Mark Twain: “Following the Equator” Chapters 1–40: The Pacific

“In Captain Cook’s time (1778), the native population of the islands was estimated at 400,000; in 1836 at something short of 200,000, in 1866 at 50,000; it is to-day, per census, 25,000. All intelligent people praise Kamehameha I and Liholiho for conferring upon their people the great boon of civilization. I would do it myself, but my intelligence is out of repair, now, from over-work.” (443)

The last of Mark Twain’s great travel narratives, Following the Equator, was published in 1897. It is also his last major book published during his lifetime. It shows the same growing pessimism about civilization that we see in much of Twain’s later writing. It is certainly the most critical of the travel narratives. While the previous narratives tended to make fun of the tourist or “the tramp abroad,” Following the Equator is an important attack on a world system driven by greed and exploitation. It is also one of the most important anti-imperialist documents of the turn of the twentieth century. The book documents Twain’s 1895–1896 lecture tour across the Pacific, Australia, India, and Africa. It is a lecture tour through the zones of nineteenth century empire building. The result is a work that hits most of the major points of contemporary scholarship on empire.


It is not a bleak, ponderous text. It maintains much of the lively musings that made Twain’s earlier travelogues so enjoyable, but these are less frequent and are marginal to his larger goal: the exposure of the exploitation of people at the heart of empire. Like the declining population of Hawai’i shows, the rise of Europe accompanied a massive death toll. Intra-European wars of the twentieth century may have maximized the technological capacity to kill, but in many ways the cost in lives of the nineteenth century was just as great. (See Mike Davis’ Late Victorian Holocausts to see how empire devastated traditional famine relief structures leading to tens of millions of deaths.)

Twain is aware of the role unfree labor migration played in empire, both the expulsion of excess populations of criminals and the economically excessive to the colonies and the migrations of semi-forced labor to work the plantations and the ships. Twain includes hard numbers on the wages, the costs of contract labor, and the profits of sugar plantations to quantify the extent of exploitation.  It is summed up: “It is easy to understand why the Queensland sugar planter should want the Kanaka recruit: he is cheap.” (463) The labor migrations caused by the growth of plantation in the Pacific had a deep history in the transportation of working class convicts.


Another observation Twain made that was new at the time but would not surprise any historian today is the important role of the missionary in empire building in the Pacific. He exposes the missionaries as an adjunct of the capitalist exploitation of the Pacific, benefiting—like capitalists—from the openness forced on the Pacific by capitalists. They worked to enforce class discipline, bringing just enough education to prepare worker for the needs of the capitalist class, and, most dangerously, advertised the idea the European civilization has something to offer outside of terror and exploitation.

And money.

And money.

Finally, for Twain, the global system created by empire is profoundly unstable. A rather funny anecdote suggests this disorder. It is about a child who was born just as the ship was crossing the International Date Line. This child will grow up never knowing its birthday (there was debate whether it was on a Sunday or a Tuesday). This is a problem that is only possible in a world force together through incredible powers. There are many other examples of this type of disorder—cultural and economic—in this book. “The child will never know its own birthday. It will always be choosing first one and then the other, and will never be able to make up its mind permanently. This will breed vacillation and uncertainty in its opinions about religion, and politics, and business, and sweet-hearts, and everything, and will undermine its principles, and rot them away, and make the poor thing characterless, and its success in life impossible.” (457)

Through his tour of the Pacific, Twain was able to reflect on the history of global capitalism in the Pacific, intertwining as it did with empire, and revealed its most vicious consequences. By just travelling through the empires and honestly describing social realities, Twain produced one of the most important political critiques of his era.



Richard Henry Dana, “Journal of a Voyage, 1859-1860”

Richard Henry Dana’s journal of his 1859—1860 voyage around the world was not published until 1968, at a time when interest in the American empire was at a height due to the growing military escalation in Vietnam and the strengthening movement against the war—and by extension the U.S. Empire. Although I doubt it played much of a role in that discussion, I think it is worthy to point out because Dana’s journal suggests an emerging American empire, but it was not published until that empire reached its mid-twentieth-century crisis.

Most striking in the narrative are the many detailed descriptions of port cities and port life the American Pacific that he helped build during his youth (documented in Two Years Before the Mast). He visited California, Hawaii, Canton, Shanghai, and ports in Japan. Most of the journal examines these places. It is important to point out that Dana did not have a plan to publish this journal and it lacks much analysis of what he was observing. Yet we can makes some important observations about empire in the Pacific through this document.

