Pacific Ocean

views updated May 23 2018


PACIFIC OCEAN. The largest ocean, the Pacific covers one-third of the Earth's surface. People have lived with and sailed on its waters for thousands of years. European navigators only outlined its vastness between 1520 and 1799. Before the sixteenth century, voyagers from the Indonesian and western Pacific islands sailed into the central Pacific, establishing human settlements in even the most distant places, such as Rapa Nui (Easter Island) or Hawaii. Contact with South America even brought the sweet potato into Oceania. The deliberate voyaging of Pacific Islanders demonstrated practical knowledge of the major currents, wind patterns, and methods of island screens. Knowledge of the equatorial countercurrent, the great northern whirl, the great southern whirl, and forecasted wind seasons were part of their Oceanic expertise.


In 1513 Vasco Nuñez de Balboa's (14751519) expedition left the Caribbean side of the Isthmus of Panama and crossed westward to the Pacific Ocean side, becoming the first Europeans to see the Great South Sea. In 1520 three ships commanded by Ferdinand Magellan (1480?1521) sailed out of the stormy passage of the strait at the southern tip of South America into the Pacific Ocean and named it the peaceful, calm, quiet ocean. Magellan's voyage through the strait took three months and twenty days, and it weakened and dismayed the crew. With potentially thousands of islands in the Pacific to find, Magellan sailed by only three unpopulated islets before he reached the Mariana Islands (so named in 1668) in March 1521. After killing some of the natives and decrying their thievery, Magellan sailed on, labeling the islands Ladrones, Spanish for thieves. The next three centuries of European exploration, conquest, and colonization brought more fierce encounters in Oceania.

The 1494 Line of Demarcation agreed upon between the monarchs of Portugal and Castile established boundaries in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Without exact chronometers, their determination of longitude was mere guesswork. Disputes between the two expansive powers about east-west position arose in the Philippine Islands and the Moluccas. The Portuguese were content to establish mercantile contacts and limited control in the Spice Islands of Southeast Asia. Meanwhile the Spanish tentatively explored the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. Magellan's voyages were followed by voyages from the western coasts of Spanish-conquered lands. The García Jofre de Loaysa expedition of 15251527 crossed the southern Pacific Ocean from east to west, establishing a brief Spanish presence in Tidore. Andrés de Urdaneta (14981568) sailed on the Loaysa voyage and learned about the winds and currents. Urdaneta survived the failed colonization effort and eventually showed how west to east voyages could occur. Under the command of Miguel López de Legazpi (c. 15101572), six vessels sailed from La Navidad Harbor in Mexico to settle the Philippines. As navigator, Urdaneta guessed correctly that from the Philippines a ship could sail north toward Japan and catch the prevailing winds that would return it across the northern Pacific to the coasts of North America. The clockwise pattern of sailing across the Pacific functioned for the galleon trade from Manila to Acapulco and back until 1815. It was the only predictable connection for Europe in the Pacific Ocean until the exploratory voyages of the French and British navies in the latter half of the eighteenth century.

Spaniards also sailed from Callao, the port city of Peru. Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira (15411595) in 1567 sailed west from Peru into western Melanesia. The Spaniards named the islands after the biblical king Solomon in hopes of finding the legendary gold of King Solomon's mines. That they sailed through the waters of Polynesia is a remarkable fact of misguided yet dogged sailing. Almost thirty years later, in 1595, Mendaña equipped another four ships to sail west from Peru and this time landed on islands he named the Marquesas, after the wife of the viceroy of Peru. The Mendaña crew made it back to the Solomon Islands, but the colony failed again after Mendaña's death. Under Pedro Fernández de Quiros (15651615), the group sailed north to the Marianas and the Philippines. After provisioning in Manila, they returned by the established route to Mexico and back to Callao. In 1605 Quiros again sailed westward from Peru and came across the Tuamotu Islands, but the hope of finding the legendary great southern continent lured the two ships farther westward. His second in command, Luis Vaez de Torres (fl. 1606), sailed west from the Solomon Islands. The Torres Strait dividing New Guinea and Australia is named after him.

