Modern history

CHAPTER 8

A New Continent

WHILE THE OFFICERS and men of the Peacock had been fighting their way out of the ice and the Porpoise pursued her own course along the edge of the icy barrier, Wilkes, in typical fashion, fell into a squabble with one of his lieutenants. On January 23, a day after passing the opening that would almost claim the Peacock, the Vincennes reached a bay in the ice that was about twenty-five miles wide. By midnight they had ventured almost fifteen miles into the opening when they encountered a closely packed group of icebergs. Wilkes determined that it was impossible to go any farther and ordered that they tack away and continue west. On his chart he called it Disappointment Bay.

But not all of his officers agreed with him, especially Lieutenant Joseph Underwood. Over the last few days, Underwood was becoming increasingly frustrated with his commander. He felt that Wilkes had missed several opportunities to push the ship farther south. When Wilkes ignored his report of an opening in Disappointment Bay, Underwood took up a piece of chalk and vented his anger on the log slate, the public record of the ship’s course and speed that served as a rough draft for the ship’s log. On the slate he wrote that “an opening had been reported to the S & W before we tacked ship.”

Since the log slate was not erased until noon of the following day, Underwood’s message was waiting for Wilkes when he came on deck the next morning. He was not pleased. He ordered Underwood on deck and asked why he hadn’t informed him of the opening. When Underwood told him that he had done exactly that, Wilkes claimed “he did not recollect the circumstances.” He also claimed that he had been aloft just prior to tacking and had seen “a barrier quite round by the S&W.” Even though they were now forty miles from Disappointment Bay, Wilkes ordered that they return to the bay so that he could prove Underwood wrong.

It took them an entire day to retrace their steps. Once Wilkes was confident that the bay was, in fact, sealed off by ice, he did his best to humiliate Underwood. “I called all the officers on the deck,” he later wrote, “and then addressed Lt. Underwood who was required to point out the opening he had written of.” Underwood had no choice but to recant his earlier claims even though it was quite possible that the ice had shifted since they had last visited the bay.

Wilkes saw this as “a heavy stroke upon [the officers’] machinations & deceits.” Others saw it as a personal vendetta. Although not aboard the Vincennes during the Antarctic cruise, Reynolds had already had sufficient opportunity to witness Wilkes’s attitude toward Underwood: “It seemed to be impossible for him sufficiently to gratify his malignant feelings towards that officer, and he pursued him with the most vindictive tyranny.” Reynolds attributed Wilkes’s behavior to jealousy. In addition to being well liked, Underwood was exceedingly well educated. “In comprehensiveness of mind, in scientific attainments, versatility of talent, and in professional knowledge Lt. Underwood far surpassed Lt. Wilkes,” Reynolds claimed. “Jealousy was a fierce passion in the breast of the Commander, and once awoke, it rendered him regardless of humanity, honor, or justice.”

Rather than push on to the west, Wilkes decided to dawdle at the scene of Underwood’s disgrace. The ship was hove to, a hawser was readied, and they spent the day secured to an iceberg, filling up the tanks with freshwater melted from the ice while others performed magnetic observations on a nearby ice island. Wilkes even took the opportunity to sketch a picture of the Vincennes amid the ice. Once back aboard, he issued an order intended to eliminate any future misunderstandings. From now on, the officer of the deck was required to go to the masthead at the end of his watch and “report to me the exact situation of the ice.”

Later that day, as they threaded their way through the ice, Wilkes hit upon the notion of charting the icebergs. “[I]t occurred to me,” he wrote, “that they might be considered as islands, and a rough survey made of them, by taking their bearings at certain periods, and making diagrams of their positions.” Although this struck several of his officers as being of extremely dubious navigational value, Wilkes insisted that they begin surveying the ice. Every few hours the latest batch of diagrams would be inserted into the chart Wilkes was making in his cabin. Wilkes reasoned that if weather conditions should require them to backtrack, he would now have a “tolerable chart” to guide their escape.

