Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “South Sea Expedition,” Southern Literary Messenger, Vol. III, no. 1, January 1837, 3:68-72


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Address on the subject of a Surveying and Exploring Expedition to the Pacific Ocean and South Seas. Delivered in the Hall of Representatives on the Evening of April 3, 1836. By J. V. Reynolds. With Correspondence and Documents. New York: Published by Harper and Brothers.

In the Messenger for last August we spoke briefly on this head. What we then said was embraced in the form of a Critical Notice on the “Report (March 21, 1836,) of the Committee on Naval Affairs to whom was referred Memorials from sundry citizens of Connecticut interested in the Whale Fishery, praying that an exploring expedition be fitted out to the Pacific Ocean and South Seas.” It is now well known to the community that this expedition, the design of which has been for [column 2:] ten years in agitation, has been authorized by Congress; sanctioned, and liberally provided for, by the Executive; and will almost immediately set sail. The public mind is at length thoroughly alive on the subject, and, in touching upon it now, we merely propose to give, if possible, such an outline of the history, object, and nature of the project, as may induce the reader to examine, for himself, the volume whose title forms the heading of this article. Therein Mr. Reynolds has embodied a precise and full account of the whole matter, with every necessary document and detail.

In beginning we must necessarily begin with Mr. Reynolds. He is the originator, the persevering and indomitable advocate, the life, the soul of the design. Whatever, of glory at least, accrue therefore from the expedition, this gentleman, whatever post he may occupy in it, or whether none, will be fairly entitled to the lion’s share, and will as certainly receive it. He is a native of Ohio, where his family are highly respectable, and where he was educated and studied the law. He is known, by all who know him at all, as a man of the loftiest principles and of unblemished character. “His writings,” to use the language of Mr. Hamer on the floor of the House of Representatives, “have attracted the attention of men of letters; and literary societies and institutions have conferred upon him some of the highest honors they had to bestow.” For ourselves, we have frequently borne testimony to his various merits as a gentleman, a writer and a scholar.

It is now many years since Mr. R’s attention was first attracted to the great national advantages derivable from an exploring expedition to the South Sea and the Pacific; time has only rendered the expediency of the undertaking more obvious. To-day, the argument for the design is briefly as follows. No part of the whole commerce of our country is of more importance than that carried on in the regions in question. At the lowest estimate a capital of twelve millions of dollars is actively employed by one branch of the whale fishery alone; and there is involved in the whole business, directly and collaterally, not less probably than seventy millions of property. About one tenth of the entire navigation of the United States is engaged in this service — from 9 to 12,000 seamen, and from 170 to 200,000 tons of shipping. The results of the fishery are in the highest degree profitable-it being not a mere inter change of commodities, but, in a great measure, the creation of wealth, by labor, from the ocean. It produces to the United States an annual income of from five to six millions of dollars. It is a most valuable nursery for our seamen, rearing up a race of hardy and adventurous men, eminently fit for the purposes of the navy. This fishery then is of importance — its range may be extended — at all events its interests should be protected. The scene of its operations, however, is less known and more full of peril than any other portion of the globe visited by our ships. It abounds in islands, reefs and shoals unmarked upon any chart — prudence requires that the location of these should be exactly defined. The savages in these regions have frequently evinced a murderous hostility — they should be conciliated or intimidated. The whale, and more especially all furred animals, are becoming scarce before the perpetual warfare [page 69:] of man — new generations will he found in the south, and the nation first to discover them will reap nearly all the rich benefits of the discovery. Our trade in ivory, in sandal-wood, in biche le-mer, in feathers, in quills, in seal-oil, in porpoise-oil, and in sea-elephant oil, may here be profitably extended. Various other sources of commerce will be met with, and may be almost exclusively appropriated. The crews, or at least some portion of the crews, of many of our vessels known to be wrecked in this vicinity, may be rescued from a life of slavery and despair. Moreover, we are degraded by the continual use of foreign charts. In matters of mere nautical or geographical science, our government has been hitherto supine, and it is due to the national character that in these respects something should be done. We have now a chance of redeeming ourselves in the Southern Sea. Here is a wide field open and nearly untouched — ” a theatre peculiarly our own from position and the course of human events.” Individual enterprize, even acting especially for the purpose, cannot be expected to accomplish all that should be done — dread of forfeiting insurance will prevent our whale-ships from effecting any thing of importance incidentally — and our national vessels on general service have elsewhere far more than they can efficiently attend to. In the meantime our condition is prosperous beyond example, our treasury is overflowing, a special national expedition could accomplish every thing desired, the expense of it will be comparatively little, the whole scientific world approve it, the people demand it, and thus there is a multiplicity of good reasons why it should immediately be set on foot.

