Charles Wilkes’ Voyage

Charles Wilkes’ Voyage May 21, 2004

Also in the April 30 TLS is a review of Nathaniel Philbrick’s book on the South Seas expedition of 1838-1842, sponsored by the U.S. government and placed under the command of Charles Wilkes. It was one of the greatest sea expeditions ever launched: “six ships with a crew of 346 men would travel 87,000 miles, survey 280 Pacific islands, create 180 charts [some of which were still in use in World War II], map 800 miles of coastline in the Pacific North-West, and 1,500 of the Antarctic coast before they returned home. The expedition’s scientists would make thousands of new discoveries, returning with some forty tonnes of specimens and artefacts in their ships’ holds.” When those specimens returned to the States, there was no place to put them, and “The Smithsonian Institute was founded as a direct consequence, while the United States Botanic Garden, the National Herbarium, the United States Hydrographic Office and the Naval Observatory all owe their existences, to some degree, to the same voyage.” As if that were not reason enough to remember the voyage, Philbrick argues that Wilkes, a capable but intense and cruel commander, was the model for Melville’s Captain Ahab.

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