ON JULY 15, 1839, just a day out of Callao, Wilkes did for himself and Hudson what the secretary of the navy had refused to do. He made the two of them captains. After leaving Norfolk almost a year before, Wilkes had removed the epaulet from his uniform, but on that mild clear morning, he appeared on the quarterdeck of the Vincennes wearing what Reynolds described as “an immense pair of Epaulettes.”
There was more to come. As captain and commander of a squadron, Wilkes felt he was now entitled to the honorary rank of Commodore of the U.S. Exploring Expedition. So it was that at precisely 9:00 A.M. the narrow streamer, known as a “coach whip,” at the masthead of the Vincennes was replaced by the broad, blue, swallow-tailed pendant, or pennant, of a commodore.
It was an audacious, even outrageous act, without precedent in the U.S. Navy. Wilkes would later admit that the move could have been considered “a bold and unwarranted stroke of policy on my part.” The timing was also suspect. Why now, rather than at the beginning of the Expedition? In a letter to Jane, Wilkes claimed that it was his “excessive modesty” that had delayed his donning of the epaulets. “It will give [Hudson and me] much more respect,” he wrote, “and I think add to my influence over the officers and crew.” In his official journal, Wilkes dubiously asserted that he had “assumed the uniform in obedience to orders of the Secty. Of the Navy. . . . My reasons for not having done this heretofore [are] but known to myself.”
As far as the officers of the U.S. Ex. Ex. were concerned, Wilkes’s reasons were quite obvious. The squadron was on the verge of a wilderness larger than all the world’s landmasses combined. Once amid the islands of the Pacific, it would take months, perhaps years, for official correspondence to catch up with them. Beyond the reach of the administration, with little chance of encountering another U.S. naval vessel, Wilkes—the self-crowned commodore of the Exploring Expedition—had made it unmistakably clear that he now felt free to do exactly as he pleased.
But could he pull it off? Could he, in the words with which a captain commanded a lieutenant to implement an order, make it so?
As Wilkes’s instructions made clear, one of the Expedition’s primary goals was to provide charts for the nation’s whalemen. America had, by far, the largest whaling fleet in the world. Unlike European merchant vessels, which used the Pacific as a thoroughfare from place to place, the whalemen followed the desultory movements of sperm whales across the full width and breadth of the largest ocean in the world. The vast distances they traveled required the whaling captains to look to the islands of Polynesia for provisions. Since few European mariners had reason to visit many of these islands, previous exploring expeditions had neglected to survey a significant number of the islands in any systematic manner. Indeed, there were entire groups, such as the Fijis, that had not yet been properly surveyed at all. Charting hundreds of Pacific islands was a gargantuan, largely thankless, and incredibly time-consuming task, but it was the chief aim of the U.S. Ex. Ex.
On August 13, after a passage of almost a month, they saw their first Pacific island. Reynolds immediately scampered up the mainmast to the royal yard, where he watched for more than an hour, “entranced with the Singular & picturesque loneliness of that gem of the Ocean.” Before him lay one of the easternmost islands of the Tuamotu Group, the largest collection of coral atolls in the world. The island of Reao, known to Wilkes as Clermont de Tonnere, is less than a dozen miles long with the ringlike shape typical of a coral atoll. “[W]here the white beach terminates there is a beautiful fringe of Trees & Shrubbery,” Reynolds wrote, “hiding from view the Lagoon within, but from aloft, you can look over the quiet lake, the Isles that stud its bosom, and the green strip that encompasses it round about.” How an island comprised of coral, which only grows in shallow water, had come to exist in the middle of a vast and deep ocean was a question that greatly concerned the Expedition’s scientists. “[E]ven in this enlightened age,” Reynolds wrote, “[it] has defied a satisfactory explanation.” By the end of the voyage, with a little help from Charles Darwin, the scientists of the Ex. Ex. would have an answer.
Wilkes intended to make Reao an object lesson in what were the Expedition’s proper priorities. Surveying, not science, was to be attended to first. All the next day, the scientists watched in indignant disbelief from the decks of the Vincennes, the Peacock, and the Porpoise. After more than a year of anticipation, they were now forced to sit idly by as an island was surveyed, yet remained unexplored. The naturalist Titian Peale called it “a sorry business.” Nevertheless, as all of them would begrudgingly come to acknowledge, there was a magnificent precision in the way that Wilkes and his officers undertook a survey.
It was essentially the same system he had developed at Georges Bank. Dividing up the four vessels of the squadron into two groups and assigning each group a specific survey area, he was able to reduce the time normally required to survey an island. One of the more interesting—and ear-splitting—aspects of his method was the way he determined the baselines of the survey. The vessels would take up positions along the shore of the island, then begin firing their guns in rapid succession. By noting the time between the gun’s flash and report, the officers were able to calculate the distance between the two vessels. (What effect this day-long display of firepower had on the island’s native population can only be guessed.) In the meantime, other officers used sextants to measure angles between the vessels and points designated on shore. Once these were completed, the vessels changed their positions and eventually worked their way around the island. It wasn’t long before they had roughed out a chart of the island complete with points of “known location along its perimeter.”
It was now time for the boat-crews to go to work. One of the sailors used the sounding lead to determine the water’s depth while an officer with a sextant measured horizontal angles to known points on land. Each vessel had what was called a deck-board on which the information was recorded, and at the conclusion of the survey, copies of the data were sent to Wilkes along with a diagram to designate all the control points of the survey. Wilkes and his officers then compiled the various surveys to create a finished chart. The system brought a new level of speed and accuracy to the survey of the Pacific, and Reao was the first of 280 islands to be surveyed by the U.S. Ex. Ex.
But it was punishing work, especially for those assigned boat duty. Wet, sunburned, their eyes scorched from staring through the eyepieces of their sextants and other instruments, the officers and men returned that evening wondering if they would ever be allowed to enjoy the fabled delights of the South Seas. “The Captain has pushed us so with work,” Reynolds recorded several nights later, “that we have had scarce time to eat—and there are no signs of a lull as of yet.”
Not until the survey had been completed did Wilkes determine that it was time to unleash the scientists. But first he and his officers had to make contact with the island’s inhabitants. Soon after departing from Callao he had issued an order insisting that everyone associated with the squadron exhibit “courtesy and kindness towards the natives.” To help them achieve this objective, they had an interpreter, John Sac, a minor chief from New Zealand, who after spending some time in Tahiti had lived for a number of years in the United States, where he had been exhibited as a curiosity. As a crewmember aboard the Sea Gull during her voyage to the South Shetland Islands, Sac had taken such an enthusiastic interest in killing penguins that Lieutenant Johnson had had difficulty persuading him to relent. For the most part, however, Sac had developed a reputation in the squadron for his “disciplined obedience.”
