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Our Passage to Asia

ISSUE:  Summer 1928

Those who compound truth in neat paradoxical pellets claim that there would have been no Boston Tea Party if Elizabeth of England had not one time possessed a passionate sweet-tooth and coveted the Sugar Islands, thus injecting a snappy colonial policy into the national free-for-all which was then America. And I, for one, am very sure that an American high-winging Byrd and my own Alaskan neighbor Ben Eielson would not have foregathered in full war-paint recently atop the north seas, to bump a splinter from the Pole itself or daub it barber-wise with red and white and blue, if another long departed empress (born Sophie Auguste Friedericke, but better known to history as Catherine the Great of Russia) had not fancied over-much her own fair mirrored face, coveted the silvery sable pelts of Alaskan sea-otter as incomparable setting for that face, and so expanded her dominion to control a large chunk of the American continent.

Catherine—and such diverse experts in the feminine as Lord Byron and G. B. S. unite upon this point—Great Catherine “had a way with her.” Since these most becoming, most luxurious furs were lying at her kingdom’s back door, and to be had for the mere go-getting, then why withhold a small but almost divinely powerful hand? Let boats be built in Kamchatkan harbors and outfitted, let the strong—and possibly the unscrupulous—be sent out into Alaskan seas and farthest perilous coasts, but let treasure of sea-otter pelts return to glorify the semi-Asiatic court of hers, or woe betide! It was as geographically inherent that Alaska’s Columbus should have left some Asiatic port as that Christopher himself set sail from Palos. Do but spin the globe about and look at it for yourself. See how the Azores reach out into the new world, stepping-stones of Atlantis, inviting one more conquering leap. Look again, and this time to the North and West. See strong old Asia pushing toward us his vast Siberian shoulder and slim-waisted America rushing to meet that embrace with far out-stretched Aleutian arms. Look how they fling themselves together at the sundering straits! Time was, say the wise archaic searchers, when these two great continents met and kissed there, a long communing nuptial kiss; and many a secret was exchanged between them, as other than Alaska’s sloe-eyed Esquimau and eon-colored ivory of prehistoric elephant must testify.

There exists a pre-Columbian saga for the North Atlantic, the intriguing adventurous tale of Norsemen who used Iceland and Greenland as stepping-stones from Europe to Vinland, and bided there a time. So also there exists a hitherto unpublished early saga of island wandering in the North Pacific, from Asia by way of the Aleutians. The story came to me through Mrs. Hoover, who discovered several years ago in one of China’s most ancient libraries the manuscript of a very old tale of two junks, blown far and long from their course in a severe storm, north and east and then south and east. Realizing that they could not possibly hope to return before winter set in, these fisher-folk decided to stay in the pleasant land they had found and, indeed, spent two winters and a summer very, happily on what was evidently the most southern coast of Alaska. Then, becoming homesick for their own, they started back by the island way that they had come and finally reached their home again in China, where they had of course been given up for dead long years before.

As Europe found two routes to its ever alluring western bourn—the broken trail of the Northmen and the sunken sealane of Atlantis—so Asia found two even more readily, traversed routes to its own far East—the prehistoric trek-way of the straits and the island passage which links the drooping festoon of the Aleuts to the dependent Kuriles. While these empty North Pacific waters are not familiar seas to most Americans, it is well to bear in mind all this dim gossip of mute centuries in considering Alaska’s present-day usefulness to the United States as a far-flung colony. For although the land is flesh and blood of continental America, it all but touches ancient Asia and inherits still from Asia, being the only portion of our continent which has direct contact with that enigmatic land. Alaska’s future as well as Alaska’s past can best be seen, can only be understood, in the near light of Asia.

Dr. Ales Hrdlicka, anthropologist of the Smithsonian Institution, searching recently in our Alaska for traces of the earliest Amerindic routes, discovered with amazed vividness that elemental proximity, which we Alaskans realize daily in our most domestic affairs. I have a score of Esquimaux acquaintance, the slant of whose eyes and the slant of whose minds are alike biased on the Mongol pattern; a sea-current from Japan regulates today our Alaskan temperature charts and our rain-fall; a reprisic ban upon American trading vessels, issued from Vladivostok, results in fatal losses to friendly Nome merchants; and the renewal or non-renewal of the Four-Power agreement anent pelagic sealing in the North Pacific, an agreement which Japanese authorities are reported as determined to end, causes more vital interest along Alaska’s 26,000 miles of sea-coast just now than do all the reverberations and counter-marching massed arguments of World Court and League of Nations. The Asiatic bent of Alaska, so outstanding an aspect upon the visual sphere, is too often overlooked in the myopic squint of politics, when adjudging the yesterday and the tomorrow of this American colony.

