Monday, June 13, 2011

One of the best stories you've never heard

Socrates said "The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know." And that's one of the great things about reading history - there's always more to learn. I was trying to count up the number of books I've read in the past few years about the early history of the United States and quickly came up with about twenty-five, and yet there are thousands of great stories that never make it into those books. An ambitious historian can find a relatively obscure person or event and write a whole book about it - kind of like Morning of Fire: John Kendrick's Daring American Odyssey in the Pacific by Scott Ridley (which I received from Amazon Vine and have been putting off since last fall).

In the wake of the American Revolution, the major European powers expected the new nation and its non-monarchial government would soon fail. England thought its former colonies would beg to come back into the fold, and Spain and even France (which had been America's ally during the Revolution) were looking to scoop up New World territory easily once the shaky union of states began to fall apart. To make matters worse, most Atlantic ports were closed to American goods, and American ships on the seas were opportunistically preyed upon by the powerful European privateers.

To break this stranglehold, a few Boston merchants proposed sending ships into the Pacific to open trade with China in an attempt to boost the weak American economy. And as the Constitution was being adopted in America, two small ships sailed south around the treacherous waters of Cape Horn and into the Spanish waters of the Pacific. The captain, John Kendrick, had been a privateer during the Revolution and hoped to establish trading routes and outposts between the fur-rich Northwest coast, the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), and China. In an age when most traders deeply distrusted the native tribes and unscrupulously opened fire on the "savages," Kendrick learned their customs and languages and built relationships of trust with them. He was also skillful at playing the British and Spanish off each other - so skillful, in fact, that he was at the center of a flashpoint that nearly brought all of Europe to war.

Even seasoned readers of history can be forgiven for not knowing about John Kendrick or his obscure 7 year odyssey that includes the first circumnavigation of the globe by an American and the first American contact with the closed nation of Japan. I even dug out other books I'd read on related subjects, but couldn't find any mention of him. He wasn't part of a government expedition, and because many of his papers were lost (and his accomplishments downplayed by rivals), there's not a lot of direct information. So Scott Ridley tells not only the story of Kendrick but also the larger picture of exploration and trading in the Pacific, and notables like James Cook and George Vancouver play a part in this tale. Ridley brings in the larger events of the European world as well as the tribal wars that allowed Kamehameha to gain control of all the Sandwich (Hawaiian) islands, and he weaves a fascinating tale that reads like a good novel and is almost as difficult to put down. To be honest, it's a little slow-starting, and since he had to rely on a lot of indirect information he occasionally makes assumptions about Kendrick's involvement, but that's only slightly distracting (and mostly understandable). Maps and numerous paintings from the era help to illustrate and complete this amazing and largely unknown story - giving a belated credit to an American hero. And not only that, but it's one of the best stories you've never heard.

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