French Polynesia

The Geography of the Whale Ship Essex in Google Earth

This week’s presentation is an illustration of the ill-fated voyage of the Whale Ship Essex, the real life whaling voyage that inspired Moby Dick, in Google Earth Tour mode.


To view the tour, the companion to this article, first download Google Earth, then download this file.

The story of the Whale Ship Essex begins in Nantucket Harbor, 1819. Under the direction of Captain Pollard and First Mate Owen Chase, 19 other sailors embark on a two year journey in search of riches through the Azores, Cape Verde, and around Cape Horn to the great Pacific whaling seas.

The sailors then proceed to harvest an innumerable quantity of now endangered species.

In perhaps nature’s cruelest and most ironic twist of fate, 3500 miles west from coast of South America, the Essex is struck twice at full speed in the bow by an enraged Sperm Whale. With all hands out, harpooning the whale’s kin in a shoal, the sailors can only rush back to salvage what little they can from the sinking the vessel, to begin their struggle for survival on the open ocean.

The sailors are forced to the extremes of human persistence: cannibalism, delirium, storms, drinking their own urine, ennui, sickness, hunger, thirst, disease and distrust, as they float towards the hope of survival.

Luckily for historians, there is an excellent account available, penned by the voyage’s first mate Owen Chase. While some of the truths of the encounter may be concealed or embellished in this account, Chase’s account of human suffering in the Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, rates as one of the most colorful maratime histories ever penned.

With these tortures considered, this GeoCurrent’s post highlights the mistakes in Geography made by the sailors on the essex, while outlining the major milestones in their journey from Nantucket to the open ocean, and back.

Even if Cannibalism and Whaling aren’t quite appealing to your tastes, its worth knowing what’s become of the Society Islands and Sandwich Islands. The sailors neither knew where they were at the time, and thought the islands were full of cannibals. A stern Geography lesson would have had them steering with the wind for Tahiti. The mistake forced them down a 95 day, 3500 mile long path towards cannibalism.

The sailors also flunked their Geography Bee, mistaking Ducie Island from Henderson Island, but, er… everybody makes that mistake. These two islands play a smaller role in todays world scene, as the sailors from the Mutiny on the Bounty are no longer taking refuge, ceding the spotlight in the 21st century, to Pitcarin Island, home of the world’s smallest democracy.


Bon Voyage.

(First mate owen chase wants you to learn Pacific Geography

And to Stop Whaling. Yes. You, Japan)

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The Republic of Hau Pakumoto?


The globe-spanning European empires of the 1800s were essentially dismantled in the decades following World War II, with one important exception. In the maritime realm, empire lingers in the form of continuing colonial control over small oceanic islands, some inhabited, others not. If one includes the 200 nautical-mile exclusive economic zones that sovereign states control around their island holdings, such oceanic “empires” cover a substantial portion of the earth’s surface. As the map reproduced above shows, France’s maritime sphere is vast and far-flung, giving France a truly global reach.

France governs its various insular and oceanic territories in different ways. Some of its islands (Reunion, Guadeloupe, and Martinique) are integral units of the country, as much parts of France as Hawaii is part of the United States. Most others are organized as “overseas collectivities,” ruled in a more colonial manner. The sizable and resource-rich island of New Caledonia, however, is classified as a “sui generis collectivity”; its ties to France are structured in a unique and particularly complex manner.

While France undoubtedly exploited its colonial domains, today its vestiges of empire are more consistently subsidized. Such revenue flows, however, do not prevent chafing against the existing regime. Independence movements and other organized forms of resistance are found in most of the inhabited islands ruled by France, even Corsica. In February 2009, protests in Guadeloupe and Martinique turned deadly, forcing Paris to send in police reinforcements. Focused mostly at the high cost of living, the protests also targeted the domination of local economies by metropolitan elements.

French Polynesia, a vast oceanic expanse containing some 264,000 inhabitants, has also given France major headaches in recent years. Since 2004, this “overseas collectivity” has experienced nine changes in government, prompting Nicholas Sarkozy to describe the situation as “comical.” Pro-independence and pro-France local politicians struggle against each other, but then often join forces to direct subsidies to their own islands. Denunciations of Chinese merchants, followed by denunciations of such denunciations, are another stable feature of French Polynesian politics. As instability has increased, Paris has looked for possible reforms. In January 2010, Sarkozy proposed revamping the colony’s electoral system, but received little local support.

As is true in the French Caribbean, much of the popular discontent in French Polynesia stems from the high cost of living. Such tensions reached a climax on January 19, 2010, when opposition leaders on the island of Moorea – a favored tourist destination – publically seceded from France and French Polynesia, declaring that henceforth Moorea should be regarded as the independent republic of Hau Pakumoto. Although the announcement appears to have been largely a publicity stunt, French officials took it seriously, seizing funds and illegally issued identity cards. According to the Vancouver Sun, the minister of international affairs of the new “republic” claimed that more then 50,000 people support independence, a suspiciously high number considering the fact that Moorea’s population is only about 16,000.

 

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