ONCE THE EXHILARATION of having discovered the world’s seventh continent had begun to wear off, Wilkes was left with a sobering realization. He had less than a year to perform the two most important surveys of the Ex. Ex.: the Fiji Islands and the Columbia River. If he was to complete the Expedition in the allotted three years, he would have to finish the Fiji survey in under two months, then get the squadron to the Pacific Northwest, a voyage of some six thousand miles, with enough time to survey the Columbia before winter set in. Any delay, no matter how minor, would require him to add another year to the Expedition. In the event of an extended voyage, the sailors’ and marines’ terms of duty would expire before the squadron returned to the United States. This meant that Wilkes might find himself without a crew if a significant number of the men insisted, as was their right, on quitting the Expedition when their time was up.
Adding to Wilkes’s sense of embattled isolation was the lack of news from home. As incredible as it might seem, Wilkes, the leader of the U.S. Ex. Ex., had not received a single letter from his wife and children since the squadron left Rio de Janeiro, almost a year and a half ago. (To make matters worse, Hudson had gotten a letter in Sydney that was just seven months old.) “Don’t think for one moment my dear wife [that] I blame you,” he wrote Jane. “I am ever aware you have done every thing you ought and I impute it all to mishap.” Wilkes could not help but slip into an ever-deepening despair. “[Y]ou must not expect to see the same person that left you,” he warned Jane, “but a careworn and broken down old voyager who is and feels that he is doing his duty to his country most faithfully.”
His one consolation, besides his faithful dog Sydney, was his nineteen-year-old nephew, Wilkes Henry. Ever since the dueling incident at Valparaiso, the boy had done everything in his power to please his uncle. In addition to fulfilling his day-to-day duties with an alacrity and good humor that endeared him to his fellow officers, he had shown a genuine interest in surveying and cartography. Although Wilkes insisted on treating him as just another officer, he did manage to find a few hours in the week to speak to the boy during his watch, a conversation that inevitably brought Wilkes “great pleasure.” “I almost chide myself for suffering the distance to exist between us,” he wrote Jane, but given his commitment to playing the part of the martinet, there was nothing else he could do.
As had been true with the race for Antarctica, the United States was locked in a closely contested rivalry with Britain and France when it came to exploiting the economic opportunities available in the Fiji Islands. Although the group’s once considerable stands of sandalwood had long since been extirpated, the Fijis continued to offer bounteous quantities of bêche-de-mer, sea slugs that, when properly cured, brought excellent prices in China. Just the year before, Dumont d’Urville’s expedition had visited the group and had even burned a village in punishment for the killing of a French captain and the taking of his vessel. Unbeknownst to Wilkes, a British expedition, led by Edward Belcher, was also headed to Fiji.
Over the past decade, captains from Salem, Massachusetts, had dominated the bêche-de-mer trade; in fact, one of Salem’s most experienced traders, Benjamin Vanderford, had signed on as a pilot for the Ex. Ex. Vanderford, who had spent ten months shipwrecked on the Fijis, knew better than anyone the challenges of navigating amid the more than 360 islands of this group. No reliable charts existed, and in the last twelve years, eight vessels, five of them from America, had been lost in the region. “[A]s we have so much of the Trade,” Reynolds wrote, “it was the duty of the Government to make the Survey; though even at the 11th hour.”
Wilkes had picked the island group of Tongatapu, to the south of Samoa and just a three-day sail from Fiji, for a rendezvous point. It wasn’t until early May that the newly repaired Peacock arrived at Tonga and joined the Vincennes, Porpoise, and Flying Fish for the first time since the start of the Antarctic cruise five months earlier. Reynolds and his shipmates soon learned of the most recent indignities Wilkes had inflicted on the officers of the Ex. Ex.—despite his recent triumphs.
Reynolds’s good friend Edward Gilchrist, the highest-ranking surgeon in the Expedition, had been dismissed for writing a disrespectful letter and sent home to the United States. Lieutenant Alden, who had dared to insist that he had not seen Antarctica on January 19, had been turned out of his comfortable cabin in favor of the more tractable Dr. Fox. The long-suffering commander of the Flying Fish, Robert Pinkney, had been confined to quarters aboard the schooner and would soon be following Gilchrist on a vessel bound for home.
Even though Reynolds and his former roommate William May were no longer assigned to the Vincennes, Wilkes had found a way to strike out at them too. During the passage from New Zealand to Tonga, he had ordered the carpenter to lay waste to Reynolds’s and May’s much-loved stateroom, ripping out the walls and furnishings and transforming it into a “stow hole.” Reynolds was already looking ahead to the squadron’s return to the United States, when Wilkes must face “the honest vengeance of those whom he has so trampled upon.” In his journal Reynolds made a solemn pledge: “I have forgotten nothing and nothing will I forgive.”
