Nathaniel Philbrick gets a WriterWorking prize for the best epigram ever to frame a book for this quote from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII: “I have ventured this many summers in a sea of glory but far beyond my depth.” Sea of Glory is the story of Charles Wilkes and the voyage of the great American Exploring Expedition of 1838-42. It was America’s first great effort to stake a place in the annals of world science and exploration. It gave this country a share in the discovery of Antarctica as a continent. It led to the founding of the Smithsonian. It should have been as famous and legendary as Lewis and Clark’s trek over mountain and plain. Yet, few of us have ever heard of it. Why?
The determined and perseverant man who led the expedition and was responsible for achieving so many of its objectives was a vain, overbearing, insecure shipwreck of a human being. Every slight–perceived or actual–was for him an invitation to combat which he swore to win with the most brutal, high-handed methods he could command. He was awarded leadership of the project because everyone else had turned it down. And he was, as the bard puts it, far beyond his depth. A naval lieutenant with an undoubted knack for mapping and surveying, he had gained a
reputation by inventing ingenious techniques for charting the shoals and hazards on the east coast. However, he was only a lieutenant. A lieutenant suddenly in charge of five ships embarking on a three year voyage through the most hazardous waters on earth. And they wouldn’t make him a captain. He lobbied and lobbied, but still they wouldn’t. He pouted and stomped his feet and wrote nasty letters, but they sent him on his way without his promotion. And he never recovered.
He kicked around his subordinates, always looking for brewing plots and mutinies, transferring men from one ship to another on the most trivial pretexts to avoid dangerous friendships from developing. When the voyage had to be extended beyond its original three-year limit and enlistments ran out, he whipped and starved and imprisoned people until they agreed to stay on for the duration. Shades of Rumsfeld and Cheney. He donned a captain’s uniform to cloak himself in an authority he did not possess. And when they finally got home and he faced courts martial and had his officers testifying against him, he published self-serving exhortations absolving himself and damning others for every mishap and conflict. And when offenses that might have drawn prison time resulted in a trivial reprimand, he took it as if he had been whipped around the fleet and keelhauled.
Despite it all, the man brought the expedition through astounding hardships. To sail those ships, little wooden boats that require men to climb several stories in the air to tug on ropes and sails caked over with ice in blizzards so thick they can’t see the deck below, through thousands of miles and months of icebergs is a feat of skill and endurance impossible to imagine. And everywhere they went, they collected samples of flora and fauna, charted the reefs of hitherto unmapped pacific islands, conducted experiments on gravity and volcanoes and currents that influenced navigation well into the twentieth century. The French and English were in close competition during all this, especially on the matter of Antarctic discovery, and by objective standards Wilkes beat them out on most counts.
In the end, though, his vainglorious boasting made him and his voyage hard for public and officialdom alike to take. Between the time he left and the time he returned, the whigs took over from the democrats and were not interested in helping glorify the success of something their rivals had initiated. Still, a more diplomatic, charismatic man could have risen above all that and appealed to patriotic fervor that was to soon be embodied in Polk’s phrase “manifest destiny.” But he didn’t. Couldn’t. It’s a lesson in how hard, skilled labor isn’t enough. Not nearly. You need help, support, people to work with who enjoy and advocate for you and what you are doing. Too bad Wilkes never understood that. His name might be up there with Lewis and Clark. Too bad Bush never understood that. We might not be having to pull our national reputation out of the slough of despond.