By the time Wilkes and his officers approached the island in a small flotilla of boats, a group of seventeen natives had assembled on the beach, with an estimated hundred or so lurking in the undergrowth behind them. Wilkes was in the lead, flying a white flag of truce, but the natives, “a fine athletic race, much above the ordinary in size,” were not in a welcoming mood. Armed with long spears and clubs, the islanders made it clear that they did not want Wilkes to land. The natives in this region had a reputation for cannibalism, and Reynolds claimed that their gestures suggested that if the white men should come ashore “they would certainly be made a meal of.”
Even though he had been born many thousands of miles away in New Zealand, Sac was able to understand the islanders, several of whom were chanting in unison. Sac reported that they were telling them, “Go to your own land; this belongs to us, and we do not want to have anything to do with you.” At that moment the surf was too high to land, so Wilkes ordered his officers to attempt to appease the natives by throwing them some trinkets. But when the trade goods washed up at their feet, the natives scornfully kicked the baubles aside.
By this point Sac, standing at the boat’s bow with a boat hook in his hand, had struck up a conversation with the group’s leader. It was not going well. “[Sac] soon became provoked at the chief’s obstinacy,” Wilkes wrote, “his eyes shone fiercely, and his whole frame seemed agitated. Half naked as he was, his tattooing conspicuous, he stood in the bow of the boat brandishing his boat-hook like a spear with the dexterity of the savage.” Although none of them knew what he was saying, Wilkes became concerned that Sac was only making matters worse and ordered him to desist in the negotiations. Reynolds’s friend William May and another officer volunteered to swim ashore and attempt to greet the natives personally, but almost as soon as they made it to the beach, they were in full retreat and swimming back to the boats.
This was not the way Wilkes had wanted to begin his tour as commodore. After the scientist Joseph Couthouy also proved unsuccessful in winning the natives’ trust, Wilkes ordered several of his officers to shoot off some blank cartridges. Once again, the reaction wasn’t what he had hoped. Sac reported that “they hooted at these arms, calling us cowards, and daring us to come on shore.” Quickly forgetting his own orders to treat the natives with compassion, Wilkes took up a gun armed with birdshot and fired at the natives on the beach. “[W]hen the Shot struck them,” Reynolds wrote, “they brushed away at the spot as if a fly had bitten them, manifesting the utmost unconcern & contempt for us & our weapons, & exhibiting more of the cannibal in their faces & gestures than was agreeable to witness.” Wilkes ordered additional officers, including the naturalist Titian Peale, the best shot in the squadron, to fire on the natives. As the birdshot tore into their legs, backsides, and faces, the natives began to retreat into the interior of the island but with, Reynolds noted, “deliberate dignity.”
Now that he had cleared the beach, Wilkes declared that it was safe to land. It was late in the day, but he had some observations he wanted to make, and the scientists would have their first, long-awaited opportunity to collect some specimens. After a mere half hour on the beach, it was time to return to the ships.
Wilkes felt he had provided the natives with “abundant proof of our prowess and superiority.” Many of his officers begged to disagree. “I consider the plan of policy pursued here as miserable,” wrote the assistant surgeon John Whittle. “[W]e have no doubt left these people in such a state of mind that if a ship should be unfortunately wrecked here, the crew will be murdered.”
In the weeks ahead, as the squadron weaved its way among the Tuamotus toward Tahiti, eventually surveying a total of seventeen islands, the frustrations of the scientists only increased. Even when the natives proved friendly or the island uninhabited, Wilkes was reluctant to let them go ashore until after the survey was already well in hand. When no scientists were permitted to land on the island of Raraka, Titian Peale wrote out in bold letters across the page of his journal, “WHAT WAS A SCIENTIFIC CORP SENT FOR?” A few days later, Couthouy finally got the opportunity to collect some sizeable specimens of coral. But when he left them to dry outside his cabin door, Wilkes complained of the smell and ordered that no more coral could be dried below the spar deck. Couthouy insisted that European expeditions “had experienced no difficulty in the preservation of large and numerous specimens.” Wilkes replied that “he did not care a damn for what had been done in previous expeditions . . . , and that he should take the responsibility of deciding all matters relative to our collections according to his own views.” Like it or not, this was going to be the Wilkes Expedition.
If his relations with the scientists had reached a new low, it was even worse with his officers, many of whom had once considered themselves the commander’s friends. Like Charlie Erskine before them—the cabin boy who had become so infuriated with Wilkes that he had contemplated murder—they had swung from ardent adoration to an equally passionate hate. “[W]e would have given ourselves to him entirely,” Reynolds wrote Lydia, “but he [did] not [know] how to use the men who were so much attached to him and by his own doings he has turned his warmest friends into deathly foes.”
As was true on any naval vessel, the officers of the Vincennes ate their meals in two different groups or messes, with the lieutenants in the wardroom and the passed midshipmen and midshipmen in steerage. As was also true on any naval vessel, it was common for members of both messes to socialize in their cabins, with Reynolds’s and May’s carpeted stateroom serving as an especially popular gathering spot. But as relations between the commander and his officers deteriorated, Wilkes began to resent what he saw as an excessive fraternization among his junior and senior officers. On August 20, he issued an order: “The commander has observed with regret, not only a tendency to familiarity among officers of different grades, but that the apartments of all grades of officers have been converted into a lounge by the juniors, which must in the nature of things produce a familiarity having a tendency to destroy . . . discipline.”
Reynolds responded with what might be described as the steerage’s declaration of independence. “In regard to the Selection of friends, or the privilege of enjoying their Society,” he wrote, “so long as we do not impinge on the martial law of the quarter deck, or assemble for seditious purposes, we are strongly & firmly of the belief, that the delicacy of the question should forbid all interference, & must beg to be allowed to follow the sacred bent of our own inclinations.” There was no longer any doubt as to how matters stood between the commander and his officers. “From this time forward,” Reynolds wrote, “there was ‘war to the knife’ between Captn. Wilkes & most of his officers.”
By mutual agreement, all social contact between Wilkes and his officers ceased. “I have given up inviting the officers to my table,” he wrote Jane, “as I found it incompatible with my duties and I was desirous to widen the dividing line between us.” Wilkes would later claim that he had, from the very beginning of the Expedition, chosen to remove himself from regular contact with his officers. Reynolds insists, however, that it was only after this bitter exchange that the policy became strictly enforced. “Henceforward the door of the Cabin was only passed on matters of duty,” he wrote, “and the commander was left to the delight of his own society.” For Wilkes, whose original style of command had involved an unusual amount of interaction with his officers and who had spent much of his professional life working at home in the company of his family, it was going to be a very lonely voyage across the Pacific.
At the island of Napuka (called Wytoohee by the Expedition), the natives once again appeared unwilling to allow them to land. John Sac was in a boat and already conversing with a group on shore when Wilkes rowed up in his six-oared gig with his broad commodore’s pennant flying. Thumping his chest, Wilkes shouted out to Sac, “Tell them that I am the Big Chief !” Sac duly communicated this information, but the natives were apparently unimpressed, forcing Wilkes and his party to return to the Vincennes without landing on the island.