Canton during Dana's visit

Canton during Dana’s visit

First, it is clear that all the locations that Dana visited were heavily integrated politically and economically for the purpose of commercial capitalism. Dana’s description Hawaii suggests the union of the political elite with foreign commercial interests and institutional systems of control. The king is admired by the foreign merchant community. Honolulu has a “Seamen’s House”, schools, churches, other institutions of ideological control. Canton was busy with commercial activity (“What a hive of industry is a Chinese town! . . . “Coolie, is the name given to the mere manual laborers in the open air,—the porters, errand runners, hod carrrier.”) It seems that from Dana’s perspective everything was moving smoothly and he was consistently impressed with the commercial vibrancy of these port cities in the Pacific.

Shanghai during Dana's visit

Shanghai during Dana’s visit

Another view of Shanghai

Another view of Shanghai

Second, we find that Dana—as a beneficiary of U.S. empire—has significant mobility and faced few restrictions to his mobility. We are reminded of Zygmunt Bauman’s argument in Globalization: The Human Consequences that global capitalism turned everyone into movers but those movers were of two types: vagabonds and tourists. Tourists had money, a “good” passport, and the direct backing of an imperial power. Vagabonds consisted of dock workers, sailors, economic refugees, political exiles and others who move because they must. The Pacific ports that Dana visited had both, even though he was clearly a tourist.

Third, (and this is connected to the first point) the port cities were becoming more Western looking due to the presence of institutions of empire. Dana felt most comfortable describing and engaging with these. Perhaps this is a good way to identify imperialism. If you go to a distant land and feel immediately at home, you might be from an imperial nation.

Although Dana spent most of his time navigating among the networks of elite and imperial power in the Pacific (he could hardly do otherwise as the empire was becoming hegemonic by the 1850s), he was a fair-minded observer who spent much of his time detailing the presence of working class people, their labors, and their stunning diversity. Every port had a diverse and international working class that again reminds us of his time on the Pilgrim. Empire may have made things smooth for the imperialists, but it brought in plenty of others for the labor of empire. Sailors, coolies, dock workers, and laborers of all types from China, India, and the West populated the ports. At one point Dana even visited the prostitutes of Canton on the “famous Flower Boats.” He smoked opium, observed some of the entertainment and lasted after only 15 minutes. It is to his credit that Dana seemed eager to understand these port cities from both sides of the class divide, even if he could never really escape his colonial privilege.
This is a good document to keep handy for those who want to study the role of class and power in the emergence of the Western empires in the Pacific. Perhaps a bit more research should be done on the relationship between these mid-century tours and the working class experience of empire. Throughout his career, Richard Henry Dana sustained sympathies and curiosity about working class cultures and work place experiences. To his credit, thirty years as a lawyer did not destroy such attitudes entirely.

A Japanese delegation in Hawaii. Was Hawaii always a meeting ground for the Japanese and U.S. empires?

A Japanese delegation in Hawaii. Was Hawaii always a meeting ground for the Japanese and U.S. empires?

Richard Henry Dana, “Two Years Before the Mast” Conclusion

The final sections of Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana take us back to sea after a long hiatus on the diverse and changing California coast, where he and the crew of the Pilgrim engaged in the arduous labor of preparing hides. We saw in those sections the origins, perhaps, of global capitalism in California—a region that would help lay the foundation for America’s Pacific empire. In the last chapters, Dana takes a closer look at sailor culture, particularly the role of sailor songs. The class war (rooted in the hierarchical organization and absolute authority of ship masters), described so impressively in the early chapters, remains as well.  It is also notable that Dana shifted to another ship for the return voyage (the Alert). This shows us that the experiences he had on the Pilgrim were not unique but rather representative of life on the American merchant ship in the “age of sail.”


Dana concludes his work with a list of recommendations for the reform of sailor’s life. While he had his problems with hierarchical domination on the ship, he was not in favor of overturning the system entirely. Perhaps he was not on the ship long enough to understand that sailors are perfectly capable of self-rule (18th century piracy suggests this). Instead of being a revolutionary document, the final chapter is more suggestive of the antebellum social and moral reform movements that touched so many areas of American society.

He begins with the romantic image of the sea and suggests freedom is a better way to provide the maritime workforce than slavery. “There is a witchery in the sea, its songs and stories, and in the mere sight of a ship, and the sailor’s dress, especially to a young mind, which has done more to man navies, and fill merchantmen, than all the pressgangs of Europe.” (347) This romanticism is juxtaposed to the tyranny and violence inflicted on that volunteer workforce. (Perhaps not unlike the academic workforce.  We get drawn in by the romance when we are young and by the time we are my age we realize how vile the institutions we once loved are.)  He falls short on advocating democracy as a solution.  The sea, Dana suggests, is not the proper place for democratic values to be lived.  “It is absolutely necessary that there should be one head and one voice, to control everything, and be responsible for everything.” (348) That he would not say this for a nation, I have no doubt.  The sea is a unique place and any interference with resource distribution or the authority of a master might be troublesome in the future. At the same time, he provides evidence that captains and masters often go too far. They act better when passengers are on the ship. Depositions by sailors document abuse after abuse. If a ship works fine with censored and restrained authority when passengers are on board, why not when the captains are free from such surveillance?

