Pacific Postcards

Remnants of Imperial Science aboard the Velero III Expedition (Fabiano Andrade)

Since the sixteenth century, the Pacific world has been the object of curiosity and conquest for the imperialistic powers of the west. Most of the early centuries were spent establishing trade networks and colonies to expand the influence of those in power. Over the years, as different technological, social, and political movements revolutionized the global maritime industry, the Pacific environment evolved to fit its present needs. Science became a tool for these movements, and soon “naturalists” started accompanying merchant and government ships to aid in its exploration. These “gentlemen of science,” were current day botanists, physicians, anthropologists, zoologists, and biologists. Decades later, entire expeditions dedicated solely to science were traveling across the Pacific. David Igler, author of The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush, spends an entire chapter on “Naturalists and Natives in the Great Ocean.” Similarly in Fathoming the Ocean: The Discovery and Exploration of the Deep Sea, Helen M. Rozwadowski dedicates her chapter “The Undiscovered Country” to the importance of these scientific expeditions. Both authors discuss the concept of “imperial science,” which is scientific exploration that primarily serves the economic and geopolitical goals of its patrons. Throughout these readings, one can see the evolution of both the causes and effects of imperial science throughout generations. Upon the analysis of the film To Tropic Seas Aboard Velero III, a ship captained by Alan Hancock to the Galapagos Islands for his foundation for scientific research in the University of Southern California in 1934, one begins to catch remnants of imperial science. Although it may not be as drastic or tragic as previous actions of expeditions, it is important to realize these small biases and understand the effects for the future.
Igler’s and Rozwadowski’s works dive into the kinds of ways that these missions served both empirical and personal desires. After the Seven Year’s War, there was a growth in competition between countries such as England, Spain, and France for maritime power (Igler 135). In addition, activities such as whaling, colonial conquest, and trading all benefitted from the research by naturalists (Rozwadowski 49).  In fact, many of their discoveries and observations led to the erasure of natural resources in Pacific beaches for Western markets (Igler 135). However, this does not imply that all scientists approved of their patrons’ dominating actions. Igler explains that often these naturalists were from a different nationality than those in the ship, and thus had a freedom to critique the imperialist tendencies of their expeditions (Igler 138).  Even though many researchers were compassionate of the native land and people they visited, they were not free from their inherent biases and selfish desires. Many saw it as a chance to earn recognition that would lead to their “intellectual fortunes” (Rozwadowski 57). In order to reach this fame, some naturalists ignored their own moral compasses, as can be viewed through the practice of native-graverobbing that Igler discusses. By the mid-nineteenth century, another aspect that fueled scientific expeditions was nationalism. Both authors explain how naming, charting, and sampling the resources of the Pacific provided tangible ways to establish empirical claims to these terraqueous lands. For the United States in particular, these claims reinforced the expansionist ideology of manifest destiny (Rozwadowski 47). American scientific achievements were able to demonstrate their successes to the world and establish them as a world power. This nationalist energy can be understood in the film of the Velero III’s expedition, which although occurring in the twentieth century still shows signs of American imperialism especially over the rest of the continent.
The following is a compilation of annotations of the recording with timestamps and quotes for context for a reader who hasn’t watched the recording.

