- Historic Sites
One of his ships was rotten, his cold-weather gear was totally inadequate, and his officers resented him. But Lieutenant Wilkes had his orders—and off into the unknown Antarctic he sailed
August 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 5
The way there was not all white beaches and coral atolls during the day and starlit waters at night. Icebergs and polar storms may have been left behind, but the blue lagoons of the South Seas held their own dangers. The survey of the Fijis had been proceeding without incident because the expedition had been forewarned that the natives were belligerent and carefully avoided contact with them. But at Malolo, the last island in the group, Lieutenant Alden, in charge of a survey party, foolishly sent two boats ashore to try to obtain some pigs, fruit, and other provisions. The natives attacked the landing party and killed two officers, one of whom was Midshipman Wilkes Henry, nephew of the squadron’s commander. In retaliation, Wilkes put ashore a punitive force which attacked the island’s main village with rifle and rocket fire. Many of the native men were killed; women and children were permitted to escape, but the town itself was reduced to ruins.
The expedition had been charged, among many other things, with making the seas safe for American whalers and merchantmen by drawing up commercial treaties with chiefs, by acting as peacemaker in native wars, and by administering punishment to teach natives to respect American mariners (nothing was said about teaching American mariners to respect natives). A specific case for which Wilkes had been directed to obtain satisfaction had occurred seven long years before, in 1834, at Rewa in the Fijis. A native chief named Vendovi had led an attack on the brig Charles Doggett from Salem, Massachusetts, and killed ten of the crew. Vendovi was still around and active; Lieutenant Hudson captured him by inviting the entire royal family of the island aboard the Peacock and then seizing the chief.∗
∗ It was less than a glorious victory. Chief Vendovi turned out to be the most tractable of prisoners; he showed no anger or resentment, but in all good nature and gentleness he simply weakened as his home was left farther behind. When the expedition reached the United States he was placed in the Naval Hospital. There he died of what the doctors of the time could only describe as a gradual decline in health. He is remembered in a small way; very shortly after he died, item No. 30, “Cranium of Vendovi,” was added to the collections of the expedition, and the skull is today part of the ethnological collections of the Smithsonian Institution.
After its long months of cruising and island charting, the squadron arrived in September at the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands, where it spent several months because it was—so Wilkes thought—too late in the year to go on to the northwest coast of North America. He used the time for making gravitational measurements on the summit and base of Mauna Loa; he sent Hudson and the Peacock , with the Flying Fish , all the way back to Samoa to check some surveys that did not look quite right to him, and also to examine little-known parts of the Ellice and Kingsmill islands. In the latter group a seaman disappeared one day under circumstances that made it almost certain he had been murdered. When the natives refused to give any information, Hudson dispatched a landing party of about eighty men who routed some eight hundred warriors, killing about twenty and destroying their village.
On April 3, 1841, Wilkes with the Vincennes and Porpoise left for the Pacific Northwest, where they arrived in May. They explored Puget Sound and the Juan de Fuca Strait before ascending the Columbia River, where the scientists happily sketched unfamiliar birds and measured giant trees. The Peacock and the Flying Fish arrived in July to join them, but the weary old Peacock was nearing her end. Lieutenant Hudson, trying to enter the Columbia, ran his ship aground on the great bar at the river’s mouth. The vessel began beating herself apart in the cross-flow of surf, tide, and river current. The first boat put into the water was stove to pieces. By the next morning the sea was a little quieter and all aboard were taken off, though with nothing but the clothes they wore. One of the boats capsized on the beach, not by rolling over but by pitching end over end, the men spilling out like peas shaken out of a pod. Yet not a life was lost, although several men were injured.