Sunday, November 7, 2010

Film Review: Violence Against Pacific Nature: Into The Deep (2010) and Radio Bikini (1988)

It is 4:30 PM. It is dark out, and it is blustery and cold. Welcome to New York's long winter; it has begun, and it will not let up again until March or April. So now is a good time to hunker down in front of a laptop and watch movies about warm, sunny, breezy Pacific Islands on Netflix. Or so you might think. But imagine sitting there in the cold darkness of the New York night wishing for images of palm trees swaying gently with the ocean breeze, the sound of a ʻukulele strumming a melodious tune, and then - riiippppp - the sound of heavy blubber being stripped off the carcass of a 40-ton whale, and then the smell of rotting whale flesh and the stench of burning, boiling, bubbling whale oil wafting into your nostrils. Then imagine seeing a Pacific atoll's lagoon - BOOOOMMMMM!!!!!! - explode with unimaginable force, shooting water, sand, and radioactive matter scores of miles into the sky and out along the routes of the winds. And then imagine another island - a piece of land fixed, we might suppose, on the very surface of the Earth - now - BOOOOOOMMMMM!!!!! - completely wiped off the map, obliterated from all existence within the blink of an eye.

Those two last BOOOOMMMMs kept me up for hours thinking, and worrying, and they also engendered some pretty bad dreams for me through the restless sleep that followed. I did not think that I would ever write a blog about what I most fear about the Pacific - about how scary this region's history is - but I can't think of any other way to come to terms with this region's unique history of violence (and also to release these disturbing images from my head). In this blog post, I review two films that both concern America's distinctive role in perpetrating historic violence against Pacific nature. As an American, and as a historian, it behooves me to share these stories - not just to keep up with the "Halloween"-ish theme from last week's post about garbage, but to do justice to the hidden history of America's very un-Pacific (un-peaceful; violent) relationship with Pacific nature.

Into the Deep: America, Whaling, and the World (2010)

Ric Burns' newest American Experience/PBS documentary focuses on the history of American whaling activities from the 17th to the 20th century. The film's narrative is centered around a defining event in American whaling history: the 1820 sinking of the whaleship Essex of Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. What was so extraordinary about the Essex? Nothing at first. As the film explains, by the early nineteenth century Nantucket had become America's leading whaling port. The Essex was just one of many ships at the time that would leave Nantucket for years on end to hunt whales in the Pacific Ocean. The Essex was headed for the off-shore whaling grounds west of Peru/Chile, and east of the "savage" islands of the Marquesas. As we follow the Essex to the offshore whaling grounds, we meet some of the ship's crew, including a few teenage New England boys as well as at least six African-Americans sailors; all the other sailors were white Yankee men, as far as I could tell. The film only briefly mentioned the great diversity of the seamen who served on New England whaling ships. Burns could have done more to highlight the African-American experience, not to mention the tens of thousands of Polynesians who were employed by American whalers during the nineteenth century.

Anyway, if Into the Deep appears at first to be your standard heroic narrative about white American men conquering "dark" Pacific nature (signified and embodied by the whales themselves and the "Hades" from which they emerge) this mood changes abruptly even before we learn that the Essex is going to sink. First, Burns introduces us to the violence of whale hunting. When a whaling ship spotted its prey, only a handful of the ship's crew would row off in a small whaling boat to chase down the whale. These men knew the violence of the whale. They felt it swimming beside and perhaps underneath their tiny craft. They felt the pressure of its movement, the powerful force of its blowhole. They feared its large, wild tail that might crash down upon them at any moment. It is remarkable to consider the inequality of forces on this battlefield: a few small humans with a rowboat and a harpoon tied to a rope versus an 40-ton creature of the sea. Men were completely out of their element here, especially these inexperienced New Englanders. It would appear that the whales had the advantage.

Yet more often than not violence was perpetrated by humans against whales, not the other way around. The harpooner, immediately after throwing his javelin, looked for red water to emerge as a sign that he had punctured the creature's skin. Now the whale, with harpoon attached, would pull the rowboat across the ocean's water, trying to get away from his predators at speeds up to 20 miles per hour. At that point, there was nothing the humans could do but go along for the ride and wait - wait until the whale had tired herself out, until she had lost too much blood, until she was resigned to her death. The whaling men would then haul the whale back to the ship, using an elaborate network of cranes and pulleys to hoist pieces of the whale (apparently not the whole thing, though, which could be the same size as the ship itself!) onto the ship's deck. To do this, men sliced rectangles of blubber off the whale's outer body. These slices could be larger and heavier than a group of men standing together. And these slices smelled rotten; they smelled of death on a uniquely massive scale. What smelled even worse was the boiling of the blubber to extract the precious whale oil that would illuminate homes and streetlights back in New England.