Ten years ago these reasons were still in force, and Mr. Reynolds lost no opportunity of pressing them upon public attention. By a series of indefatigable exertions lie at length succeeded in fully interesting the country in his scheme. Commodore Downes and Captain Jones, with nearly all the officers of our navy, gave it their unqualified approbation. Popular assemblages in all quarters spoke in its favor. Many of our commercial towns and cities petitioned for it. It was urged in Reports from the Navy and Messages from the Executive Department. The East India Marine Society of Massachusetts, all of whose members by the constitution must have personally doubled either Cape Horn, or the Cape of Good Hope, were induced to get up a memorial in its behalf; and the legislatures of eight different states-of New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, North Carolina, and, we are happy to add, of Virginia, recommended the enterprize in the most earnest manner to the favorable consideration of Congress.

As early as January 1823, Mr. Reynolds submitted to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, a letter upon the subject accompanied with memorials and petitions. Among these memorials was one from Albany, dated October 19th, 1527, and signed by his Excellency Nathaniel Pitcher, lieutenant governor of the State of New York; the honorable Erastus Root, speaker of the house of delegates; and by nearly all the members of the legislature. Another, dated Charleston, South Carolina, May 31st, 1827, was signed by the mayor of tie city; the president of the chamber of commerce; and by a very long list of respectable citizens. A third was dated Raleigh, North Carolina, December 24th, 1827, and contained the signatures of his Excellency James Iredell, the governor; the honorable [column 2:] B. Yancey, speaker of the senate; the honorable James Little, speaker of the house of commons; and a large proportion of each branch of the legislature. A fourth was dated Richmond, Virginia, January 1st, 1828, and was sustained by a great number of the most influential inhabitants of Virginia; by the honorable Linn Banks, speaker of the house of delegates; and by a majority of the delegates themselves. For reference, Mr. Reynolds handed in at the same period a preamble and resolution of the Maryland Assembly, approving in the strongest terms the contemplated expedition. The matter was thus for the first time, we believe, brought into a shape for the official cognizance of the government.

The letter was referred to the committee on Naval Affairs. That body made application to Mr. R. for a statement, in writing, of his views. It was desired that this statement should contain his reasons for general results, a reference to authorities for specific facts, as well as a tabular statement of the results and facts, so fal as they might be susceptible of being stated in such form. To this application Mr. R. sent a brief yet comprehensive reply, embracing a view of the nature and extent of our whale-fisheries, and the several trades in the sea otter skin, the fir seal skin, the ivory sea elephant tooth, land animal fur, sandal wood, and feathers, together with observations on the general benefits resulting from these branches of commerce, independent of the wealth they bring into the country.

The Secretary of the Navy was also called upon for his opinion. In his reply he strongly commended the design, using the main arguments we have already adduced. He stated, moreover, that Mr. Reynolds’ estimate of the value of our commerce in the regions in question, had been much augmented, in the view of the department, through the reports, made under its orders, of our naval officers, who had commanded vessels of war in the Pacific.

