This book is an astonishing tour de force, picking up the threads of a story where the first volume, The Spanish Lake, set in the sixteenth century, left off. It is nothing less than a general history of European exploration, conquest, trade, and settlement of the lands bordering and islands populating the vast Pacific Ocean from early Dutch incursions in the sixteenth century to the Wars of Independence in the nineteenth.
The scholarship is sweeping and nearly impeccable, from a Latin Americanist’s point of view, and thus one must conclude that the sections on Oceania, Japan, Russia, and China are equally credible and definitive. The author’s prose soars with his subject, whether describing the cold, cruel suffering of Vitus Bering and his crews in the far northern latitudes in the eighteenth century or the impact of the buccaneers on English literature, inspiring some of the dearest and most memorable works in the English language, including Robinson Crusoe and Gullivers Travels.
Equally compelling is the analysis of incidents, trends, battles, and statistics of the Pacific as they fit into the flow and pattern of world history. The author links the slack period of exploration, trade, and settlement in the middle third of the seventeenth century with the contractions of the world economy, not simply accepting the hypotheses and proofs of the great French economic historians (Fernand Braudel and Pierre Chaunu are two of those cited), but rendering his own interpretation on how Pacific patterns fit into or question the macrohistory postulated by the French.
The author’s willingness (and delight) in drawing out the broad generalizations from the mass of facts will provide the reader with much to ponder when considering the affairs of men, especially of Western men, in the making of the modern world. One of my favorites: “So Japan was taken out of the ‘mainstream of history’ (whatever that is), and this was probably not so greatly (if at all) to her disadvantage as earlier schools of European historians have assumed: India and Indonesia did not greatly gain, in their own values at least, by being forcibly dragged into the stream” (p. 77).
While the author is fair in most instances, his judgment of Spanish affairs is sometimes injudicious and pedestrian. On the apparent lack of Spanish continuity in maintaining the strength of the Armada del Mar del Sur in the seventeenth century, he writes that “for a few years after 1615 there were no raids, one could relax, and there was always mañana . . .” (p. 19). To equate the motivations and activities of Spanish grandees of the early seventeenth century with the stereotypical Mexican peon of Hollywood filmmakers borders on the inane. There are some other remarks that rub against the grain of truth. “Like the Spanish Crown in the Indies, they [Dutch directors of East Indian operations] would have preferred to commit injustice equitably” (p. 27). Such baseless editorializing flaws the book, demonstrating the pitfalls of rendering breezy judgments on an imprecise, or prejudicial, knowledge of minds and faiths of such men as Charles V and Philip II.
There is no formal bibliography, which is not a great matter, but enough of one to quibble with, for it deprives the interested scholar of an easy and ready reference tool based on the author’s exhaustive research. On the other hand, his notes are a delight to read, the type of free-spirited, no-holds-barred praise and criticism one was accustomed to in the works of another old warrior-historian, Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison.
This book is an entire course on the world of the Pacific. From the two volumes, one must conclude that the Pacific found its biographer in O. H. K. Spate, whose exhaustive research, delightful style, and thematic thoroughness matched the grandeur of his subject and the breadth of his vision.