introspective feudalism, to "cast off" -- according to an imperial decree -- "the stupid opinions of the past" and embrace the West absolutely.

They succeeded so comprehensively that, within the lifetimes of people who had witnessed the meeting between Perry's ironclads and the emperor's little coracles, Japan created a navy that would confound the world.

The Russians were the first to experience it firsthand. Both they and the Japanese sought spheres of influence in Asia and, inevitably, conflict arose. So in 1904 Czar Nicholas -- who, Dr. McDougall confides, was "still, in his late 20s, recording games of hide-and-seek in his diary" -- dispatched his Baltic Sea fleet to the Pacific, an epic 18,000-mile voyage brilliantly evoked in this book.

Somewhere off the China coast the two battle fleets finally met for one of the most emphatic military engagements in history. When it commenced, Russia had the world's third-largest navy. A few hours later it had the sixth largest. Thirty-five of its ships, totaling 200,000 tons, lay on the seabed. The Japanese lost three torpedo boats.

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