In New England the fishermen will tell you when you ask them of a passing craft: “If you’d learn her port, read her hail, astern ” And Alaska’s port, for all her wanderings, lies Asia-ward, since Alaska’s future was predestinate by her launching long since from Asiatic ground-ways. So close, those shores—so close, even today. Have you seen Dover cliffs from Calais? You can see Siberia’s East Cape from Alaska’s Cape Prince of Wales, and we Alaskans have stood upon these mountainy farthest capes and looked with our own eyes over into that other continent: we have stood upon the beach at Nome and seen, but yesterday, the little boats come in, direct from that other shore.

It was this essential nearness of Alaska to Asia, a basic simple fact of geography, which gave rise to persistent tales of A Great Country to the east heard by seventeenth and eighteenth century Cossack adventurers in Siberia; tales which, retold at the court of Peter the Great as tales of the Cabots had been retold in the port of Bristol, resulted finally in the sending out of an expedition to verify the account and add more glory and empire to the lumbering bulkiness of Muscovy.

Vitus Bering set out in 1728, at long length to rendezvous with Death in those unbroken waters; but not before he had sighted, named and touched points upon the mainland of Alaska, while those of his crew who survived shipwreck and scurvy returned to Kamchatka bearing rare treasures of sea-otter skins and telling wild traveller’s tales of a land where the savages were robed in pelts that ! might enrich the pomp of kings. When Peter had long passed, with those lesser mortals who succeeded him, Great Catherine “whom Glory still adores” held her imitation I Versailles in Russia for a full half century more, and during her day innumerable expeditions were fitted out to the definite conquest of The Great Country. Like all other doings of the “liberal empress” this enterprise too was conducted upon a melodramatic scale of furious harlequinade never equalled; but “sea-otter” was the word and—Well, the long and short of the matter is, she had a way with her!

Once, in an absent-minded candour, this antic Queen of Muscovy who set half Europe by the ears saw fit to call herself une grandc conimenceusc. She most certainly did start something in Alaska, for this pawn of empire came into being as the Cub of the Greater Bear and the Bear that Walked Like a Man, solely to satisfy the whim of that demi-Holstein, Grand Guignol Empress whose gallantries provide a fuscoviolaceous patch upon some otherwise colorless annals.

But the whimsical Mistress of all the Russias did not have things utterly her own way in her Al-a-as-ka. The Spanish had not forgotten their great colonial tradition nor were they oblivious to goings-on in the North. Had not Balboa, wading out waist-deep into the Pacific, carrying high in his arms the royal oriflamme, claimed for Spain all the shores washed by these waters? Naturally, there were Spanish expeditions galore, outfitted from a not-too-distant Mexico and California; so that little cities and great sapphire bays along the southern coast of Alaska resound to this day with a splendour of luxurious Andalusian names. But those names at Valdez, Cordova and elsewhere are all that do remain to recall to us that once the fierce power of Spain thrust out a minatory hand against our province.

If they had guessed what treasure of El Dorado lay hidden behind the glacier-thundering range, how ruthlessly they would have banqueted within the wind-walled palace of the North and sated here the desperate golden lust that de Leon and de Soto, de Vaca and Coronado, had vainly striven to quench in many another “wilderness”! Had they even suspected that pot of gold at rainbow’s end, how completely the history of the Pacific Northwest might have to be re-written! But, because he did not find the precious metal there, to the adventuring Spaniard the only worth-while wealth of the New World, the arcana behind the ranges remained inviolate; and all that ever reached California from Alaska in those far days were a few pelts that the Romanof disdained, some monastery bells cast in far-off holy Moscow, and a shipload of ice to cool the hot wines and hotter ardours of old Spain.

