Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery: The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842

by Nathaniel Philbrick
ISBN: 067003231X

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A Review of: Sea of Glory: America∆s Voyage of Discovery-The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842
by George Fetherling

Caroline Alexander's book Endurance became a surprise bestseller six years ago and started a revival of interest in the Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton-one that grew to include books about the leadership lessons that executives can supposedly gain by studying him. In fact, the success of Endurance launched the publishing craze for books about the age of exploration generally. Alexander herself now returns to the field with The Bounty, a much more impressive work that will have a different effect. No one is ever going to write a book called Management Secrets of Captain Bligh.
Except that he seems not to have been much of a sailor, Charles Wilkes (1798-1877) was a Bligh-like figure-a music-hall version of Bligh almost. That's one reason his circumnavigation of the globe at the head of a small flotilla of American warships, frantically making both charts and enemies, isn't well remembered today. In fact, it's barely been remembered at all until now, with publication of Nathaniel Philbrick's Sea of Glory.
Although scientists travelling with Wilkes brought back a fortune in knowledge, helping to seed the planned Smithsonian Institution, the voyage, like all voyages of exploration, had commercial underpinnings: to make charts for the American whaling fleet, the world's largest at the time. Hence the main regions covered were Antarctica, the central South Pacific and the northwest coast of North America. The last of these was problematical. American politics made the expedition years late in getting underway. By the time it returned, a different mob was in the White House and Britain and the U.S. were in the midst of the Oregon boundary crisis, when questions about ownership of the northwest coast almost led to war. To top it off, the cruel, buffoonish and self-important Wilkes was put through a series of courts martial on various charges, such as massacring Fijians, though he was found guilty only of relatively minor offences, such as flogging a 16-year-old who had the temerity to visit his mother while in port in Boston.
Philbrick, whose previous book, In the Heart of the Sea, about the whaling ship that helped inspire Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick, is another beneficiary of the way Caroline Alexander has reignited interest in such topics. Compared to hers, however, his prose is obvious and sometimes a bit laboured. Also, many Canadians are likely to find it a trifle more patriotically American than they're comfortable with. Of course, national and even regional differences of this sort often figure in the new literature of exploration.

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