What made this incident particularly galling to Wilkes was that, as he and his officers could plainly see, just a short way down the beach Hudson’s boat-crews had succeeded in reaching the shore and were engaged in pleasant conversation with the natives. Wilkes ordered one of his officers to inform Hudson that he must immediately vacate the beach. That night he wrote a letter chastising his second-in-command for unreasonably risking his men’s lives when, in fact, his only crime had been that he had succeeded where Wilkes had failed.
On the morning of September 2, Wilkes signaled the Flying Fish to come within hail. They were just off Kauehi, and he wanted the schooner to transport several of the scientists to the island. The Vincennes was lying with her maintopsail aback, moving at a leisurely one knot. The schooner approached from windward and astern, and as she sailed under the ship’s stern, Wilkes hailed her commander, Lieutenant Robert Pinkney, to head up and wait, or heave to. Not hearing the order, Pinkney continued on, sailing to leeward of and parallel to the Vincennes. Wilkes, irritated that Pinkney had not immediately responded to his hail, ran to the leeward side of his ship and shouted, “Heave to! Mr. Pinkney, I told you to heave to!” Since the schooner was now less than a hundred yards from the ship, there wasn’t room for her to heave to in the Vincennes’s lee without risking a collision. This did not deter Wilkes, who was now jogging along the gangway so as to keep abreast of the Flying Fish. “Why don’t you heave to, Mr. Pinkney?” he screamed through the speaking trumpet.
Pinkney could have first headed downwind so as to create a sufficient gap between himself and the ship and then hove to. That was what Wilkes later claimed he had expected him to do. Instead, Pinkney decided to try to sail past the Vincennes and, once ahead of the ship, heave to to windward. But when he put the helm hard down, there was not sufficient space between the Flying Fish and the Vincennes, and the schooner rounded head to wind directly in front of the ship. By this point, Wilkes had made it to the bowsprit. “What do you mean, sir!” he shouted. “What do you mean? I never saw anything of the like! God damn you! I did not tell you to heave to under my bows!” If not for the quick-witted Lieutenant Joseph Underwood, who ordered the foretop-sail backed, the Vincennes would have surely run down the schooner and very likely killed all hands.
From Reynolds’s perspective, it appeared as if Wilkes’s excessive badgering of the Flying Fish’s commander had pressured him into doing something he would not ordinarily have done. The real fault lay with Wilkes’s style of command. As was becoming increasingly clear, even to the youngest boys in the squadron, Wilkes, despite his claims of being “another John Paul Jones,” was no seaman. He might be adept at pushing the Porpoise through the ice, but he seemed at a loss when it came to the more nuanced intricacies of maneuvering his ship among other vessels. While at Valparaiso the Vincennes had become caught up in the rigging of a bark from Hamburg, and Wilkes’s “lubberly obstinacy” had deeply embarrassed Reynolds and the other officers. In truth, Wilkes did not have the sea experience or the personality to negotiate a ship in close quarters. His passionate nature made it impossible for him to issue orders in a composed and careful manner, and he was without the natural, ingrained sensitivity to the movements of a sailing vessel that is essential to being an effective seaman.
It didn’t help matters that the officer he had chosen as his first lieutenant, Overton Carr, was equally lacking in seamanship skills. But to Wilkes’s mind, whatever difficulties he encountered were always the fault of others. He claimed that the incident with the Flying Fish had caused the officers aboard the schooner to be “almost beside themselves and nonplused as ignorance is always in such situations.” But it had been Wilkes, not the officers of the Flying Fish, who had lost control of his emotions, and for the duration of the voyage, he would do everything in his power to persecute the schooner’s commander, Robert Pinkney.
Reynolds began to wonder if Wilkes was suffering from some kind of mental imbalance. “We find ourselves entirely at a loss to account for his motives,” he wrote Lydia, “or to imagine how any man in a sane mind could be guilty of such wrong headed measures.” As far as Reynolds could tell, Wilkes was no longer the same person he had come to admire in Washington. “The nature of the man has become changed,” he wrote, “he is as one possessed by a demon.”
Wilkes had changed, but less so than Reynolds, who had only known him for a few brief months prior to the Ex. Ex., might have thought. All his life, Wilkes had cast himself as the righteous outsider who must battle against the forces of ignorance and ineptitude to achieve what others thought could never be done. He was the antithesis of the “team player,” and as he had proven with Ferdinand Hassler more than a decade before, he was capable of turning on the people closest to him if he thought it served his best interests. For a few brief months, his original corps of passed midshipmen had been an integral part of Wilkes’s campaign to prove to Washington, if not the navy, that he was the natural choice to lead the Expedition. Little did Reynolds and the others realize that once they had served Wilkes’s initial purposes, all bets were off.
Wilkes’s interpersonal skills had always been next to nonexistent, but for much of his professional life he had benefited from the advice of Jane, whom he referred to as “my moderation.” Reynolds and his compatriots had become part of Wilkes’s world at a time when Jane’s influence was at its height; indeed, she seems to have scripted many of the moves that won him command of the Ex. Ex. But now Wilkes was without Jane’s steadying hand. On occasion he would consult Hudson, but his good-natured second-in-command was not about to tell him anything he did not want to hear. Without restraint, Wilkes’s fanatical and outspoken personality inevitably began to raise havoc with the officers of the squadron.
A year into the Expedition, Wilkes had essentially re-created the environment in which he had always operated: it was he, and he alone, against the rest of the world. It was a turbulent, hurtful, and ultimately wasteful way to conduct one’s life, but it was the only way he knew how to do it. Except for his first lieutenant Overton Carr, the purser Robert Waldron, and the surgeon John Fox, there were no officers aboard the Vincennes he could trust. This meant that despite being the leader of a nonmilitary expedition, Wilkes conducted himself as if he were in the midst of a war—not with icebergs and uncharted reefs, but with his own officers.
At some point, Wilkes became known as the Stormy Petrel, a nickname that would stay with him for the rest of his life, and as any sailor knows, the appearance of a stormy petrel means that rough weather is ahead. The squadron as a whole, but the Vincennes in particular, became a nonstop whirlwind of activity. In addition to their daily surveying duties, the officers and men were constantly harassed by the cry, “All Hands on Deck!”—an order Wilkes issued as many as fifteen times a day. Under these conditions, it was impossible to count on more than an hour’s undisturbed sleep a night. But if Wilkes drove his men hard, he drove himself even harder. Every night, he worked well past midnight on his charts. Surgeon John Fox later reported that Wilkes averaged no more than five hours sleep a night and often went for days at a time with no sleep at all. Sleep deprivation leads to a loss of emotional control as well as a failure to make complex social judgments—just the areas in which Wilkes’s personality was already lacking.