While in Tonga, preparations were hurriedly made for the impending survey of Fiji. The squadron’s dozen or more gigs, cutters, and whaleboats were to be used among the coral reefs. Given the violent reputation of the natives, each boat was equipped with not only the necessary surveying equipment but a formidable selection of muskets, rifles, pistols, and gunwale-mounted blunderbusses—heavy shotguns that fired buckshot. Some of the vessels were even equipped with the frames to launch Congreve war rockets, made famous by Francis Scott Key’s reference to “the rockets’ red glare” during the British attack on Fort McHenry in 1814. When it came to the safety of his officers and men, Wilkes intended to leave nothing to chance. Unfortunately, even these extraordinary measures would not, in the end, prove sufficient.
It had been in Tonga that James Cook had first heard of a land known as “Feejee” (the Tongan name for the island group), where there lived a people feared by the Tongans “on account of the savage practice to which they are addicted . . . of eating their enemies whom they kill in battle.” Whether or not the Fijians’ reputation for cannibalism had anything to do with it, Cook, like the Dutch explorer Tasman before him, was satisfied with only a fleeting glimpse of the Fijis before the combination of bad weather and a terrifying network of coral reefs persuaded him to move on to a more accessible group of islands.
It wasn’t until 1789 that a European navigator made his way into the midst of Fiji, but it was under less than ideal circumstances. William Bligh had just suffered the mutiny on the Bounty when he and a handful of supporters, all of them jammed into a tiny ship’s launch, found themselves surrounded by unfamiliar islands. Even though they were at one point pursued by two large sailing canoes, Bligh, one of the most skilled surveyors of his generation, was able to sketch a chart of what he had seen. In the intervening decades, others added to Bligh’s hurried observations, but by 1840 only a small portion of the hundreds of Fijian islands had been laid down on any chart.
In Tonga, Wilkes decided to construct his own chart of the group based on all available information. Though incomplete, it provided ample evidence of the dangers of these islands. “[I]n addition to the frightful display of rocks & reefs,” Reynolds wrote, “[the chart] is garnished here & there, with notices such as ‘Brig Eliza lost’; ‘Am. Brig lost,’ etc. etc.’” Wilkes told his officers that he expected to lose no fewer than two vessels during the survey. Fear of shipwreck and cannibals prompted many of the officers to make out their wills. “[I]t is somewhat amusing to see the dispositions that each one made in case he should be the victim,” Reynolds wrote. Four months later, no one would be laughing.
Even though the squadron already had the services of Benjamin Vanderford at its disposal, Wilkes felt it necessary to secure yet another experienced pilot at Tonga named Tom Granby. “You will find when we get to the Islands,” Wilkes assured Granby, “that I know as much about them as you do.” Granby smiled. “You may know all about them on paper,” he replied, “but when you come to the goings in and goings out, you will see who knows best, you or myself.”
Two days later, even Wilkes was beginning to appreciate the truth of Granby’s words. They were headed to the island of Ovalau, centrally located off the east coast of Viti Levu, the largest island in the group, with the second largest island, Vanua Levu, to the north. To the east was a long necklace of islands known as the Lau Group, and Wilkes sent Ringgold and the Porpoise to investigate those islands. The rest of the squadron was approaching what was known as the Koro Sea, a perilous body of water speckled with islands and coral reefs.
At five P.M. on May 6, they sighted the island of Totoya; unfortunately it was thirty miles from the position indicated on Wilkes’s chart. The wind had built to a gale, requiring them to take three reefs in the topsails. Prudence would have dictated that they heave to for the night, especially since the Flying Fish, now under the command of Lieutenant George Sinclair, was having difficulty in the tumultuous seas. But even with darkness approaching, Wilkes elected to push on, “feeling assured we should thus save much time and probably find smoother water.” Wilkes did later admit, however, that “it is by no means a pleasant business to be running over unknown ground, in a dark night before a brisk gale, at the rate of seven or eight miles an hour.”
In the early morning hours they almost ran into Horse-Shoe Reef, which the pilot had estimated to be at least twenty miles away. Daylight revealed a dazzling array of islands, all of them “girt by white encircling reefs.” But the Flying Fish was nowhere to be seen. Impatient to begin his survey, Wilkes continued on toward the high, jagged peaks of Ovalau.
The Peacock eventually followed the Vincennes into the anchorage at the village of Levuka, and Reynolds was immediately captivated by the view. “The Island was high and clothed in the most luxuriant verdure,” he wrote, “with many bold points of rocks and immense forests; and here and there shining waterfalls glanced amid the foliage. . . . We saw many little villages peeping from amidst the trees and scattered huts clinging to the projecting ridges of rocks, clear up to the highest parts of the Island. . . . After the Ice [of Antarctica], we hailed with joy our return to the ever green Isles of the Tropics.”
If the landscape was reminiscent of many of the islands they had already seen, the inhabitants were something altogether different. It wasn’t just that the Fijians were bigger and more muscular, with darker skin and curlier hair than the Polynesians; it was the way they presented themselves to this already nervous group of Papalangi, the Fijian word for white people. With a huge club resting on his shoulder, a Fijian warrior made a most intimidating sight. “[T]hey were fine specimens of men . . . ,” Reynolds wrote, “begrimed with dirt, daubed with red paint & soot, the ear slit, & hanging down to the shoulder, with a bone or shell thrust in the hole, hair frizzled out to a most grotesque extent from the head, dyed of various hues & teeming with life; naked, save a girdle of Tappa around the loins, they presented a spectacle of mingled hideous-ness & ferocity that well becomes the character they have earned for themselves.”
