Challenging the Pacific…and history

Scholarship and good story telling don’t always come in the same literary package, but when they do, the rewards for readers are enormous. Scott Ridley, who lives on the Cape, has just published a book that blends the two beautifully, and readers will find themselves as eager to learn more about the period it describes as they are to find out what happens.

“Morning of Fire,” the story of the remarkable voyage led by a man who has been overlooked by history, is the product of extensive research and an ear for a great story. “People tend to look for things that are fast and loose these days, and what’s catchy and what’s flashy, and they don’t worry about the facts,” Mr. Ridley said in a phone conversation last week. “And this is opposed to that,” he said of his approach to writing “Morning of Fire.”

On Thursday, November 18, Mr. Ridley will speak about his new book at the Federated Church in Edgartown. The talk is sponsored by the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.

In 1787, only four years removed from the conclusion of the War of Independence, the U.S. was deep in debt and largely ostracized by the great European powers. France and Spain had active colonial aspirations west of the Mississippi, and England wasn’t about to do any favors after being humbled in the recent war. Without trading partners, the economic outlook for the infant nation was bleak.

Joseph Barrell, a Boston merchant and staunch federalist, hatched a plan to break the economic blockade: a voyage that would challenge the dominance of Britain and Spain in the Pacific, establish an American presence on the western edge of the continent, and perhaps uncover the long-sought Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific. The odds against success were long, and Barrell realized that he would need an exceptional commander to lead it.

John Kendrick was born in 1740 in East Harwich, a part of the Cape where native tribes still had a presence. He went to sea at age 14, sailing with his father, the master of a whaler. He came ashore when he was about 20 and lived for several years in Boston, which was seething with anti-British sentiment at the time.

In 1767 he married Huldah Pease of Edgartown and they lived on Martha’s Vineyard for a few years. Three of their six children were born on the Island. During this time he ran a whaling brig named Lydia and a schooner, Rebecca.

During the Revolutionary War he mastered three privateers, private vessels authorized by government in wartime to attack and capture enemy vessels. He took several “prizes” and developed a reputation as a daring, crafty mariner — the kind of man Barrell sought, and eventually recruited, to lead a mission that many considered suicidal.

The vessels that would carry Kendrick and his crews were unimposing, if not dangerous. Eleven men would sail on the Lady Washington, a 60-foot sloop designed for coastal waters. The command ship, the Columbia Rediviva, was an 83-foot three-masted brig that would be manned by a crew of 40. Given the waters they were to cross, and the time spent at sea, simply raising a crew was a challenge, but Mr. Kendrick’s involvement and the thirst for adventure were powerful recruiting tools. As commander of the expedition, Kendrick would run the Columbia, while the Lady Washington would be mastered by Robert Gray, who took an immediate disliking to Kendrick and questioned his decisions from the outset.

The expedition was expected to last two years and cover tens of thousands of miles, including passage around Cape Horn, known as much for the ships that were lost there as for those that made it around. Stopping for rest and supplies would be impossible along the Pacific coast between the Cape and northern California, which was controlled by the Spanish.

The ships were battered rounding the Horn, the Lady Washington severely. Although they stayed well offshore as they limped up the west coast of South America to avoid the Spanish, word of their presence spread before them. But they reached Nootka, their goal on the west coast of Vancouver Island, unchallenged. A year had passed since they left Boston.

Kendrick planned to establish a trading post there, although both the Spanish and the British had already made inroads there. Nootka was at the center of the local trade for sea otter furs, which fetched fantastic prices in Macao, 7,000 miles away. The distances these small vessels and brave sailors covered are astounding: it was considered regular business to trade between the northwest and China, sometimes in vessels that modern mariners would think twice about sailing from here to Bermuda.

The arrival of Kendrick in the northwest in 1789 set off a chain of events that nearly triggered a global war between the Spanish and the British, the former trying to hang onto a withering empire, the latter trying to expand a fresh one. That the competition for trading rights on Vancouver Island could have implications worldwide is hard to comprehend, at first, but perhaps less so when viewed in the context of the time, a time when it took a year for Kendrick to correspond with his backers in Boston — if everything went well. A slight or a misunderstanding in a remote corner of the world might ripple around the planet long after it was resolved, or forgotten.

