Charles Wilkes and the US Exploring Expedition

This one went to air in late 1989, close to the sesquicentenray of Wilkes' arrival in Sydney. Preparing for it involved reading, among other things, the facsimile of Wilkes' rather contentious 500+ page autobiography, never published in print, but reproduced as a facsimile. He was, shall we say, an interesting case.

It was a dark and moonless night, the night of November 29th, 1839, a hundred and fifty years ago last week. The place was the Heads, at the entrance to Sydney Harbour, and it was just after sunset. Unseen by the watchers on South Head, who were paid to notice such things, two alien warships slipped quietly into Port Jackson.

It wasn't really all that hard for them to sail in: Macquarie Light shone bravely out on South Head showing the way, and they had sailing directions and an accurate chart of the harbour, prepared by Phillip Parker King, about twenty years earlier.

Since that time, a new light had been placed on the only dangerous reef, the Sow and Pigs, but the chart and sailing directions were otherwise complete and accurate. In any case, there were scattered lights along the southern shore, to guide the ships as they sailed in. It wasn't really a great navigational feat, the way the foreign captain later claimed.

The two ships sailed quietly down the harbour to Sydney Cove and dropped anchor: the United States Exploring Expedition had started to reach Sydney. Next morning, according to the Americans, the whole town was shocked and horrified to discover that two foreign warships could approach in this way, all unseen, mind you, to a position where they might have destroyed Sydney, had they so wished.

So what were they doing here, these Americans? The Exploring Expedition, consisting of the two warships, and two other ships which followed a day or so afterwards, was on the way to explore the Antarctic, to go where no man had gone before, to discover new realms.

I suppose it was pretty inevitable that I'd one day turn to the study of Antarctic exploration. After all, Charles Laseron who wrote South With Mawson used to live in a house that backed on to ours, and my first science teacher, the man we called "Penguin" Watson, was another of those fabulous south-gangers.

And yet it was a completely different line of enquiry that brought me to the United States Exploring Expedition. You see, one of those who visited Sydney with the American fleet was James Dwight Dana, the man who gave us that classic of geology that we still know, even in its most recent editions, as Dana's Mineralogy.

But what was a geologist doing, sailing around the world in a flotilla of US naval craft, I wondered? I mean, sailors usually prefer to steer clear of rocks, don't they? You'd think the pickings for a ship-board geologist would be slim, limited to what you could dredge up from a great depth, or find stuck to the anchor.

Maybe, I thought, it was something to do with his distant relative, Richard Dana, who dropped out of legal studies to travel around Cape Horn, a trip that Richard later celebrated in the famous book Two Years Before the Mast.

But no, geologist James was on the maritime kick first, for he'd been a sea-borne tutor in mathematics to midshipmen in 1833, well before Richard's trip. In those days, midshipmen were sent to sea in training ships, and taught practical skills as they went. So off he sailed, off round the Mediterranean for sixteen months.

James Dana made the trip mainly so he could examine famous geological features in the breaks between his mathematics classes. Then, when that cruise was over, Dana returned to America as a junior assistant in a college, and just a few years after, published his System of Mineralogy at the ripe old age of 24, in 1837. The seventh edition of Dana's Mineralogy, by the way, was completed in 1962, so you can see that the book is something of a perennial.

And that was how the US Navy came to import this bright young man, already blooded in a sixteen-months cruise, when they headed off into the Pacific in 1838. There were going to be lots of rocks to be seen, and I suspect that there might just have been the odd Colonialist glint in the eyes of those who wrote Wilkes' orders in Washington.

The US authorities even admitted to grubby commercial considerations as the prime concern of the expedition, and if the Americans did have any colonial ambitions, it would be handy to have somebody along who could recognise valuable minerals when they turned up.

At that time, whale fishing alone accounted for ten per cent of all US ships on the seas, and the annual loss of ships on uncharted reefs and islands was about as much as the total anticipated cost of the expedition. But if that was all they had in mind, just the charting of new reefs and islands, there was no need of a geologist: a navigator was what they really wanted.

And so we come to Wilkes, an expert navigator. Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, as he was then, though he was a Rear-Admiral before he died, and rather lucky as well.