The annual Manila galleon trade left from the Philippines between May and September, hoping to cross the northern Pacific within six months and arrive in Acapulco by December. Upon arrival on the western shores of Mexico, the galleon's merchandise was off-loaded for sale and replaced with American silver, cacao, cochineal, oil, and wines in preparation for departure by March or April. The return voyage across the Pacific Ocean was expected to take three months, with a stop at the Mariana Islands for fresh water and supplies. The only long-lasting European outpost in Oceania existed on Guam, the largest of the Mariana Islands. The native Chamorros interacted with European ships once a year, with a few sailors staying longer. In 1668 the Jesuits obtained support from Queen Mariana of Spain to convert the inhabitants to Christianity. The motivating figure behind the request was Diego Luis de Sanvítores (16271672). He had sailed to the Philippines but always remembered the Chamorros he had briefly seen from the decks of the galleon as it passed Guam. The Jesuits came to Christianize, but the unintended consequences were rampant disease, tragic warfare, and a legacy of colonial oppression.

As the Spaniards explored routes across the Pacific, English commanders sought to obtain the wealth aboard the Spanish vessels. Francis Drake (1540/15431596) sailed through the Strait of Magellan in September 1578. He filled his ship with booty from raids on Spanish colonies and ships and, avoiding capture, sailed westward across the Pacific, eventually circumnavigating the globe. In 1587 Thomas Cavendish (c. 15601592) was even more successful when he captured the Manila galleon Santa Ana, full of gold, pearls, and silks on its return to Acapulco. The Spanish managed to defend their trade, even capturing later English raiders, such as Richard Hawkins (c. 15601622), who surrendered to a Spanish fleet off the coasts of California in 1594.


Dutch explorers also looked for profit in the Pacific. In 1598 five ships left Holland for the Pacific by way of the Strait of Magellan. The Portuguese and Spanish each captured a ship, the Japanese sacked another, and one was lost at sea. Only the ship Faith survived, returning to the Low Countries in 1600. Of the 491 original crew members, only 36 returned home. These losses were often expected when early modern Europeans sailed into the Pacific Ocean. In 1616 the Dutch ship Eendracht, commanded by Jakob Le Maire (15851616) and Willem Schouten (c. 15801625), pushed south far enough that they rounded the southern tip of South America and found a new way to enter the Pacific other than through the Strait of Magellan. As they sailed west, the Dutch sailors encountered islanders in the Tuamotus, Tonga, and New Guinea. Later Dutch explorers made other discoveries in the Pacific Ocean. In 1642 Abel Tasman (1603?1659?) sailed from Batavia on the island of Java (modern-day Jakarta, Indonesia) into the southwestern reaches of the Pacific. He named Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania). He also named other lands after his Dutch states, including Staten Island (New Zealand). Sailing farther he came across the Tonga Islands of Haapai and later passed through the Fiji Islands. He can be credited as the first European explorer to enter the South Pacific from the west and to sail completely around Australia. In 1721 Jacob Roggeveen (16591729) hoped to discover the great southern continent. On Easter Day 1722 he landed at Rapa Nui (Easter Island), taking note of the tattooed inhabitants and large stone statues. He sailed back from the eastern Pacific, describing some of the northern Tuamotu Islands and the Manua Islands of Samoa. He made no permanent settlements.


British explorations in the eighteenth century were reanimated by the spectacular success of George Anson (16971762) in 1742. When Anson captured another Manila galleon, the reported booty in silver amounted to 400,000 pounds sterling. Afterward the Royal Navy commissioned John Byron (17231786) with two ships to discover islands for British possession in the South Seas. In 1765 Byron sailed into the Pacific Ocean and declared that two northern Tuamotu Islands and Pukapuka in the northern Cook Islands were British possessions. He resupplied at Tinian in the Mariana Islands and then returned to the British Isles by May 1766. Immediately afterward Samuel Wallis (17281795) departed with three ships, entering the Pacific in April 1767. He sailed less to the north than previous explorers had and in his westward line came across the island of Tahiti on 18 June 1767. With the European discovery of Tahiti, eighteenth-century Europeans sustained the enticing image of the noble savage and interacted with the many islanders.

