Navigable Waters: The Colonization and Consolidation of Marine Space in the Pacific Northwest, 1840-1940 - Jesse Robertson - PhD candidate, History, University of Victoria


Jesse is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Victoria. Jesse has a professional background in historical consulting, having conducted oral histories, Traditional Knowledge and Land Use Studies, and archival research for government, private firms, and Indigenous clients. Jesse has written reports for Parks Canada and the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada and has authored a historical entry in the Canadian Encyclopedia. He has presented findings from his current research to the Canadian Historical Association and a recent workshop on Canadian Coastal Histories hosted by the Wilson Institute for Canadian History at McMaster University. Jesse currently serves on the board of the Friends of the BC Archives.


My dissertation research looks to the transborder Pacific Northwest during the highwater period of settler colonialism to reveal an essential precursor and handmaiden to European settlement. Hydrographic charts, sailing directions, and shore-based aids to navigation (including lighthouses, buoys, and foghorns) generated a kind of state knowledge that was integral to settler projects of mobility and access to land, resources, and marine environments. Nineteenth century coastal navigation was a dangerous and often costly undertaking, as attested by the countless vessels and lives lost in what became known as the “Graveyard of the Pacific.” Navigational knowledge and devices were necessary for ships to supply new colonies, bring settlers, extract resources, and discipline Indigenous peoples. Britain, Canada, and the United States deployed navigational infrastructure to project power and consolidate state claims to sovereignty over distant marine environments. Yet marine navigation cannot be understood solely as a colonial imposition. This dissertation shows that the success of state-sponsored navigation depended to a considerable extent on Indigenous knowledge, labour, technologies, and social networks. It thus presents an overlooked history of encounter and negotiation that underpinned the production of navigable waters, revealing the contingency and long-term consequences of maritime imperialism, while also showing how the aspirations of colonial power were shaped and modified according to unique local circumstances.