At eight A.M. the next day, they sighted the Porpoise. Wilkes and Ringgold spoke briefly, comparing their longitudes, but neither one of them seems to have mentioned sighting land. For the first time since they reached the ice, the wind shifted to the southeast, supposedly the prevailing direction. With the wind finally behind them, Wilkes resolved to make up for lost time. With all sails set, the Vincennes took off at nine knots through the drift ice, with the Porpoise following in her wake. “Sailing in this way I felt to be extremely hazardous,” Wilkes wrote, “but our time was so short. . . . [B]y good look-outs, and carefully conning the ship, [we] were able to avoid any heavy thumps.”

At noon the next day, they lost sight of the Porpoise. The following day, January 28, was, in the words of James Alden, “as clear as a bell.” Alden was the officer of the watch. He was reefing a topsail when he saw what he considered to be his first undeniable glimpse of land. This time Wilkes was willing to listen when Alden reported the sighting. Wilkes climbed up into the rigging with him and, according to Alden, “looked at it for some time and said, ‘There is no mistake about it.’” As far as Wilkes’s officers were concerned, this was the day, January 28, when they first became convinced that land did indeed exist to the south.

They were in the middle of a vast field of tabular icebergs. At one point they had at least one hundred of them in sight, and by eleven A.M.

they had run more than forty miles through the bergs, with land still in sight to the south. Soon the weather began to thicken; by two P.M. the barometer started to fall; by five, it was blowing a gale. There were huge icebergs in every direction. The last time they’d seen open water was more than forty miles back, and with his chart in hand, Wilkes resolved to retrace their way through the bergs.

By eight P.M., it was, in Wilkes’s words, “blowing very hard.” It was also snowing, reducing visibility to just a few hundred feet. Even if the surrounding icebergs had been stationary (which, of course, they weren’t), it would have been impossible to navigate by chart in these conditions. It was now simply a matter of survival as the lookouts strained to see ahead. Icebergs seemed to be just about everywhere. There “were many narrow escapes,” Wilkes wrote; “the excitement became intense; it required a constant change of helm to avoid those close aboard.” It was necessary to keep the ship moving at what seemed like an insanely fast speed given the hazards ahead of them, but it was the only way to maintain sufficient steerage. The Vincennes was like a tractor-trailer truck with its accelerator stuck to the floor, weaving its way down a crowded highway. A collision seemed almost inevitable. “I felt that no prudence nor foresight could avail in protecting the ship and crew,” Wilkes wrote.

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At midnight, all hands were called on deck. The ship was covered with ice, and almost as soon as his feet touched the deck, Gunner Williamson, the man with whom Wilkes had talked about seeing land ten days earlier, slipped and broke several ribs. “The gale at this moment was awful,” Wilkes wrote, “large masses of drift-ice and ice-islands became more numerous.” In these terrifying conditions, Wilkes’s behavior hardly inspired confidence. Alden would later tell Reynolds of the commander’s “incoherent and improper orders, his running in frightened anxiety about the decks, his readiness to take suggestion from anyone (no etiquette or isolation then) and the utter want of reliance in him that was felt, not only by the officers but by the crew.”

As the crew struggled to reef the sails, which were coated in a thick layer of ice, a seaman by the name of Brooks became trapped on the lee yardarm. The sail had blown over the yard and prevented him from returning to the deck along with the others. Only belatedly did someone see him, still clinging to the yard. Wilkes and First Lieutenant Carr stared blankly aloft, apparently unable to figure out how to get Brooks down. Alden and Passed Midshipman Simon Blunt leapt into the rigging. By tying a bowline around the sailor’s body, they were able to drag him up into the top, then pass him down to the deck and to safety. The surgeons reported he had been within minutes of freezing to death. In addition to Brooks, some of the best sailors on the ship were sent below, overcome with physical and nervous exhaustion as well as the debilitating effects of the cold.