Reynolds and his fellow officers began to notice that there were few old people in the village. They later learned that there was a simple reason for this. When it became clear that a man or woman was getting along in years, his or her son dug a grave and strangled the aged parent to death. It was not judged to be an act of cruelty; it was simply the way things were done in Fiji, a place where the value of a human life was said to equal a single sperm whale’s tooth. When a chief died, his many wives were put to death. Prior to the launching of a chief’s war canoe, the vessel’s deck was washed in human blood while the victims’ bodies were used as rollers to help launch the canoe into the sea.
If tales such as these had a chilling effect on the officers and men of the Expedition, Reynolds soon discovered that as far as the Fijian children were concerned, he was the terrifying one. At one point he approached several youngsters, who ran away screaming to their parents. “And we, who can easily conjure up fright at the sight of a Savage,” he wrote, “do not so readily understand why a Savage (even if it be a Baby) should be terrified of us.”
Fiji is part of Melanesia, or “the dark islands,” a term first coined by Dumont d’Urville to describe the skin color of the inhabitants of the islands stretching from Fiji to New Guinea to the west. The group appears to have been first settled by the same band of proto-Polynesian voyagers who would push on to Tonga and Samoa sometime around 800 B.C. About A.D. 1100, Fiji seems to have undergone a radical change. Whether it was due to the arrival of a new, more aggressive people or the result of a rise in population that led to increasing competition for natural resources, life on Fiji became decidedly more violent. In fact, warfare appears to have become a way of life. Circular forts were built just about everywhere, and cannibalism became one of the fundamental institutions of the islands. In the words of one archeologist, “man was the most popular of the vertebrate animals used for food.”
In 1808, Fiji underwent another radical change with the arrival of a Swedish sailor appropriately named Charlie Savage. Along with some shipwrecked pals and a large supply of firearms, Savage and his cohorts introduced a more technologically advanced kind of killing to the islands, eventually hiring themselves out to Naulivou, the chief of the tiny island of Bau, just off the southeastern shore of Viti Levu. Naulivou used his newfound advantage to consolidate his position as the most powerful ruler in Fiji. In just five years, Savage’s brutal arrogance caught up with him, and he was killed and eaten at Vanua Levu. But his disturbing legacy lived on, with a succession of sailors serving as what became known as the chiefs’ “tame white men.”
When Wilkes arrived in Fiji, the most prominent of these white men was a former Nantucketer named David Whippy. Whippy had been living in Fiji for eighteen years and had several native wives. When he paddled up to the Vincennes soon after the squadron’s arrival at Ovalau, Whippy was accompanied by one of his many children. Despite having begun his career in Fiji as a musket-toting mercenary, Whippy had gained a well-deserved reputation for reliability—not a common trait among the beachcombers of the Pacific. Attaching himself to the chief of Levuka, Whippy had earned the title of “Mata-ki-Bau” or Royal Messenger to Bau, and his close connection to this native power center would enable him to offer Wilkes essential advice during the squadron’s stay in Fiji. Wilkes decided to send a message to the current chief of Bau, Naulivou’s brother Tanoa, asking that he visit him at Levuka. He then hastily organized a climb up the nearby peak of Nadelaiovalau, so as to introduce the officers and scientists to the geography of the island group.
At 7:30 A.M. the party of twenty-five officers and naturalists, along with Whippy and a large group of natives, began the more than two-thousand-foot climb. Almost two years at sea had left them ill prepared for such a demanding hike. “I have seldom witnessed a party so helpless as ourselves appeared,” Wilkes wrote, “in comparison with the natives and white residents, who ran over the rocks like goats.” Before long, both Hudson and Passed Midshipman Henry Eld, two of the larger officers in the squadron, were too winded to continue.
As they scrambled up the perpendicular cliffs, Wilkes noticed that the natives would occasionally pull a leaf from a tree and throw it to the ground. Whippy explained that this was done as an act of propitiation wherever a man had been clubbed to death. “Judging from the number of places in which these atonements were made,” Wilkes wrote, “many victims have suffered in this way.”
By noon they had reached the summit. To the west the interior valleys of Ovalau were dotted with villages and patches of cultivated land, along with groves of coconut and breadfruit trees. In the distance to the north, they could see the “fantastic needle-shaped peaks” of Vanua Levu, almost sixty miles away. Directly below them to the east, the Vincennes and the Peacock sat quietly at anchor. Wilkes and his officers turned their attention to the sea surrounding the island, where they could easily identify the pattern of reefs extending for miles in every direction. The officers went to work with their instruments, creating a group of preliminary sketches that would prove invaluable in the weeks ahead. Darkness was already approaching when they began the descent, and the natives created torches made of dried coconut leaves to light the way.
