• On 12 July 1776, Captain James Cook and his crew left England in search of the famed
    Northwest Passage. Spanish, French, and Russian explorers before him had set out to
    find this Arctic waterway, which was thought to link the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans
    and promised to open up a new, more direct trading route with Asia. After seven
    months of sailing up and down the North American Pacific Coast, however, Cook was
    forced to conclude that such a passage did not exist. His voyage nonetheless transformed
    the trade relations between Europe, the USA and Asia. By detailing the rich natural
    resources the crew encountered in the North Pacific, the published records of Cook’s
    last voyage alerted a vast reading public, both in Europe and the young USA, to the commercial
    opportunities emerging from the exploitation of these resources. Using the
    example of the sea otter, this article explores how new knowledge about the natural
    world in the Pacific and its dissemination through print culture not only sparked
    intense rivalries between European colonial powers, but also helped the newly independent
    USA establish itself as a transoceanic empire.