Smithsonian’s Pacific Origins

SmithsonianI’ve always been a binge reader. Sometimes people mistake that for erudition, but if you pay close attention to my ranting, you’ll notice I repeat myself a lot. Not that I say the same things over and over (although my wife may disagree), but I definitely quote the same people with distressing frequency. That’s because, when I decide I like a particular writer, I read everything that writer ever wrote.

By the time I was 10 years old, I had read all the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe and committed to memory every insipid line of his poetry. By 12, I read all the short fiction of Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling. By 14, all the lyrical nonsense of Jack London and Robert Louis Stevenson. The usual bibliography of a young boy, in other words. As an adult, my tastes have been maybe a little more eclectic, but no less monomaniacal. In school, I underwent sequential obsessions with Lawrence Durrell, Samuel Beckett, Peter Mattheissen, Milan Kundera, Jorge Luis Borges, and Roddy Doyle.

But my biggest obsessions have always been nonfiction. While in school, I discovered essayists like Steven Jay Gould, Lewis Thomas, and Loren Eisley. I gorged myself on the grandees of the New Yorker, E. B. White, Joseph Mitchell and John McPhee. And it’s not just individual authors that pinion me; my bookshelves are knotted with clusters of books on surprisingly few, if diverse, themes. There are dozens of books on sailing and the maritime arts. I have a library of dictionaries and grammars in foreign languages I barely speak. I seem drawn to revisionist histories of single subjects: cod, coffee, poison, lobsters etc. And every trip I’ve ever taken has apparently encumbered me with a new manual of birds or flowers or insects. In short, the obsessions of my old age are no less limited than those of my youth.

So you won’t be surprised to learn that, after reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s “In the Heart of the Sea, The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex”, I immediately went out and got “Sea of Glory, America’s Voyage of Discovery”, his epic description of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, a four-year odyssey involving six ships, hundreds of sailors, and a squadron of botanists, geologists, linguists and cartographers. The Ex Ex, as it came to be called, also turned out to be the last voyage of discovery completed entirely under sail.

The goals of the Ex Ex were ambitious ones. They were to confirm the existence of the continent of Antarctica, which neither Cook nor Tasman ever got close enough to see, due to the threat of sea ice and bad weather. They were to chart and explore the great Northwest coast of North American, the Columbia River basin, and the islands of Fiji, all crucial to the continued commercial success of the country’s far-flung whaling and sealing fleets. Most importantly, the Ex Ex was to serve as symbol of America’s growing power as an industrial and scientific nation.

But this 19th Century voyage of discovery was in many ways benighted. The leader of the expedition, Lt. Charles Wilkes, who in many ways seemed like the ideal captain for such an enterprise–a meticulous and inventive cartographer and apparently a beloved mentor to his young crew–turned out to be an insecure and paranoid martinet. The Ex Ex had barely left the country before the sailors and scientists began to lament his leadership. As was the custom for these kinds of voyages, most of the crew kept official journals, which they had to surrender at the end of the expedition. These diaries are catalogs of hate for the young Lt. Wilkes, and an obsessive tabulation of his perceived (and all too real) sins. This virulent loathing would later play a large part in obscuring the success of the expedition.

And yet, the Ex Ex was an astonishingly successful expedition. In addition to discovering Antarctica, the Ex Ex mapped hundreds of miles of coastline and charted the shipwreck-strewn islands of Fiji. Many of the maps created by Wilkes and his crew were still in use at the outbreak of World War II. Maybe most important, the scientists of the Ex Ex collected hundreds of barrels of cultural artifacts, biological specimens, and scientific observations. They conducted some of the earliest ethnological studies of the peoples of the Pacific, and visited and charted dozens of previously unknown islands. The Ex Ex put an American stamp on the largest ocean on the planet, setting the stage for the country’s quiet colonization of the Pacific Basin.

But perhaps the most fascinating part of the story happened after their return. Wilkes and his crew became embroiled in a string of lawsuits and courts martial that threatened to overshadow the discoveries of the expedition. Indeed, who among us have ever heard of Charles Wilkes. And yet, the accomplishments of the Ex Ex were, in many ways, more substantial than those of the earlier Lewis and Clark Expedition.

But Wilkes, for all his flaws as a captain and a leader, proved a much better self-promoter and a politician. In the years following the return of the Ex Ex, he jealously guarded the collections of the expedition, even to the point of perjuring himself in court to maintain control. And here’s the kicker: In 1843, five years after the Ex Ex set sail from Norfolk, custody for the collections of the expedition was awarded to the new National Institution for the Promotion of Science, with Wilkes at the helm. The National Institution was a kind of political end-around the ongoing arguments about what the country should do with a half-million dollar (about $11 million in today’s dollars) bequest to the nation from a wealthy Englishman named James Smithson. Ultimately, the National Institution and the thousands of artifacts, biological collections, and ethnographic materials from the Ex Ex would become the Smithsonian Institution.

So it’s not too far-fetched to say that the seeds for the greatest museum complex in the world weren’t planted in the country’s dismal capital, but in the wide expanse of the Pacific.

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