Underlying Wilkes’s determination to push himself and his men “to the wall” was an unshakable sense of dread. “It is almost impossible to give the constant anxiety I was under,” he later wrote, “arising from the feelings I had of the incompetency of the officers.” The true source of this “constant anxiety” was not a lack of confidence in his officers, but in himself. Too controlling to adequately delegate his many responsibilities, turned rabid with exhaustion, paranoia, and loneliness even as he clung pathetically to the tattered notion of his infallibility, Wilkes was in danger of becoming a caricature of the enlightened explorer. Instead of his boyhood hero James Cook, the Stormy Petrel was acting more like that tyrant of legend William Bligh. Whether or not his officers would go the way of Fletcher Christian remained to be seen.
On September 10, the island of Tahiti came within view. Compared to the low coral atolls of the Tuamotus, Tahiti’s high volcanic peaks were a wonderful contrast and reminded several of the officers of the Expedition’s first landfall, Madeira. But Tahiti was much more than a physical place for the officers and men of the Ex. Ex.; it represented the holy ground of Pacific exploration—the magical island where European civilization had first come in significant contact with the exotic world of Polynesia (a term coined in the eighteenth century by the Frenchman Charles De Brosses, meaning “many islands”).
What is remarkable, in retrospect, is how long it took for the two cultures to meet. Magellan had been the first to sail across the Pacific in 1521-22. Except for two uninhabited atolls, he had not seen a single island until he’d come across Guam, almost nine thousand miles from South America. In the intervening years, Spanish galleons regularly sailed from South America to the Philippines, but the route they followed like a well-worn trail seldom brought them into contact with the islands and their people. A handful of European mariners had ventured to scattered portions of the Pacific, but for the most part the ocean remained almost completely unexplored through the middle of the eighteenth century, more than 250 years after Magellan.
That all changed with the voyage of Samuel Wallis, the British naval officer who stumbled on the island of Tahiti in 1768, two years before it was visited by James Cook. The island seemed almost too good to be true. The lush hills and valleys were filled with fruit, vegetables, pigs, and birds; the surrounding waters abounded with fish. With everything they needed at their fingertips, the Tahitians, whose physical size and beauty stunned the Europeans, were free to live a life of apparent ease. Best of all, from the sailors’ perspective, the women, wearing little more than the flowers in their hair, were willing to fulfill the men’s every desire for the price of an iron nail. When the ready supply of nails ran out, Wallis became concerned that his ship might be pulled to pieces by his sailors’ frantic search for additional trade goods.
Even before Wallis returned to England to tell Cook about his discovery, Tahiti was visited by Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, the first Frenchman to circumnavigate the globe. Bougainville’s report of a virtual Garden of Eden, which he dubbed “New Cythera,” was taken as proof of the Enlightenment’s belief in the innate goodness of natural man, uncorrupted by the evils of society. But by the time Cook arrived on the scene a year later, Tahiti was no longer the utopia it had once been. Venereal disease was now rampant on the island, and in a matter of weeks Cook’s surgeon reported thirty-three cases among the sailors and marines. In subsequent years a host of European-borne diseases would ravage the native population.
Three decades after its discovery, Tahiti received a visitation of a different sort. Where the French had seen an Eden, the London Missionary Society saw an island of barbarous heathens in desperate need of the Word of God. Not until 1815, when King Pomare II embraced Christianity so as to help him defeat his tribal rivals, did the Society begin to make genuine inroads. Then, with the arrival of a young, charismatic reformed ironmonger named John Williams two years later, Christianity started to spread not only throughout Tahiti but to islands across Polynesia.
By the time the Ex. Ex. arrived at the island, seventy-two years after Cook, the paradise of the South Pacific had become thoroughly Christian. Hundreds of Tahitians, the women adorned in full-length dresses and floppy bonnets, the men in a ragged assortment of Western pants and shirts, made their way to church every Saturday (the holy day on Tahiti because the first missionaries had forgotten to take into account the time change). Much to the missionaries’ dismay, Tahiti had recently become an occasional provisioning stop for the British and American whaling fleets, and the boisterous sailors threatened to undermine the natives’ tenuous grasp of Christian morality. All the while, the French and British governments were eyeing each other warily over control of Tahiti. The island that had once been an icon was in danger of becoming a colony.
Cook had originally come to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus across the sun, and Wilkes, having just reread his great predecessor’s narrative, was intent on re-creating history. “We anchored in Matavai Bay under Point Venus,” he wrote, “perhaps in the very position once occupied by Captn Cook. . . . The stillness of the harbour with nothing to disturb its placid surface was refreshing, filled as the air was with the fragrance of flowers on shore.” But instead of lovely women offering their charms, the squadron was soon surrounded by canoe-loads of natives offering to wash their laundry. In emulation of Cook, Wilkes ordered his officers to erect the squadron’s portable observatories on Point Venus, where several tents, a forge, and a carpenters’ work station were also assembled as a crowd of Tahitians gathered around them. “[T]hey hovered about us,” Reynolds wrote, “as if it was actually necessary to their happiness to be always near us, & never quitted the Point so long as we remained.”
Reynolds was quickly introduced to one of the wonders of the South Pacific—the coconut. Soon he was drinking as many as thirty of them a day. “Let me record its praises here,” he wrote in his journal, “I owe my life to the milk of the Cocoa Nut, & like the Natives, I would rather die, than harm a tree.”
The officers and men of the Expedition quickly learned that the Tahitians’ reputation for sexual promiscuity was still well deserved. Wilkes assured Jane that, unlike former expeditions, whose ships became “floating brothels,” he allowed no women on his vessels and required his men to be back aboard by sunset. “This has won great praise from the missionaries,” he reported.
Reynolds was shocked by the Tahitians’ sexual openness (like “beasts in the fields,” he recorded), but he was even more disturbed by the conduct of the missionaries. Instead of striving to teach the natives any substantive religious truths, they ruled by spiritual intimidation. “[T]he only evidence of Religion, that I noticed among the Natives, were the observance of External forms, & a fear of the Missionaries.” In the pages of his journal he began to articulate a radical concept for the first half of the nineteenth century—that of cultural relativism. “Who can judge one nation by another?” he wrote. “What man can say, this people shall be my standard, by them I will judge all others? [The Tahitians] differ from us widely, but they are unconscious that they are wrong—that, which we could point at, with the finger of Shame & condemn as obscene & sinful, they deem of no harm, but as worthy of commendation & observance.” In the months ahead, as the squadron made its way west to the islands of Samoa, Reynolds would find even more reason to question his preconceived notions of the innate superiority of Western society.