Suddenly a huge berg loomed in front of them. “Ice ahead!” was the cry, followed by “On the weather bow!” and then, “On the lee bow and abeam!” “All hope of escape seemed in a moment to vanish,” Wilkes wrote; “return we could not, as large ice-islands had just been passed to leeward: so we dashed on, expecting every moment the crash.” Up until now, they had attempted to stay to windward of the bigger bergs, but this time they had no choice but to go below it. As they passed into the lee of the berg, the ship’s sails went slack as the hull, formerly heeled so far over that the lee gun ports were underwater, swung upright. All around them the storm was raging; they could hear it roar. But here, in the lee of the berg, it was almost placid, and the officers and men—still frantic with excitement and fear—exchanged wild, desperate glances.

In addition to the iceberg to windward, there was an equally large berg to leeward, and up ahead the channel between the two bergs appeared to be diminishing. As it was, they were in a passage so narrow that they would not have normally dared sail through it even in the finest weather. It was the sounds that first indicated that they had found a way out. The whistling of the wind grew louder as the ship began to lean again to leeward. “We had escaped an awful death,” Wilkes wrote, “and were again tempest-tossed.”

At 4:30 A.M., they reached a small open area, and the ship was hove to. Wilkes had been on deck for nine straight hours. By seven A.M. the weather appeared to be moderating as the wind shifted from the southeast to the south. By noon it was no longer blowing a gale. “[W]e had escaped,” Wilkes wrote, “although it was difficult to realize a sense of security when the perils we had just passed through were so fresh in our minds.”

January 30 proved a beautiful day. The breeze had shifted to the east; the sun shone brilliantly, and land was in sight to the south. Under full sail, the Vincennes sailed amid the maze of icebergs that had almost sunk the ship the day before. “We wound our way through them in a sea so smooth that a yawl might have passed over it in safety,” Wilkes wrote. “No straight line could have been drawn from us in any direction, that would not have cut a dozen icebergs in the same number of miles, and the wondering exclamations of the officers and crew were oft repeated—‘How could we have passed through them unharmed?’ and, ‘What a lucky ship!’”

By eight A.M. they reached the icy barrier. Up ahead there was land, and to the southwest they saw a channel through the broken ice. Crowding all sail, they quickly shot through the opening into a two-mile section of clear water that reached all the way to the shore. Wilkes remarked to one of his officers that this would have been an excellent place to seek shelter in the last storm, little suspecting that in just a few hours that was exactly what they would be doing.

The wind began to increase, and soon they were making nine knots toward the southern part of the bay. Up ahead they could see rocks and icebergs that were clearly aground. With the wind out of the south, they were tacking back and forth in an increasingly confined space. The wind was approaching gale strength, but the quick tacks made it impossible to shorten sail. Soon they were within just a half-mile of land. Dark, volcanic rocks were visible on either side of them. Just beyond the ice, the land rose to a height of approximately three thousand feet and was completely covered in snow. The mountainous ridge extended to the east and west sixty miles or more. On this day, January 30, 1840, at 140°02’30" east, 66°45’ south, Wilkes named the land before them “the Antarctic Continent.”

He desperately wanted to set foot on his discovery, but the wind was not cooperating. A gale was coming on, and they needed to tack, but it was too windy. With precious little room to leeward, they luffed up, then “wore her short round on her heel.” In the midst of the jibe, Wilkes ordered soundings. At just thirty fathoms, they found a hard bottom. Wilkes made a hurried sketch of the inlet and called it Piner Bay for his loyal quartermaster. Fearing that their escape route would soon be closed off by the ice, he reluctantly ordered the helmsman to steer a course north. By noon they were clear of the bay, and the wind was blowing a full gale; by one P.M. they were under storm sails, with their topgallant yards on deck.

“To run the gauntlet again among the icebergs was out of the question,” Wilkes wrote. There was too much sea ice to sail through. Wilkes felt they had no alternative but to heave to in the channel they had seen that morning. It was some consolation to know that the ship would drift faster than the bergs, but eventually, after about ten miles, they would run out of channel.