Wilkes spent much of the next day organizing two surveying parties, each comprising two boats. The first, led by James Alden, would follow the north shore of Viti Levu, while the second, led by George Emmons, would take the south shore, with the two parties eventually meeting at the island of Malolo to the west of Viti Levu. Word had just reached the squadron that a crewmember aboard the Salem bêche-de-mer vessel Leonidas had recently been killed by natives. Adding to Wilkes’s concerns for his men’s safety was the Fijian custom of taking any vessel that had been driven on shore and killing all on board. Wilkes issued written orders prohibiting the survey crews from landing and requiring that the two boat-crews always remain within signaling distance.
Much to Wilkes’s relief, the Flying Fish finally arrived at Levuka. The schooner had grounded on a reef and lost part of her false keel but sustained no serious damage. Given that Wilkes had virtually abandoned the vessel in the middle of a gale in the middle of the Fijis, it was remarkable that her commander, George Sinclair, had managed to find his way to Ovalau. This did not prevent Wilkes from giving him “a severe rebuke.” Sinclair could only shake his head. “[V]erily I do not know what to make of the man,” he wrote; “he can’t be pleased.”
The next day, Wilkes learned that his diplomatic gamble had paid off. Even though Whippy had doubted that Tanoa, “King of Bau,” would accept Wilkes’s invitation to call upon him, it was reported that the chief’s magnificent, hundred-foot outrigger canoe had been sighted rounding the southern point of Ovalau. With a huge sail made of white mats, the canoe traveled at speeds that were, according to Wilkes, “almost inconceivable.” The two hulls were ornamented with thousands of white shells; pennants streamed from the tips of the masts as Tanoa’s crew of forty Tongans, renowned for their sailing abilities, maneuvered the canoe through the harbor and landed on the beach.
In becoming Fiji’s most powerful leader, Tanoa had gained a reputation for violence and brutality that was matched only by his ambitious son Seru. Several years after a coup temporarily forced his father into exile, Seru had orchestrated the bloody uprising that brought Tanoa back to power in 1837. Just a few months before, Tanoa and Seru had led an attack on the rival town of Verata, killing an estimated 260 men, women, and children. During their return to Bau, the chiefs had ordered that thirty captured children (all of them still alive) be placed in baskets and hoisted to the mastheads of their fleet of war canoes to serve as grim victory pennants. As the canoes tossed in the lumpy seas, the children were slammed repeatedly against the vessels’ masts. By the time the fleet reached Bau, the children were dead.
But it wasn’t just the acts of violence that had established Tanoa’s and Seru’s reputations; there were also the inevitable claims of cannibalism. Several of the white residents insisted that they had witnessed these terrifying rituals. Some of the more graphic accounts of cannibalism came from the handful of missionaries who had recently established themselves in Fiji. One of them told how Seru had lopped off and roasted the arms and legs of two captive warriors, then forced them to eat their own body parts.
Many of the Expedition’s officers and scientists remained skeptical of these accounts. Then, as now, there were those who insisted that rumors of cannibalism were nothing more than the white man’s worst nightmare projected onto an innocent native people. Having heard Captain Pollard’s firsthand account of the Essex disaster, Wilkes knew better than most that a mariner’s obsessive fear of cannibalism began not with the natives of the South Pacific but with the sensational yarns told in the forecastle of a ship. To their credit, the officers and scientists of the Ex. Ex. would delay judgment until they were presented with incontrovertible proof of the practice.
When Tanoa, dressed only in a large turban of white tapa and a small maro tied around his loins, appeared on the deck of the Vincennes, he hardly seemed capable of the many disturbing acts that had been attributed to him. Thin, with a long gray beard and a high-pitched voice, the king was so unsettled by the gigantic size of the sloop-of-war that he insisted on hugging the ship’s taffrail as he made his way to Wilkes on the quarterdeck. With Whippy serving as an interpreter, Wilkes was able to persuade Tanoa to sign a trade agreement similar to one that had been adopted at Samoa. Afterward, several of the Vincennes’s cannons were fired for the chief’s benefit, followed by a demonstration of the marines’ marching skills—performed to the tune of “The King of the Cannibal Islands.”
Just a few days later, Wilkes was in the midst of his observations and experiments at Levuka when he was interrupted by a man whom he at first took to be a Fijian, but who turned out to be a deeply tanned former sailor named Paddy O’Connell. Originally from County Clare, Ireland, Paddy had been living in Fiji for more than forty years. He proudly told Wilkes that he had fathered forty-eight children and hoped to reach an even fifty before he died. For reasons Paddy did not want to go into, he had been banished from the community of white residents at Levuka, but was now offering his services to Wilkes and the Expedition.
Upon hearing Paddy’s account of some of his adventures, Wilkes informed him that he “did not believe a word of it.” But when Paddy claimed he had been an eyewitness to the massacre of the mate and crewmembers of the American bêche-de-mer trader Charles Doggett in 1834, the beachcomber soon had Wilkes’s attention. It was an incident that had been documented in petitions to the U.S. government, and even though the murders had occurred six years before, Wilkes resolved to bring the perpetrator, a chief named Veidovi, to justice. Veidovi lived at Rewa, a region in Viti Levu to which Wilkes had already dispatched the Peacock, and Wilkes instructed O’Connell to set out immediately with a packet of sealed orders for Captain Hudson.