Not only were whales used for burning oil, but spermaceti from the sperm whale's cranium was harvested and transformed into highly-valued candles; baleen from humpback and right whales was made into corsets for New England women's waists. Incredibly, you could not walk one block in any direction in Boston, or New York, not to mention in New Bedford or Nantucket, in the mid-nineteenth century, without encountering pieces of Pacific whales around you. Whales' bodies had, in effect, been transformed into the very stuff that the United States was made of. I don't think Burns went too far when, in Into the Deep, he likened the whaling ship to a factory and argued that whaling and whale products were essentially at the forefront of America's nineteenth-century industrial revolution. We do not normally consider nineteenth-century whaling as industrial, but I think Burns might be on to something here.

If whaling was a violent and nasty way to make candles, corsets, and a paradoxical way to make light out of darkness, - and if we have this great slaughter to thank for the development of factories, railroads, and the growth of the United States -, then it is also true that the system of labor that allowed for these transformations was no less violent: it entailed the creation of a wage-earning class of highly-exploited workers - Pacific Islanders, African-Americans, and New England farmboys - all of whom suffered from the extreme violence of the industry just as the whales did. This insight brings us back to the story of the whaleship Essex. In a singular event in America's violent confrontation with Pacific nature, the Essex suffered, and lost, in its battle against Pacific whales. As recounted in Into the Deep, the Essex's seamen were startled to see a whale raise its head up from below the surface of the ocean and look straight at them. Then, this whale began to swim full speed straight at their boat until - crashhhh!!!!! - the whale rammed its head against the ship. With a second ram that followed, the whale punctured the integrity of the boat and set it on its sinking course. The whalers aboard were flabbergasted that the whale - the "hunted" - had so deftly switched roles and made them - the "hunters" - its prey. Left with only a few rowboats, thousands of miles from "civilization" in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, one of the ship's mates, if I remember correctly, suggested that they row west to the Marquesas Islands where they could find ample food, water, and a place to wait for rescuers. But this suggestion was overruled based on the popular misconception that many whalers held that the Marquesas Islands were inhabited by a cannibalistic, "savage" people that would kill and eat them should they venture there. In fact, as Herman Melville would point out 25 years later in his debut novel Typee (1846), this conception of the Enata was just another American myth about the Pacific's dark side, a justification for violence rather than a description of actual violence.

And so the whaling men rowed south instead of west, hoping to reach easterly trade winds that would blow them, slowly, to Chile. When they reached Henderson Island (in the Pitcairn group) some of the men refused to go farther; they stayed on Henderson, living off of seabirds, fish, and who knows what else for over 100 days on this once inhabited, but now no longer peopled, island. The others rowed onwards towards Chile, but by the time they reached Valparaiso all six African-American sailors were dead as well as a number of other sailors and at least one of the young boys. Some of the bodies were dumped at sea, but a great number of them were eaten by the starving Essex survivors (it took the men in their row boats over 90 days to finally reach Chile). Those who survived told their story, and Herman Melville eventually picked up the story as well; it became his classic novel Moby Dick (1851). Here, in the story of the Essex, as well as in Moby Dick, was not the same-old standard tale of American heroism or of American conquest, but rather one of American hubris and American violence.

Today we might bemoan America's (and the world's) reliance on fossil fuels for energy, but the history of violence entangled within America's relationship with whales (and whale energy) should make us think twice about the 1859 discovery of petroleum in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Historians of oil might see 1859 as the beginning of an awful chapter in American exploitation of nature, but what a relief it was for the whales who finally became prohibitively expensive to chase down (and boil down) after this "cheap" oil was discovered.

