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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
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.
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.∗