Top critical review
"Like it or not, this was going to be the Wilkes expedition"
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on July 4, 2010
(Note: the following is a review of the audiobook). In "Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery," Nathaniel Philbrick, who authored the excellent best-seller "In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex," covers the story of the U.S. Southseas Exploring Expedition of 1838 (often referred to simply as the Ex. Ex.). During its four year voyage, the expedition surveyed and charted little-explored areas such as the Antarctic coast, the Fiji Islands, and the Pacific Northwest. An incredible array of specimens, fossils, documents, charts, maps, paintings and drawings were collected and made up the foundation for the Smithsonion Institution which was founded four years after the return of the Ex. Ex. in 1842. Some of the charts created during the Ex. Ex. were used as late as the Second World War. Although the expedition was one of the great accomplishments in American history, it is not remembered as well as, say, Lewis and Clark. The reason the Ex. Ex. was not as celebrated as it should have been even during its time is the focus of this study and, in this reader's opinion, the reason "Sea of Glory" is not as highly praised as "In the Heart of the Sea." Philbrick seems to be explaining why this expedition is relatively unknown rather than detailing what made it so significant.
The title "Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery" is a bit misleading. The bulk of the book is hardly a glorification of the Ex. Ex. and its many "discoveries." Instead, Philbrick examines the leadership style of the commanding officer, U.S. Navy Lt. Charles Wilkes. Although a tireless commander, Wilkes rubbed most of his officers and crew the wrong way with his arrogance, vindictiveness, rigid discipline, excessive punishments and his insistence on wearing the uniform and flying the pennant of a captain and commodore. The book sometimes deviates away from Wilkes to discuss the heralding survival of a ship separated from the expedition, the first alleged sightings of Antarctica, and a bloody battle with natives in the Fiji Islands, but soon returns to its anti-Wilkes tone with critical assessments of Wilkes's reactions to those events. Even Dennis Boutsikaris, who conducts the audio book reading, uses a sarcastic voice sometimes when quoting Wilkes. Ill feelings extended to Secretary of the Navy Upshur, who thought Wilkes was critical of the current administration and lead Wilke's court-martial. If those in high political position who would otherwise praise Wilkes instead sought to ruin him, it is little wonder the Ex. Ex. itself was not recognized as much as was deserved.
To be fair, Philbrick's angle on the story is more interesting for the mainstream reader/listener. Who would want to read detailed information on the thousands of specimens, fossils, plant and fish species collected by the expedition's scientists when there exists all the intrigue of a jerk commander. When a list of the accomplishments are read--particularly on disc 5 after the courts-martial are discussed, it is a wonder so much was achieved amidst all the complaining and in-fighting. Many of Wilkes's poor decisions and conduct unbecoming a commander sounded a bit petty. He sent many officers home whom he inherited from the expedition's original commander Thomas ap Catesby Jones, and therefore did not like. He agreed with an officer's decision to put William Reynolds's jacket in the "Lucky Bag" ("lost and found" to be auctioned off) and then transferred him from the Vincennes to the Peacock when he protested. One incident on track 5 of disc 4 was built up as if it was going to be an example of tyrannical behavior. A British sailor named Sweeney was flogged in Honolulu. As a listener, I thought, "Oh boy, it's going down!" After the flogging, he was discharged and sent off on a boat amidst ridicule. O.K. Wilkes may have had seamen flogged more than he was allowed without court-martial, but he wasn't making his men walk the plank or hanging them from the masts. There is no jaw-dropping moment.
The audiobook ends with Wilkes's post-Ex. Ex. life and career which included his attempts to promote his expedition through editing and publication of writings and documents including the "Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition" in 5 volumes (a set was owned by Herman Melville) and volumes of scientific studies. "Sea of Glory" reads more like a biography of Charles Wilkes with emphasis on his behavior during the Ex. Ex. Even with all the criticism, however, Philbrick admits that the Ex. Ex. probably would not have fared any better results-wise with a calmer, cooler-headed commander. Wilkes's hunger for recognition in promoting the expedition helped spur later scientific explorations and the audiobook ends with a quote praising Wilkes's energetic and bold leadership style (hmmmm). The book is abridged and read on 5 discs with occasional music accompaniment. It is not a brilliant, can't wait to find out what happens next, masterpiece like "In the Heart of the Sea," but is a well-researched and well-told account of roughness and bullying that went down while great discoveries were made.