Nothing was done, however, until the next session of Congress. A bill was then proposed but did not become a law. In consequence of its failure, the House of Representatives passed a resolution requesting the President of the United States “to send one of our small vessels to the Pacific Ocean and South Seas, to examine the coasts, islands, harbors, shoals, and reefs in those seas, and to ascertain their true situation and description,” and authorizing the use of such facilities as could be afforded by the Navy Department without further appropriation during the year. There was, however, no suitable national vessel in condition, at the time, to be despatched upon the service. The Peacock, therefore, was placed at the New York navy yard, to be repaired and fitted out, and an additional vessel of two hundred tons engaged, upon the agreement that Congress should be recommended to authorize the plu chase-the vessel to be returned if the recommendation were not approved. These arrangements the Secretary of the Navy communicated to Congress in November, 1828. A bill now passed one house, but was finally lost.

Mr. Reynolds did not cease from his exertions. The subject of the expedition was not effectually resumed, however, until January 1835. Mr. Dickerson then transmitted to Congress, a Report by Mr. R., dated September 24th, 1828. This report had been drawn [page 70:] up at the request of Mr. Southard, in June, when that gentleman was called upon by the Committee on Naval Affairs. It occupies about forty pages of the volume now before us, and speaks plainly of the assiduity and energy of the reporter. He repaired, immediately, upon Mr. Southard’s expressing a wish to that effect, to New-London, Stonington, New-Bedford, Edgartown, Nantucket, and other places where information might be found of the Pacific Ocean and South Seas. His desire was to avail himself of personal data, afforded by the owners and masters of the whaling vessel, sailing from those ports. His main objects of inquiry were the navigation, geography and topography presented by the whole range of the seas from the Pacific to the Indian and Chinese oceans, with the extent and nature of our commerce and fisheries in those quarters. He found that “all he had before heard was confirmed by a long train of witnesses, and that every calculation he had previously made fell very far short of the truth.” In February 1835, the Committee on Commerce strongly recommended Mr. Reynolds’ design, and in March 1836 the Committee on Naval Affairs made a similar report. On May the 10th, a bill authorizing the expedition, but leaving nearly every thing to the discretion of the Chief Magistrate, finally passed both houses of Congress. The friends of the bill could have desired nothing better. The President gave orders forthwith to have the exploring vessels fitted out with the least possible delay. The frigate Macedoian, now nearly ready, will be the main vessel in the enterprize. Captain Thomas Ap C. Jones will command her. She has been chosen instead of a sloop of war, on account of the increased accommodations she will afford the scientific corps, which is to be complete in its organization, including the ablest men to be procured. Sb will give too, extended protection to our commerce in the seas to be visited, and her imposing appearance will avail more to overawe the savages, and impress upon them a just idea of our power, than even a much larger real force distributed among vessels of less magnitude. She will be accompanied by two brigs of two hundred tons each, two tenders, and a store-ship.

In regard to the time of sailing there can be but little choice — the vessels will put to sea as soon as every thing is ready. The scientific corps, we believe, is not yet entirely filled up; nor can it be well organized until the preparations in the frigate are completed. Many gentlemen of high celebrity, however, have already offered their services. In the meantime, Lieutenant Wilkes of the Navy has been despatched to England and France, for the purpose of purchasing such instruments for the use of the expedition, as cannot readily be procured in this country. In all quarters he has met with the most gratifying reception, and with ardent wishes for the success of the contemplated enterprize.

Mr. Reynolds has received the highest civil post in the expedition that of corresponding secretary. It is presumed that he will draw up the narrative of the voyage, (to be published under the patronage of government) embodying, possibly, and arranging in the same book, the several reports or journals of the scientific corps. How admirably well he is qualified for his task, no person can know better than ourselves. His energy, his love of polite literature, his many and various attainments, and above all, his ardent and the honorable [column 2:] enthusiasm, point him out as the man of all men for the execution of the task. We look forward to this finale — to the published record of the expedition — with an intensity of eager expectation, which we cannot think we have ever experienced before.

And it has been said that envy and ill-will have been already doing their work — that the motives and character of Mr. Reynolds have been assailed. This is a matter which we fully believe. It is perfectly in unison with the history of all similar enterprizes, and of the vigorous minds which have conceived, advocated, and matured them. It is hardly necessary, however, to say a word upon this topic. We will not insult Mr. Reynolds with a defence. Gentlemen have impugned his motives — have these gentlemen ever seen him or conversed with him half an hour?

