What does “transoceanic” mean?

With this blogpost, I would like to discuss and introduce the term “transoceanic”, which is also the name of this research blog. Four years ago, at 11th May 2018, the two scholars Juliane Braun and Benjamin Fagan gave an interview to the TRAFO research blog “Blog for Transregional Studies”. This interview was part of a larger TRAFO series “Emerging Topics. Insights from ‘Behind the Scenes’.

In this interview, they put the attention on the Conference “Transoceanic American Studies”, which would take place a week later at 18th May 2018 at the German Historical Institute Washington. They explained the concept of a transoceanic approach and highlight the differences between Atlantic and Pacific studies. While Atlantic studies are rather interested in discovering “connections between the lands and peoples that exist on that ocean’s rim”, Pacific studies tend to focus “upon the island communities scattered throughout that ocean”. In doing so, they observed, Pacific historians put more efforts into “recovering the experiences of the ocean’s indigenous communities”, instead of just emphasizing on “the people who traveled, willingly and in chains” between the continents, as Atlantic historians typically do.

The term transoceanic is insofar interesting as it understands the Oceans as a means of “creation of connections between different lands, peoples, and products”, and not a barrier. “Seafarers”, they remind, “thought of the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans as ‘knit together’ because they had to traverse all of them to get to” their destination.

Putting these considerations into my research project comes along with several consequences. Firstly, this understanding of the Ocean can be surely observed in the whaling industry too. As soon as the whale populations in the Atlantic Ocean diminished in the 18th and 19th century, it was and became common and custom for whaling ships, which started in New England or London, to cross the Atlantic from Cape Hope through the Indian Ocean, or via Cape Horn in order to reach the whaling grounds of the Pacific Ocean, and to sail back. For them, the oceanic currents and patterns formed their regularly ‘way for work’.

At the same time, such connections led to the circulation of ideas, commodities, peoples and experiences. Including the experiences and understanding the perspectives of Indigenous communities means, to follow their path and patterns as well. There a plenty of examples, which clearly contradict the notion of only one-sided developments.

Tahitians went to Aotearoa/New Zealand, Māori individuals arrived in Atlantic ports such as London or Nantucket. Missionaries, on their way from London to the Bay of Islands, talk of (and pick up) stranded Māori persons on the Islands of Madeira. Whaling Captains, who pick up ruling families of the Hawaiian Islands and, on their way back to London, took a stopover in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where the Hawaiian rulers come to meet the local rulers of Rio. Whalers, with Native American background, arrive in Aotearoa/New Zealand, and were considered as Pakeha (white settlers). Brazilian seailors, who run away at Kororareka during a stopover of American whaling ships. These are just a few examples, which can be used as an example in the early 19th century.

Madeleine Miller from the GHI Washington had summarized the conference “Transoceanic American Studies“, which took place 2018 in Washington.1

  1. Miller, Madeleine: Transoceanic American Studies, in: GHI Washington, 2018, https://www.ghi-dc.org/events/event/date/transoceanic-american-studies-17-05-2018, [Last Access: 18.05.2022]. []

Transoceanic Voyages

Throughout the 19th century, whale oil was a natural resource that was in high demand as both a lubricant and a means of illumination for the growing cities of the Atlantic World. One can even say: It fuelled the Industrial Revolution in this period. After having exhausted whale populations in the Atlantic, whaling ships from both London and New England ports ventured from the 1790s onwards into the Pacific.

Such transoceanic whaling voyages, which could last up to four years, required regular stops for provisions and supplies at ports and islands. During their stopovers, members of whaling ships came in touch with local communities, traded not only guns and goods, but also employed Indigenous peoples on various islands in the Pacific Ocean. As such, these transoceanic whaling voyages put “thousands of people from around the world on the move”1 and “provided mobility and travel, which facilitated a kind of freedom that was not [always] present on land”2. The whaling ventures departed from Atlantic ports followed the whale migration patterns as far as the Pacific in order to fulfil “the [growing] demands of a vast network of consumers”3 for its oil.

My dissertation project shows on the example of the Swain and Starbuck families how Quaker whalers constituted an interaction space with Native American, African and African American individuals already in the Atlantic. Having these backgrounds in mind, I argue that these families had already formed a specific interaction space in the Atlantic, when they reached the Pacific from 1790 onwards. I aim to reconstruct these multiple socioeconomic relationships of these global interactions between whalers and Māori Iwi between 1790 and 1840.

This research blog shall give my dissertation project a (digital) audience and allow me to discuss specific topics and aspects, to introduce research details, key publications, and accompany me in the academic journey on a regular base.

  1. Wanhalla, Angela (2013): Matters of the Heart. A History of Interracial Marriage in New Zealand. Auckland: Auckland University Press, p. 7 []
  2. Russell, Lynette (2012): Roving Mariners. Australian aboriginal whalers and sealers in the southern oceans, 1790-1870. New York: State University of New York Press, p. 97 []
  3. Shoemaker, Nancy (2014): Living with whales. Documents and oral histories of Native New England whaling history. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, p. 4 []
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