Another problem he mentions with authority is perhaps at first glance a contradiction.  The captains tend to come from the forecastle and have poor backgrounds but have been placed in a position as representatives and agents of the elite.  They are akin to our era’s middle management (but instead of pink slips and HR departments they had a lash).

His essential solution to these difficulties is a greater fairness in law.  Dana—who became a lawyer for seamen—sees ultimately a statist solution to the lawlessness of the sea.

In this final chapter, Dana also discusses at length the civilian efforts to improve the lives of sailors such as the Sailors’ Homes, the Bethals, and the American Seamen’s Friend Society.  Dana lavishes praise on these institutions for their work in creating solid institutions of support and religious instruction. He is convinced that sailors are religious and find in the Bible support and meaning for their life, but that the social conditions of maritime work make it impossible for them to live a religious life, making the Bethals essential. He hopes that more religious captains will help.

In short, after documenting the intense solidarity among sailors at sea, their capacity to run the ship, their knowledge, their culture and their common struggles, as well as the brutality of the authority of the ship masters, proposes a series of reforms that miss the revolutionary potential of democracy at the sea.  The reason why this has not been achieved, it seems to me, is that the seas are not the place where people establish themselves to live. Its exploration and exploitation have largely – but not entirely – been done in the interests of capital. The workplace and the economy is the last place that tends to be democratic for it is at this location that our concept of freedom is most confused. As so-called libertarians (the anarcho-capitalist stypes) seem to think, property and the defense of it in law cannot be a tool of oppression and force. Clearly, history proves this false. As long as our seas are the realm of capital, work, and exploitation of natural resources and people, it will be hostile to democracy.
This edition of Two Years Before the Mast also includes an appendix called “Twenty-Four Years Later,” which comes from his 1859-1860 tour of the world.  I will examine his diary of this in a few days as it is included in the Library of America volume, but a few words on its place as part of the book is warranted.  His main interest in exploring the old places he worked at in California.  He even meets some of his old acquaintances (who must have each endured some fame from their inclusion in the popular work). Most striking to Dana is the rapid development of San Francisco, from a small fort into a major Pacific city, looking outward as an entry point for the American empire.

San Francisco, in 1860, looking out on the American empire

San Francisco, in 1860, looking out on the American empire

Herman Melville, “Typee” Part One


Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life evolved from Herman Melville’s experiences in 1841 and 1842 in the South Seas.  It is semi-autobiographical.  This work began the literary career of who I see as the greatest American artist.  If I cannot locate the blogs themes in the work of Melville, I expect I could wrap up this blog as a failure.  While waiting in detention in Ellis Island, C. L. R. James wrote: “What Melville did was to place within the covers of one book [Moby Dick] a presentation of a whole civilization so that any ordinary human being today can read it in a few days and grasp the essentials of the world he lived in.  To do this a man must contain within his single self, at one and the same time, the whole history of the past, the most significant experiences of the world around him, and a clear vision of the future.  Of all this he creates an ordered whole.  No philosopher, statesman, scientist or soldier exceeds him in creative effort.” (James, Mariners, Renegades and Castaways, 115)


I will work through Melville’s work with a degree of humility and patience, both to the master and the many dozens of scholars who understand his words better than me.  I will, of course, focus my energies on what Melville has to say about freedom, empire, community, solidarity, progress, the environment, democracy and other questions of interest in anarchists.

Typee tells the story of sailor deserting from his ship with a friend, his struggle for survival on the island, his discovery of a native community (which he feared was the “cannibal” Typee), the society, culture, economy, and politics of the people he met, and his return to European and American “civilization” represented by the ship.  It parallels, broadly, experiences Melville himself went through while on a whaling voyage.


To start, the ship is Tommo’s (the narrator is named Tom but identified as Tommo by the Typee) connection to the West.  It has a degree of security and comfort for him.  Despite choosing to flee the ship, for a long time he remained fearful of the “cannibal” Typee.  He remains anxious throughout his time with the Typee.  This anxiety was symbolized in his aching leg, which seemed to heal as he got closer to assimilation and pained him during his bouts with anxiety and fear.  The ship reflected a world of inequality and want.  “We left both law and equity on the other side of the Cape; and unfortunately, with a very few exceptions, our crew was composed of a parcel of dastardly and mean-spirited wretches, divided among themselves, and only united in enduring without resistance the unmitigated tyranny of the captain.” (31)  Stories of whaling ships remaining in the Pacific for years despite low provisions helped convince Tom to flee with his companion Toby.