We close this notice by subjoining two interesting extracts from the eloquent Address now before us:

It is the opinion of some, as we are aware, that matters of this description are best left to individual enterprize, and that the interference of government is necessary. Such persons do not reflect, as they ought, that all measures of public utility which from any cause cannot be accomplished by individuals, become the legitimate objects of public care, in reference to which the government is bound to employ the means put into its hands for the general good. Indeed, while there remains a spot of untrodden earth accessible to man, no enlightened, and especially commercial and free people, should withhold its contributions for exploring it, wherever that spot may he found on the earth, from the equator to the poles!

Have we not shown, that this expedition is called for by our extensive interests in those seas — interests which, from small beginnings, have increased astonishingly in the lapse of half a century, and which are every day augmenting and diffusing their beneficial result throughout the country? May we not venture on still higher rounds? Had we no commerce to be benefitted, would it not still be honorable; still worthy the patronage of Congress; still the best possible employment of a portion of our naval force?

Have we not shown, that this expedition is called for by national dignity and honor? Have we not shown, that our commanding position and rank among the commercial nations of the earth, makes it only equitable that we should take our share in exploring and surveying new islands, remote seas, and, as yet, unknown territory? Who so uninformed as to assert, that all this has been done? Who so presumptuous as to set limits to knowledge, which by a wise law of Providence, can never cease? As long as there is mind to act upon matter, the realms of science must be enlarged; and nature and her laws be better understood, and more understandingly applied to the great purpose of life. If the nation were oppressed with debt, it might, indeed it would, still be our duty to do something, though the fact, perhaps, would operate as a reason for a delay of action. But have we any thing of this kind to allege, when the country is prosperous, without a parallel in the annals of nations?

Is not every department of industry in a state of improvement? Not only two, but a hundred blades of grass grow where one grew when we became a nation; and out manufacturers have increased, not less to astonish the philosopher and patriot, that to benefit the nation; and have not agriculture and manufactures, wrought up by a capital of intelligence and enterprize, given a direct impulse to our commerce, a consequence of our navy? And if so, do they not impose new duties on every statesman?

Again, have we not shown that this expedition is demanded by public opinion, expressed in almost every form? Have not societies for the collection and diffusion of knowledge, towns and legislatures, and the commanding voice of public opinion, as seen through the public press, sanctioned and called for the enterprize? Granting, as all must, there is no dissenting voice upon the subject, that all are anxious that our country should do something for the great good of the human family, is not now the time, while the treasury, like the Nile is fruitful seasons, is overflowing its banks? It this question is settled, and I believe it is, the next is, what shall be the character of the expedition? The answer [page 71:] is in the minds of all — one worthy of the nation! And what would be worthy of the nation? Certainly nothing on a scale that has been attempted by any other country. If true to our national character, to the spirit of the age we live in, the first expedition sent out by this great republic must not fall short in any department — from a defective organization, or from adopting too closely the efforts of other nations as models for our own. We do, we always have done things best, when we do them in our own way. The spirit evinced by others is worthy of all imitation; but not their equipments. We must look at those seas; what we have there; what requires to be done; — and then apply the requisite means to accomplish the ends. It would not only be inglorious simply to follow a track pointed out by others, but it could never content a people proud of their fame and rejoicing in their strength! They would hurl to everlasting infamy the imbecile voyages, who had only coasted where others had piloted. No; nothing but a goodly addition to the stock of present knowledge, would answer for those most moderate in their expectations.

But, not only to correct the errors of the former navigators, and to enlarge and correct the charts of every portion of sea and land that the expedition might visit, and other duties to which we have alluded; but also to collect, preserve, and arrange every thing valuable in the whole range of natural history, from the minute madrepore to the huge spermaceti, and accurately to describe that which cannot be preserved; to secure whatever may be hoped for in natural philosophy; to examine vegetation, from the hundred mosses of the rocks, throughout all the classes of shrub, flower and tree, up to the monarch of the forest; to study man in his physical and mental powers, in his manners, habits, disposition, and social and political relations; and above all, in the philosophy of his language, in order to trace his origin from the early families of the old world; to examine the phenomena of winds and tides, of heat and cold, of light and darkness; to add geological to other surveys, when it can be done in safety; to examine the nature of soils — if not to see if they can be planted with success — yet to see if they contain any thing which may be transplanted with utility to our own contr; in fine, there should be science enough to bear upon every thing that may present itself for investigation.

