Nathaniel Philbrick

You have probably seen Wilkes Land on a map of Antarctica. But have you heard of Wilkes? I hadn't, before I saw Nathaniel Philbrick on a TV book show, talking about his new work Sea of Glory. I immediately decided this was one for me, and when Michael gave me a gift certificate to our local independent bookseller for Christmas, I went right out and bought it.

This wonderful book tells the story of the United States Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842 (Ex. Ex. for short). It is a tale of adventure and danger and enormous accomplishment. And it is also a story of politics, violent ambition, cruelty, misplaced pride, and terrible personal loss. Charles Wilkes, a promising young lieutenant, is given command of six ships and the incredible task of, basically, setting out from Virginia to circumnavigate the globe and see if there was anything left to discover. William Reynolds, the other protagonist of this story, is also ambitious, a young officer with the rank of Passed Midshipman. Both men kept journals during the trip, in fact Reynolds kept two, the official journal he was required to turn over to Wilkes at the end of the voyage, and his illegal private diary that he managed to hide and preserve. Most of the information in the book comes, directly or indirectly, from these two sources.

The men of the expedition became the first Americans to sight Antarctica; the expedition surveyed and mapped the coastline of what is still known as Wilkes Land today. Further west, they surveyed the channels and coasts of Samoa and Fiji ("Feejee," to them), in order to produce the maps necessary for trading ships from Boston and New York. And then, before traveling west to return home via the Cape of Good Hope, they detoured east to map the west coast of North America. Wilkes considered this the most important task of the expedition, to explore the sea route to the new lands discovered by Lewis and Clark. (He comments that if the United States doesn't annex them, Oregon and Yerba Buena -- today's San Francisco -- would probably combine as a new nation, and become one of the great maritime powers of the Pacific!)

Along the way, they meet bare breasted beauties in Samoa, "yellow hores" in Honolulu, and yes, cannibals in Fiji. They endure icebergs and shipwrecks, and bone numbing cold - in Hawaii, while performing gravity experiments at the crater of Mauna Loa. There are also floggings, near mutiny, and several courts-martial upon their return to New York.

In addition to describing the journey itself, the book gives insight into American values during the years leading up to the Civil War. This was still the era of the gentleman scientist, and an expedition of this sort was made up not only of sailors, navigators, and surveyors, but also geologists, botanists, meteorologists, artists, and, on this trip, a linguist. Nathaniel Hawthorne had hoped to be the chronicler for the voyage, but politics kept him from joining the team. Other well known writers of the day were tangentially involved in either the planning or the aftermath, including Edgar Allen Poe, James Fenimore Cooper, and, of course, Herman Melville. (There were musicians on board, as well - the sighting of Antarctica was celebrated with extra rations of grog and tunes on deck from the fiddler, while one notorious flogging was accompanied by a tune known as "The Rogue's March.")

Another aspect of the era that may be hard for us to grasp fully was that the Ex. Ex. was in actuality a military operation, and as such, issues of Navy rank and protocol were extremely important. Slights over rank early on in the voyage, some perhaps necessary under the extreme conditions, and some simply attributable to human pride and weakness, lead to hard feelings for the duration. Philbrick even suggests that the germ of the entire conflict between the two main characters lay in Wilkes not having received the promotion he expected and probably deserved.

While politics under President Van Buren had almost scuttled the expedition before it sailed, on their return four years later, the new President Tyler, a Whig, did not want to acknowledge the accomplishments of an expedition floated by his Democratic predecessor. (Wilkes did not like Tyler: he went to visit the White House and found Tyler and his cronies spitting tobacco juice into the fire "exactly like a North Carolina bar room.") In addition, Daniel Webster was engaged in delicate dealings with England over the border of Maine, and the administration wanted to keep the reported glories of the west coast as their own little secret while the boundary between the U.S. and Canada was being determined. Add to that the scandal of the courts-martial and public disputes between Wilkes and his officers, even about such fundamental events as the date of the first sighting of Antarctica, and one can see how the returning voyagers did not receive hero's welcomes.

Even if you have never heard of Wilkes or the Ex. Ex., the men left a legacy familiar to almost all Americans. At the same time as the ships were returning laden with scientific samples from around the world, Congress was debating how to use half a million dollars in gold coin left by wealthy Englishman James Smithson for the establishment of an institution for the "increase and diffusion of knowledge." And when the Smithsonian Institution was created (the "castle" familiar to all Washington tourists was designed by Wilkes's nephew James Renwick, Jr.) it housed the zoological and geological specimens from the expedition, while the botanical samples went to form the beginnings of the U.S. Botanic Garden. While Wilkes never enjoyed the fame and credit that he expected after having commanded a voyage of this scope, his legacy lives, on the Mall of Washington and the coast of Antarctica.