England was another contender in this new race as she had been in an earlier century upon the Atlantic, and England too laid claim to the southern coast of Alaska with all its armada-enclosing bays. She did not utterly scorn either the rare, and even then fast disappearing, sea-otter or its relatively humble brother of the land; but her main interest even in the seventeen-eighties and later was a trade route (O nation of shop-keepers!)—that often sought, secret Northwest Passage to Asia that so long intrigued the imagination of British seamen. This lure had brought to northern waters that unleashed coursing sea-dog of Elizabeth, Sir Francis Drake, and in Catherine’s own day the famed navigator, Captain James Cook.

Catherine, look carefully to your sea-otters when these hounds of Albion cry hot upon the scent!

The French, too, had made a tentative claim; but empire-building fur traders, tireless sandy-haired and sandy-named Mackenzies, MacPhersons and MacDonalds following the voyageur and Jesuit missionary, snatched upon and consolidated the too boundless and too lightly held trading posts of the French in the Northwest, and expanded into all that dim and misty old resinous continent of spruce forest and tundra and dusky man where the French had broken trail. Thus it came about that the picturesque voyageur, like his precursor the conquistador, lives for us now only in the words he has left behind (cache, siwash—sauvage — mush on — marchons — and a score of others that in their anglicized corruptions are daily upon the lips of men in the North) while those Scotsmen spread a close woven and still enduring plaid of rich Caledonian names upon all the rivers and the mountains.

After the elimination of the other players for these stakes of the High North, the contest for the sub-Arctic trophy went into the finals with Russia lined up along the edge of Bering Sea and the Pacific rim of The Great Country, and well established in the Southeast by “The Battle of Alaska,” when with the aid of Aleuts its other coastal Indians had been subdued; but with the British holding all the upper reaches of the great interior valleys, for the Russians had never cared, or dared, to grope far past the open sea-mouths of the rivers.

This mingling of heady and potent waters—admixture of Scotch and vodka, so to speak, poured out liberally upon ice—produced a quite notable punch, so that by 1824 it became necessary for Russia and England to reach a compromise upon what is today Alaska’s one land boundary—the 1500 miles between Alaska and Canada, extending from 54 ° 40’ “jmqu a la mer Glaciale” as the old treaty reads. But had the Russians not already firmly established themselves all along the coast, motived by that passionate fur-trade for which we have the empiric Catherine alone to thank, England’s efforts to acquire the entire northwest territory would no doubt have been successful. That is the unescapable implication, both of the naked logic of events and the so-evident contiguity. And England surely would never have sold Alaska over the bargain counter, as did Tsar Alexander, to a Yankee Brother Jonathan.

As it was, the final and legal adoption of Russia’s Bear Cub by the United States was undertaken partly, we must shamefacedly admit, from dog-in-the-manger motives and partly to do a well-meant turn to the friendly Tsar, who was stony broke and wanted very much to hock or sell something, to somebody. Besides, argued Alexander, might not this too-distant Asia-touching province of his be seized one day by England from adjoining Canada, and used as a base in some future Crimea? Why not turn a penny honestly, in barter, as Napoleon had done earlier with Louisiana, rather than run a fairly certain risk of having your goods stolen later, willy-nilly or willy-Nicky? — But, if prospective fear of England entered largely into Alexander’s calculations, immediate resentment against England entered with equal strength into the attitude of the United States senators who sponsored the deal, as records of the Senate debate prove. England wanted Alaska, so they knew, and had been jockeying for it. And the northern states cherished a mighty grudge about that time, you will remember, for sporting Britain hadn’t backed a winner in the then very recent un-civil domestic infelicity of ours. And so, after much acrid discussion, Uncle Samuel himself bought the Territory, though he clipped a cool three-million from the asking price!

The sum paid was so slight, the motives for buying had been so mixed and so vaguely understood, the whole bargain was considered so trifling at the time, that our dear old absent-minded foster relative proceeded almost immediately to plumb forget the very existence of that strange foreign creature he had taken in tow and which now came trailing at his heels by the length of a vast deal of slack rope.

