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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
Wilkes had hoped to land on the rocky islets, but the wind, instead of abating, increased again to a gale and the Vincennes was once more running for her life. When the storm died, Piner’s Bay was sixty miles behind and they could not afford the time to go back. In the meantime, the Porpoise was following behind, making her own landfalls, fighting frequent snowstorms, but having no serious difficulties.
As for the Flying Fish , there had not been a sign since she disappeared early in January. But those who supposed her sunk were wrong. She had been struggling along the edge of the ice, though making poor progress. She was leaking badly; water dripped down even through cracks in the deck as icy waves broke over the little vessel. All aboard lived constantly in cold, wet clothing and slept in wet beds; not surprisingly, they sickened till hardly enough to man the ship were still fit for duty. At last the twelve men in the crew petitioned Lieutenant Robert F. Pinkney, the captain, to turn back; Pinkney’s three officers agreed that it would be useless to try to push on much farther. On February 5 the Flying Fish turned toward Australia.
Lieutenant Wilkes was faced with a similar decision. Fifteen men on the Vincennes were on the sick list, mostly with boils and ulcers, and the ship’s two assistant surgeons warned that if the voyage continued more would undoubtedly be afflicted, until the handling of the ship would be endangered. Wilkes called for the opinions of his officers and of the chief surgeon, Dr. Gilchrist, whom he had suspended from duty in Sydney for a letter “disrespectful and insubordinate to the President of the United States and the Secretary of the Navy, reflecting in gross terms, on their appointment of myself and others, to conduct the Expedition.”
Gilchrist and the officers, almost to a man, advised Wilkes ta end the polar cruise. But the lean-jawed disciplinarian, for whom the word “duty” gleamed in star-spangled letters against a red-white-and-blue sky, had been directed to proceed as far as possible toward Enderby Land, and he was not there yet. “After full consideration of the matter, I came to the conclusion, at whatever hazard to ship and crew, that it was my duty to proceed, and not give up the cruise until the ship should be totally disabled, or it should be evident to all that it was impossible to persist any longer.”
So the cruise continued, through frequent snowstorms and gales that kept the men always cold, wet, and miserable. The surgeons’ warnings were borne out as more and more men fell sick, until thirty were unable to work. Then skies cleared, spirits and health improved in sunny weather, and clothing and bedding dried for the first time in many days.
Wilkes wanted desperately to reach Enderby Land, but while he could disregard sickness among his crew, even this single-minded man could not risk being caught by the approaching winter. On February 21, at longitude 97° E and still about four hundred miles short of Enderby Land, he gave the word to turn north. The Porpoise , meanwhile, had gone only as far as 100° E, then on Wilkes’s orders had back-tracked to examine some places on the coast missed on the westward track. On February 24 she too headed north.
Although Wilkes had failed to join Enderby Land with his own discoveries, he had not the slightest doubt they were part and parcel of one continent which “exists in one uninterrupted line of coast, from Ringgold’s Knoll in the east, to Enderby’s Land, in the west.” The expedition had sailed along 1,500 miles of that coast, the part marked Wilkes Land on maps today, and had proved that an Antarctic continent exists.
At Sydney, Wilkes made copies of his chart of the expedition’s polar discoveries and of his observations on winds, currents, ice, and other phenomena, and left them for James Clark Ross, soon to arrive in Australia. “You have so much knowledge of the ice, and the manner of treating it, that it appears almost presumptuous in me to sit down and give you any hints relative to it,” he wrote to Ross with a humility foreign to him. “But, believing as I do, that the ice of the Antarctic is of a totally different character than that of the Arctic, I venture to offer you a few hints that may be helpful to you.” Ross never acknowledged the unusual courtesy. The reunited squadron, its wounds repaired, left Sydney in March, 1840, cruising first east and then north, surveying and charting as it went, weaving a spider’s web of tracks through the Fiji Islands, the Tongas, the Ellice Islands, the Marshalls, and finally the Sandwich Islands.