The gale proved to be, in Wilkes’s words, “an old-fashioned snow storm,” except that these Antarctic flakes “seemed as if armed with sharp icicles or needles.” By one A.M., the lookouts saw ice islands to leeward; they had run out of channel. They immediately jibed around and made sail. They had no choice but to set out on another wild ride through the ice. There was one essential difference, however. They were now dodging icebergs that were just to windward of the icy barrier, and with each tack they drew a little nearer to the frightening wall of ice.

By four A.M., they were getting dangerously close to the edge of the barrier, and the gale was blowing as hard as ever. Wilkes decided it was time to head to the northwest in search of a clear sea. For the next four hours they continued to sail among the icebergs and pack ice. By 8:30 A.M., they had run thirty miles and found, at last, an open sea. Around six P.M., after blowing for a solid thirty hours, their second gale in seventy-two hours began to moderate. Once again, Wilkes resolved to sail south. He wanted to land at Piner Bay. But he began to have second thoughts. The bay was now sixty miles away. He wanted to explore as far as possible to the west, and it was getting late in the season. Instead of sailing back into Piner Bay and attempting a landing, Wilkes decided to head west. He was confident that his explorations would provide another chance to set foot on Antarctica.

That day, January 31, the medical officers of the Vincennes presented Wilkes with a letter. Although the number of men on the sick list (fifteen) was not especially large, they pointed out that just about everyone aboard was suffering from the cold and lack of sleep. “[I]n our opinion,” they wrote, “a few days more of such exposure as they have already undergone would reduce the number of the crew by sickness to such an extent as to hazard the safety of the ship and the lives of all on board.”

Soon after receiving the surgeons’ letter, Wilkes asked his wardroom officers their opinion. A majority of them agreed with the surgeons: it was time to head north. If he had been so inclined, Wilkes had been given the ideal opportunity to abandon the southern cruise with dignity. Whether it was his innate tendency to disagree with his subordinates or an expression of genuine courage and determination, Wilkes decided to continue to sail west “until the ship should be totally disabled, or it should be evident that it was impossible to persist any longer.” He knew that even if he was convinced that a continent lay to the south, others might need additional proof. The farther he could extend his survey of the Antarctic coast, the better his chances of being proclaimed the discoverer of a new land.

The next day, February 2, proved blessedly warm, with the thermometer reaching 36°F. The men aired their bedding, and for the first time in days, the deck was cleared of ice. But there remained cause for concern. The sick list was up to twenty men, many complaining of boils and ulcers on the skin. The next day they encountered yet another gale, and the sick list climbed to thirty men, most of whom were, in Wilkes’s words, “rather overcome by want of rest and fatigue than affected by any disease.” Stoves were placed in the gun and berth decks as the snow continued to fall for another three days. By February 7 the weather had cleared to the point that they could see land in the distance. Wilkes called it Cape Carr; they were at longitude 131°40’ east.

On the night of February 9 they saw their first Aurora Australis—the Southern Lights. “The spurs or brushes of light frequently reached the zenith . . . ,” Wilkes reported. “[T]here appeared clouds of the form of massive cumuli, tinged with pale yellow, and behind them arose brilliant red, purple, orange, and yellow tints, streaming upwards in innumerable radiations, with all the shades that a combination of these colors could effect.” Scientists of the day had various theories as to what was referred to in the Northern Hemisphere as the Aurora Borealis, a term that appears to have been coined by Galileo. Some attributed the phenomenon to comets; others said it was electrical in nature. Scientists have since discovered that the aurora begins with the emission of protons and electrons from the surface of the sun, commonly known as the solar wind. As these particles come under the influence of the earth’s magnetic field, which reaches tens of thousands of miles into space, they are drawn toward the two magnetic poles. At around sixty miles from the surface of the earth, the protons and electrons begin to collide with the atmosphere. Much in the same way that a neon light operates, bombarded molecules of oxygen and nitrogen in the vicinity of the poles emit light. Each gas has its own specific color, and the aurora’s pattern depends, in large part, on where in the atmosphere the collisions occur. Wilkes claimed that the best way to observe this spectacular display was to lie flat on the ship’s deck; he left no report of what his dog Sydney thought of his master’s unusual behavior.

