Sea of Glory


Nathanial Philbrick




Date Reviewed:

October 1, 2006

his book is a nice find for me. It is details the events of a four year scientific expedition by the young American nation to explore the Pacific, its primary mission was to investigate whether a continent existed at the South Pole.

In 1838, six ships set sail on the US Exploring Expedition (known as the "Ex Ex"). Just looking at the map off the route followed by the Expedition is amazing - Antarctica, Hawaii, Seattle, Australia, Fiji, the straits of Magellan - the expedition covered a lot of the globe, surveying and picking up scientific samples - the collection was huge and ultimately became a large part of the original Smithsonian display. The ships were all sailing ships, not steam powered, so the violent storms in the southern ocean are perilous. It is hard to imagine ships battling against the waves and wind for 30 days at a time, but apparently that is one the hardships faced in the age of sail.

The commander of the Ex Ex is Lieutenant Charles Wilkes. Unfortunately, he appears to have a been an paranoid egomaniac, routinely dismissing the most competent junior officers because he fears they are a threat to his command. Wilkes bullies everyone who questions his judgement, but unfortunately some of his decisions place the ships and crew members in perilous situations. Ultimately, when Wilkes returns, it is not as a hero, but to face charges in a court martial. One of his worst offenses is locking some marines in the brig when they refuse to re-enlist after their original commitment is over. Ultimately, Wilkes has them whipped until they finally break down and sign on again. About the only defense for Wilkes is that conditions in the British navy at that time are even more brutal.

Wilkes does sail along the coast of Antarctica (which is why a huge stretch of shore there is now called Wilkes land). Wilkes does make an exhausting survey of various island chains (some of the charts from this expedition were used up until World War 2.) The expedition surveys the Columbia River (The Louisiana Purchase had occurred only a few years earlier, and America wanted to know what the land it bought surveyed.) Wilkes sails into Puget Sound (Elliot Bay, just outside the city of Seattle, is named for one of the crew members). An overland expedition marches 800 miles from the Columbia River down to San Francisco Bay, but unfortunately there doesn't seem to be much record of this, because there aren't any descriptions of that adventure in this book. Wilkes carries pendulums up to the top of Mauna Kea to make gravity measurements at an elevation of 13,000 feet. The expedition gets involved in bloody warfare with the Fiji islanders (who apparently are ferocious cannibals - this was no South Seas island paradise!)

I liked this book better than Philbrick's award winning In the Heart of the Sea. I had never heard of this epic expedition, it seems strange that is never gets mentioned in history texts. It is the naval equivalent of the Lewis and Clark terrestrial exploration. I guess that because Wilkes behavior alienated everyone, so he seems more villain instead of hero, is why he doesn't show up more often in the pages of the history texts - there is an irony to that, because glory and recognition are what drove Wilkes in the first place!