No Master, No Commander

Avast! the armada of recent books on global exploration and seafaring disaster has swelled far beyond the limits of a mere trend. It is now a genre unto itself. Antarctica's Scott and Shackleton have their own (continental?) shelves. The past month alone has seen books on Magellan, Cook, the HMS Bounty and Russian explorers trapped in the Arctic. Plainly, we can't get enough of mutiny, rogue whales attacking ships or megalomaniacal explorers. The worse the voyage, the better. But if the great explorers were memorable because they were often villainous, hapless and heroic, what happens when the leader of an expedition is a small-minded, paranoid man with no leadership ability? In the case of the U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842, the answer is that we hardly remember it at all.

As National Book Award winner Nathaniel Philbrick amply demonstrates in "Sea of Glory," the Ex. Ex., as it was called, was a huge success. It recorded hundreds of new plant and animal species. It charted vast sections of the Pacific Ocean and the American Northwest. Most important, the Ex. Ex. discovered and charted a big chunk of the Antarctic landmass. The accomplishments of the four-year voyage put it in a class with the Lewis and Clark expedition. But because Lt. Charles Wilkes was such a despised commander, and because the expedition ended with five courts-martial--including that of Wilkes himself--the mission is now no more than a footnote in the history of exploration.

A real-life Captain Queeg, the self-important and paranoid Wilkes got the job of running the expedition because no one else wanted it. Once at sea, he hogged credit for the exploits of his crew, meted out floggings without due process and demonstrated such poor seamanship that he repeatedly jeopardized the lives of his men. At the same time, he accomplished the near miraculous where a more reasonable man might have turned back. When his crew had had enough of the frightening waters surrounding Antarctica--where it was often so still and so quiet, Philbrick writes, "that they could hear the water freezing around them"--it was Wilkes who compelled them to stay the course. His persistence paid off. When the Smithsonian Institution was founded in 1846, the collections of Wilkes's expedition formed the core of its inventory. As late as World War II, the maps drafted by members of the Ex. Ex. were sometimes the only guides available for U.S. troops in the Pacific.

Philbrick calls Wilkes "a scared and needy lieutenant of very limited experience and nautical ability and yet [a man] who yearned to be a hero." Sadly, the expedition he led turned out to be a story without a hero, and as such it has never gotten its due. Until now. "Sea of Glory" is a grand saga of scientific and nautical accomplishment. More than that, it is a fascinating exploration of human frailty. In Charles Wilkes, Philbrick reveals that strangest of characters--a magnificent loser.