296 pages, 36 b/w photos and b/w illustrations
In the second half of the eighteenth century, the Russian Empire-already the largest on earth-expanded its dominion onto the ocean. Through a series of government-sponsored voyages of discovery and the establishment of a private fur trade, Russians crossed and re-crossed the Bering Strait and the North Pacific Ocean, establishing colonies in Kamchatka and Alaska and exporting marine mammal furs to Europe and China. In the process they radically transformed the North Pacific, causing environmental catastrophe.
In one of the most hotly-contested imperial arenas of the day, the Russian empire organized a host of Siberian and Alaskan native peoples to rapaciously hunt for fur seals, sea otters, and other fur-bearing animals. The animals declined precipitously, and Steller's sea cow went extinct. This destruction captured the attention of natural historians who for the first time began to recognize the threat of species extinction. These experts drew upon Enlightenment and Romantic-era ideas about nature and imperialism but their ideas were refracted through Russian scientific culture and influenced by the region's unique ecology. Cosmopolitan scientific networks ensured the spread of their ideas throughout Europe. Heeding the advice of these scientific experts, Russian colonial governors began long-term management of marine mammal stocks and instituted some of the colonial world's most forward-thinking conservationist policies.
Highlighting the importance of the North Pacific in Russian imperial and global environmental history, Empire of Extinction focuses on the development of ideas about the natural world in a crucial location far from what has been considered the center of progressive environmental attitudes.
"Ryan Tucker Jones takes the environmental history of colonialism to new lands – and seas – in telling the story of the Russian Empire's quest for fur and other animal products in the North Pacific, from Kamchatka to Alaska's panhandle. It is a memorable tale of two syndromes, the relentless search for a fast ruble at the expense of sea otters, seals, and other marine mammals combined with the rueful recognition of what sustained slaughter meant, including rapid extinction of that gentle giant, Steller's sea cow. Empire of Extinction is simultaneously environmental history, imperial history, Russian history, and history of expeditionary science – all wrapped in a highly readable package."
– J.R. McNeill, Georgetown University
Introduction The Meanings of Steller and His Sea Cow
1. The Second Kamchatka Expedition and the Empires of Nature
2. Promyshlenniki, Siberians, Alaskans, and Catastrophic Change in an Island Ecosystem
3. Naturalists Plan a North Pacific Empire
4. Extinction and Empire on the Billings Expedition
5. Ordering Arctic Nature: Peter Simon Pallas, Thomas Pennant, and Imperial Natural History
6. Empire of Order
Conclusion Empire and Extinction
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Ryan Tucker Jones is Assistant Professor of History at Idaho State University.