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Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

The Unending Conquest of the S.S. Beaver: Steam Power and the Myth of the White Anglo-Saxon Nation in the Nineteenth-century Pacific Northwest
by Greenfield, Mary Catherine, Ph.D., Yale University, 2016, 335; 10160853
Abstract (Summary)

This work traces the development of the far Pacific Northwest Coast from fur trade to industrial capitalism. Concentrating on the trajectories of the first steamship in the North Pacific, the Hudson Bay Company's S.S. Beaver (1835-1888), allows the story to be told from what some consider the cultural margins. The ship's activities, however, show First Nations, Hawaiian sailors, Chinese immigrants, and diverse women to be central rather than peripheral to the modernization of the Northwest. Eventually white settlers arrived, many devoted to an ideology of white Anglo-Saxon nationalism. Indigenous people and nonwhite immigrants visibly contradicted Anglo-Saxon nationalists' unrealistic dream of racial purity. Industry and commerce increased the area's human diversity by employing non-white people from around the Pacific Rim. In response to this reality, white nationalists sought to control the physical distribution of non-white groups, create barriers between them in industrial spaces, and rearrange domestic spaces. Unable to create an all-white nation, white settlers controlled others as best they could, in a futile attempt to render them invisible, while attempting to create an Anglo-Saxon fantasy landscape in their own homes and neighborhoods.

The Beaver was a contact point where white ideals and multicultural reality collided. Over fifty years, its routes, missions, and interior space changed in ways that mirrored the alteration of ethnic geography, workplaces, and private homes. The Beaver's private backers promoted the ship as the symbol of an imagined British racial and cultural superiority. Yet as an agent of globalization, the ship inevitably increased domestic cultural complexity. Expansionists obscured this reality by doubling down on the trope of racial superiority, and by suggesting that trade via steam minimized racial interaction by virtue of being confined to small, segregated points. Inevitably, however, as the ship distributed immigrants and emigrants around the region, these points became cosmopolitan ports. White nationalists pushed back with an increasingly exclusionary legal system that created groups of vulnerable, semi-stateless people with limited recourse to the law. Simultaneously, the popular press decried the existence of a mobile, disenfranchised, non-white Pacific Rim workforce as the cause, rather than the victims, of structural economic inequalities. To quell domestic dissent, legal, spatial, and descriptive categories of race and class hardened further, and problematic groups were symbolically or actually contained and controlled; expelled or excluded; disenfranchised, segregated, and stigmatized. Manipulated and misdirected public rage led to attacks against the weakest members of the Pacific Rim economy. The first chapter describes the Pacific Northwest fur trade in the age of sail, stressing the frequently superior technology of the First Nations, their diversity, and their varied cultural practices. This sets the stage for the arrival of the first steamship in the North Pacific, the difficult adjustment whites had in making the leap from sail to steam, and the practical and psychological effects the steamer had on all Pacific Coast peoples. Eventually the fur trade gave way to the exploitation of raw resources on an industrial scale, and to white settlement backed by the U.S. and British governments. As the Beaver was a Hudson's Bay Company ship, the action here moves to the new international border and the nascent British colony on Vancouver Island. Fur traders, still in control of all commerce and government north of the border, were able to stall federal regulation and most white settlement until the Fraser River Gold Rush of 1857, which hastened the entry of British Columbia into the Canadian Confederation. The Beaver then became the flagship of a new civil order, serving to mete out discipline to rebellious tribes, intimidate potential white deserters, and assist in building industrial infrastructure at mines and saw mills. By 1864 a new elite ruled Vancouver Island and began seizing land and relocating First Nations. They also attempted to regulate city space to minimize the presence of thousands of indigenous people and non-white immigrants, and used moral reform efforts to dismantle traditional domestic living spaces.

The experience, resistance, and continued existence of those often seen as mere victims or footnotes in modernization take place on individual and collective levels. Strategies vary according to circumstance, rather than within stable, doctrinaire binaries. The manuscript builds on, confirms, and at times intervenes in scholarship on globalization, financial imperialism, state formation, state power, and state limits, while emphasizing the existence and importance of cultural diversity, historical specificity, economic complexity, and transnational activity within those larger systems. The conclusion suggests that certain nineteenth-century conflations and contradictions continue to warp thinking about Pacific peoples and our increasingly entangled economies and cultures.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Faragher, John Mack
School: Yale University
School Location: United States -- Connecticut
Source: DAI-A 78/01(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Canadian history, American history, World History, Native American studies
Keywords: Fur Trade, Material Culture, Pacific Coast Nations, Pacific Rim Economy, Steamships, Transnational History, First Nations, S. S. Beaver, Hudson Bay Company
Publication Number: 10160853
ISBN: 978-1-369-15748-2
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