It wasn’t long before Hudson had laid his trap. On May 21, he invited the current king of Rewa, along with his three brothers (one of whom was Veidovi), to a special reception aboard the Peacock. More than a hundred natives were crowded aboard the warship, but Veidovi was not one of them. Hudson ushered the three chiefs into his cabin for a feast. The natives were in high spirits until Hudson ordered the drum beat to quarters. Sentries suddenly appeared at the cabin door, and the members of the royal party were separated from their attendants. Hudson explained that he had no quarrel with any of them, but that he had been ordered to secure Veidovi for the murder of the white men aboard the Charles Doggett.
The king was outraged. “His blood was up,” Reynolds wrote, “and it was as much as he could do to keep his passions from breaking out.” “Why had he been thus trapped like a bird?” the king asked. “Why had not the Captain asked him for his Brother, when he was free?” Hudson firmly insisted that they would all be released once Veidovi had been delivered to the Peacock. Reluctantly the king ordered one of his brothers “to go to the Town & take Veidovi, alive if he could, but if he resisted, to kill him & bring the body.”
Early the next morning a canoe was sighted sailing toward the Peacock. Realizing that it was the only way to free his brothers and their wives, Veidovi had agreed to accompany his brother back to the Peacock. As soon as he stepped aboard, Veidovi impressed everyone with his regal and solemn bearing. “[H]e was very much dejected,” Reynolds wrote, “and this additional gloom threw a more mournful cast over his countenance.” Hudson conducted a council in his cabin, where he questioned Veidovi about his role in the killings. The chief freely admitted to the murders, recounting how in hopes of securing some firearms, he had pretended to greet the unsuspecting mate of the Charles Doggett in friendship, then grabbed and held him while his warriors clubbed him to death. “All that he had to say,” Reynolds wrote, “was ‘that he had only followed the Fegee customs & done what his people had often done before.’”
Hudson announced Veidovi’s punishment: instead of being executed, he would be taken back to the United States; after several years in America, he would be returned to Fiji, having become “a better man, and with the Knowledge, that to kill a white person was the very worst thing a Feegee man could do.” Reynolds had his doubts about the efficacy of the sentence, especially when one of Veidovi’s brothers said that “he supposed all he would have to do was to kill white men and then the Men of War would come, carry him to America & bring him back, richer than when they had taken him away.”
But for Veidovi, who only a few hours before had been a great chief with fifty-five wives and dozens of children, the sentence was a terrible blow. His brothers were also deeply affected, weeping and kissing him on the forehead. One of Veidovi’s attendants asked to remain with his master, but Hudson steadfastly refused. Only after Veidovi had placed both his manacled hands on the young man’s head did the attendant finally leave the ship.
The capture of Veidovi had almost immediate repercussions. Word traveled fast in Fiji, and before the end of the day, natives arrived in Levuka with the news. Whippy, whom Wilkes had failed to consult about his decision to take Veidovi, was deeply disturbed. He explained that the chiefs of Rewa and Bau were related through intermarriage, and he thought it likely that Tanoa and Seru might launch a surprise attack and attempt to take Wilkes prisoner, “as it was their custom to retaliate by procuring the capture of the highest chief.” In less than a day, he warned, a fleet of canoes with more than a thousand warriors might arrive at Levuka.
Wilkes, the Stormy Petrel, had impulsively, and needlessly, acted to heighten tensions in an island group where even in its most halcyon days the threat of violence was omnipresent. For the duration of their stay in Fiji, the officers and men of the Ex. Ex. would have to be doubly wary of attack.
Wilkes thought it prudent to reposition the Vincennes so that the observatory at Levuka might be more easily defended with her guns. Once it had become clear that a strike by Tanoa was not imminent, Wilkes set out on a surveying trip aboard the Flying Fish.
In addition to an armory’s worth of pistols, muskets, blunderbusses, and cutlasses, Wilkes brought along his own personal deterrent to native violence: his dog, Sydney. Everywhere Wilkes went, whether afloat or ashore, Sydney was never far away. The Newfoundland liked to stand at the gig’s bow, and as soon as the boat touched the beach, the dog leaped onto the sand and chased away any nearby natives. As Wilkes conducted his observations surrounded by an armed guard, Sydney prowled about the area, growling menacingly if anyone dared approach. “I think I owe my life to him . . . ,” Wilkes later recalled. “The natives were all very much afraid of him, and a word from me would have caused him to seize any of them. . . . It may easily be conceived the attachment I had for him and his love for his master.”
In the middle of June, Wilkes received word that they were not the only exploring expedition in Fiji. A British squadron led by Captain Edward Belcher had recently arrived at Rewa. One of Belcher’s vessels had lost its rudder on a reef, and Wilkes offered to provide some spare gudgeons. The British had spent the previous summer in the Pacific Northwest, and since this was one of the intended destinations of the U.S. Ex. Ex., Wilkes was eager to learn as much as he could about the region. But when Wilkes arrived at Rewa, Belcher appeared less than pleased to see him.
Belcher had just been forced to pay the port charges required by Wilkes’s newly instituted trade regulations, and he wasn’t happy about it. He was also reluctant to reveal anything about his experience on the west coast of North America. He did say, however, that summer was the only suitable time to visit the region. As it was now already the middle of June, Wilkes realized that he would have to add another full year to the Expedition if he was to survey the Columbia River.