Tahiti proved to be an important crossroads for the scientists. Finally, they were set free. Couthouy and Peale would continue to grumble about Wilkes’s dictatorial style, but the rest of the scientists found little to complain about as they rushed about the island on various expeditions into the interior. Charles Pickering was designated a “naturalist,” but his primary interest was in what we would call today anthropology. He was becoming increasingly fascinated by the stunning variety of peoples he had so far seen—from the African slaves of Rio to the Yahgans of Cape Horn, the Native Americans of the Andes, and now the Polynesians of the Tuamotus and Tahiti. After spending several weeks with the Tahitians, he, like Reynolds, recognized that Western standards did not necessarily apply in the South Pacific. “[T]hese people are not to be judged precisely by the same rule as ourselves,” he wrote in his journal. Unlike the Expedition’s officers and scientists, who staggered about the underbrush in their thick, sweat-soaked clothes and lugged heavy boxes of provisions and equipment, the nearly naked Tahitians seemed perfectly adapted to the considerable demands of their environment. “Strip [a Tahitian] entirely in the morning and without an implement in his hand, turn him into the woods; then pay him a visit at night. We shall find him clothed from the lace of the Cocoa-nut tree, a garland on his head; a house over him, made of the Wild Bananas; thongs & cordage of all sorts from the bark of the Poorow tree; baskets made by plaiting the segments of a Cocoa-nut leaf; perhaps a mat to sleep on; cups or wash-bowls of Cocoa-nut shell, or even tumblers & casks of the joints of the large Bamboo; a Cap or an Umbrella if it is wanted of the Banana leaf; a fire kindled; [with] provisioning enough for a week.”
As the scientists had a field day, Wilkes continued to antagonize his officers. Robert Pinkney, the commander of the Flying Fish, was unfairly accused of having neglected the schooner’s condition. When Pinkney wrote a letter of complaint to the secretary of the navy, Wilkes refused to forward the correspondence to Washington. As he boasted to another officer, “action could not be taken against him, until his return to the U. States”—and that was at least two years away.
On October 11, the Vincennes anchored in one of the most unusual harbors in the South Pacific—Pago Pago, a deep, L-shaped canyon in the center of the mountainous island of Tutuila in what is today eastern or American Samoa. Since the prevailing southeasterly trade winds blow directly into the harbor, Pago Pago is easy enough for a sailing vessel to enter but is extremely difficult to leave. About a half-mile from the entrance, the harbor bends almost at a right angle to the west. Here, between precipices that reach as high as one thousand feet, Wilkes reported that the firing of a gun produced “a remarkable reverberation, resembling loud peals of thunder.” In a few weeks the harbor of Pago Pago would prove to be an important testing ground for the leader of the Ex. Ex.
Reynolds was assigned surveying duty under Lieutenant Joseph Underwood. With Reynolds in a whaleboat named the Greyhound and Underwood in the larger launch Leopard, they were to circumnavigate the island in a clockwise direction, stopping when necessary at villages along the way. The first day of sailing proved as dangerous as anything Reynolds had experienced off Tierra del Fuego. Strong winds and huge waves made surveying, let alone staying upright, extremely difficult. “[T]he Compass whirled like a top,” Reynolds wrote, “from the jumping motion of the Boat & the Seas that broke over us [and] drenched all hands.” They spent that first night at the village of Leone, where Reynolds was immediately impressed by the gentleness of the natives. “I noticed in the men, a fondness & care displayed towards their children,” he wrote, “which I had not expected to find. While on the beach many huge fellows had infants & babbling youngsters in their arms.” After picking up their two boats and placing them carefully on land, the natives led Reynolds and Underwood to their village. “There was a deep quiet,” he wrote, “& the little scene around me, in the grove of the Magnificent Bread Fruits, was so simply innocent, that my soul was touched. My pride as a white man melted away & I thought in my heart, these people have more claim to be good than we. . . . I could not help thinking, what would be the reception of these people in our Land ?”
At Fagasa, on the northwestern side of Tutuila and only a few miles’ walk from the inner reaches of Pago Pago Harbor, which almost cuts the island in half, they found Midshipman Wilkes Henry. Henry had been stationed at Fagasa to measure the tides and make other observations. The commander’s falling out with his officers had been as difficult for Henry as it had been for his uncle. Remarkably, the young midshipman had been able to remain on good terms with his fellow officers without being disloyal to Wilkes. Reynolds had nothing but admiration for the boy, and when heavy rains made it impossible to survey the next day, he and Underwood were pleased to spend the morning and afternoon in the village’s “big house,” talking with Henry and the natives. But the next day, when they returned to the village after surveying the harbor, they discovered that Commodore Wilkes, along with Waldron and nine sailors, had walked across the island to pay Henry a visit. It was time to move on.
A little more than a week later, Reynolds and Underwood had completed their circumnavigation of Tutuila. The following afternoon the Vincennes weighed anchor and began to beat out of Pago Pago. Five days earlier, the Peacock and the Flying Fish, which had been sent ahead to the island of Upolu in western Samoa, had attempted to do the same thing. Given her fore-and-aft rig, the schooner had had no problem, but it had taken four hours for the square-rigged Peacock to tack her way out to sea. The large ocean swell at the harbor mouth made it difficult for the ship to carry her momentum through the eye of the wind, and several times it had looked as if the Peacock might be in danger of fetching up on the rocks.
From the beginning, it did not go well for the Vincennes. Even though the water was as smooth as glass within the inner reaches of the harbor, the ship was unable to complete her first tack—gradually losing all forward motion until she lay motionless in the water with her bow pointed into the wind, known as missing stays. “[B]ut this was not to be wondered at,” Reynolds wrote. “Our first Luff [Lieutenant Carr, who was responsible for executing the maneuver] had disgraced himself often before.” Luckily, the harbor pilot, an Englishman named Edmund Fauxall, stepped in and issued the orders required to get the ship moving again. The Vincennes proceeded along well enough until she reached the swell at the harbor mouth. “Now the greatest care & the nicest skill & judgment were required,” Reynolds wrote. “The ship was to be watched & tended, for she had a critical chance to play.” They were approaching the western edge of the entrance, a high bluff known as Tower Rock. Wilkes nervously asked the pilot if he thought the Vincennes would weather the obstruction. “I do not know yet, Sir” was the response. Soon enough it became clear that another tack would be required. The pilot issued the appropriate order. Wilkes repeated the order, and it was now up to Carr to tack the ship. “Had we gone round then,” Reynolds claimed, “all would have been right, but the Ship refused stays.” In addition to backing the head yards of the ship, it was often common to lower the headsails and haul the mizzen yard to weather so as to coax the bow through the wind. “Nothing was done to help her,” Reynolds bitterly observed; “she lost her way, gathered Stern-board & finally fell off with her head right on the rocks.” Like a stalled airplane plummeting to the ground, the Vincennes was drifting helplessly to her destruction.
Instead of taking charge of the situation, Carr stood amidships, “his arms akimbo, looking at the sails in utter ignorance what to do.” Reynolds and several other officers peered over the gangway, checking to see if the Vincennes had begun to drift backward into the rocks. Wilkes asked querulously if the ship was going astern. Normally Carr would have been the one to answer him, but the first lieutenant seemed unable to speak, so Underwood and Reynolds spoke up for him. “Yes!” they shouted.