Kendrick was more comfortable with the native population than his rivals, and over time he developed close ties. He learned to speak the language of the local Mowachaht people, and he sometimes dressed as they did when he was with them. On a subsequent visit to Nootka in 1791, he purchased land from native chiefs, who largely trusted him. His purchases and his influence with the local inhabitants made him the most powerful trader in the northwest, which infuriated the Spanish and British who trusted that their might would, and should, prevail.

Even as his indirect influence in Madrid and London increased, Kendrick’s reputation at home was tarnished irreparably. After they had swapped vessels in Nootka, Gray arrived in China in late 1789, Kendrick two months later. From there Gray headed home in the Columbia by the westbound route, while Kendrick rested and refit the Lady Washington before crossing again to the Northwest. When Gray arrived home in August 1790 to a welcome befitting the first American to circumnavigate the globe, he expressed his jealousy of Kendrick by defaming him, spreading the story “that somehow when Kendrick got to the Pacific his character dissolved and he wasn’t a very good commander,” Mr. Ridley said. “As would happen today, the cloud stuck. If Kendrick had made it back, and if his story had been told, we would have all grown up with this American epic.”

Gray was later exposed as an unprincipled liar, but the damage to Kendrick’s reputation had been done, and because he never returned to Boston, he was never able to undo it. Kendrick disappeared in Hawaii in 1784, seven years after leaving home. The circumstances of his disappearance and the events leading up to it make for fascinating reading.

Never snooty and never dull, Mr. Ridley’s crisp writing assumes a certain level of intelligence on the part of the reader, or at least a willingness to expend a bit of effort. Because the story is so engaging, though, readers should find it easy to apply a sharper eye, eager to be pulled along by some sort of intellectual momentum — or maybe it’s just curiosity.

“As I began to do research, I began to see contradictions, and I thought that’s the real story.” Mr. Ridley said. “I set out to find the facts of the full seven years, and that’s what I laid out in the book. And that’s why I spent so much time with 50 pages of notes, because I know I’m challenging the conventional history on this.”

Mr. Ridley backs up his narrative with 50 pages of chapter notes, an amount he describes as abridged. “I wanted to make sure that everything was documented because there are a lot of people who are looking at these kind of issues as part of their academic careers, and I wanted to make a contribution to all that and create some dialogue with some of those people so that they go back and look at the established assumptions and see that they should be challenged, or that those assumptions are flat-out wrong and that there is a different story to consider.”

Mr. Ridley’s initial curiosity about Kendrick’s voyage came about through a curious coincidence — the fact that he now lives in East Harwich on the same land where Kendrick was born. “The Kendrick farm, amazingly enough, is still intact — 40-plus acres,” he said. “It was handed down through the family until it came to Ralph Allen. We bought our land from Ralph. A neighbor mentioned to me that John Kendrick, the sea captain, was born here, and it perked my interest. So I began looking at it, and when I saw those contradictions I started digging a little deeper. So that’s what really started me off on this, the fact that he was here, that he was born on this land.” Had be bought a place 15 miles away, he wouldn’t have gotten the call from that neighbor. “So there is a connection, a very direct connection.”

In addition to writing history, Mr. Ridley has worked for years as a policy analyst, principally with the electric utility industry. He believes that the two disciplines dovetail. “I see it as a continuum,” he said. “The conditions and kinds of things that people were trying to do back then are still the kinds of issues that we’re working with today. I see history as a living kind of thing, and working with the knowledge that I’ve gained, I like to go back and dip my hands back in the well, and especially when I find stories like this that haven’t come out and that haven’t been told in a way that really reveals what the story was, what the facts are, I feel sort of driven to go back and do that.”

Scott Ridley, “Morning of Fire” (William Morrow, New York, 2010, 452 pp. $27.99), 5:30 pm, Thursday, November 18. Federated Church, South Summer Street, Edgartown. Sponsored by the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.