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After 120 Years, Vindication

May 2024
1min read

The vindication of Charles Wilkes has continued clown to the present day. Although the shadows cast on his discoveries by vengeful persons have been dispelled over the years—after all, the Antarctic coast is there, and it has proved to be a continent, just as he said—one important segment of his claims was not entirely cleared of doubt until recently. His very first glimpses of Antarctica, beginning on January 16, 1840, remained unverified. Some of Wilkes’s officers claimed at his court-martial that he had falsified his log and had claimed the early sightings only to achieve priority over the Frenchman Dumont d’Urville, who had made his first landfall on January 19 some four hundred miles to the west. These charges were refuted at the trial by other witnesses who swore that land had been sighted; the accusations were easy enough to dismiss as the fabrications of disgruntled subordinates. Not so easy to cast aside were the sailing reports of later mariners who had cruised—in deep water and out of sight of land—right over the positions where Wilkes had charted mountains and named them: Ringgold’s Knoll, Eld’s Peak, Reynolds’ Peak.

Then, a little more than half a dozen years ago, two Australians, Phillip G. Law, who was directing his country’s Antarctic operations, and B. P. Lambert, interested themselves in the unverified Wilkes claims. The two men had explored and charted the coast which Wilkes’s enemies claimed he had not seen; they also had aerial photographs of the region taken by the U.S. Navy’s Operation Highjump in 1947. When Law and Lambert compared their own charts and the American photographs with the positions plotted by Wilkes, they found a striking similarity in the configuration of the coastline.

Though Wilkes’s positions did not coincide in latitude and longitude with those of Law and Lambert, the Australians discovered that if the features of Wilkes’s map were shifted 116 miles to the south and eighteen miles to the west, his mountains and theirs would coincide very nicely. The two men felt that such a difference in position could easily have been caused by the crudities of Wilkes’s navigational instruments and by the peculiar atmospheric conditions of the Antarctic, which can make distant objects appear close at hand.

So certain were the Australians that three of the peaks they had mapped were the same ones sighted by Wilkes that they had no hesitation in giving them the same names. So, after 120 years, the names Ringgold Knoll, Eld Peak, and Reynolds Peak finally appeared on maps of the Antarctic.

—R. K. A.

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