James Barnett’s Captain George Vancouver in Alaska and the North Pacific is notable not for the writing, but for the use of primary sources.
The book documents the 18th Century exploits of George Vancouver’s quest for the Northwest Passage, a shortcut between Europe and Asia, so that everyone could buy and sell more efficiently. This era of exploration and imperialism was much celebrated in the 18th-20th centuries as a time of map-making and discovery, but is now coming to be understood as a toxic, devastating period in modern history.
As Barnett writes, Vancouver’s British crew took possession of the Alaskan shores “by displaying the flag, turning the turf, burying a bottle with some coins and papers, and drinking port to the health of the king.” Barnett adds, “About a dozen natives were present and behaved very friendly but had no idea what we were doing.”
Another ceremony, taking possession of Puget Sound in the Pacific Northwest, mentions that “all hands were served a good dinner as well as a double allowance of grog to drink to the King’s health”. More cruelly and to the point, George Vancouver had three native men apprehended when he was in Hawaii and, with little evidence in relation to a murder of a crew member, had them “promptly executed”.
These superficial and cruel moments in history are by no means unique. Consider America’s systematic slaughter of the American Native population, as conveyed in Dee Brown’s devastating Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee or the ongoing news of systemic violence against black people of this nation.
It is stories such as these that are guiding us to understand that justice and equality damn Western Civilization. As much as we have celebrated these ideas throughout our history, they don’t actually exist in this society beyond the childish understanding of playing an awful game by our rules.