For the next four days, they cruised along the icy barrier. Indications of land were now frequent and clear to all, and taking the geographer’s prerogative, Wilkes named the more prominent features of what lay to the south for some of his less offensive officers: Totten’s High Land and the Budd and Knox Coasts. Wilkes’s spirits were so high that he was moved to invite the officers into his cabin to share a bottle of champagne in celebration of their discovery. Not in attendance were those who, in Wilkes’s words, “had expressed themselves as disappointed at the result[,] saying I was ‘too d——n lucky a fellow’ to have this good fortune.”

On February 14, Wilkes thought he had a sure chance of finally penetrating the barrier, but just seven miles from the coast they were stopped at the head of what Wilkes dubbed Vincennes Bay. It was a beautiful day, and the incredible clarity of the Antarctic atmosphere, which is virtually devoid of humidity and dust, enabled them to see more than seventy-five miles of coastline.

Wilkes decided to spend a portion of the day performing magnetic observations on a suitable ice island. In addition, the ice might provide some much-needed water. After a brief search, they found an iceberg that was, according to Wilkes’s onetime nemesis, Charlie Erskine, “three times larger than the Boston Common.”

Charlie had come a long way since the vision of his blessed mother prevented him from dropping a belaying pin on Wilkes’s head. While Reynolds and so many of the squadron’s officers continued to harbor an almost obsessive hatred for their commander, Charlie had moved on. In Rio de Janeiro, he decided to learn how to read and write. He asked an older sailor to write down the word “mother” on a piece of paper. “I went to work copying,” he remembered, “and covered many fathoms of paper with that precious name.” By the time the squadron had reached Sydney, he had made much progress. In addition to “mother,” he had learned other words and phrases: “home,” “sisters,” “brothers,” “Roxbury,” “Boston,” and “Hurrah for Jackson, all nations!”

That afternoon on an iceberg in the Antarctic proved to be a highlight of the cruise for Charlie. “We had a jolly time . . . ,” he remembered, “sliding and snowballing one another, and playing with the penguins and seals. As we had not got our ‘shore legs’ on we received many a fall on the ice, which, we found, was very hard and flinty, and caused us to see a great many stars.” It was apparent to Charlie that the iceberg had once been aground and then turned over. It was the only way to explain all the rocks and boulders imbedded in its surface. He and his friends collected as many of the stones and pebbles as they could find. “These specimens from the Antarctic Continent were in great demand during the remainder of the cruise,” he reported. In the center of the iceberg, beneath a ten-inch-thick skim of ice, they found a three-foot-deep pond of freshwater that was judged to cover at least an acre. Filling large leather bags, they quickly collected five hundred gallons of water.

As Charlie and the other sailors enjoyed themselves, Wilkes and his dog, Sydney, retreated to a corner of the iceberg, where Wilkes set to work on another drawing. It is a revealing picture, particularly since it includes a self-portrait. Wilkes is shown in the foreground with his mittens on, sliding awkwardly down a small ice hill toward Sydney, waiting obediently at the bottom. An officer, who may be First Lieutenant Overton Carr, stands between Wilkes and the others, almost as if he were on guard duty. Although Wilkes probably intended the picture as an inside joke, the contrast between his solitude and the conviviality of the rest of the crew is almost heartbreaking.

For the next week, the Vincennes continued west. On February 17, they reached an area where the icy barrier began to curve north. It was a place that Wilkes would call “Termination Land,” for on February 21, when the weather once again began to deteriorate, he decided it was time to conclude a cruise that had traced a 1,500-mile section of the newly christened Antarctic Continent—an incredible achievement in any vessel but made all the more remarkable by having been accomplished in a naval sloop-of-war without any significant structural reinforcement. Although he couldn’t claim to have reached the magnetic South Pole, he had assembled enough information that, along with data accumulated by the other ships, he had an excellent chance of establishing its location.

