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Captain Alex MacLean: Jack London’s Sea Wolf

By Don MacGillivray

Review By Cary Collins

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 165 Spring 2010  | p. 108-9

Anyone who has delved into the gripping, sometimes impregnable, but always complex world of pelagic fur sealing on the north Pacific Coast knows just what a challenge the history of that subject poses. Then, to construct a biography of one of the most renowned and, depending on your point of view, notorious sea captains to have trafficked in that trade, and, finally, to compound matters with the fact that this trailblazing maverick of an individualist was the inspiration for a revered and classic icon in American literature, is to have taken on the proverbial Herculean task indeed. But that is just what Don MacGillivray, a professor of history at Cape Breton University, has done – and superbly. Seamlessly weaving together the divergent strands of nature, man, and daunting legacy into a deeply penetrating tale, Captain Alex MacLean is a tour de force that matches in its scope the towering persona of its subject, a must-read on one of our most compelling – and, in some ways, elusive – figures of the American-Canadian frontier. 

Singularly charismatic and always larger than life, Alex MacLean walked into a room – and, in his case, it was likely a barroom – and you immediately felt his presence. Although he was a Cape Breton Gael hailing from Nova Scotia, MacLean left his mark on the Pacific rim of the continent. Most notably, he and his equally remarkable brother, Daniel, were there at the founding of the commercial fur seal industry, and they put Victoria, along with San Francisco, on the map as the principal sealing ports on the west coast. Daniel was in charge of the first sealing schooner to enter the Bering Sea in the summer of 1883, a watershed event that catalyzed a headlong fur rush that was every bit as vigorous as the gold rushes carried out on land. Both brothers masterminded the “MacLean Experiment,” in which the use of Aboriginal and white seal hunters was compared, proving that “Indians” could serve as valuable co-labourers in the trade. In a little over a decade, Alex forged a fast reputation as one of the most able and daring sealers in the west, running his ships with an iron will that perhaps only a Captain Bligh could appreciate, and with brother Daniel taking more seals than any other hunter on the Pacific Coast. However, Alex was also maligned as a merciless poacher who wantonly violated regulatory laws for his own selfish gain. When he illegally attempted to make a run on the seals on Copper Island, a Russian possession, and treated his crew with a callous, drunken ferocity, his actions reputedly generated the grist for the cruel and brutish antagonist Wolf Larsen in Jack London’s psychological adventure novel The Sea-Wolf

As MacGillivray points out, it was the populations of fur seals that lost out in the end, although miraculously they have survived. Those besieged creatures, every ounce as vulnerable as MacLean was strong, fell prey to the ginned-up fury of an onslaught so powerful and ruthless that there was virtually no abating it until nations banded together to make strong international agreements imposing strict limitations on how, and how many, fur seals could be taken. It was through such acts of conservation that the vast killing zones of the north Pacific were ultimately pacified and the decimated herds were placed on the road to recovery and long-term sustainability. Not to know Alex MacLean and his times is not to know much of that story, which needs to be known in this troubled age of ecological stresses and the impacts that are continuing to be imposed on our vast marine resources. 

It is said that the measure of a great biography is the extent to which its subject gets stuck in the head of the reader. Captain Alex MacLean succeeds fully on that level. For all his faults and for everything that has happened in the long history of fur sealing, Alex MacLean stands among the pantheon of western American and Canadian heroes, and we are all in Don MacGillivray’s debt for having brought him back to us in such a stirring, unforgettable fashion. 


PDF – Book Reviews, BC Studies 165, Spring 2010