“This is the last,” Wilkes croaked.
But Pilot Fauxall, in Reynolds’s words, “knew his business.” Barking out the appropriate orders, he was able to manipulate the ship’s yards and rudder so that the Vincennes came head to wind once again. With Tower Rock to leeward and the swell rolling in from the ocean, it was now “do or die.” “We were within the influence of the rollers,” Reynolds wrote. “The Surf dashed & broke upon the rocks a few boatlengths under the lee, & looking down beneath the Ship, the rocks there, were staring you in the face!”
Although the pilot succeeded in tacking the ship, their troubles were far from over. As the Vincennes struggled to gain headway, the ship’s slippage to leeward threatened to sweep her sideways back into the rocks. There was nothing left to do but wait and see if the ship could sail herself out of danger. “[T]here was the Stillness of death about the decks,” Reynolds wrote. By now all the officers and a considerable portion of the men were lined up along the leeward gangway, “looking fixedly on the foaming breakers that were so close.”
Normally Wilkes’s “loud, meddling & abusive” voice was an omnipresent part of life aboard the Vincennes. But for the last few minutes, he hadn’t said a word. He was nowhere to be seen in the vicinity of the helm or along the leeward side of the deck. Then Reynolds saw him. He was off by himself on the weather gangway, leaning on the booms, his face buried in his hands. For the commander of a sloop-of-war, it was an alarming and shameful display of cowardice.
All his life, the high-strung Wilkes had been prone to fainting spells. In his narrative he would claim to have had “no very precise recollection” of the incident. John Whittle, the assistant surgeon, described Wilkes during the episode at Pago Pago as showing “the strongest symptoms of confusion and alarm and was in fact incompetent for some time to his duties.” Whatever the case may be, Wilkes was living the worst nightmare a naval officer could ever dream of. With time slowed to a crawl and with almost the entire crew assembled on deck, his ship was drifting toward disaster, and he was powerless to do anything about it. What’s more, his handpicked first lieutenant had also proven a catastrophic failure.
Stray puffs of wind brushed languorously across the Vincennes’s sails. Under the pilot’s able direction, the ship continued to move ahead, inch by harrowing inch, but the rocks were now directly beneath them. Just then, the breeze freshened, and with a slight gurgle of water at the bow, the Vincennes slipped out to sea, with, Reynolds observed, “nothing to spare!”
Once it was clear that the ship was no longer in danger, the pilot requested that Wilkes heave to so that he might return to the harbor in his whaleboat, which was tied to the Vincennes’s stern. But Wilkes, burning with humiliation and indignation, refused. On and on they sailed in a building breeze, with the bow of the pilot’s whaleboat slapping against the big ship’s quarter wake. When the order was finally given to heave to, Fauxhall climbed into his boat with a quiet dignity that only infuriated Wilkes all the more. Waving his hand, the pilot mockingly called out, “You may fill away now, sir! Fill away, as soon as you like.”
“Captn. W. could have eaten him,” Reynolds wrote.
Soon after the pilot had been dismissed, Reynolds went below to bandage his feet; he had burned them in the sun a few days before, and they hurt so badly that he could barely get them into his shoes. But almost as soon as he began to attend to his feet, Wilkes called for “All Hands.” One of the Vincennes’s whaleboats and a dinghy needed to be brought aboard, an operation that usually required only a few men and took, at the most, five minutes. But as was his wont, Wilkes demanded that the entire crew be on duty.
Reynolds worked as quickly as he could to bandage his feet, but in a few minutes there was another cry for all hands. A few minutes after that, a sailor came below and informed Reynolds that the captain was waiting for him. Reynolds went up on deck and was shocked to see that all two hundred men were standing idly at their stations. Reynolds hobbled to his station and was told that he should consider himself suspended. Outraged by what he perceived to be a calculated effort to humiliate him, Reynolds, despite his blistered feet, paced furiously up and down the leeward gangway as Wilkes glowered at him from the quarterdeck. Then came the next order: “to confine myself to my apartment.”
For the next six days, as the Vincennes sailed for the island of Upolu in western Samoa, Reynolds remained confined to his windowless, eighty-five-degree stateroom. When he asked Wilkes’s secretary when he would learn what the charges against him were, he was told “that it was Cap. Wilkes’s way ‘to punish first & inquire afterwards.’”
One night, not long after the suspension of William Reynolds, Wilkes was alone on the quarterdeck, leaning against the rail, when he was approached by the Vincennes’s quartermaster. Thomas Piner was one of the oldest sailors in the U.S. Navy and was generally recognized, Wilkes wrote, as “a very faithful and tried seaman.” Piner apologized for the interruption but said he had “something to tell me which he thought it was important I should know.” He then related a conversation he had overheard in the galley involving some officers and the scientist Joseph Couthouy. Couthouy claimed that Wilkes was guilty of exceeding his orders in a manner that endangered the future of the Expedition. He urged the officers present to join him in an effort “to displace” Wilkes from command.
To learn that “almost a mutiny had broken out in my ship” was clearly upsetting to Wilkes, but it was also something of a relief; he could now take action against a person who had become a major thorn in his side. Wilkes thanked Piner for his loyalty and said that he would “see to it.” Before leaving, the quartermaster assured him that the men, if not the officers, were happy to serve under him, “for they saw I was up to my business and they had full confidence in myself .”
Couthouy was not only a man of science, he was also an experienced sea captain, who had increasing difficulty submitting to the authority of a commander for whom he had lost all respect. A few days later, once the Vincennes arrived at Apia on the north side of Upolu, Couthouy learned that the French expedition under d’Urville had been there the year before and that the French flagship, the Astrolabe, had been so loaded with shells and coral that her berth deck had resembled “a complete museum.” The news drove Couthouy to a desperate, flailing rage. Because of Wilkes’s orders concerning the drying of coral specimens, he would never be able to equal the collections of the French.
That night Couthouy regaled the officers in the wardroom with some of the more colorful passages from his journal. The scientist’s timing could not have been worse. The walls of the Vincennes were thin, and Wilkes, whose cabin was nearby, could hear the theatrical rumble of Couthouy’s voice, and in many instances make out the words. Wilkes decided it was time he read the officers’ journals.
As he suspected, Couthouy’s log proved highly critical of his actions. Much more troubling, however, was the evidence he uncovered of his own officers’ disloyalty. “I found no difficulty in ascertaining all who were disposed to give countenance to Mr. Couthouy’s Statement,” he later wrote. He sent for Hudson, and the two friends had a “long and confidential talk.” Wilkes showed him a list he had made of the officers “who were false and true.” To put the “cabal” on notice, he would make an example of Couthouy.