Bombing the Hell out of Pacific Nature: Radio Bikini (1988)

A clip from Radio Bikini (1988)

So what happened to American violence against Pacific nature after the 1859 Drake oil strike? Commercially viable American whaling in the Pacific for the most part ended by the 1870s; in its place, American businessmen became more interested in the Pacific's terrestrial nature, especially plantations (sugar in Hawaiʻi, for example). But it is also true that the annexation of parts of Mexico (including California) in 1848 led to a new focus on the continental west; the 1869 completion of America's transcontinental railroad only further increased attention upon the exploitation of the continental west, thus leaving behind what John Whitehead has called America's old "maritime west." By the turn of the twentieth century, and the completion of the Spanish-American war (1898), American violence had resulted in the annexation of Hawaiʻi, East Samoa, Guam, the Philippines, and the U.S. was even making headway in carving out chunks of China for unrestricted U.S. economic development. But this was altogether a different kind of violence than that perpetrated against Pacific whales. So too was World War II a different kind of violence. With growing interest in the academy towards intersections between environmental history and war, I am sure that historians will soon begin to unravel the ways in which World War II involved extensive American violence against Pacific nature. But we at least still tell ourselves that wars such as WWII were about people, not nature. It was a war of "good" people versus "bad" people; nature only suffered as an innocent bystander.

I don't know much about twentieth-century Pacific history, but apparently World War II resulted in the loss of sovereignty for almost all Micronesian communities, as well as for other Pacific island nations both near and far from the central battles of the war. Depriving Japan of almost all its Pacific territory (which apparently had been awarded to Japan following World War I after the defeat of Germany who previously had controlled this territory - oh! what a headache the twentieth century must have been for Micronesian peoples!!), the United States stepped in as "trustee" of these island territories. So what would the U.S. do with their new Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands? Drop bombs on it, of course.

Map of the former U.S. Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (1947-1994). The Northern Mariana Islands became a U.S. commonwealth in 1978. The Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia both attained independence from the U.S. in 1986 (more precisely, they each signed compacts of free association with the United States). The Republic of Palau also signed a compact of free association with the U.S. in 1994. (Source: Wikipedia)

There are multitudes of books, articles, and videos about the U.S.'s Cold War-era nuclear weapon experiments in the Pacific Ocean, and I, as a non-expert, won't even try to summarize this long and controversial history. What I can say is that it seems that the United States dropped, in total, over a hundred (if not hundreds) of nuclear bombs on, below, and above Pacific islands and atolls for nearly two decades, from 1946 until the early-1960s. Robert Stone's film Radio Bikini (1988) tells the story of the very first of these experiments, 1946's Operation Crossroads. The film's title comes from the name of the radio station established in 1946 by the U.S. Navy on Pikinni (Bikini) Atoll in the North Pacific, part of the then-U.S. Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. Despite the fact that over a hundred Marshallese-speaking Pikinni Islanders inhabited the atoll, the location was chosen for the first-ever postwar experiments with nuclear weapons. The Pikinni Islanders were forcibly relocated multiple times by the U.S. government to "protect" them from radiation. To this day, Pikinni Island is uninhabitable, and its Islanders still live in exile.

Two nuclear bombs, the fourth and fifth ever detonated in world history, were exploded above and within Pikinni's lagoon as part of Operation Crossroads in 1946. The first bomb, "Able," was a disaster - no pun intended - from the U.S. government's point of view, not because it caused great destruction, but because it detonated hundreds of feet in the air above, and not-quite-aligned with, its intended target - the USS Nevada - lying in wait in Pikinni lagoon below. In fact, something like close to one hundred World War II-era ships, including aircraft carriers, were assembled in Pikinni lagoon to receive the effects of Able's blast. Can you imagine? The U.S. placed so many valuable ships in this distant lagoon to be destroyed by our own nuclear weapons. What a great use of taxpayer money!

July 1, 1946, Pikinni Atoll, Marshall Islands, U.S. Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. This photograph depicts the explosion of the fourth nuclear weapon ever detonated in world history, "Able." The bomb detonated hundreds of feet above sea level. (Source: Wikipedia)

As Radio Bikini shows, U.S. Navy seamen were allowed (or perhaps "forced" is the right word?) to return to the site of the nuclear blast within just hours, if not minutes, of the explosion. Why were some 40,000 navy personnel needed there in the first place? That remains unclear to me, and that mystery also seemingly provides fodder for those theorists out there who contend that the U.S. government intentionally placed the seamen in harm's way to assess the effects of radioactive exposure on their bodies.