Incredibly lucky, in fact. Exploring Polar seas is best done by experienced people in strong vessels: Charles Wilkes went into the howling Antarctic gales, totally inexperienced, in four veritable cockle-shells, and yet he came out with all his ships intact. The crew were scurvy-ridden, but he brought them back.

Then again, being court-martialled and found guilty is usually enough to ruin any naval officer's career. Wilkes was court-martialled twice, and found guilty twice, the second time for almost provoking war with England, and yet he still ended up Rear Admiral.

When I learned this, I decided that maybe Wilkes was an interesting character who ought to be further investigated. Well after all, he left his name on the Antarctic continent, in Wilkes' Land, didn't he? In the end, I was right and I was wrong.

A specialist in charts and navigation, Wilkes had sailed to England in 1836 to purchase books and instruments for the expedition. While there, he met with James Clark Ross, soon to command a British expedition to find the South Magnetic Pole, and their paths were to cross again, rather disastrously for Wilkes, in southern waters.

But back to Wilkes. After fitting out, he led his motley flotilla of six ships out to sea in August 1838. The largest was a 780 ton sloop, Vincennes, and the rest were all even smaller, down to a couple of hundred-ton tenders, Flying Fish and Sea Gull. By the time they reached Sydney in 1839, a stores ship had been sent back to America, and Sea Gull had been lost with all hands, so the fleetlet was down to four ships when they arrived in Sydney.

Many writers have been critical of the structural weakness and small size of Wilkes' ships, given that they were to sail in Antarctic waters. As a matter of fact, the people of Sydney were unimpressed by the fleet as suitable vessels for tackling the icy wastes, but this was only one of the Americans' aims, just a small part a four-year cruise around the Pacific, and around the world.

A little pilot boat like Flying Fish was ideal for surveying and charting in close to coral reefs. Yet while they were suited to exploring the ice-free waters further north, the vessels lacked sufficient strengthening, and they were poorly insulated.

In fairness, we should note that Wilkes had tried reinforced ships: in his autobiography, he records that the ships handled appallingly. On top of that, they couldn't carry enough gear, and so Wilkes was forced to accept something rather second-best, a compromise.

From a scientific view-point, his trip to the ice was most disappointing. All of the scientists were left behind in Sydney, ostensibly because they would be "worse than a useless appendage".

There may have been more than this, for whatever was found on the trip was to be kept a secret by the US government, and the scientists would have this urge to publish, wouldn't they? And what did the US government hope to find? Why, Symmes' Hole, of course! At least, I think that's what they were after. They denied it so often, they must have been looking for Symmes' Hole.

Symmes was an American military gentleman, who had a novel idea about the world's structure. It was hollow, he said. Those Magellanic clouds in the southern sky weren't really collections of stellar matter, way out in space: they were reflections of other worlds, inside the earth, accessible only by holes that opened out near the poles.

Symmes almost got congressional support to mount an expedition to find these holes in the 1820s, and the idea was still about in the late 1830s, though nobody of any sense believed the yarn. But if there was any hope in anybody's mind about finding Symmes' Hole in the Antarctic, it would make good sense to keep the whole business secret from the scientists, just in case you failed. Still, whatever the reason, Dana and the other scientists were all left behind in Sydney.

This enforced stay in Sydney gave Dana time to contemplate, to think things over. He'd already been studying coral islands, and had some glimmerings of an idea as to how they were formed.

While he was in Sydney, Dana read a short newspaper account of Charles Darwin's ideas: these were in accord with Dana's own ideas, and he was spurred on to gather even more information to support their joint theory.

Meanwhile, some distance to the south, Wilkes had found no holes leading into the interior, and no land either, apart from Adelie Land, discovered by Dumont D'urville, just seven days earlier.

At anchor in the Bay of Islands in New Zealand, Wilkes had dashed off a quick letter and a sketch map for his friend Ross, to save Ross time in his own search. As it happened, though, Ross was more interested in magnetic variations, and so he sailed over the same area. And where Wilkes recorded land at 65o40' South, 165o East, Ross could find no bottom with a six-hundred-fathom line. Wilkes' alleged coast-line was at least a kilometre under water!

