Charles Wilkes and the Exploring Expedition of 1838

Charles Wilkes (1798 – 1877)

Charles Wilkes (17981877)

On April 3, 1789, American Naval officer and explorer Charles Wilkes was born. Wilkes led the United States Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842, on which he determined that Antarctica (which Wilkes so named) is a continent. He also commanded the ship in the Trent Affair during the American Civil War (18611865), where he attacked a Royal Mail Ship, almost leading to war between the US and the UK.

Charles Wilkes was born in New York City, United States and was raised by his aunt. He attended present-day Columbia University and joined the United States Navy as a midshipman in 1818. Wilkes was promoted to lieutenant in 1826. The commanding officer originally appointed to the United States Exploring Expedition was Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones. It was first requested by John Quincy Adams in 1828, however, funding was only approved in 1836. After Jones resigned, Wilkes was assigned by Secretary of War Joel Roberts Poinsett due to his expertise in hydrography, geodesy, and magnetism. Further members of the expedition included naturalists, botanists, a mineralogist, a taxidermist, and a philologist. The expedition was carried by USS Vincennes and USS Peacock, the brig USS Porpoise, the store-ship USS Relief, and two schooners, USS Sea Gull and USS Flying Fish.

USS Vincennes in Disappointment Bay, Antarctica

USS Vincennes in Disappointment Bay, Antarctica

On August 18, 1838, Wilkes’ expedition departed. They made stops at the Madeira Islands as well as Rio de Janeiro. They went to  Tierra del Fuego, Chile, Peru, the Tuamotu Archipelago, Samoa, and New South Wales. The expedition led by Wilkes visited Sydney, Australia from where they traveled towards the Antarctic Ocean in December 1839. The expedition first reported their discovery of “an Antarctic continent west of the Balleny Islands” in 1840. The party further traveled to Fiji and the Hawaiian Islands. At the former, the expedition kidnapped the chief Ro Veidovi and charged him with the murder of a crew of American whalers. Further, two expedition members were killed while bartering for food on Fiji‘s Malolo Island. Wilkes‘ crew answered with a counter-attack. It is assumed that about 80 Fijians were killed. Wilkes later employed many Hawaiian porters to haul a pendulum to the summit of Mauna Loa to measure gravity. In 1841, the United States Exploring Expedition under Charles Wilkes visited Funafuti, Nukufetau and Vaitupu. Then they returned by passing the Philippines, the Sulu Archipelago, Borneo, Singapore, Polynesia and the Cape of Good Hope. The expedition reached on June 10, 1842.

During their journey, the expedition reported to lost ships and 28 crew members. As part of the aftermath, Wilkes was accused of mistreating his subordinate officers, and for excessive punishment of his sailors. Charles Wilkes reported the results of the expedition in 1844. He edited the 19 volumes and 11 atlases of the expedition and authored Volume XI (Meteorology) and Volume XXIII (Hydrography). Wilkes‘ reports also included further information on manners, customs, political and economic conditions of the places they visited. The scientific reports further included James Dwight Dana‘s works on Zoophytes, Geology and Crustacea. The collected specimens and artifacts became a foundation for the Smithsonian Institution collection.

During the American Civil War, Wilkes was assigned to the command of USS San Jacinto to search for the Confederate commerce destroyer CSS Sumter. He died on February 8, 1877 in Washington, DC.

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