Taming the Deep : LET THE SEA MAKE A NOISE: A History of the North Pacific from Magellan to MacArthur, By Walter A. McDougall (Basic Books: $30; 793 pp.)

Alexander Frater is the author of "Chasing the Monsoon: A Modern Pilgrimage Through India" (Owl Books)

Walter McDougall, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, is plainly a big canvas man. His last book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Heaven and the Earth," was a sweeping history of man's activity in space. Now he takes on man's adventures in the North Pacific, an area occupying one-sixth of the earth's surface. It's a huge, illuminating work, ranging through four tumultuous centuries and countless extraordinary places. The reader, by the end, is time-warped, battle-hardened and travel-worn--but exhilarated too.

McDougall's energy and curiosity are awesome. He has spent five years on this project, and the volumes quoted in his acknowledgments section would, if placed end to end, stretch clean across the Bering Strait. But he's turned this tidal wave of material into a tale as riveting as any blockbuster novel. "Let the Sea Make a Noise"--a quote from Psalm 98--is, by any standards, a remarkable book.

In the 16th Century, the North Pacific, lying far from the European centers of population and power, was a largely disregarded area. Eventually Europe's imperial powers began to smell profits and busy themselves acquisitively around the region. The Portuguese, French, Spanish, Dutch and Brits all played roles in the North Pacific story; but ultimately, its outcome would be decided by three nations possessing North Pacific seaboards: America, Russia and, recurring through the narrative like a silk thread through worsted, Japan.

The idea that would eventually unlock the region was first conceived far away--in the pretty little English town of Chipping Camden, by a clock repairman named Newcomen. He began pondering the revolutionary notion of a mechanically powered ship but found the problems insurmountable. They were resolved, eventually, by the Americans, who ushered in the Age of Steam Navigation with the launch in 1807 of Fulton's Clermont. (One Hudson Valley yeoman, spying it from the bank, rushed home to tell his wife he had "spotted the devil paddling to Albany in a sawmill.")

Steamships would traverse the North Pacific, but steamships needed coal. After pondering their charts, the Americans decided the perfect place to establish a major coaling station would be Japan. The Japanese, then passing through one of their more introspective, xenophobic phases, didn't want to sell coal to the Americans, regarding them as "stupid and simple and incapable of doing great things."

Admiral Perry, charged with the task of changing their minds, told Washington he needed steamships since they would produce "astonishment and consternation" among the Japanese. Steamships and canons "would do more to command their fears, and secure their friendship, than all the diplomatic missions have accomplished in the last hundred years."

And so it proved. The appearance of Perry's fleet in Edo Bay in July of 1853 terrified the population. Panic-stricken mothers fled with their children, priests tolled temple bells and prayed for deliverance. Perry got his coaling station and the humiliated Japanese their first glimpse of advanced Western technology and the raw power it represented. It was one of those confrontations that would change the world.

An American consul, Townshend Harris (whose Puritan New England grandmother exhorted him "to tell the truth, fear God and hate the British") went to Japan to negotiate trading rights. That done, he sent California a delegation of 77 samurai who wanted, quite simply, to learn everything the Americans could teach them; Japan suddenly yearned to shed its insular, introspective feudalism, to "cast off"--according to an imperial decree--"the stupid opinions of the past" and embrace the West absolutely.

They succeeded so comprehensively that, within the lifetimes of people who had witnessed the meeting between Perry's ironclads and the Emperor's little coracles, Japan created a navy that would confound the world.

The Russians were the first to experience it firsthand. Both they and the Japanese sought spheres of influence in Asia and, inevitably, conflict arose. So in 1904 Czar Nicholas--who, McDougall confides, was "still, in his late 20s, recording games of hide-and-seek in his diary,"--dispatched his Baltic Sea fleet to the Pacific, an epic 18,000-mile voyage brilliantly evoked in this book. Somewhere off the China coast the two battle fleets finally met for one of the most emphatic military engagements in history. When it commenced, Russia had the world's third-largest navy. A few hours later it had the sixth largest. Thirty-five of its ships, totaling 200,000 tons, lay on the seabed. The Japanese lost three torpedo boats.

Though bellicose Japan had waged war on many of its neighbors, its relationship with America was always ambivalent, subject to various emotional and political swings and roundabouts. When Saito Hirosi, Japan's intensely pro-American ambassador to Washington, died in 1939 (having smoked himself to death on 60 unfiltered Luckies a day), the Navy brought his ashes back to Tokyo aboard the Astoria. The gesture, initiated by the State Department where Saito was both respected and popular, caused a "wave of friendliness" to sweep Japan; the Astoria's crew were feted and welcomed wherever they went.

Yet less than three years later those same generous hosts bombed Pearl Harbor. McDougall puts forward an intriguing theory to explain that astonishing act of duplicity. "Their motive," he writes, "was to achieve what a generation of Japanese statesmen had failed to achieve: just to get the Americans' attention. We exist, we Japanese. We are proud and strong and we have desperate problems. You whites ignore us."

Pearl Harbor, in other words, was a cry for help. Japan's leaders knew their inevitable defeat would result in American occupation, American goodwill, American know-how and capital. The Americans, in short, could resolve those problems and make everything right again. But would Japan, in 1941, have settled again for the status of a U.S. coaling station?

I found myself wondering what might have happened if Captain Cook had met and befriended the Japanese. That most wise, patient and engaging of Pacific heroes may just have nudged the course of history. (From McDougall I learned that Cook's bones had had the "flesh boiled off in the Hawaiian manner" before being returned to his ship for burial.) George Vancouver, one of Cook's most illustrious proteges, appears here too, met first at Nootka Sound where he was sent to resolve a potentially explosive dispute with Spain. But the Spanish captain in charge proved charming, lavishly entertaining Vancouver and his officers ashore, delivering hot rolls and milk to their ship each morning.

Periodically McDougall convenes ghostly meetings with his favorite characters from North Pacific history--among them Ambassador Saito and Kaahumanu, the Hawaiian king Kamehameha's favorite consort, a vivacious, intelligent woman who adored surfing naked--to debate the unfolding saga. Though he's no Tom Stoppard, the dialogues prove a useful device for keeping tabs on a complex story that begins in Nagasaki in 1638 and, to all intents and purposes, still hasn't ended.

If the year 2000 marks the beginning of "the Asian Century," and if history does repeat itself, then this riveting study of the past may also serve as a preemptive guide to the future.

Along the way McDougall embellishes his text with plenty of those just-fancy-that facts, which prove so useful at parties. How many people know that the horse latitudes were windless regions where becalmed sailors threw horses overboard to save water? Or that in the 15th Century China's great Ming treasure vessels, longer than a football field, voyaged regularly to West Africa? Or what kind of cargo John Jacob Astor brought with him when he sailed for New York at age 20?

The correct answer is a shipload of flutes.

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