Wilkes had been wrong. Either he'd misinterpreted cloud as land, which is easy to do, or he'd made an error in navigation. Whatever the cause, he was wrong. Ross tried to make this error known to Wilkes on the quiet. Sadly, Ross used an intermediary by the name of Aulick, another American naval officer who was in the Pacific, and who claimed to be a friend of Wilkes'. He wasn't.

Aulick took great pleasure in spreading the word far and wide around the Pacific that Wilkes had got it all wrong, that there was no land there at all, that the English had proved this. Aulick's pleasure may have been related to the fact that he had tried to talk Wilkes into giving up the command.

Wilkes lacked experience, he suggested. Quite obviously, Aulick felt that he would have been better choice, and Wilkes did not endear himself to the older man when he clicked his fingers under Aulick's nose before walking off. And so Aulick took his gleeful revenge on Wilkes.

This meant that Wilkes was not only denied his discovery of new land, he was made to look universally foolish, both in the Pacific, and back in America.

Ah, you may say though, what about Wilkes Land in Antarctica? He must have discovered that, surely? Well, I'll let Sir Douglas Mawson answer that question for us. After all, it was Sir Douglas who discovered what we now call Wilkes' Land.

To this country, which had never before been seen, was given the name of Wilkes's Land, to commemorate that great American Exploring Expedition.

Though Wilkes fixed such names as Knox Land, North's High Land etc., to coasts reported to have been seen by him, it has been left for us to commemorate his own name in like manner by attaching it to this new stretch of coast.

So in the end, what did Wilkes achieve? Well, the expedition collected much useful information, and many useful plants, all round the Pacific, ranging from close to Antarctica, all the way up to Japan, and he circumnavigated the world.

James Dana gained the time to mature his scientific thinking, and Dana, Louis Agassiz and Asa Gray all worked on the expedition's collections, describing and detailing them, and the abridged version of the report became a minor classic of the 19th century. Wilkes has also given rise to a rather interesting display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

But Wilkes didn't find Symmes' Hole, he didn't discover new lands in Antarctic waters, and I don't think he really frightened the burghers of Sydney by rudely landing, unannounced, in their midst.

You see, I've read the local papers for the whole of the period of his visit, and hardly a reference to the expedition could I find, and certainly no breath of scandal about enemy warships sneaking in.

I suspect that tale was all the fabrication of a cranky old man, rather careless of the truth at the best of times, scrawling out his autobiography in his declining days. One thing is sure: Wilkes says he sailed ten miles up the harbour to anchor at Sydney Cove, and that's impossible.

Or at least I think it is. I live in Manly, and I'm currently checking the records to see if any strange keel marks were found, running down the Corso, late in 1839. For unless he sailed over dry land, there can be no way that he travelled ten miles down the harbour to Sydney Cove.

But it was a dark and moonless night: my colleague Nick Lomb at Sydney Observatory checked it for me in his tables -- they're rather good at that up at the Observatory -- and the moon rose rather late, around midnight. So that part of the story is indeed confirmed as true, unless of course Wilkes sailed in later than he told us: after all, nobody actually saw him, did they?

And something that Wilkes doesn't tell us, and maybe didn't even know himself, is equally true: Wilkes seems to have been, at least in part, the model on whom Herman Melville based his character, Captain Ahab. You know, Captain Ahab as in Moby Dick. And that's got to be better than frightening a few burghers of Sydney, surely?


Post scriptum: Some two months after this went to air, I read Anthony Trollope's account of his travels in Australia, (and in passing of the huge fortifications around Sydney Harbour). Trollope makes it very clear that the major worry for Sydney-siders around 1871 was the Americans. Look, the folk of Sydney said, at the Alabama case and the Trent case. The Trent case was the incident which led to Wilkes' second court-martial. So maybe Wilkes was telling the truth after all!

This is one of a set of talks which were originally heard on ABC Radio National in Australia. All of the talks are copyright © Peter Macinnis, 2001, but permission will be readily granted on request for educational and most non-profit purposes. Contact Peter Macinnis specifying the talk(s) you want, and the purpose to which they will be put. For the rest of the talks, go to Six Months of Sundays.