Almost everyone has heard of The Sea-Wolf, the 1904 bestselling novel by Jack London featuring the irascible Wolf Larsen. Not many know that London modelled Larsen on a real person, the notorious Cape Breton adventurer, mariner and sealer Alexander MacLean, the subject of the biography Captain Alex MacLean: Jack London’s Sea Wolf by Don MacGillivray (UBC Press). (Full disclosure: I am the author’s niece.)
MacGillivray takes us on a scholarly journey, following MacLean from east coast ports in New England during the 1870s, around the Horn and into Pacific waters during the 1880s. MacLean’s skill at sailing, and his propensity for drink and dubious legal activities, as well as his involvement in politics and the brutal and dangerous pelagic (open-sea) sealing industry, elevated him to the status of folk hero. His achievements and fascinating adventures while sailing in the Pacific Northwest took him to Victoria, B.C., where he based his fleet, and where his wife and daughter settled. During this time, contentious sealing interests from five countries—Canada, the United States, Britain, Russia and Japan—created serious diplomatic disputes and set the stage for one of the first wildlife protection treaties, although the agreement probably had more to do with protecting corporate and national monopolies than conserving wildlife.
MacLean was an exceptional mariner and a memorable individual. His biography will appeal to anyone interested in maritime and sealing history, the Pacific Northwest, international relations or environmental politics.