A Voyage into Uncharted Waters: The Writing of Sea of Glory

by Nathaniel Philbrick
 

Sea of Glory began with In the Heart of the Sea, my previous book about the sinking of the whaleship Essex by an enraged sperm whale. In that book I explored the dark legacy of the Nantucket whalemen and their struggles amid the watery wilderness of the Pacific. In addition to being ruthlessly effective killers of whales, the Nantucketers were also consummate explorers. Indeed, their relentless pursuit of the sperm whale took them to corners of the earth that not even James Cook and dozens of European exploring expeditions in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries had visited. Without reliable charts, American sailors were forced to sail blind into some of the most dangerous waters in the world. Finally, in 1838, the United States government launched its first exploring and surveying expedition to the Pacific. But the voyage that was intended to tame the dangers of the largest ocean in the world soon found itself at the mercy of a tempestuous commander—a man so driven by torments and doubts that some literary critics have claimed he was the model for Captain Ahab in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. This, I decided, would be the subject of my next book.

The U.S. Exploring Expedition, or "Ex. Ex." for short, was one of the most ambitious undertakings of its time: six sailing vessels and 346 men, including a team of nine scientists and artists, all under the command of the young, brash Lieutenant Charles Wilkes. By any measure, the achievements of the Expedition would be extraordinary. After four years at sea, after losing two ships and twenty-eight officers and men, the Expedition logged 87,000 miles, surveyed 280 Pacific islands, and created 180 charts—some of which were still being used as late as World War II. The Expedition also mapped 800 miles of coastline in the Pacific Northwest, providing the first detailed American charts of what would become the states of Washington and Oregon. The Expedition's scientists collected more than 4,000 zoological specimens, including 2,000 new species, and thousands of ethnographic artifacts that would become the basis of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. They also found evidence confirming Charles Darwin's theory of the formation of coral atolls. But the Expedition's crowning triumph was the exploration of a new southern continent. Battling icebergs and gale force winds in their fragile wooden ships, the Expedition's officers and men surveyed a 1,500-mile section of Antarctic coast that still bears their commander's name: Wilkes Land.

What had happened, I wondered, to cause an expedition that had accomplished so much to sink so quickly into oblivion? It was true that Charles Wilkes was no James Cook. Insecure and egotistical rather than self-effacing and confident, Wilkes had a talent for creating discord and conflict. By the conclusion of the voyage, he had disaffected almost all his officers, and what should have been the triumphant return of the Ex. Ex. was marred by a series of acrimonious courts-martial. Still, this did not account for the fact the Expedition had been almost completely erased from the radar screen of maritime history. From the beginning, I was in search of a way to understand what had really happened during the long four years of the voyage.

Early in my research, I learned about a secret, unpublished journal kept by one of Wilkes's officers—a twenty-two-year-old midshipman named William Reynolds. Reynolds grew up in eastern Pennsylvania, and the journal is now at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster. In this journal, Reynolds recounts in wonderfully evocative prose the untold story of the Expedition—how a group of young, idealistic officers began the voyage idolizing Wilkes only to watch him unaccountably change into an unfeeling tyrant who belittled and mocked the officers whom he had once treated as his friends.

It was with the discovery of yet another unpublished source—dozens of letters that Wilkes had written to his wife Jane during the voyage—that I began to find out what had happened to the Expedition's commander. At an early stop in Rio de Janeiro, he collapsed from exhaustion. In the weeks ahead he struggled to find a leadership style that would adequately insulate him from the pressures of command. What happened to him over the course of the Expedition is part passion play, part object lesson in how the demands of leadership can at once confirm and transform a person's character.

The pivotal moment of the voyage occurred about a year into the Expedition, just as the squadron set out from Peru into the immense wilderness of the Pacific. On July 15, 1839, Wilkes appeared on the quarterdeck of his flagship wearing a captain's uniform. Even though the secretary of the navy had refused to grant him an acting appointment to captain, Lieutenant Wilkes decided that he now deserved the promotion. But there was more to come. As the captain and commander of a squadron, Wilkes felt he was entitled to the honorary rank of Commodore of the U.S. Ex. Ex. So it was that the narrow streamer at the masthead was replaced by the broad, blue, swallow-tailed pennant of a commodore.

It was an audacious, even outrageous act, without precedence in U.S. Navy. But somehow, Wilkes would pull it off, pushing his officers and men to some astounding accomplishments. After surveying a 1,500-mile section of Antarctic coast, thus becoming the first to provide compelling evidence that a continent existed to the south, Wilkes led the squadron to the little known Fiji Group, where the inhabitants possessed a well-deserved reputation for cannibalism. At the island of Malolo, Wilkes's nineteen-year-old nephew Midshipman Wilkes Henry was be bludgeoned to death in a skirmish with the natives. Wilkes responded by burning the village and killing close to a hundred Fijians. In Hawaii, he climbed the giant volcano of Mauna Loa, where he performed pendulum experiments in the midst of a hurricane. In the Pacific Northwest, he followed in the wake of the great British surveyor George Vancouver, charting Puget Sound (Elliott Bay, the site of modern-day Seattle is named for U.S. Midshipman Samuel Elliott) and the Columbia River, where the sloop-of-war Peacock was lost on the bar at the river's mouth. The squadron also ventured to San Francisco Bay and surveyed this sparsely settled region just seven years before it became the staging ground for the Gold Rush. After touching at Manila, Singapore, Capetown, and St. Helena, Wilkes sailed into New York Harbor. The U.S. Ex. Ex. had become the last all-sail squadron to circumnavigate the globe.

America is not generally recognized for its role in global exploration. Instead, it is the exploration of the country's own vast interior, with the Lewis and Clark Expedition leading the way, that is most commonly associated with the United States. And yet, none other than Mark Twain looked to the U.S. Ex. Ex. as an important and inspirational national undertaking. Late in life, the author of Huck Finn and Roughing It remembered the excitement he felt when he learned that Wilkes had discovered Antarctica. "When I was a boy of ten, in that village on the Mississippi River which at that time was so incalculably far from any place and is now so near to all places, the name of Wilkes, the explorer, was in everybody's mouth.... What a noise it made, and how wonderful the glory! Wilkes had discovered a new world and was another Columbus.... [He] had gone wandering about the globe in his ships and had looked with his own eyes upon its furthest corners, its dreamlands—names and places which existed rather as shadows and rumors than as realities." With the publication of Sea of Glory, it is my hope that readers will begin to appreciate and even share some of Twain's youthful enthusiasm for America's first oceangoing voyage of discovery and for the controversial leader who, against all odds, redrew the map of the world.


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