No one then felt any need of it, with so much unconquered frontier lying so much nearer home, and no one but Seward had any actual faith in it—Seward and his convert, Sumner. The imagination of the people had been caught by other matters, more especially the new trans-Atlantic cable and the Iron Horse. There were only thirty-six stars in the first flag of the United States to be flown over Alaska, but now a Hesperid galaxy of twelve impatiently sought further place in that blue field. These, by their brilliant nearness, effectually dimmed any ascendent far to the North. The spring of that year in which Alaska was finally and grudgingly paid for had witnessed all the dramatics of a President’s impeachment; the much beloved Dickens was generously be-spotting waistcoats again with soup, upon his second visit to the States; Horace Greeley was editing “The Tribune” in no uncertain fashion; and the birth of a nation was going forward, without benefit of any twilight sleep! A Black Friday had not yet broken upon Wall Street, Tweed’s Lambs were still frisking in New York, and a cow in Chicago was getting ready to kick over a lamp.

So the Bear Cub was relegated to the nation’s back yard, to rustle for its own keep. But we are apt to forget that except for a purely chance coincidence in time, Alaska would even then have been permanently linked up with Asiatic Russia by the capital, initiative and mechanical daring of American business men themselves, the go-getters and do-it-now men of the tumultuous sixties. Incredulous of Field’s attempts to lay successfully a cable overseas, after the costly failure of 1858, and very eager to connect America with the old world, the Western Union Telegraph Company had conceived the herculean notion of throwing a line overland up through British Columbia, interior Russian America and Siberia (all three then practical terrae incognitae and empty wilderness) to join with European Russia. Scouting work was begun in 1863 and some of the long abandoned materiel of this survey, incongruous and startling, lies rusted and rotting today in far portions of Alaska. I myself have unexpectedly come upon these lost reminders of a once great undertaking, on a deserted beach beyond the tiny settlement of Teller.

This line, to extend through thousands of miles of unexplored territory, needed a vast amount of reconnaissance; but there was capital of ten millions back of the project and the promoters, in their own words, saw “no insuperable obstacle.” In two treasured old magazines I have found contemporaneous articles written about this survey, an event which evidently caused much interest and speculation at the time and tickled the adventurous fancies of men quite as much as did the successful laying of the Atlantic Cable later. The engineers sent out by the company came back and were riling their reports (the project was temporarily suspended until it was proved whether or not the newly laid second trans-Atlantic cable would “work”) just at the critical time when Seward and Sumner were making their uphill fight over the Alaska purchase; and the publicity, and propaganda engendered, plus the invaluable first-hand tips about actual conditions and resources in the big new territory„ not only helped push the deal to a definite closing but added immeasurably to the then very slender store of reliable fact concerning The Great Country and the mighty river at its core.

But Alaska’s link with Asia in our own day has to do with an even more modern and dramatic device than that daring thread of telegraphic wire once projected to bind the massy continents at the narrow straits. For this reason Amundsen’s recent landing at the little town of Teller, of all places, after the first transpolar flight, seems to me nothing short of prophetic. Because my Alaska home for years has adjoined the aviation field where our pioneer trail-breakers of the new Arctic made their first essays into the unfurrowed North, I was an early convert to the possibilities of trans-Arctic flight and have long believed that Alaska’s future lies in the direction of its most suggestive past, Asia-ward. But the vision of future airborne traffic, through the true Northwest Passage of the Arctic, seems to many quite as remote in possibility as the scope of present-day transatlantic commerce would have appeared fantastic dream in the day of Charles II or William of Orange. Yet in our hearts we know that the next step in progress is always some invasion of that realm of the impossible which “practical people” so affect to despise.

There are no earthen barriers to those who fly. The air-ways of the North span lightly even that last fearsome barrier of the paleocrystic sea. Surely the most stirring aspect of Alaska in this present year of Our Lord is its marvelous fortuitous situation as a thoroughly equipped service station, lying as it does at the cross-roads of the new Amer-Asian transportation lanes now being blazed across the oblate polar seas. It lies as effectively athwart the new route to Cathay, Muscovy and Dai Nippon as the Americas themselves once lay athwart the old.

This is not a nearness of military advantage. Noncontiguous Alaska would be well-nigh impossible of American defence against Asia, it is so geographic a continuity of Asia. And such a coast line! If every white American citizen of Alaska, man, woman, and child alike, stood to its futile defence upon the sea, to cover “that vast coast they must be spaced a mile apart. Let us consider Alaska rather from the view of happier and more peaceful penetration, in relation to the new-found actual Northwest Passage of the friendly air, for mutually, laden argosies of international trade.

