Blood on the Ice

Chukchi hunting a gray whale in the Bering Sea, Chukotka, Russia, June 2018
Yuri Smityuk/Getty Images
Chukchi hunting a gray whale in the Bering Sea, Chukotka, Russia, June 2018

“Nowhere in all America will you find more patrician-like houses; parks and gardens more opulent, than in New Bedford. Whence came they?” Melville asked in Moby-Dick. He knew the answer: “All these brave houses and flowery gardens came from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. One and all, they were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea.”

Bathsheba Demuth’s Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait tells the story of how people learned to make money from the seas—specifically, from the waters of Beringia, the region that includes Alaska, the northeasternmost parts of Russia, and the seas in between. At first the money came from sea otters and whales, but when these grew scarce in the mid-nineteenth century, they were replaced with walruses sleeping in piles on the icy edges of the shore; then attention turned to caribou and Arctic foxes, and to the gold, tin, and oil in the earth. But as humans hunted and mined at an ever-accelerating pace, they did so with little understanding of the cyclical and finite aspects of life on earth, or of the ways their actions would disrupt the larger ecosystem, especially one as delicate as that of Beringia.

Cossack mercenaries and Russian traders made it to the far reaches of northern Asia in the first half of the seventeenth century. Following practices already established farther south, they took local hostages and then demanded a ransom of loyalty oaths and annual tribute. But on the Chukotka peninsula, in the extreme northeast, the Chukchi and Yupik peoples successfully fended off the newcomers’ attempts at subjugation. In the eighteenth century, Peter the Great hired a team of explorers, led by the Danish navigator Vitus Bering, to investigate the boundary between Asia and America, and the Dane mapped the strait that would bear his name. In 1741 Bering’s crew returned from Alaska—its name is derived from an Aleut word whose literal translation is “object to which the action of the sea is directed”—with sea otter pelts of a quality that soon drew traders from several other countries. Alaska became the northernmost area of “Russian America,” which also included parts of California and two Hawaiian ports.

A 1747 Russian military campaign in Chukotka failed, the commanding officer killed in battle, and Russian settlers abandoned the fort they had built on the Anadyr River. After years of war, the Russians agreed to a peace treaty with the Chukchi exempting them from fur tribute. Both Chukotka and Alaska were Russian possessions only on paper, and Americans, Britons, and Norwegians began to hunt and trade there in the early nineteenth century. The sea otters were soon almost extinct due to overhunting, and Russia…

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