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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
When the squadron sailed north, therefore, Wilkes had no way of knowing the Relief was safe. Fearing the worst, he ordered the Sea Gull and the Flying Fish to follow behind the other three vessels, searching the grim coast for the missing storeship. As they coursed among the sheer islands and reefs, one of the terrible Cape storms lashed the area. The Flying Fish found shelter and suffered no harm, but the Sea Gull was never heard from again; three officers and eight men disappeared with her.
The expedition stopped at Valparaiso, where the Relief joined up again, and at Callao in Peru. There was sightseeing, scientific work, and the inevitable repair work on the ships. On one occasion it was necessary to punish two recaptured deserters, and also a working party and its marine guard who had become overly absorbed in their work while transferring liquor from the Relief . Wilkes did not convene a courtmartial, but himself ordered the men lashed—thirtysix and forty-one stripes for the two deserters, twentyfour each for the bibulous members of the working party. The number is important, for, while a commanding officer of that day had authority to order a flogging, Navy Regulations strictly limited it to twelve stripes unless a court-martial recommended more. Wilkes would hear about this incident later.
The Relief had been a hindrance to the squadron because of her slowness. Wilkes at last got rid of her and of Lieutenant Long by sending the vessel home, by way of Australia, where she was to leave her stores for the squadron’s later use. Twice as much time was allowed as Long needed, according to Wilkes, but he barely got to Australia ahead of the expedition. The squadron, now reduced to the Vincennes , Peacock , Porpoise , and Flying Fish , sailed west into the South Pacific.
Its first objective was the Tuamotu Archipelago, whose eighty-odd atolls and islets it spent more than a month charting. Boats tried to land on one island, Réao, but the natives came to the beach shouting (according to John Sac, Wilkes’s Tahitian interpreter) “Go to your own land; this belongs to us.” Apparently they had had previous meetings with whalers or other bearers of the white man’s culture. When the landing party persisted, it was driven back by brandished spears and a shower of coral rocks. One of the scientists, trying to swim in with gifts, was also put to flight.
There was nothing of importance on the island, and Wilkes had been instructed that the expedition was not to interfere with native customs or to commit any hostile act except in self-defense. But it became very important to him to show these people that they could not defy the United States Navy. He ordered Titian Peale and an officer, both excellent marksmen, to load their guns with mustard seed, a very fine shot, “which caused the chief and all the rest to retreat, rubbing their legs.” The officers in the party landed very briefly, and Wilkes had made his point that a group of Polynesians were no match for the U.S. Navy.
From the Tuamotu Archipelago the expedition moved on to Tahiti, to Pago Pago in Samoa, and finally to Sydney, Australia, arriving there at the end of November, 1839. On the way, Wilkes had nipped another incipient mutiny. One dark night “Old Piner,” the signal quartermaster, one of the oldest in the service “and a very faithful and tried seaman,” stole up to Wilkes to relate that he had overheard one of the scientists, Mr. Couthouy, inciting some of the officers to oppose Wilkes’s authority. At the first opportunity, Wilkes called a meeting of all officers involved and confounded them by revealing that he knew their plans. He threatened to drop Couthouy on the first desert island if he did not behave himself, and he warned the officers that nothing was going to interfere with the work of the expedition. That completely ended the attempt. Or at least, that was the way Wilkes remembered it when he wrote his personal account for his children years after the event.
At Sydney, the squadron made ready for another try at the Antarctic. Half a year in the blue waters and soft airs of the South Pacific had done wonders for all aboard, but it had not helped the vessels, especially the decaying old Peacock . After her carpenter had gone over her carefully, Lieutenant Hudson reported the grim details to Wilkes: “[I] feel it is my duty to state to you … that the Peacock’s sheer-streak, to which the channels are bolted and ports hung, is perfectly decayed, fore and aft, and that all the stanchions of the upper-deck bulwarks, are either rotten, or in an advanced state of decay. Against these defects, however, I feel it is my duty to contend, without anticipating any thing but favourable results, but at the same time prepared for the worst that may occur.” It requires no understanding of the almost-forgotten terminology of sailing-ship days to get the import of Hudson’s report: the Peacock had no business going into the Antarctic. But Wilkes was obsessed with carrying out the letter of his orders at whatever cost, and the Peacock was patched as well as possible.