Wilkes called the officers and men aft and thanked them for their efforts and informed them that it was time to head north. “I have seldom seen so many happy faces or such rejoicing,” he remembered. “For myself, I indeed felt worse for the fatigues and anxieties I had undergone; but I was able to attend to all my duties, and considered myself amply repaid . . . by the important discoveries we had made.”

Soon after separating from the Vincennes on January 27, Lieutenant Ringgold made an unfortunate decision. Incorrectly assuming that the prevailing winds were from the west, he chose to take advantage of an easterly breeze and sail west and north to 105° east, where he planned to then sail east along the pack ice. The result of this misbegotten strategy was that the Porpoise would spend most of her time too far north for her crew to see land. Ringgold’s unorthodox course had one benefit, however. He stumbled across the competition.

Out of the haze on January 30 emerged two vessels. At first Ringgold assumed them to be the Vincennes and the Peacock, but he soon realized that these ships were much smaller than the American vessels. Knowing that Captain James Ross was due to lead an expedition south, Ringgold hoisted his colors and steered for the two ships, “preparing to cheer the discoverer of the North Magnetic Pole.”

But it wasn’t the English; these vessels were French. When he saw that the leeward ship was flying a broad pennant, he knew that this must be Captain Dumont d’Urville’s expedition. Ringgold resolved to pass close astern of d’Urville’s ship and exhange “the usual and customary compliments incidental to naval life.” Ringgold had all his sails set and was barreling in toward the French when he saw the men aboard d’Urville’s ship start to make sail. D’Urville was well aware of the historic nature of this extraordinary encounter, and seeing how fast the American brig was moving, thought it prudent to make sail so that he could keep up with the Porpoise. Ringgold, however, convinced himself that the Frenchman intended to leave him behind. Outraged by what he interpreted to be “a cold repulse” and too stubborn to attempt further contact with the French captain, Ringgold hauled down his colors and bore up before the wind. Baffled and somewhat piqued himself, d’Urville and his officers watched the brig sail off into the haze, all of them wondering what the Americans had been thinking.

If Ringgold had been able to contain his overly sensitive notion of “proper feeling,” he would have learned that the French had sailed from Hobart Town in Tasmania on January 1. On the afternoon of January 19, they had sighted land. But most important of all, on January 21, they had done what Wilkes had failed to do: they had set foot on a rocky islet in Piner Bay. Opening a bottle of Bordeaux, they had claimed it “in the name of France.”

As it was, both Ringgold and d’Urville left their brief encounter none the wiser as to what the other country’s expedition had so far accomplished. But all would be revealed soon enough.

The squadron was to rendezvous at the Bay of Islands in New Zealand, but as the Vincennes sailed north, Wilkes decided to stop first at Sydney. In the meantime, Lieutenant Alden set to work constructing a chart of their discoveries, with Wilkes doing the topographical shading in pencil.

During this long, almost three-thousand-mile sail north, Wilkes began to suffer the inevitable effects of two months of intense emotional and physical hardship. “I had a feeling of exhaustion and lassitude that I could not account for,” he wrote, “and the least exertion caused me much fatigue.” He began a letter to Jane, in which he characteristically proclaimed that “it has been through my wisdom and perseverance that we have achieved so much in such a short time.” These are the words of an egomaniac, but the fact of the matter remained that if Wilkes had not overruled his officers and medical staff on February 1 and continued west, the Expedition’s eventual claim to the discovery of a continent would have been difficult to support.

