Tag Archives: Sea of Glory

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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Hawaii and Nantucket

Nickerson-Essex-drawingI recently–and belatedly–read “In the Heart of the Sea, The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex”, Nathaniel Philbrick’s award-winning account of the shipwreck that inspired Melville’s Moby Dick. A fascinating story for any sailor who’s ever known the nagging anxiety of being to sea in a small boat. In this case, the captain and crew are set adrift when their ship is stove in by an angry sperm whale and sinks. Left to their three open, light-weight whaleboats, they begin a 4,000-mile journey upwind from the waters northeast of the Marquesas toward what they hope is salvation in Chile. Only 8 of the 20 stranded sailors survive. Several of those that perish are eaten by the others. Bad things happen.

The survival-at-sea-story is a genre, of course. This one is richer than most because it’s larded with so much history and industry backstory. There’s all the fabulous detail about Nantucket and its brief moment as an industrial powerhouse during the heydays of whaling, when the island whale oil barons were the John D. Rockefellers of their era. And there’s the fine description of the dirty business of whaling–harpooning the harmless (usually) beasts, spearing them to death, then hauling them ship-side and laboriously flencing them of their blubber and beheading them and emptying their great heads of hundreds of gallons of spermaceti, the high quality oil that whalers mistook for semen and that give the sperm whale its name. The whole ghastly business was concluded in the conflagration of the trying pots, where the thick sheets of blubber were rendered into oil before being packed in barrels and stowed in the hold. A successful whaling expedition might bring in between 2,000 and 3,000 barrels of oil and take two to three years.

But for a writer, maybe the best parts of the book are the artifacts of its research. Philbrick lards his tale with descriptions of the first-hand sources that he used to write it: local histories, private journals, company correspondence, ship’s logs, personal letters, business documents et al. He also itemizes the historians (and one novelist) that came before him, and hints at their strengths and weaknesses. And, as a historian, he concludes with a hell of an index. It was all so fascinating, that I promptly returned to the library and checked out Philbrick’s follow-up work, “Sea of Glory, America’s Voyage of Discovery”. Perhaps another time, I’ll talk about that one.

What stands out about both books, though, is how intimately the small island of Nantucket and the remote Kingdom of Hawaii were tied together in the 19th Century. Whaling was part of it, albeit mostly after the sinking of the Essex. By 1846, more than 700 whaling ships a year visited Honolulu and Lahaina, most of them from either Nantucket or New Bedford. George Pollard, the unfortunate captain of the Essex, would get another ship when he finally returned to Nantucket. That ship would run aground on the unmarked reefs of French Frigate Shoals in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, and Pollard and his mostly Nantucket crew would be rescued and carried to Honolulu to try to find passage home. (Pollard never got another berth; he finished his life as a nightwatchman in Nantucket.) Even today, curators at Honolulu’s Mission House Museum communicate regularly with their peers at the Nantucket Historical Association and its Whaling Museum. Several so-called Kanaka crewmen from the whalers lived in Nantucket boarding houses, and thousands of Nantucket crewmen caroused in the ports of Honolulu, Lahaina and Kealakekua. At the peak of the whale oil boom, whaling was the main engine of the Hawaii economy, and Hawaii was the most important port of call for the Nantucket whalers.

Pretty cool stuff for a sailor living in Hawaii.

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