Historians of science increasingly turn to ocean spaces, especially from the mid–twentieth century, when oceanography adopted new strategic and economic significance during and after World War II. Yet, the overdetermination of oceanography’s historiography by histories of conflict obscures the role that empire—its continuities and its ends—played in the transformation of ocean science and politics at the same time. This essay builds on recent work seeking to recover the role of empire’s endurance and its long shadows in the construction of mid-twentieth-century ocean science, politics, and law. Focusing on deep-sea sediments, I parse the work of H.M.S. Challenger (1872–1876) naturalist-cum-Challenger Office director John Murray alongside that of American economic geologist John Mero, who in the mid–twentieth century articulated all seabeds as storehouses of vast mineral wealth. Murray’s sedimentological taxonomies and representations as well as his collected data on global oozes, nodules included, formed much of the basis for Mero’s work. And, both Murray and Mero leveraged sediments to argue for proprietary positions premised on priority-in-time for resource discovery claims, and exclusive access based upon scientific knowledge and technical ability, both masked by tropes of equal access and opportunity. These data and practices helped Northern scientists build and maintain control over knowledge of the seabed and the value of its resources, as postcolonial and Cold War impetuses rearranged political and economic order at sea. Historicizing abyssal oozes illuminates the character of contemporary conflicts over the future of the international seabed, asking, who determines how the seabed will be valued?
Oceans of Ooze: Deep-Sea Sedimentary Data, Mineral Resource Frontiers, and Imperial Continuities in Ocean History
The following abbreviation is used: SIA, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Jonathan Galka; Oceans of Ooze: Deep-Sea Sedimentary Data, Mineral Resource Frontiers, and Imperial Continuities in Ocean History. Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 1 November 2023; 53 (5): 481–517. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/hsns.2023.53.5.481
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