The Soviets, whose political wisdom we claim officially to despise, are more far-seeing than we in this matter, perhaps because their tests of economic polity lie so within the future that they feel bound by no inhibitions of ancient folk-ways. True, the Tsar of all the Russias once sold Alaska to Seward for a song. But his revolted subjects are now singing quite another tune, pitched to quite another key. They have seized upon and colonized Wrangel Island, that wretched and ill-starred desolation within the Arctic Seas, and hold to it tenaciously, flaunting their Bote Fahne in the combined threatening faces of Britannia and Columbia alike. They are dealing daringly in futures, these wild lads of the Soviet Union. They see the trend, because they look only ahead; and evidently they plan to have a nesting place of their own prepared, despite destiny, when the gleaming Arctic geese shall take their flight.

Yesterday they forcibly deported the fourteen forlorn colonists there, hauled down the British and American flags, placed fifty Russians upon the island, provided them with ample three year supplies, and broadcast their intention to make this point administrative centre for all-Russian polar regions. What Britain discovered and America claimed, gaunt Russia has now seized upon and holds. “Wrangle no further,” say they of the Red Flag. “Law? We have nine points to the good. We possess.” But because with America it has always so far been, “Easy come, easy go,” she underestimates the future of her own Polaric Bear Cub and patently resents Alaska’s governmental keep—though its known value run to a million times that other frigid morsel which hungry future-grasping Russia snaps at so avidly.

Just so Mother England once somewhat underprized and somewhat overtaxed some wildly woolly colonies upon a distant and inclement shore. Mother England played Mother Goose. If she had let them alone, those stray thirteen colonial sheep of hers, they would have come home, in time, dragging fat taxable tails behind them! And once, back in the gay Klondyke days of Hey-diddle-diddle ‘98, when jumping over the moon seemed no trick at all, the Alaskan Bear Cub laughed to see the sport; but now he realizes that, in the midst of the exciting game, the golden spoon that was born in his mouth may well be run away with! And he laughs no longer. He is just beginning to grow up, is this cub of Ursa Major, and to consider that bear-baiting, though socially an outlawed sport long since, may still have some political practitioners.

The notion of Asiatic undercurrents in a continental American colony may be provocative to some, and startling to many, chiefly because of the present Russian bogyphobia. Since one hundred per cent Americans inherit from the Roman line exclusively and not the Byzantine, the way of that other descent appears sometimes to us a little short of madness, so completely does their fatal directness in action lie outside our normal American tradition. But we must face the realization that Uncle Sam long ago took upon himself a muscovitic semi-Asian mandate. How justly has he used it, and how wisely, governed, that we have privilege to blanket-criticise the northward sweep of Russian hegemony?

True, our waif of colonies grew up in Asiatic-Russian chaos; but true, too, that out of chaos sometimes comes the birth of stars. And Alaska loyally aspires one day to add its own Polaris to the true American forty-eight—to emerge forever from behind the confining bars of our national flag and seek the safe and azure field among those sister others. By sympathy with this aim, by understanding of this strangely alien chaotic past, you can help this young colony of yours to climb its dizzy air-way to the stars. For no one can truthfully assert that our Alaska is too young to have already a case history of vital implication—a scarlet thread of tight hereditary knots inwoven with the destinies of haughty empires now crumbled, with glorious queens now dust, and with the farthest sea-faring and air-faring of the world’s most courageous captains.

The first human creatures to tread Alaska were cis-Pacific Asiatics; Alaska’s maritime provinces were first explored and exploited from Asia-ward; it is today, by position upon the globe and by ease of access, closer to Asiatic points than to any port of continental United States; why then should we set ourselves against an Asia-trending future for Alaska? That way lie hereditary, leaning and propinquity as well — sea-otters, bear cubs and even Mother Goose indicating the ancient cradle way. And surely there will be some hang-over and bias from that past, for though relatively new as an American Colony it is not utterly a new land; not in entire forgetfulness and not in utter nakedness was it born into the national family of ours, but as residuary legatee of many a most ancient culture.

Alaska has been in the long past, Alaska will soon prove to be again, the true Northwest Passage to Asia.


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