Belcher’s lack of candor was a disappointment, but Wilkes’s visit with the British commander ultimately proved of immense benefit to him. Belcher was a notorious disciplinarian, and while he and Wilkes spoke in Belcher’s cabin, the British officers entertained their American counterparts with tales of abuse and cruelty that made Wilkes’s actions seem relatively benign. “[My officers] looked upon me with very different eyes,” Wilkes wrote, “and were well satisfied that my discipline was no more rigid than necessary to make my command efficient.”
Elsewhere in Fiji, however, there was scant evidence of the supposed efficiency of Wilkes’s command. The Peacock had recently arrived at Bua Bay on the western tip of Vanua Levu, where two boat-crews led by Lieutenant Perry had been sitting idle for several weeks, waiting for orders from their commander. Although Wilkes would later accuse Perry of laziness, the truth was that Wilkes had forgotten about him, and Perry had no way of knowing where his commander was. Given the tremendous time constraints under which they were all working, this was an inexcusable lapse on the part of the leader of the Ex. Ex.
But if Wilkes’s organizational skills might be lacking, at least he was a capable surveyor. As Reynolds was belatedly discovering, Hudson didn’t even know the basics of how to conduct a survey, and he wasn’t about to learn. Just as he had proven weirdly indifferent to early sightings of the Antarctic coast, Hudson now showed an abysmal lack of interest in the primary mission of the Expedition. For Hudson’s officers, who were saddled with the responsibility of carrying out one of the most ambitious survey operations ever undertaken by the U.S. Navy, it was a highly exasperating situation. “Of course we are without a system, and things are done in the most confused disorder,” Reynolds fumed, “when they are done at all. It is damnable!”
The Peacock’s most recent swing along the west coast of Viti Levu had gone so badly that the sailors had begun to grumble that there was a Jonah aboard the ship. In a single week they had rammed into so many coral reefs that it was a miracle the ship was still afloat. The Peacock ’s cutter had capsized and sunk before it could be saved. An entire day was lost unsuccessfully attempting to raise the lost boat. But there had been more: one man lost three fingers in an anchor chain; another shot his forefinger in two; yet another nearly amputated his leg; and then there had been the sailor who had crushed his ribs while working the capstan. The once happy Peacock had become a ship of gloom.
Reynolds was greatly relieved to be named second-in-command of a two-boat survey of the eastern edge of Vanua Levu. Reynolds and five sailors were to spend the next two weeks in a twenty-eight-foot whaleboat containing a mast, sail, five oars, six muskets, six pistols, four cutlasses, boxes of ammunition, two casks of water, a bag of bread, “a chest of grub,” a cask of whiskey, and an anchor and chain. “We had no more room for exercise,” Reynolds wrote, “than a chicken in the shell.” Since their orders prohibited landing on shore, they were required to find a way to sleep in this overcrowded vessel. Reynolds reserved the boat’s stern grating for himself. This put his head in unpleasant proximity with the bilge until he hit upon the idea of using an upside-down bucket for a pillow. His men were left to contort themselves around each other until they were “mixed together so, that to extricate themselves was a matter requiring some care & trouble.” When the wind picked up that first night, kicking up a steep chop, sleep became impossible. The next morning, Reynolds “felt as if I had been well cudgeled.”
The days were no easier. The weather was beautiful, without a cloud in the sky, but they had no way of shielding themselves from the sun. By noon, the brass portion of Reynolds’s sextant had become so hot that he couldn’t touch it, and the whaleboat’s interior planks were nearly as warm. At times like these, he sometimes sought relief in the water, where a submerged rock might offer a vantage point for his observations. “Often have I been up to my middle,” he wrote his family, “screwing away with my sextant upon objects perhaps twenty miles off, with a foothold that I could scarcely preserve from the depth I was in and the swash of the Seas, and surrounded by the men [in the boat] who were holding books, pencils, spy glass, and watch, all of which were used in turn.”
All agreed that surveying in an open boat did terrible things to a man’s constitution. It was said that two months of this duty was enough to shorten a person’s life by one to two years. Some of the officers would spend as many as fifty consecutive days on boat duty. By the end of their stay at Fiji, Hudson calculated that the Peacock’s four boats had covered a total of 8,225 miles.
On the evening of July 3, after twelve days of surveying, Reynolds returned for a brief respite aboard the Peacock. “[T]he little motion [the ship] had at her anchor,” he wrote, “was so different from the quick & irregular jumping of the boats that I tottered, lost my balance & staggered as a drunken man.” He soon discovered that the mood aboard the Peacock was even worse than when he had left. Yet another accident had occurred. While firing the guns to measure baselines for the boats, a sailor had unwisely slipped a cartridge of powder into his shirt. A spark from the gun’s touchhole flew onto the cartridge, and more than three pounds of gunpowder exploded. Reynolds’s friend Dr. Guillou didn’t give the poor sailor much of a chance. He now lay on a cot on the ship’s deck, his horribly scorched skin covered with swatches of oil-soaked linen. “Oh! It was piteous to see him so,” Reynolds wrote. “He lingered on, in the most intense pain & groaning continually so that no one could rest in the ship.”