As he had already done several times before, Wilkes had succeeded when just about everyone—including his own officers and men—had assumed he’d fail. Hudson, the most touted seaman of the squadron, had met with disaster. Wilkes, on the other hand, a naval officer with a frightening lack of sea experience but with a will of iron, had accomplished what has to be one of the most extraordinary feats of seamanship of all time. Braving several gales and countless icebergs, he had sailed his ill-equipped wooden man-of-war 1,500 miles along the windiest, least-accessible coast in the world. And he had done it without losing a single man. Today this stretch of the Antarctic coast is known as Wilkes Land.

Even William Reynolds had to give the devil his due: “the Vincennes redeemed it all—the splendid success which attended her, in her run of 1500 miles along the Land, was more than even our most sanguine expectations had led us to expect: the great question was set at rest; never before had there been such an immense extent of Land explored in this Latitude.” But as had also happened so many times before during the Expedition, Wilkes’s subsequent actions would quickly work to undercut all that he had accomplished.

Just a few days prior to their arrival at Sydney, Wilkes called all hands to muster. Once again praising the men for the “brilliant discovery we had made down south,” he reminded them that their orders required them to keep the discovery a secret. Almost as soon as they arrived in Sydney on March 11, Wilkes learned that d’Urville had first seen land on the afternoon of January 19 and had set foot on the continent two days later. The news came as a profound shock. “[W]e thought them all on their way home,” Reynolds reported, “lo and behold!” But there was no real cause for alarm. Yes, d’Urville had effected a landing, but what did that prove? D’Urville had traced only a 150-mile section of coast; after just a month amid the ice, he had decided to quit. “There is no question that it would have been possible to push further west,” d’Urville admitted in his journal, “and to chart a longer stretch of the ice barrier . . . , [but] I can frankly admit, I myself was weary of the tough work I had been doing, and I very much doubt whether I could have stood it much longer.” Only Wilkes, through sheer determination and nerve, had been able to verify the continental proportions of Antarctica.

What bothered Wilkes and his officers, however, was the date that d’Urville claimed to have first sighted land: the afternoon of January 19. As the Americans well knew, it wasn’t until the end of January that they were sure land existed to the south. Soon after their arrival at Sydney, a rueful Lieutenant Alden, having heard the date of d’Urville’s discovery, met Wilkes at the gangway of the Vincennes. “[I] remarked to him that the French were ahead of us,” Alden later remembered. “‘Oh no,’ said he, ‘don’t you recollect reporting to me of land on the morning of the 19th?’”

Alden said he didn’t remember seeing land on the nineteenth, but after consulting his journal he did recall his half-hearted mention of the appearance of land. As far as he was concerned, however, this did not constitute the date of their discovery. But Wilkes insisted that it did. Wilkes may have even altered his journal. His entry for the nineteenth makes no mention of land except for where the clause “with appearance of Land to the S.S.E.” is suspiciously jammed in at the end of a line.

Wilkes had no reason to insist that he had sighted land on the morning of January 19; the important point—that he had been the first to verify the existence of a new continent—was not affected by the French claim. And besides, three days prior to the nineteenth, Passed Midshipmen Reynolds and Eld on the Peacock had first sighted land. But Wilkes appears to have not yet been made aware of this crucial piece of information.

The Peacock had arrived in Sydney several weeks earlier, and the battered ship, whose stern had been worn to within an inch and a half of the woodends by the ice, was in the midst of repairs. Hudson and Wilkes had an emotional reunion at a house outside Sydney, where the two officers stayed up till four in the morning, talking about their adventures. Hudson spoke in detail about the Peacock’s travails in the ice, but he made only a passing reference—if he mentioned it at all—to Reynolds’s and Eld’s having seen land on January 16. If he were to insist that his ship had been the first to sight land, he would have to explain his inexcusable refusal to acknowledge the passed midshipmen’s discovery on the sixteenth. Reynolds summed up the “dilemma” that the Peacock’s commander had made for himself: “Captain Hudson would now give his head had he paid more attention to the thing; how to get out of the dilemma, he does not know. His judgment must be sacrificed & his neglect must be censured, if he now asserts that he saw Land on the 16th.”

