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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 expedition’s first port of call was Madeira, from where Wilkes reported that the Peacock had developed leaks which her pumps could do nothing about because the iron hoops around them had rusted through and the pumps had fallen apart. It was another shocking example of laxness in navy-yard inspection and repair procedures, and Wilkes not only reported it as such but added some reflections on the diligence and competence of the navy-yard command.
The Vincennes arrived at Rio de Janeiro on November 23, 1838, and was greeted by “Hail Columbia” played by the band of the U.S.S. Independence , 54 guns, flying the flag of Commodore John B. Nicholson. Wilkes, having no band, could not respond in kind, and he refused to fire gun salutes for fear the concussions might disturb the ship’s chronometers and upset his scientific observations. “I waited upon Commodore Nicholson and fully explained to him the circumstances,” Wilkes later noted in a personal account of his career written for his children, “but he appeared somewhat put out, and it was industriously circulated that I had intentionally treated him with disrespect.” (There were always plots going on behind Wilkes’s back; how many of them took place only in his imagination it is impossible to say.)
The Brazilian government allowed Wilkes to use a small island in the bay for his scientific observations. When Commodore Nicholson came visiting in full dress uniform, Wilkes would not permit him to approach the magnetic instruments until he removed his sword, at which the Commodore “seemed somewhat vexed.” For that reason, Wilkes prudently declined when invited to be Nicholson’s guest a few evenings later at a function where foreign officials would be .present; he was certain the Commodore planned to give him some deliberate affront in retaliation for the sword incident.
The cat-and-mouse game continued, with the Commodore no match for Wilkes. The bread stores on the Relief began to go weevily, and were landed and over- hauled under Hudson’s direction, to separate the good from the bad. While the work was going on, Nicholson chanced by and gruffed that the weevily bread would have been good enough for his crew and should not be wasted. When Wilkes learned of the visit, he remarked that if the bread was good enough for the Commodore’s crew, then his crew should have it. After obtaining a supply of fresh bread, he sent the bad stuff with an official letter to the Commodore. “Captain Hudson and myself had much fun and many a hearty laugh over the circumstances,” he wrote in his personal account.
But while he was having hearty laughs about putting one over on a commodore, he was not relaxing his iron grip on the expedition. At times he seems to have imposed discipline for the sake of discipline. When Lieutenant George Emmons of the Peacock and some friends heard that no Americans had climbed Rio’s famous Sugarloaf Mountain, they made the difficult ascent. Emmons was under the delusion that Wilkes would actually praise their initiative, especially since they collected a large number of botanical specimens on their way down. Instead, Wilkes sent off a formal letter to Hudson: I learn with surprise & regret that an officer of your ship made an excursion to an important height in this vicinity without obtaining the necessary instruments for its correct measurement; as it results only in the idle and boastful saying that its summit has been reached, instead of an excursion which might have been useful to the expedition.
There were other incidents at Rio de Janeiro which Wilkes felt required disciplinary action. He discovered —or thought he did—that some of the officers were not only deliberately slighting their scientific observations, but were ridiculing those who were zealous. He took care of that, so he wrote, by assembling all officers and warning them he would tolerate nothing that affected the accuracy of his scientific work.
On another occasion, when the Relief was due to sail, Wilkes received a note from her captain, Lieutenant A. K. Long, saying that he would not be ready because of certain essential repairs. Wilkes demanded to know the nature of the repairs; they were, in his opinion, trivial, and he sent boats from the other ships and told Long that his ship would be towed out of the harbor at the scheduled departure time if he did not sail. Long sailed. Wilkes already had a low opinion of Long, who had required a hundred days, an inordinately long time, to sail from the United States to Rio de Janeiro. Although the Relief was a sluggish ship, most of the delay was Long’s fault for not taking advantage of the trade winds. Wilkes found it hard to believe an officer could be so stupid.
A month had been spent at Rio de Janeiro making extensive repairs to the ships, and it was January before the squadron started south again. Almost two more months were required to reach and establish a base at Orange Harbor in Nassau Bay, near the tip of Tierra del Fuego. There, carrying out his orders, Wilkes left the Vincennes and took command of the Porpoise . The Relief was also left behind, and with it all the civilian scientists except Titian Peale.