As if this weren’t enough of a nightmare, the Peacock’s officers and men had received an entirely different kind of scare from the natives. That morning, off the island of Tavea, a young chief and his party of three canoes had come alongside with some news that they wanted to share with the Papalangi. The chief’s wife excitedly informed Hudson that they had just taken three prisoners from a rival village and had “roasted them & eaten part!” What’s more, in one of their canoes was a piece of a body, wrapped in plantain leaves. “The infernal devils were eager to show their hellish food,” Reynolds wrote, “and they held up the flesh, in the Canoe alongside, that it might be seen. Not content with this, they brought a skull on board, all raw & bloody, with the marks of their teeth, where they had torn away strips of flesh; and one of their Epicures, was crunching an Eye, to which was hanging some of the fat & muscles of the face & cheek.” Perhaps enjoying the fact that the Americans were so obviously taken aback, the native munching the eye exclaimed, “Vinaka, vinaka,” or “Good, good.” Hudson turned and vomited over the Peacock’s side.
For six feet of cloth, the purser William Spieden purchased the skull for the Expedition’s collection. “Everybody in the Ship seemed oppressed with a weight of horror,” Reynolds wrote, “& there was a crushing & awfully nervous feeling came over me, which I could not shake off.” The next morning, Reynolds went to the forward part of the ship to look at the skull. “God!” he wrote, “to think that this had but a day or two ago contained a cunning brain!”
As the officers proceeded with the survey, the scientists were performing some of the most important work of the Expedition. Although the botanist William Rich was, in the words of James Dana, proving “so-so,” William Brackenridge and Charles Pickering were more than making up for his lack of expertise. Indeed, the two scientists had become an informal team, with Brackenridge, a broad-shouldered Scot, who had formerly been in charge of the famed Edinburgh Gardens, providing the practical know-how while the diminutive Pickering, whose technical expertise in a variety of fields was unsurpassed, assisted in classification of the 650 different plant species they found in Fiji. It was Pickering who had discovered that as long as they didn’t bring any objects of value with them, the natives showed no interest in doing them any harm. This enabled the two scientists to trek unmolested into the interiors of the islands, where they found a new species of tomato as well as a virulent species of poison ivy that they carefully collected with sticks. In Vanua Levu, Brackenridge found the last remaining groves of sandalwood, which had been previously assumed to be extinct in Fiji.
The philologist Horatio Hale was working up a vocabulary that would ultimately grow to 5,600 words and include five different words for “foolishness.” Hale observed that while the Fijians were primarily known for their savagery, they were also the most skilled craftsmen in the Pacific, creating beautifully wrought canoes, houses, and pottery. But it was the geologist, James Dana, who made a truly groundbreaking discovery during the Expedition’s stay in Fiji.
While in Sydney, Dana had come upon a newspaper article briefly describing Charles Darwin’s new theory of the origin of coral atolls. “The paragraph threw a flood of light over the subject,” Dana later wrote, “and called forth feelings of peculiar satisfaction, and of grateful-ness to Mr. Darwin.” Darwin had hit upon what would become known as the theory of subsidence. The process begins with the rise of a volcanic island. Over time, coral starts to grow in the warm and shallow waters of the new island; then, as the island sinks ever so gradually beneath the waves, the coral continues to grow upward until a lagoon is formed between the coral, now known as a barrier reef, and what is left of the original island. Finally, the island sinks completely below the water’s surface, leaving an empty circular lagoon.
Darwin thought it would be difficult, if not impossible, to prove his theory, but in Fiji, Dana found undeniable proof of subsidence. Amid the stunning variety of coral islands in this group, Dana located what would become literal textbook examples of the three stages of coral formation at the islands of Chichia, Matuku, and Nanuku. But for Dana, whose interest in volcanoes dated back to his first voyage as a midshipmen’s instructor in the Mediterranean, this was just the beginning. Still to come in the Expedition’s tour of the Pacific were the active volcanoes of Hawaii. Besides corroborating Darwin’s theory of subsidence, Dana would begin to work toward a sweeping view of geological change that would anticipate what has been called “one of the great unifying concepts of modern geology”—the theory of plate tectonics.
By the middle of July, both the Vincennes and the Flying Fish had joined the Peacock at Bua Bay. A gale had been blowing for several days, and Wilkes used this period of forced confinement to assess the progress of the survey as his officers plotted and finished their calculations. Wilkes now realized that another month was needed to finish the survey. Unfortunately, the squadron was running short of food, forcing Wilkes to cut the men’s daily provisions by a third. Although Wilkes would never officially condone the practice, his officers on boat duty knew that the only way to feed their men in the days ahead might be to barter with the natives for food. They also knew that any time they set foot on land, they did so at their peril.
Earlier in the month, a two-boat survey led by Lieutenant Perry and Passed Midshipman Knox had been sent to chart Solevu Bay, approximately twenty miles to the south. Around noon on Sunday July 12, Perry’s cutter was sighted sailing toward the anchored squadron. There was no sign of Knox’s boat, but it soon became apparent that two boats’ worth of men were crowded into the launch, along with two native hostages.
