The harrowing survival tale that garnered Philbrick a National Book Award (In the Heart of the Sea, 2000) seems almost a tune-up for this saga of wind and wave.
In revisiting the long-forgotten South Seas Exploring Expedition, the author has taken on perhaps the ultimate in fact-based sea stories. Six sailing vessels and 346 men set out in 1838 for a remote region few had ventured. They froze in terror at the bottom of the world, tasted the excess of tropical paradise, slaughtered and were slaughtered by fierce savages in an uncharted archipelago, camped out on the rim of the world’s most massive volcano, braved one of the world’s most treacherous coastal inlets. Some never returned. The rest lived to spend years contradicting each other’s accounts of their voyage. The trust of the US government, a budding but not yet imperial power, was vested in a clearly unqualified officer corps. In charge was Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, a self-made martinet given to doubts, rages, and spasms of paranoia rivaling a Bligh, a Queeg, or any other real or fictional figure who ever trod a quarterdeck. Yet the paradox of Wilkes, as seen by the few friends and many foes whose accounts Philbrick meticulously draws upon, is that he delivered. He discovered Antarctica, named it, and charted its coastline, confirming it as a massive continent. He surveyed hundreds of unsuspected Pacific islands and brought home crates of specimens catalogued by onboard scientists that included thousands of new species of flora and fauna. When the Ex. Ex., as it was known, left these shores, the author points out, “science” in America usually meant a hobby pursued by idle intelligentsia; after Wilkes’s squadron (three of six original ships) returned, and published studies began to pour forth, however, science became a real livelihood. But subsequent internecine squabbling and courts-martial quickly soured the public, relegating both Wilkes and a magnificent venture to oblivion.
A rare blend of history, heroics, and gut-gripping emotion.