Friday, August 12, 2011

Charles who?

I'm feeling bummed out that I missed backpacking this year, especially after listening to friends talk about their backpacking trips this summer.  Everyone says it was amazing to see the incredible amount of water in the rivers from the heavy snowfalls.  Oh well - next year schedules will work out better - and I might as well review a book about an explorer who really went out into the great unknown... and saw a lot of water.

Every school child knows of Lewis & Clark, right? But what about Charles Wilkes? Who is Charles Wilkes, you say? Well, he was the leader of the U.S. Exploring Expedition (also known as the Ex. Ex.) from 1838 to 1842. What?!? You've never heard of the U.S. Exploring Expedition? But it accomplished so much:
  • Confirmed the presence of Antarctica as a continent at the bottom of the earth and mapped 1,500 miles of its coast.
  • Charted 800 miles of coast in the Pacific Northwest and 100 miles of the Columbia River.
  • Mapped dozens of islands in the South Pacific, and some of those maps were still being used a hundred years later during WWII.
  • Brought back 40 tons of scientific specimens which included: 4,000 ethnographic artifacts; 50,000 botanical specimens including over a thousand living plants; and thousands of birds, mammals, fish, coral, insects, etc. (much of which became the foundation of the Smithsonian).
  • Collected a tremendous amount of information and data on the diversity of people and places, languages and customs, and scientific observations.
Pretty impressive, huh? But, you might ask, how important (or interesting) could the Ex. Ex. and Charles Wilkes have been if they've been almost completely forgotten? It’s like going to the Moon and not telling anyone. Maybe there's a reason no one bothered to remember (and it's not because Wilkes was humble!).

Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 [Hardcover]But of course, someone has bothered to remember (and write about it). Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 by Nathaniel Philbrick is an outstanding and very readable book that tells the strange story of the Ex. Ex. and its even stranger commander.

Charles Wilkes was a young and inexperienced lieutenant with "an aching need for praise and control." His insecurity "drove him to astounding accomplishments" but also made him his own worst enemy when it came to his relationship with his crew and officers. Upon the return of the Ex. Ex. numerous court martials ensued, becoming a huge embarrassment to the government. Washington politics played a part as well, as the government failed to give Wilkes a promotion that would have given him the authority necessary to command such an important expedition. It didn't help that Wilkes returned a year late and the new administration wasn't eager to report the successes of the prior one. So, the government decided to brush it under the rug and hope for all the ugliness to just go away.

But fortunately, Philbrick didn't ignore it and he does a good job of analyzing the relationships between Wilkes and his men. And the account of Wilkes' time atop Mauna Loa was pretty inspiring. I only wish the scientific accomplishments had played a more central part of the narrative and had been explained better. There's also a lot of nautical terminology which was hard for a landlubber like me to follow. Still, it’s a very interesting bit of history, and the next time you see a map of Antarctica look for a part called Wilkesland, and now you'll know who named it.

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