The ship is also a zone for the imperial domination of the Pacific islands, a theme Melville often returns to.  He was critical of French imperialism in the Pacific, with the degradation of the lives of islanders, and the tendency of Europeans and Americans to paint themselves as civilized and the Islanders as “savages.”  The ship, was the initial hammer of empire.  Much of the early part of the book engages these themes of desperation and want on the ship and the colonial conquest.  When discussing the arrival of women to the ship, he critiqued the tendency of Westerners to take advantage of their innocence.  “The grossest licentiousness and the most shameful inebriety prevailed, with occasional and but short-lived interruptions.  . . . Unsophisticated and confiding, they are easily led into every vice, and humanity weeps over the ruin thus remorselessly inflicted upon them by their Europeans civilizers.” (25)  Now, I tend to think that this over-emphasizes the naivety of Pacific island women, it does suggest the hypocrisy of empire – the bringing of “civilization” covering up the use of violence, manipulation, or corruption.  Melville reserves his harshest critiques of the French, who he describes as “insolent” and “arrogant.”  He also praised at times the ability of the Typee to resist full domination by the French.

The entire narrative is just one of many examples in the American tradition of people choosing to escape European and American settler colonialism for the relative equality and freedom of “hidden places.”  Starting with one of the first colonies in North America at Roanoke, people have fled capitalism, monarchical hierarchies, and slavery. Some joined Indian tribes.  Slaves fled and formed the “maroon communities.”  Sailors fled in other ways.  By fleeing at the right moment they could await the arrival of new ships to sign on with.  These ships may be on the way home, better provisioned, or just have a new captain.  Many sailors fled simply to escape personal conflicts with officers.  Armed resistance and mutiny were only a last resort.  It seems to me one explanation for the lack of armed resistance to capitalism in American history is that so many people found alternative ways to resist, often by opting out.  This is what Melville did and it is what he has Tom and Toby attempt.  Better to be free and starving and on the run from cannibals than to be degraded into submission by the authoritarian structure of the whaling ship.

Is “opting out” still an option for us.  We lack the wild places to flee too, but there are other ways people continue to opt out of the system.  Maybe many of these options are inauthentic.  Someone can drop out of school but still take a job at Wal-mart.  But remember, Melville was not fully authentic either.  He got his one month of peace from the whaling ship before returning.  (He gives Tom four months in the novel.)  In the same way, slaves who ran away often had to return after a brief respite.  True escape was difficult then and impossible now.  I suggest we not dwell on purity and focus on the power of “opting out” by cultivating options for people looking for escape  from the state and capital, the moral law and religion.  Maybe the Temporary Autonomous Zone is all we can ask for.

In Chapter 17, Melville makes his most full critique of the concept of civilization.  He does this by harnessing different values.  Certainly, Melville was romanticizing the Pacific islanders a bit, but I reckon the broad strokes are correct.  The Typee were more free and more happy than the Westerners.  “In this secluded abode of happiness there were no cross old women, no cruel step-dames, no withered spinsters, no lovesick maidens, no sour old bachelors, no inattentive husbands, no melancholy young men, no blubbering youngsters and no squalling brats.  All was mirth, fun, and high good humor.” (151-152)  Much of this happiness evolved from their post-scarcity situation.  Work was limited and breadfruit readily available.  For a sailor like Melville, this must have been a strong contrast to the daily violence and drudgery of work on the sailing ship.

This has a strong parallel with Denis Diderot’s “Supplement au voyage de Bougainville.”  The Bougainville voyages of the later 18th century, explored the South Seas for the French and led to encounters with Tahiti.  In his “Supplement” Diderot fictionalized this encounter between a Christian and a Taihitian man.  The Christian initially offended the man by refusing to sleep with his daughter.  The discussion that follows from this is a perfect example of the proper way to deal with cultural differences.  In simple language, both men express the reasons for their belief, but for the reader, the Taihitian cannot but look the more mature and wise.  That he argued for the anathema (for Europeans) of non-monogamy, makes the clarity and persuasiveness of his position all the more striking.   His argument rests on the hypocrisy of a civilization based on control, institutional order, unchanging rules, and inflexible customs running contrary to human nature is more oppressive than a civilization based on our natural freedoms and desires.