After Wallis's return home in 1768, Captain James Cook (17281779) sailed on his first voyage to the Pacific with specific orders to observe the transit of Venus from Tahiti. He also sailed for Tasman's Staten Island, sailing around it completely. In so doing Cook proved that the two islands of New Zealand were definitely not part of some larger southern continent. On his second voyage (17721775) Cook proved that the southern continent did not exist, leaving the Pacific Ocean even larger than Europeans had thought possible. On his third voyage (1776) Cook sailed to the northwest coast of North America after visiting the familiar South Pacific islands. In December 1777 he sighted the island of Kauai in the eastern Hawaiian Archipelago. The islands of Hawaii were among the last of Oceania officially discovered by Europeans in the concluding years of the eighteenth century. Cook returned a year later to resupply after having had no success in finding the western end of the Northwest Passage. Hawaiians killed him at Kealakekua Bay in February 1779. Nonetheless other voyages by French and Spanish explorers followed in the wake of Cook.

The European exploration and intrusion into Oceania during the early modern era have diverging interpretations. The brave men, successful technology, and dogged persistence of Pacific exploration signaled a dynamic European desire to reach to every area of the world. The diseases, violence, and complex legacy of cultural contact in Oceania are the other side of the same coin.

See also Exploration ; Magellan, Ferdinand .


Finney, Ben. "The Other One-Third of the Globe." Journal of World History 5, no. 2 (1994): 273297.

Hiroa, Te Rangi (Peter H. Buck). Explorers of the Pacific: European and American Discoveries in Polynesia. Honolulu, 1953.

Spate, O. H. K. Monopolists and Freebooters. Minneapolis, 1983.

. Paradise Found and Lost. Minneapolis, 1988.

. The Spanish Lake. Minneapolis, 1979.

James B. Tueller

Pacific Ocean

views updated May 18 2018

Pacific Ocean Largest and deepest ocean in the world, covering c.33% of the Earth's surface and containing more than 50% of the Earth's seawater. The Pacific extends from the Arctic Circle to Antarctica, and from North and South America in the e to Asia and Australia in the w. The e Pacific region is connected with the Cordilleran mountain chain, and there is a narrow continental margin. The ocean is ringed by numerous volcanoes, known as the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’. There are a number of large islands in the Pacific, most of which are in the s and w. The major ones are New Zealand, and the Japan and Malay archipelagos. The principal rivers that drain into the ocean are the Columbia in North America, and the Huang He and Yangtze in Asia. The average depth of the Pacific is 4300m (14,000ft). The greatest-known depth is that of the Challenger Deep (sw of Guam in the Mariana Trench), which has a depth of 11,033m (36,198ft). The current pattern of the Pacific is made up of two gyres: n of the Equator are the North Equatorial Current, the Kuroshio Current, the North Pacific Drift and the California Current; s of the Equator are the South Equatorial Current, the East Australian Current and the Humboldt Current. The Equatorial Counter-Current separates the two gyres. Most fishing in the Pacific is done on the continental margins. Crab, herring, cod, sardine and tuna are the principal catch. Area: c.166,000,000sq km (64,000,000sq mi).

Pacific Ocean

views updated May 08 2018

Pacific Ocean The largest of the world's major oceans (179.7 × 106 km2). It is also the coldest (average 3.36°C), deepest (4028 m average), and least saline (34.62 parts per thousand) of the ocean basins.

Pacific Ocean

views updated May 17 2018

Pacific Ocean The largest of the world's major oceans (179.7 × 106 km2) and also the coldest (average 3.36°C), deepest (4028 m average), and least saline (34.62 parts per thousand).

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Pacific Ocean