Asia and the Pacific

European Exploration and Mapping Southeast Asia

With traditional overland routes between Asia and European commanded by the Ottoman Turks, the appetite for trade, wealth, and power drove Spaniards and Portuguese, and later Britons and the Dutch, over water toward the fabulous markets and precious goods of the Orient.  Europeans’ progress was paced by and reflected in their development of maps and charts, some of great beauty, during the Age of Exploration that illustrated growing knowledge of how to sail there and back home.

Amelia Earhart

The search for the missing aviatrix, lost somewhere in the islands of the South Pacific while piloting her Lockheed “Electra” aircraft around the world, continues apace today.  The quest for the site of her disaster and disappearance, and the solution to the mystery about what happened to the bold and beautiful woman and her hard-drinking navigator Fred Noonan on July 3, 1937, still attract a level of interest seen before only in the search for Sir John Franklin’s Royal Navy expedition, lost with all hands in the Canadian Arctic in 1848.

Bligh and the HMS Bounty

The mutiny on board His Majesty’s transport Bounty in April 1789 ended with Captain Bligh and 18 loyal crewmen adrift in the ship’s launch with five days rations.  Their 48 day 3,600 mile voyage across open water is history’s greatest warm water survival story.

French Indochina and the Battle of Dien Bien Phu

France emerged from defeat and occupation in World War II determined to reestablish not only its central role in Europe, but also its empire in Africa and Southeast Asia.  In Indochina that ambition foundered and failed at Dien Bien Phu, a small, remote valley near the border between Laos and Vietnam.  The desperate battle between Ho Chi Minh’s troops and French regulars, foreign legionaries, and native levees was one of history’s most decisive military engagements, triggering the beginning of the end of an era of colonization.

The United States and Vietnam

The Cold War shaped America’s understanding of events in Asia and Africa during the last half of the 20th century, just as it did of events in Eastern Europe along the Iron Curtain.  Believing that dominoes would fall across Southeast Asia if the US failed to stop North Vietnam’s thrust south, Americans and their allies fought Hanoi’s regulars and the Viet Cong in a distant war that found its domestic reflection in unprecedented controversy and unrest, only now very slowly receding into history and memory.

Singapore in Peace and War

The stunning failure of the defenses of “Fortress Singapore” during the first months of World War II in the Pacific signaled the collapse of the allied position in Indochina and the Malay Peninsula.  It also seemingly locked into place Tokyo’s “Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere,” a resource-rich empire spanning East Asia and the vast spaces of the Western Pacific that seemingly resembled an eastern, maritime counterpart to Berlin’s ambitions in Europe.  The mid-20thcentury history of Singapore’s, fall, occupation, and relief is a fascinating part of the story behind this city-state’s remarkable role in Asia today.

 The Indian Ocean Cruises of Admiral Zheng He

Zheng He’s astonishing seven cruises between 1405 and 1433 through the Western Pacific and across the Indian Ocean marked the surprise beginning and sudden end of Ming China’s status as a great naval power.  Carrying treasure and returning with tribute for the emperor, the admiral’s huge fleets were not rivaled either in ship numbers, size, or crew strength until the modern era.

 Empires in Collision: the Russo-Japanese War, the Neglected First Great War of the 20th Century

Japan’s destruction in 1904-05 of Tsar Nicholas II’s army and navy in the Pacific  and the ensuing peace treaty negotiated by President Teddy Roosevelt at Portsmouth signaled great changes in the balance of power in Asia: the impending collapse of the Russian Empire in the Great War, and the sudden rise of Japan to forty years of great power status. This shattering first defeat of Europeans by Asians also encouraged colonial independence movements everywhere, further shaping the history of the coming century.

Rudyard Kipling, the Bard of Empire and Nobel Laureate

Now remembered chiefly as the author behind Hollywood’s “Kim” and of several beloved “Jungle Book” animations, between 1886 and his death in 1936 Bombay-born Kipling was the author of dozens of popular poems, short stories, and books, many of which glorified the British Empire and its long-suffering soldiers deployed to the colonies to bear “the White Man’s burden.”  His work (for which he received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1907) provides a picturesque insight into the British Empire at its vigorous peak.

In Harm’s Way

Out of Tinian on July 28, 1945, after a secret mission to deliver atom bomb parts for the attack on Hiroshima, the cruiser U.S.S. Indianapolis (CA-35) was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine two days later and swiftly sank.  Only a quarter of her crew survived the sinking and the ordeal of days in shark-infested waters (colorfully described by “Quint,” Robert Shaw, in the 1970 movie “Jaws”) to be rescued on August 3.  The surprise discovery last August of Indianapolis’ wreckage, on the bottom below 18,000 feet in the Pacific between Guam and Leyte, has pushed one of World War II’s most dramatic stories back into the news.

The Cook Expeditions

​Magellan introduced the Pacific Ocean to Europe, but the three Pacific expeditions of the brilliant British explorer, navigator, and marine surveyor Captain James Cook, RN, between 1768-1779 explored and charted much this vast ocean (larger than all the land masses on earth together) and opened it to European exploitation.  Cook’s murder by Hawaiian islanders in 1779 ended his life but made permanent his legacy.

Expedition of Jean-Françoise de Galaup, Comte de la Pérouse

After a superb career at sea as a junior naval officer during the colonial wars of the late 18th century, the Comte de la Pérouse led two French Navy ships on an around the world scientific expedition.  Both ships and all hands vanished mysteriously in 1788, soon after departing the new British prison colony in Australia to continue their mission in the islands of Oceania.  Their wreck site was discovered forty years later on tiny Vanikoro island, and has been extensively explored in this century, adding to La Pérouse’s own excellent documentation of his adventures.

The U.S. Navy’s Ex. Ex. Expedition

Between 1838-42 six ships of the young U.S. Navy’s enormously ambitious “Exploring Expedition” sailed 87,000 miles over the oceans of the world, surveying and collecting geographic knowledge and scientific specimens while showing the American flag in distant and unlikely places.  (Four of the six ships and all but 28 of the 346 men on board made it home.)  The “Ex. Ex.’s” superb artifact and specimen collections eventually formed the basis of the early Smithsonian Museum.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson, the brilliant Scottish-born author who wrote Treasure Island (1883), Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde (both in 1886) among other much-admired classics, spent the last six years of his short life (1850-1894) living on Samoa and visiting the Pacific Islands around which we’ll be sailing.  His life, works, and death are a fascinating small piece of Pacific history.

The Spanish American War

The war at the end of the 19th century signaled the end of history’s first truly global empire, Spain, and the rise of the brash new imperial power, the United States, which would soon dominate the 20thcentury.  The short, decisive naval battles in Philippine and Cuban waters sharpened American interest in building “a path between the seas” and reshaped the map of the world.

The Guns of August: World War I at Sea

The story of USS Tennessee’s extraordinary mission during the first months of World War I (to deliver gold to prime the continent’s paralyzed banking system; to ease the path home for tens of thousands of stranded American tourists, students and expatriates; and to relocate thousands of impoverished refugees in the Middle East, all desperate to avoid the fighting), and of the cruiser’s sudden and public death on the Santo Domingo waterfront a century ago.

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