How, it may be asked, is all this to be effected? By an enlightened body of naval officers, joining harmoniously with a corps of scientific men, imbued with the love of science, and sufficiently learned to pursue with success the branches to which they should be designated. This body of men should be carefully selected, and made sufficiently numerous to secure the great objects of expedition. These lights of science, and the naval officers, so far from interfering with each other’s fame, would, like stars in the milky-way, shed a lustre on each other, and all on their country!

These men may be obtained, if sufficient encouragement is offered as an inducement. They should be well paid. Scholars of sufficient attainments to quality then for such stations, do not hang loosely upon society; they must have fixed upon their professions or business in life: and what they are called to do, must be from the efforts of ripe minds; not the experiments of youthful ones to prepare them for usefulness. If we have been a by-word and a reproach among nations for pitiful remuneration of intellectual labors, this expedition will afford an excellent opportunity of wiping it away. They stimulus of fame is not a sufficient motive for a scientific man to leave his family and friends, and all the charms and duties of social life, for years together; but it must be united to the recompense of pecuniary reward, to call forth all the powers of an opulent mind. The price you pay will, in some measure, show your appreciation of such pursuits. We have no stars and ribands, no hereditary titles, to reward our men of genius for adding to the knowledge or to the comfort of mankind, and to the honor of the nation. We boast of our men of science, our philosophers, and artists, when they have paid the last tribute to envy by their death. When mouldering in their graves, they enjoy a reputation, which envy and malice and detraction may hawk at and tear, but cannot harm! Let us be more just, and stamp the value we set on science in a noble appreciation of it, and by the price we are willing to pay,

It has been justly remarked, that those who enlighten their country by their talents, strengthen it by their philosophy, enrich it by their science, and adorn it by their genius, are Atlases, who support the name and dignity of their nation, and transmit it unimpaired to future generations. Their noblest part lives and is [column 2:] active, when they are no more; and their names and contributions to knowledge, are legacies bequeathed to the whole world! To those who shall thus labor to enrich our country, if we would be just, we must be liberal, by giving to themselves and families an honorable support while engaged in these arduous duties!

If the objects of the expedition are noble, if the inducements to undertake it are of a high order — and we believe there can be no difference of opinion on this point — most assuredly the means to accomplish them should be adequate. No narrow views, no scanty arrangements, should enter the minds of those who have the planning and directing of the enterprize. At such a time, and in such a cause, liberality is economy, and parsimony is extravagance.

Again, if the object of the expedition were simply to attain a high southern latitude, ten two small brigs or barks would be quite sufficient. If to visit a few points among the islands, a sloop of war might answer the purpose. But are these the objects? We apprehend they only form a part. From the west coast of South America, running down the longitude among the islands on both sides of the equator, though more especially south, to the very shores of Asia, is the field that lies open before us, independence of the higher latitudes south, of which we shall speak in the conclusion of our remarks. Reflecting on the picture we have sketched of our interests in that immense region, all must admit, that the armament of the expedition should be sufficient to protect our flag; to succor the unfortunate of every nation, who may be found on desolate islands, or among hordes of savages; a power that would be sufficient by the majesty of its appearance, to awe into respect and obedience the fierce and turbulent, and to give facilities to all engaged in the great purposes of the voyage. The amount of this power is a question upon which there can be but little difference of opinion, among those thoroughly acquainted with the subject; the best informed are unanimous in their opinion, that there should be a well-appointed frigate, and five other vessels — twice that number would find enough, and more than they could do. The frigate would form the nucleus, rough which the smaller vessels should perform the labors to which we have already alluded, and which you will find pointed out in all the memorials and reports hitherto made on this subject, and which may be found among the printed documents on your tables. Some might say, and we have heard such things said, that this equipment would savor of individual pride in the commander; but they forget that the calculations of the wise are generally secured by the strength of their measure. The voyage is long — the resting places uncertain, which makes the employment of a storeship, also, a matter of prudence and economy. It would not do to be anxious about food, while the expedition was in the search of an extended harvest of knowledge.

