SEA Currents: Robert C. Seamans
March 01, 2015
The Scholar Ship
Tied up in Wellington, NZ
As the historian on board, I’d like to take a few paragraphs and put our voyage into a broader context, as we sail in the wake of some really interesting mariners, beginning with the Polynesians who crossed the Pacific in double-hulled voyaging canoes and arrived in New Zealand around 800 years ago. What the Maori found here was very different from what they left behind on tropical islands like Tahiti, as New Zealand has a temperate climate. (If you flip it upside down and push it against the west coast of the U.S., the latitudes are nearly the same, with the southernmost point of NZ being around 49°S, similar to the border between Washington State and British Columbia at 49°N. The northernmost point of the north island of NZ is close to 35°S, about the latitude of Los Angeles in the northern hemisphere. The important difference is that our west coast has Alaska sitting between it and the Arctic, while there is nothing south of New Zealand until you get to Antarctica.)
The Maori brought tropical plants and animals with them that had mixed success in New Zealand; the biota brought by Europeans, on the other hand, which came from similar latitudes, took off marvelously. European explorers were enthusiastic cultivators and British and French mariners came ashore with pockets full of seeds. Capt. James Cook is thought to have brought potatoes and European pigs when his ship Endeavor visited here in 1769. When Charles Darwin arrived aboard the Beagle in 1835 the landscape was already much altered, and when American whaleships began to arrive by the score in the Bay of Islands in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, Maori traders came out to the ships with boatloads of agricultural produce, almost all of it of species introduced from Europe or the Americas.
When we were still in Woods Hole, we took a trip to nearby New Bedford to visit the Whaling Museum and looked at the manuscript logbook of seventeen-year-old Daniel Mackenzie, jr., aboard the ship Samuel Robertson (of which his father was captain). When young Mackenzie arrived at the Bay of Islands in April 1838, he described Maori people surrounding the ship to trade their “potatoes, peaches, melons, grapes, fish, Hogs, etc. etc.” We have a Moby-Dick reading group on board, so several of us are deeply immersed in discussions of the multi-cultural nature of the oily enterprise.
More than a thousand whaleships from Massachusetts visited the Bay of Islands in the nineteenth century, and there is still potent evidence of the historical links between New England, where we started, and New Zealand, where we now find ourselves. The local museum in Russell has trypots and a whaleboat that came off Yankee ships. Students pursued projects there relating to environmental change as documented by texts and images of American whalemen; of cultural tourism at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds; of the adoption of Maori symbols for advertising; and the impacts of dolphin-watching cruises on local cetaceans.
We arrived at Wellington today, having come in early to avoid the increasing winds of Cook’s Strait, and have a number of student projects based here, including four that deal with collections at the Te Papa Museum. Two students will be asking local residents how they perceive the potential for earthquakes and volcanic activity in the region, and another is looking at turbines and wind farms in the southern hemisphere’s “Windy City.” Students are hard at work writing papers for a number of different courses. (One of the Oceanography projects will have two students removing the brains of small fishes while we are tied up in Wellington and the ship is not in motion!)
In addition to all the sailorly activities described in recent blog posts, we also have a lot of intellectual activity keeping us busy. The Robert C. Seamans has a collegial and productive group of scholars aboard, which I guess makes us a “scholar ship!”