Knox and Perry, it turned out, had been trapped in the bay for several days by the gale. As the boat-crews sat at anchor in the middle of the bay, the natives on shore left little doubt that if the sailors should come ashore for any reason, they would not have long to live. When their provisions finally ran out, Perry and Knox had no choice but to attempt an escape—even though they would have to beat against the gale-force winds. As soon as they began to tack their way out, Knox’s deeply laden boat missed stays. The strong winds blew the boat ashore, and the sailors were almost immediately surrounded by natives armed with clubs, spears, and even a few guns. The boat’s blunderbusses and muskets were so soaked with rain and seawater that they were unusable, and Knox and his men fully expected a hand-to-hand fight to the death.
But for reasons that were not clear, the chief granted them mercy. (Whippy would later claim that it was the first instance he had ever heard of a grounded vessel’s crew not being murdered.) Taking what weapons and equipment they could, Knox and his men abandoned the boat to the natives and waded out to Perry’s launch.
Perry knew the wind would have to moderate if he was to sail the launch, now doubly overloaded, out of the harbor. As dusk approached they counted no fewer than fourteen fires along the shore. Every now and then a native would fire off a musket. Around midnight the lookout cried out that the cutter was surrounded by swimming natives. Some of them were diving underwater and attempting to lift the anchor while others tried to cut the anchor cable. The sailors began shooting into the darkness and were eventually able to capture two of the natives, who were quickly tied up and thrown into the bottom of the boat. When the natives on shore realized that they had lost two of their people, “they danced and wailed around their fires,” in the words of one sailor, “like so many fiends.”
The next morning, Perry decided to try once again to tack out of the bay. As soon as they made sail, the natives began following them along the reef. “[T]he least accident would have thrown our poor fellows ashore,” Reynolds wrote, “only to be murdered.” There was a steep chop and the boat was soon full of water. The natives had gathered at the edge of the reef, where it looked as if the cutter was sure to run aground. As his men bailed with “Hats, Shoes & buckets,” Perry was able to weather the barrier and finally reach the safety of open water.
Upon hearing Perry’s report, Wilkes announced that they were going to get the boat back. He and Hudson would be leading a fleet of eleven boats, plus the schooner, in an assault on Solevu. Earlier, Wilkes had ordered Reynolds to resurvey the bay in which the squadron was presently anchored, and when Reynolds headed out at two P.M., he was hopeful that he would be able to complete the work in time to join Wilkes and Hudson. But when he returned to the Vincennes at sundown, he was told that they had left two hours before. “I felt as bad as if I had been whipped,” he wrote, “& heartily wished Captain Wilkes & his resurveying at the———.”
Wilkes and his expedition of eighty men arrived at Solevu the next morning. The tide was low, and there was a wide mudflat between them and the cutter, which had been drawn up into the shallows of a small, winding creek. Using Whippy as his interpreter, Wilkes demanded that the natives hand over the boat and all the articles that had been left in it. “It was a novel position for a Fegee warrior to find himself in,” Reynolds wrote. “For never in the annals of his people had so large a body of white men appeared in arms, offering fight, upon their very shores.”
The chief agreed to surrender the boat, and it was soon carried down to the water’s edge. But after inspecting the boat, Wilkes’s officers reported that it was missing the men’s personal effects. “My conditions not being complied with,” Wilkes wrote, “I determined to make an example of these natives.”
That afternoon, the fleet moved in for the attack. The boats grounded in about two feet of water, and the men, all of them armed with muskets, waded the rest of the way to shore under the leadership of Hudson. Wilkes elected to remain in his gig, which had been equipped with a Congreve war rocket.
The village had been left deserted, and the natives, loaded with their possessions, could be seen climbing up a nearby hill, where they paused to watch the ensuing scene. In only a matter of minutes, the entire village was in flames. The popping of burning bamboo sounded so much like the report of a musket, that it was briefly believed the natives were fighting back, but such was not the case. This did not prevent Wilkes from firing a few of his rockets at the natives up on the hill. Partway between a skyrocket and a modern-day missile, the rocket left a smoky contrail before bursting into flame, and the Fijians could be heard shouting out, “Curlew! Curlew!,” or “Spirits! Spirits!” Lieutenant Sinclair reported that “we have since heard the most exaggerated accounts of the destructive effect of these ‘Flying Devils’ as the Natives called the rockets.”
That evening aboard the Flying Fish, Wilkes and Hudson congratulated themselves on “having punished the insolence of these cannibals without any loss on our side.” But, as the geologist James Dana observed, the Fijians probably had a very different view of the incident. “Burning villages is of no avail as punishment,” he wrote in a letter to the botanist Asa Gray. “They only laugh at it. A few weeks will repair all the damage. They have heretofore sneered at men-of-war, as they had done nothing here except burning a town, and it is very important that some more effective mode of exciting their fears should be adopted.”
Just eleven days after the burning of Solevu, Wilkes would do as Dana suggested. In addition to reducing yet another beautiful Fijian village to a smoking ruin, he would drench its sands in blood.