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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Wilkes Claims Antarctica For US, January 18, 1840

Today in 1840, US Navy Lieutenant Charles Wilkes claimed part of Antarctica for the United States. Wilkes was the commander in charge of the United States Exploring Expedition, a four year round-the-world surveying mission aimed at expanding knowledge of the Southern Seas, as they were then called.

The idea of a multi-year, government-funded global surveying mission dates back to 1828, when President John Quincy Adams convinced Congress to grant funds for such an endeavor. In addition to the scientific knowledge gained by such a journey, the US government wanted to provide some level of protection to the American whaling ships that plied the vast reaches of the Pacific. Whale and seal hunting were tremendously important to the US economy in the 19th century, but the hunting grounds in the Pacific were remote and ships often found themselves thousands of miles from friendly waters. Even a small, temporary naval presence in the area might draw more investment in the risky industry.

Through a series of unforeseen political events, the expedition was not funded until 1836. It took another two years to assemble a flotilla of naval vessels adequate to the task. The six ships, ranging in size from 96 to 780 tons, left Hampton Roads, Virginia in August, 1838. The officer in charge of the group was Charles Wilkes. Wilkes had never handled responsibility of this magnitude, but several more senior officers had either turned down the assignment or resigned rather than accept it. In addition to his fellow officers and enlisted men, the flotilla carried nine scientists of different disciplines.

By the time the squadron sailed into the Antarctic Ocean due south of Sydney, Australia in December, 1839, the mission had already lost one ship and fifteen members of her crew. After catching sight of the Antarctic continent in January, 1840, Wilkes claimed the continent for the United States. This claim would not have stood up to scrutiny, for other explorers had sighted (and even explored) small parts of Antarctica as early as the 1820’s. The squadron did, however, make a very notable discovery while in the Southern Seas. Until Wilkes’ mission, some explorers theorized that the Earth’s southern continent was actually just a collection of islands. The US Exploring Expedition surveyed 1,500 miles of Antarctica’s nearly 12,000 mile coastline, proving that the area was, most likely, a solid land mass. However, this did not become a proven fact until well into the 20th century. The area surveyed by the flotilla is today called Wilkes Land in honor of the squadron’s commander.

By the time the United States Exploring Expedition returned home in 1842, Wilkes had lost two ships and 28 men. A court of inquiry into the losses was held, after which Wilkes was court-martialed and acquitted of all charges except the illegal punishment of some of the men under his command. Wilkes was a harsh officer, so much so that some historians claim that he was used as a model for Captain Ahab in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

Charles Wilkes would have a long and fairly successful naval career full of controversy and another court-martial during the Civil War. But we’ll save that for another day.

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