A great voyage propelled and sunk by its leader
Charles Wilkes's expedition in 1838 transformed the sciences, but life aboard was so contentious that scandal overshadowed his success
It was 19th-century Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle who put forward the theory that history is shaped by the acts of Great Men. US Navy Lt. Charles Wilkes perhaps belongs to a more exclusive group of characters, fictional and historical, who embody the Flawed Great Man Theory, which provides that people who accomplish amazing things often do so despite horrendous shortcomings.
Undoubtedly, the lasting legacy of the US South Seas Exploring Expedition of 1838, which Wilkes led, lies in the kick-start it gave to scientific inquiry in America.
Despite a series of disasters, the Ex. Ex., as the voyage was known, brought back a vast collection of 4,000 objects, numerous journals, drawings, and charts that became a rich resource for new inquiries into biology, ethnography, and geography. It also cemented a lasting relationship between the US government, which underwrote the project, and the sciences.
The expedition, which included six ships (only two of which completed the voyage) and 346 men, nine of them scientists, was the first to sight the Antarctic land mass and chart 1,500 miles of its coast. It also mapped the coast of present-day Oregon and Washington and part of the mighty Columbia River, drawing the region more firmly toward American control.
This tremendous adventure yarn offers maze-like ice floes, savage cannibals, belching volcanoes, storms, and shipwreck. In "Sea of Glory," National Book Award winner Nathaniel Philbrick gives a proper nod to the scientific accomplishments of the Ex. Ex. and reserves plenty of exciting prose for its hair-raising details. But he frames his compelling story mostly as a study of its leader.
"Wilkes was a great man," Philbrick says. "But he was also vain, impulsive, and often cruel." And those are only a few of the shortcomings piled on the Ex. Ex. commander. Others include being aloof, condescending, "near the edge of a nervous breakdown," egocentric, childish, "delusional if not delirious," and "a haughty unfeeling tyrant."
Though "Wilkes had an almost preternatural ability to get under an officer's skin," Philbrick suggests that his mostly callow officers might have been too immature to let his insults pass. Despite these considerable failings, Wilkes was "a remarkably resilient and resourceful survivor," Philbrick says. One of his officers conceded that he possessed "indomitable perseverance & tenacity ... like a cork that cannot be sunk." He also wrote loving letters to his wife, Jane, and grieved when his young nephew, a member of the expedition, died in a battle with island natives. He was egocentric, but of the almost 300 places in the state of Washington today named by the Ex. Ex., Wilkes put his own name on none.
Apparently he felt surrounded by incompetent and malcontent officers, and sent several home early, later filing charges against them. In turn, they told tales of horrendous behavior by Wilkes. Upon completion of the expedition in 1842, he was subjected to a court-martial.
None of the grievances of his officers held up in court, and his only guilt was found to be in the excessive flogging of his sailors and marines.
Would a cooler head, a less flawed great man, have made the mission more successful? "Probably not," Philbrick concludes, citing the mission's astounding accomplishments. But "Wilkes's hunger for glory had permanently tainted what might otherwise have been recognized as one of the most courageous feats of exploration of the 19th century," Philbrick says. The Ex. Ex., which traveled 87,000 miles, circumnavigated the globe and surveyed 280 Pacific Islands. It was deemed a scandal, not a triumph.
Wilkes and his crew returned from their harrowing voyage to find a nation underwhelmed by its accomplishments, including a new administration in the White House that was reluctant to shower praise upon an enterprise begun by its predecessor.
Philbrick's narrative has elements of Ernest Shackleton, Ferdinand Magellan, and Sir Edmund Hillary rolled together: the perils of icy water in the Antarctic Circle; the force of storms that pound a ship to pieces at the mouth of the Columbia; the terrors of ascending into Hawaii's 13,677-foot snowcapped active volcano Mauna Loa. But it's fundamentally the tale of a tempest between a leader and his men.
• Gregory Lamb is on the Monitor staff.