[00:00:41] “The launching of Velero III was a spectacular event…” Although much more common in comparison to previous centuries, scientific expeditions such as that on the Velero III were widely anticipated as they brought not only specimens and recordings from foreign lands, but also a glimpse to other societies and ecologies that most people could not experience for themselves. At a time when globalization was just rising, foundations such as Hancock’s provided insights and inspiration for the future. Nonetheless, showcases such as these were done in various places to fulfill nationalistic agendas that brought pride to their own people. Particularly for the United States and California, these scientific voyages reinforced “the country’s expansionist outlook” as the central authority in the Americas. (Rozwadowski 47)
[00:02:00] “Few people realize that it is not possible for us to tie up to a wharf Guadalupe Island. Instead we must anchor a mile or more offshore.” The Velero III made its first stop at Guadalupe Island, a volcanic island off the west coast of Baja California. The fact that scientists are forced to anchor a mile offshore and take a skiff, a small boat, to land emphasizes the limits of Western manpower and technology when facing the nature of the Pacific. This idea of the Great Ocean as an unconquerable maritime presence is expressed throughout Igler’s book. No matter how politically or financially powerful they were, voyages such as this one were always at the mercy of the sea.
[00:05:25] “But alas for Pansy and alas for us for while Pansy could never control his own movements no longer will we control the movements of Pansy. And over and over he rolled out into the surf. Here is Pansy's mate calling to him...” In Guadalupe Island the crew decide to take Pansy, an elephant seal bull, to the ship to be transported to the San Diego Zoo. The joyous narration contradicts with the whipping and netting of the poor bull. Although they argue that it does not hurt the animal due to their thick blubber, it is not a pretty sight. The separation of the bull from his mate reinforces typical imperial pretention over foreign animals, as it is most likely that Pansy would spend the rest of his life in captivity.
[00:11:24] “Seri Indians, remnants of what was once a noble tribe, now left to miserable abject [?] existence upon this barren island.” Once they leave Guadalupe Island, the crew stops at Tiburon Island, home of the Seri Indians. The Seri Indians, much like other native groups, have been characterized historically as savage cannibals despite any evidence of their cannibalistic tendencies. Mexican disease and conflict ultimately resulted in an extremely small surviving population, hence the “miserable” position described by the crew. The narrator makes fun of the natives appearance, and although the crew gives the group gifts, it comes off as some sort of charity rather than a respectful exchange. These subtle expressions demonstrate American’s sense of superiority over them. It was quite common in fact for naturalists’ preconceived notions on indigenous people to overshadow their description of them (Igler 148) Ironically, these scientists are usually ignorant of the fact that much of the reason for the “miserable” state groups such as the Seri Indians faced was non-native intervention. These effects of imperialism only served to explain the racist and false idea of inferiority.
[00:22:53] “Dr. Waldo Schmitt of the National Museum is here shown putting some of the specimens into final pickle. They go into 70% alcohol. And Dr. Schmitt has been heard to remark, when chided about his cruelty to animals, ‘Well, they die in good spirits, don’t they?’” Upon reaching Agua Verde Bay, the crew spend their time collecting various specimens of algae, crustaceans, plankton, fish, etc. Additionally, scientists are seen collecting and cracking coral, which is home to many more “specimens.” The destroying of habitats and killing of animals for scientific purposes is morally controversial, and Dr. Schmitt is fully aware of it. This mirrors the way scientist Duhaut-Cilly critiqued his partner, Dr. Botta, for the excessive hunting of fauna in Monterey Bay in 1827 (Igler 145). Although these scientists are aware of the ethical dilemmas behind their practice, they continued “for the sake of science”.
[00:23:15] “And here is Dr. Taylor of the University of Michigan, our marine botanist… At another table sits Dr. Fraser of the University of British Columbia.” During this sequence we are presented with various scientists from different fields, universities, and backgrounds. Yet, all these naturalists were motivated by their personal goals of recognition and wealth. They aspired to establish claims to undocumented areas of science, as well as to gain the necessary funds from their fame to continue their research (Rozwadowski 62).
[00:26:27] “…Friedo, their hermit home. Here the couple has established a Garden of Eden. Dr. Ritter is Adam and Dore Koerwin his Eve.” The Velero III finally arrives at Floreana Island in the Galapagos, where they are met by Dr. Ritter and his wife Dore Koerwin. The German couple chose to spend the rest of their life secluded on the island. However, the crew is hypocritical with the paradisal depiction of the couple as opposed to the miserable description of Natives on similar islands. Therefore, there is an inherent bias from the crew to perceive the couple and other European settlers as more sophisticated than the original groups of people in the Pacific.
[00:36:49] “This sinister object lurking beneath the waves is the manta ray, known as the sea bat, or devilfish.” On Isabela Island of the Galapagos, film of the tragic hunting of a manta ray is recorded. It was caught, killed, and dissected for scientific purposes, but it foreshadows of the awful overhunting of species just as this one that would occur in the future. The manner in which the manta ray was caught is reminiscent of the ways baby whales were caught during the whaling expeditions described by Igler.
[00:43:55] “As the ship moves northward, our motion picture director calls us to the after boat deck to view the menagerie that had been accumulated in the course of almost three months of scientific expedition.” On the trip back up north, the crew watches film of all the animals they have taken captive throughout the expedition. A cage tightly filled with giant tortoises is shown, an iguana being force-fed, and a flamingo almost unable to stand on the moving ship. Although these are all shown in a lighthearted tone, one can only wonder what conditions other animals found themselves in.
Overall, the recording of the Velero III demonstrated great feats of scientific discovery at the cost of the dignity of Native islanders and animals. The portrayal of the expedition in the film shows signs of American exceptionalism despite the purely scientific aspect of the trip. Yet, upon reading The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush and Fathoming the Ocean: The Discovery and Exploration of the Deep Sea, one begins to understand that there will always be an inherent bias in such explorations, and it is important to limit their effects toward Pacific life.

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