The expectations of the people of the United States from such an expedition, most unquestionably would be great. From their education and past exertions through all the history of our national growth, the people are prepared to expect that every public functionary should discharge his duty to the utmost extent of his physical and mental powers. They will not be satisfied with any thing short of all that men can perform. The appalling weight of responsibility of those who serve their country in such an expedition, is strikingly illustrated by the instructions given to Lewis and Clarke, in 1803, by President Jefferson. The extended views and mental grasp of this distinguished philosopher no one will question, nor can any one believe that he would be unnecessarily minute.

The sage, who had conceived and matured the plan of the expedition to the far west, in his instructions to its commander under his own signature, has left us a model worthy of all imitation. With the slight variations growing out of time and place, how applicable would those instructions be for the guidance of the enterprize we have at present in view? The doubts of some politicians, that this government has no power to encourage scientific inquiry, most assuredly had no place in the mind of that great apostle of liberty, father of democracy, ans strict constructionist! We claim no wider range than he has sanctioned; including as he does, animate and inanimate nature, the heavens above, and all on the earth beneath! The character and value of that paper are not sufficiently known. Among all the records of his genius, his patriotism, and his learning, to be found in our public archives, this paper deserves to take, and in time will take rank, second only to the Declaration of our Independence. [page 72:] The first, imbodied the spirit of our free institutions, and self-government; the latter, sanctioned those liberal pursuits, withouta just appreciation of which, our institutions cannot be preserved, or if they can, would be scarcely worth preserving.

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To complete its efficiency, individuals from other walks of life, we repeat, should be appointed to participate in its labors. No professional pique, no petty jealousies. should be allowed to defeat this object. The enterprize should be national in its object and sustained by the national means, belongs of right to no individual, or set of individuals, but to the country and the whole country; and he who does not view it in this light, or could not enter it with this spirit, would not be very likely to meet the public expectations were he entrusted with the entire control.

To indulge in jealousies, or feel undue solicitude about the division of honors before they are won, is the appropriate employment of carpet heroes, in whatever walk of life they may be found. The qualifications of such would fit them better to thread the mazes of the dance, or to shine in the saloon, than to venture upon an enterprize requiring men, in the most emphatic sense of the term.

There are, we know, many, very many, ardent spirits in our navy — many whom we hold among the most valued of our friends — who are tired of inglorious ease, and who would seize the opportunity thus presented to them with avidity, and enter with delight upon this new path to fame.

Our seamen are hardy and adventurous, especially those who are engaged in the seal trade and the whale fisheries; and innured as they are to the perils of navigation, are inferior to none on earth for such a service. Indeed, the enterprize, courage and perseverance of American seamen are, if not unrivalled, at least unsurpassed. What man can do, they have always felt ready to attempt, — what man has done, it is their character to feel able to do, — whether it be to grapple with an enemy on the deep, or to pursue their gigantic game under the burning line, with an intelligence and ardor that insure success, or pushing their adventurous barks into the high southern latitudes, to circle the globe within the Antarctic circle, and attain the Pole itself; yea, to cast anchor on that point where all the meridians terminate, where our eagle and star-spangled banner may be unfurled and planted, and left to wave on the axis of the earth itself! — where, amid the novelty, grandeur and sublimity of the scene, the vessels, instead of sweeping a vast circuit by the diurnal movements of the earth, would simply turn round once in twenty-four hours!

We shall not discuss, at present, the probability of this result, though its possibility might be easily demonstrated. If this should be realize, where is the individual who does not feel that such an achievement would add new lustre to the annals of American philosophy, and crown with a new and imperishable wreath the nautical glories of our country!






[S:0 - SLM, 1837] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - Critical Notices (January 1837)