In the summer of 1838, six oddly assorted ships rode at anchor in a Virginia harbor, awaiting orders to sail. After nearly twenty years of hesitation, confusion, and bickering, the United States of America was about to launch a voyage of exploration and scientific discovery that was to circumnavigate the globe.
The commander of the expedition was Lieutenant Charles Wilkes of the U.S. Navy, a lean, thin-faced man of forty. Disaster was an ever-present fear, for the ships under his command were already unseaworthy. And would his men be willing to obey him, a mere lieutenant, if disaster occurred in the frigid Antarctic waters?
Charles Wilkes's fears were to be borne out, for many in his crew deserted and his officers were rebellious; one of his ships was lost and several more were put out of commission; his scientific staff quarreled with him and each other. Nevertheless, Wilkes's expedition produced impressive results. His charts of the Pacific were still in use during World War II; he established that the Antarctic was a land mass; his explorations in Oregon opened up the territory.
The erratic trail of Wilkes and his ships from the United States, down along the Antarctic continent, up through the South Seas, and back home by way of the Oregon territory and the Far East, is thoroughly documented here and laced with the commander's words — for he kept a detailed diary — and those of his companions. The dangerous and often frustrating voyage of these ill-equiped ships and their unbending commander will long be remembered in the permannent annals of exploration.
Charles Wilkes may have accomplished something great with his voyage of circumnavigation, the first major scientific naval expedition sponsored by the United States, but he was no shining hero. By all accounts, he was quite a flawed character for all his brilliance, vain and self-centered, stern to a fault, and sometimes amazingly cruel. In typical Silverberg fashion, we get a balanced portrait of the man – when Wilkes results to violence to punish South Seas islanders, the incident is placed in its time and place. His actions by today's standards would be considered absolutely inconscionable, and he would be on trial for crimes against humanity. In his own time, he was thought to have overreacted, and many of the men in the expedition lost respect for him.
The first chapter is concerned primarily with the lengthy political battles that went on before the journey could even begin, an intriguing portrait of the US government of former days. Parties and personalities clashed, administrations changed, and the result was a poorly-planned voyage with ill-equipped ships not at all suited to the task they were given. The command of the expedition was offered to a variety of Captains during the years leading up to departure, all of whom dropped out, leaving only a lieutenant to command the flotilla (a fact that caused much dissent during the expedition). Great credit must be given to Wilkes and his men for merely surviving, let alone accomplish anything worth remembering after all these years.
Another interesting fact about the Wilkes expedition is that when the survivors returned, the man who had led them was greeted not as a hero, but with a court-martial on a variety of charges, from frivolous nonsense to actual incidents.
I was struck by the similarities between The real-life Wilkes expedition and the fictional expedition of Trajan Draco in
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