Wilkes claimed in his Autobiography that he assembled a total of twenty-two officers for his showdown with Couthouy. In reality, however, it was only five: Hudson, Carr, the surgeon Edward Gilchrist, the geologist James Dana, and Couthouy. Wilkes laid out the facts as he knew them and accused the scientist of conspiring to overthrow his command. “I never saw any one so taken aback,” he remembered. “He stood convicted before his own party.” Wilkes went on to insist that an attack on him was an attack on the Expedition and that it would “not be broken up by any intrigues or Mutinous conduct by any or many, and they might all rely upon it—I should keep My Word.” He ended by warning Couthouy that “if I heard any more of his action to this end, I should land him on the first desert island we came to, bag & baggage, and leave him.”
Couthouy had been an indefatigable member of the scientific corps. But after this incident, he seemed a broken man. Health problems and his continued difficulties with Wilkes would eventually lead to his detachment from the squadron and his early return to the United States. If Wilkes had appeared vulnerable after the debacle at Pago Pago, it was now clear to all that his almost maniacal will was as powerful as ever.
Wilkes also met with Reynolds, informing the passed midshipman that he had been confined to quarters not for being late to his station but “because I had come on deck in an improper & disrespectful manner & set a bad example to the crew.” As Reynolds was well aware, Wilkes was nearsighted. It would have been impossible for him to make out his facial expressions when he came up the fore hatch. When Wilkes said he hoped it would not happen again, Reynolds replied that “I could not amend, while I was not conscious of any impropriety.” He was tempted to insist on a court-martial to exonerate himself, but “like many others have done this cruise, I subdued my feelings at whatever sacrifice.”
By this time, the squadron had arrived at Upolu’s beautiful Apia Bay. The next day Reynolds and Lieutenant George Emmons set out on an overland expedition to survey a harbor on the opposite side of the island. After a week’s confinement, Reynolds had difficulty containing his enthusiasm. “I was enraptured with the loveliness around me, & I strode on with a light step, care banished from my mind . . . ; when I behold a glorious prospect, my heart would burst, did I not give way & exult & rejoice aloud!”
They stopped at a village for the night, and before dinner they went to a freshwater pool for a bath. Nearly the entire village followed them, and as Reynolds took off his clothes, one of the natives drew attention to the contrast between his white body and his tanned face, neck, and hands. “Those parts of me, he said were ‘Samoa,’ the rest ‘Papalangi [Polynesian for white person],’ and he proceeded to assure his hearers with an air of triumphant satisfaction, ‘that . . . a short time would make us Samoa all over.’”
Accompanying Reynolds and Emmons on this journey was the Expedition’s philologist, or linguist, Horatio Hale. As the officers faded off to sleep, Hale, Reynolds reported, “sat up late learning the language from pretty lips, both in song & story.” Just twenty-three years old, Hale was the son of Sarah Josepha Hale, who as editor of the Godey’s Lady’s Book was one of the most influential women in the United States (not to mention the author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”). As a student at Harvard, Horatio Hale had visited a group of Native Americans from Maine who had taken up residence near the college grounds. Soon after, he published a vocabulary of the Indians’ language that, along with some lobbying on the part of his powerful mother, won him a post on the Ex. Ex.
Unlike his colleague Charles Pickering, who was more interested in what differentiated the various peoples they had so far visited (especially when it came to race), Hale was in search of what these peoples had in common. As it so happened, the vocabularies and oral traditions that he had so far collected from the Tuamotus, Tahiti, and now Samoa pointed to a remarkable similarity among the inhabitants of Polynesia—a fact first observed by James Cook.
In his voyages across the Pacific, Cook had noticed that as far east as Easter Island and as far west as New Zealand and as far north as Hawaii, the people not only looked similar, they spoke only slight variations of the same language. But if they shared a common origin, Cook was hard-pressed to explain how these people managed to scatter themselves across such an immense space. He had seen the natives’ oceangoing outrigger canoes. They were capable of incredible speeds and had, on several occasions, literally sailed circles around his pudgy ships. But if the canoes were fast, they could only sail effectively with the wind, and the trade winds blew from the southeast. Since the Polynesians looked nothing like Native Americans, he reasoned that they must have come from the west. But how did they sail against the trade winds? And exactly where did they originally come from?
Not until recently have archeologists and ethnographers been able to determine the location of the Polynesian homeland, what is referred to as Hawaiki in legends and myths. Between 4000 and 2000 B.C. people began to venture out from the islands of Southeast Asia. The gradual development of the outrigger canoe enabled them to sail farther and farther to the east and south, but it was not until the first millennium B.C. that the distinctive culture of Polynesia first emerged in Samoa and Tonga.
In its pristine state, a Polynesian island was not a particularly good place for humans to live—edible vegetables, especially those containing starch, were nowhere to be found; there were no large animals. The Polynesians’ oceangoing canoes became their arks, transporting dogs, pigs, breadfruit seedlings, taro, and, inevitably, rats to islands that had never before seen the like. Once on a new island, the Polynesians set to work re-creating an agricultural society similar to the one they had left behind, a process that led to the extinction of countless indigenous species of animals and plants.
Once a small pioneering outpost was established, there was intense pressure to increase the size of the population. Archeological evidence has suggested that in some instances the population density reached astonishingly high levels. One archeologist working on Upolu claims that the interior portions that were virtually vacant when Reynolds, Emmons, and Hale journeyed across the island once contained between 100 and 242 people per square kilometer—a density that would have had a disastrous effect on the island’s ecology. This fostered the development of culturally sanctioned methods of population control—from infanticide to ritual sacrifice to cannibalism, as well as additional voyages of discovery.
Hale would think long and hard about how the early navigators made their way east against the trade winds. Using meteorological data collected by the Expedition, he would eventually be able to demonstrate that, contrary to accepted wisdom, the southeast trade winds are by no means constant. In fact, during the months of January, February, and March, westerly and northwesterly winds prevail all the way to the Tuamotus. If the early Polynesian voyagers ventured east during these months, using the stars to fix their latitude, they knew they could retrace their steps home during the other nine months of the year.
Around 200 B.C. voyagers set out from Tonga and Samoa for the Southern Cook Islands; soon after that, they were venturing to the Societies and Tuamotus; the Marquesas were reached around 100 B.C., while the Hawaiian Islands weren’t settled until sometime between A.D. 300 and A.D. 800. New Zealand was discovered last, around A.D. 1000- 1200.
Hale and the Expedition had retraced the routes of these early voyagers back to their starting point in Samoa, an island group where native ways had not been as thoroughly westernized as they had been to the east. But in five years’ time, Reynolds predicted, Upolu would be another Tahiti. “I could not help thinking,” he wrote, “how much better it would be to let them go on their old way. But no, no! we must have all the world like us.”