Hudson also knew that Wilkes hungered to have the honor of the discovery all to himself. That night outside Sydney, he appears to have told the Expedition’s leader exactly what he wanted to hear. “He said it had all happened as it ought to have done,” Wilkes wrote Jane, “he meeting with all the hard luck and I with the success. If anything could have raised him higher in my estimation this has done so. . . . No one could be so fortunate as I have been in having a second like him.” It was only a matter of time, however, before the truth of Reynolds’s and Eld’s discovery—and Hudson’s mystifying blunder—would be revealed to the world.

For now, Wilkes was more than willing to take full credit for the discovery. Given the competing claims of the French, he thought it best to go public with his own claim. In the March 13 edition of the Sydney Herald, under the headline “Discovery of the Antarctic Continent,” ran a story based on information provided by Wilkes: “we are happy to have it in our power to announce, on the highest authority, that the researches of the exploring squadron after a southern continent have been completely successful. The land was first seen on the morning of the 19 January.”

On March 30, the Vincennes arrived at New Zealand’s Bay of Islands. Wilkes was pleased to find not only the scientists, but also the Porpoise and the Flying Fish. Many aboard the Vincennes had predicted that the schooner would never be seen again. The Antarctic waves had so battered the little vessel that the lookouts had been forced to lash themselves to the foremast when searching for icebergs. The schooner’s belowdecks had been almost constantly awash, and on February 5, the men formally requested that Lieutenant Pinkney turn back; by the following day they were on their way to New Zealand.

Both the Flying Fish and the Porpoise had been at the Bay of Islands for the better part of a month now, and neither of their crews had made any mention of seeing land during the cruise south. But with the arrival of Captain Wilkes, all that changed. When Wilkes first told Ringgold of his discovery, the commander of the Porpoise asked Wilkes why he hadn’t mentioned seeing land when the two had spoken on January 26. Wilkes then insisted that he had mentioned it, but Ringgold apparently hadn’t heard him. After all, they had only been within hail for less than half a minute.

Upon hearing of the Vincennes’s discoveries, Ringgold’s memory began to improve. It might not be in his log, but he now remembered seeing land as early as January 13. Lieutenant Sinclair, perhaps jaded by his horrendous ordeal aboard the Flying Fish, remained skeptical of Ringgold’s new claim. “It is somewhat strange,” he wrote in his journal, “that we did not hear that the Porpoise had seen land before the arrival of the Vins but now that the Vins has discovered a new World, it appears that the Porpoise saw it before she did. . . . We are a great Nation!” Wilkes had his own doubts about Ringgold’s claim. In a letter to Jane, he insisted that both the Porpoise and the Flying Fish had “made no discoveries although it must have been before their eyes. I was a little surprised at my ship having done nearly all the work but this is entre nous and for all we gained by the others they might as well have been elsewhere employed.”

Five days after writing Jane, Wilkes decided to share his findings with a fellow explorer. James Ross had not had sufficient time to sail south that winter; he would soon be in Tasmania, where he would make preparations for a voyage the following season. When he had first met Ross in England during the fall of 1836, Wilkes had been the wide-eyed American without any polar experience. Now he was the one who had discovered a continent. It was too good an opportunity to miss. He must write Ross a letter, purporting to offer useful information, but also providing Wilkes the chance to rub in the fact that he had beaten the Englishman to the punch. It made no difference that he was under orders to keep his discoveries a secret. “[A]lthough my instructions are binding upon me relative to discoveries,” he wrote Ross, “I am nevertheless aware that I am acting as my govt. would order, if they could have anticipated the case.” In this fulsome, at times incoherent letter, Wilkes offers his best guess on the position of the magnetic South Pole; he tells about Piner Bay; about how he secured water from the top of an iceberg; and the weather he encountered. But most remarkable of all, Wilkes chose to include a detailed chart of his discoveries.

It was a letter he would come to regret.

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