The second bomb, "Baker," was even more remarkable. It was detonated underwater in Pikinni lagoon. "Baker" was well-captured in this photograph:

July 25, 1946, Pikinni Atoll, Marshall Islands, U.S. Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. The photograph depicts the detonation of the fifth nuclear weapon used in world history, "Baker." The bomb detonated underwater, shooting up into the sky what some historians have determined to be a hollow column of water, hundreds of feet high and wide. The dark mass on the right side of the column is somehow related to the USS Arkansas; whether it is the upended ship or rather the absence of water where the ship was, is unclear. Note the size of the surrounding ships in the lagoon versus the size of the exploding column of water, sand, and air. (Source: Wikipedia)

I could not sleep very well after watching Radio Bikini. This was partly because of the story told by one of the interviewees, a Navy seamen who was there at Operation Crossroads. It wasn't so much what he said about his experience that haunted me, but rather what his body said. His body was hideously crippled and deformed - due to exposure to radiation, or so he, and the film, contend. I also could not sleep because the film made me want to look up more information online afterwards, to fact-check against the film, to explore this strange history in even greater depth. I learned later that night while surfing the net that later bombs had even been detonated above Johnston Atoll (one of the "guano islands" that I am currently studying. Makes me think twice about going there for research someday.) Other tests had taken place over islands that are now part of the Republic of Kiribati. How does a now-sovereign nation like Kiribati deal with having radioactive fallout within their territory? For that matter, how does the Republic of the Marshall Islands deal with Pikinni Atoll? Their citizens still cannot move back there; there is, in fact, little the Marshall Islanders can do but wait forever for an earlier nature that will never come back to that place. Amazingly, Pikinni Atoll was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010 because of its unique contribution to world atomic history. Elsewhere, I've read about "atomic tourism," where people pay to visit the sites where bombs were detonated. All of this kept me up that night; all of it scared me.

And finally, I learned of how in 1952 the U.S. government exploded the entire island of Elugelab in the Marshall Islands out of existence. Where there once was an island, now there was nothing. Of course islands are just the peaks of underwater mountains, and so it is not as if the mountain of which Elugelab island was a part has totally disappeared. But still, what had once been "land" was now ocean. I found thinking about Elugelab, and the bomb, particularly troubling. But if you consider the threatened impacts of global warming on Pacific islands and atolls, perhaps we might need to get used to thinking about the perishability of islands...

Global climate change might represent yet the next phase in America's ongoing violence against Pacific nature: the United States and China are by far the largest polluters of greenhouse gases into Earth's atmosphere, and small islands and atolls (such as those across the Pacific) are at greatest risk of erosion and submergence due to projected changes in global sea level. Note that, according to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the U.S. is now putting money into "mitigating" climate change in the South Pacific. Unfortunately, mitigation is a strategy that only treats the symptoms of global warming, not the underlying causes, one of which is the U.S.'s consumption of fossil fuels. That takes us back to 1859 and to the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania. Perhaps what was good for the whales will be, in the end, a disaster for Islanders, not to mention how a rise in ocean temperature might affect the whales, too. So, what to make of all this violence? I don't know. If I did, I wouldn't be staying up all night thinking about it.


  1. Hi Greg:

    I just finished watching "Into the Deep." While I thought that it was interesting, I was kind of bummed by the conclusion. I wish that it remained more open ended, and went into how the changes in consumption patterns from the early 20th century helped to change the nature of the global whale "fishery."

    Whale oil might not have been used to light homes and lubricate textile looms, but it became more worked into our bodies through our mouths. Once companies like Unilever figured out how to remove the taste and smell from whale oil, companies were able remove the flavour through a hydrogenation process they could flavour the fat and the oils with other smells flavours. Up to fifty years ago, many margarine and soaps were made from whale oil. Yucky, eh?

    Anyway, thanks again for the post on the film. And it was interesting to watch how the producers nationalized the hunt.


  2. Hey Greg,

    You are a great writer and I enjoy reading your blog. I live in Hawaii currently. Hope you keep writing.


  3. Hi Kelly,

    Thank you for your kind words. I see that you have moved to Oahu recently and it looks like you might be starting up your own blog! Congrats! Blogging is lots of fun, and the most worthwhile part, in my opinion, is how each blog connects its author with so many different readers from all over the world.

    I am so happy that you have found my blog, and I hope you continue to enjoy reading it.