Wadewitz Probes Whaling in the Pacific World

By Maya Weeks - What is the Pacific World, and what part did the whaling industry play in its development? On January 24, 2018, at the first meeting of the Environments & Societies Winter 2018 Colloquium Series, a discussion of Lissa Wadewitz's chapter 'Blood Sport in the Pacific Whaling Fleet' took a deep dive into red-tinged waters.

Lissa Wadewitz is an associate professor of history at Linfield College, where she focuses on environmental history and the history of the United States West. Her previous work on marine environments includes The Nature of Borders: Salmon, Boundaries, and Bandits on the Salish Sea, published by the University of Washington Press in 2012, as well as articles such as ‘Are Fish Wildlife?’ and ‘Pirates of the Salish Sea: Labor, Mobility, and Environment in the Transnational West.’

Her current work, however, takes a more human turn. When she began working on ‘Blood Sport in the Pacific Whaling Fleet’, she was “interested in where all these people that I’d been studying would go.” Discussion of her chapter ranged from literary theory to environmental history to concepts of masculinity. 

Linking distant nodes

Wadewitz introduced the Pacific World as the particular trade routes and extractive industries that link distant nodes across the Pacific, bring people together as a result of marine industries. These connections, she said, are “meaningful for both outsiders coming in and indigenous peoples.”

A new field of Pacific World history is emerging, Wadewitz said. And yet the Pacific World, as opposed to the Atlantic World, is “not neat.” It is far-flung, disparate, and vast both spatially and temporally. Wadewitz’s work approaches the Pacific World through questions such as, “How did people connect places across such vast distances?” While casting around for a topic through which to investigate these issues of distance and identity, Wadewitz fell upon whaling.

Reverence and ruthlessness

When she began to study whaling in earnest, Wadewitz found that the violence and gore of the industry was not so clear in secondary literature. Her work sheds light on the violence of whaling as well as whalers’ reactions to it. In so doing, it addresses both human-animal relations and racial hierarchies on whaling ships in an increasingly globalized economy.

Wadewitz’s chapter juxtaposes the “willy-nilly killing” of whales with reverence for the animals, and works to make sense of that paradox—including how the highly masculinized economics of whaling permitted no sentimentality among the whalers.

'Blood Sport in the Pacific Whaling Fleet' is a draft chapter in the anthology Migrant Ecologies: Environmental Histories of the Pacific World, forthcoming from University of Hawaii Press.

Learn more about Lissa Wadewitz.