For Reynolds, Upolu would always be the jewel of the South Pacific. (He was in good company. Fifty years later the writer Robert Louis Stevenson would decide to live out the rest of his life on the island.) What made Reynolds’s time on Upolu particularly memorable was his introduction to a chief ’s daughter named Emma. Just fifteen years old and “the image of faultless beauty, & the pearl of pure & natural innocence,” Emma tempted Reynolds with thoughts of leaving the tribulations of the Expedition behind. “I could not help thinking of a life in this Eden,” he wrote. “A half wish came in to my head, that I could free myself from my Ship, & under the shade of the delicious groves, form the mind of sweet Emma—ripen the bud into the full bloom of maturity—cherish the flower, & wear it forever! What a dream!”
On November 10, the squadron sailed from Apia Bay. Wilkes had hoped to continue on to the Fiji Islands, but time was running out if they were to sail south again in mid-December. They must proceed directly west to Sydney, Australia, where they would undergo the necessary preparations. Little did Reynolds realize that his time aboard the Vincennes was about to come to an end.
The next day he discovered that First Lieutenant Carr had consigned his India rubber jacket to the lucky bag, the ship’s equivalent of the lost and found, the contents of which were periodically sold at auction to the crew. Another officer had borrowed the jacket while Reynolds was away from the ship, and someone had found it on the gun deck. What particularly rankled Reynolds was that Carr had known it was his jacket and still ordered it to be placed in this “receptacle of all the old & dirty clothes, blankets, soap, etc. that may be kicking about the decks.”
When Reynolds asked Carr if he could have the jacket back, the first lieutenant responded “in a short & peculiarly snappish tone, ‘You shan’t have it, Sir!’” Reynolds protested and Carr threatened to report him to Wilkes. Reynolds replied that he would save him the trouble and report the matter himself.
Reynolds was not surprised when Wilkes informed him that he “entirely approved” of Carr’s actions. Wilkes insisted that the orders of the ship required that all stray clothes be thrown in the lucky bag. Reynolds pointed out that no such written order existed. “Well, it was my order,” Wilkes blustered, “and if my own coat was found it would share the same fate!” When Reynolds explained that he had been away from the ship when the jacket appeared on the gun deck, Wilkes asked for the name of the officer who had borrowed it. Reynolds indignantly refused to tell him, and the interview was soon ended. Ten minutes later Reynolds was informed that he had been transferred to the Peacock.
It was as if a dagger had been planted in his heart. For almost a year and a half, the Vincennes and his stateroom had been his home. The members of his mess had become his family. “My mind was utterly distraught!” he wrote. “I never felt leaving Home, with half the force of grief, that oppressed me, at being thus torn from my happy mess!”
A ship is a total environment—self-contained, isolated from the outside world. The bonds formed within the wooden walls of a ship are as strong, if not stronger, than anything known on land. For more than a year, Reynolds had been a proud member of the Expedition’s flagship—his connection to his messmates made all the more resilient by their shared hatred of their commander. But Wilkes had found a way to hurt him and his friends where it would hurt most. Reynolds was one of the Ex. Ex.’s most popular officers, and his absence would be keenly felt throughout the ship; he had also made no secret of his changed feelings for Wilkes. It was time to get this sensitive and articulate officer off the Vincennes.
News of Reynolds’s transfer created “a great hubbub.” The surgeon John Whittle was disconsolate. “Nothing which has occurred since we left home has given me so much grief as this,” he wrote. “He is a fellow of noble soul & has one of the most admirable tempers imaginable. Never have I become more attached to a man after so short an acquaintance.” Jim Gibson, the sailor who had been Reynolds’s boyhood friend back in Lancaster, came to help him pack. “[He was] in not much better plight than I was myself,” Reynolds wrote. “Poor fellow, I was sorry to leave him.”
But it was his roommate William May who was the most devastated by the news. “May & I made perfect babes of ourselves,” Reynolds wrote. “Twas like the parting of man & wife: like the dissolution of a household!” May vowed that he would not stay aboard the ship with Reynolds gone. All attempts to calm him failed, and he stormed into Wilkes’s cabin. “Sir,” he shouted, “you have treated my friend, Mr. Reynolds, with great injustice. I am surprised! I am shocked! I am disgusted, Sir & I wish to quit the Ship; I cannot stay in her any longer!”
Wilkes ordered May to leave the cabin. May’s father was a prominent member of Washington society, and Wilkes appears to have been extremely reluctant to see him go. Soon Robert Waldron, the purser, appeared in steerage to deliver a message from the commander: May had clearly been “very much excited & if he wished to remain in the Ship, he had only to say so”—otherwise, he would be ordered to the Flying Fish. “Anywhere!” May exclaimed. In a few minutes his orders were in his hands. The ship was hove to, and the two friends went their separate ways.
Reynolds was received kindly by the officers of the Peacock but had some trouble fitting in. For almost a week, he had no assigned duty, and he didn’t know what to do with himself. Finally, when one of the officers became ill, he was given charge of the deck. “[W]henever we came within hail of the Vincennes during my watch,” he wrote, “I took great delight in shaking my trumpet & displaying myself in a most conspicuous manner. Sent away as a convict, banished for punishment, I was well pleased to show that in my new Ship I occupied a post of honor!”
Eighteen days after the transfers of Reynolds and May, at sundown on November 29, the Vincennes and the Peacock were between thirty and forty miles from Sydney. The shore was not yet in sight. “[W]e gave up all hope of getting in until the next day,” Reynolds wrote, “and were sorrowed to think of the breakfast we should miss.” Much to everyone’s surprise, the Vincennes crowded sail, and Lieutenant Hudson ordered his men to follow suit. At eight o’clock, they sighted the Port Jackson light-house.
The wind was with them, and with time being of the essence, Wilkes decided to push on even though they were without a pilot. “[O]n, on we went,” Reynolds wrote, “& undertaking rather a critical chance, Captn Wilkes ran his Ship clear up into the Harbor & we followed, anchoring off the Town at 11.” The next morning the citizens of Sydney were flabbergasted to see two American naval vessels sitting quietly at anchor.
“Never had such a thing been heard of,” Reynolds wrote. “They could not credit their eyes, & the Pilots who were looking out for us were mortified to death!” By arriving at night, they had slipped past the usually watchful pilots and then proceeded to navigate the difficult, nine-mile passage to Sydney Harbor. The next day, newspaper articles appeared, “highly flattering to our nautical skill & daring.”
In one bold stroke, Wilkes had put his humiliation at Pago Pago behind him. Suddenly, it was as if the bickering and bad feeling that had once threatened to destroy the Expedition had never occurred. “[A]ll of us were perfectly elated,” Reynolds wrote, “that the first visit of an American squadron to the place had been in a manner so well calculated to excite their jealousy & to give us so much éclat.”
Reynolds later learned that the squadron’s arrival at Sydney had not been as dashing and heroic as it had first seemed. Although Wilkes would deny it, he had received more than a little help that night. Standing at his elbow the whole way had been his quartermaster, a former Sydney resident who knew the passage well. “It is just like Lt. Wilkes,” Reynolds wrote, “to usurp all the credit for himself.”
It was just a hint of things to come.