Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Review of Report on the Committee on Naval Affairs,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. IX: Literary Criticism - part 02 (1902), pp. 84-90


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[page 84, continued:]

REPORT OF THE COMMITTEE ON NAVAL AFFAIRS, TO WHOM WAS REFERRED MEMORIALS FROM SUNDRY CITIZENS OF CONNECTICID INTERESTED IN THE WHALE FISHING, PRAYING THAT AN EXPLORING EXPEDITION BE FITTED OUT TO THE PACIFIC OCEAN AND SOUTH SEAS. MARCH 21, 1836.

[Southern Literary Messenger, August, 1836.]

THAT a more accurate, defined, and available knowledge than we at present possess, of the waters, islands, and continental coasts of the great Pacific and Southern Oceans, has long been desirable, no unprejudiced individual conversant with the subject, is likely to deny. A portion of the community unrivalled in activity, enterprise [page 85:] and perseverance, and of paramount importance both in a political and commercial point of view, has long been reaping a rich harvest of individual wealth and national honor in these vast regions. The Pacific may be termed the training ground, the gymnasium of our national navy. The hardihood and daring of that branch of our commercial marine employed in its trade and fisheries, have almost become a proverb. It is in this class we meet with the largest aggregate of that cool self-possession, courage, and enduring fortitude, which have won for us our enviable position among the great maritime powers; and it is from this class we may expect to recruit a considerable proportion of the physical strength and moral intelligence necessary to maintain and improve it. The documentary evidence upon which the report before us is based, forms an appendix to it, and is highly interesting in its character. It awakens our admiration at the energy and industry which have sustained a body of daring men, while pursuing a dangerous and arduous occupation, amid the perils and casualties of an intricate navigation, in seas imperfectly known. It enlists our sympathies in the hardships and difficulties they have combatted, places in strong relief the justice of their claims upon the nation for aid and protection, and shows the expediency of the measure which has at last resulted from their representations. The report itself is clear, manly, decided — the energetic language of men who, having examined the data submitted to them with the consideration the interests it involved seemed to require, are anxious to express their sentiments with a force and earnestness suited to their views of the urgent occasion and of the course they recommend. [page 86:]

It is a glorious study to contemplate the progress made by human industry, from stage to stage, when engaged in the prosecution of a laudable object. Little more than a century ago, only the crews of a few miserable open boats, too frail to venture far from land, waged a precarious warfare with the great leviathans of the deep, along the shores of Cape Cod and Nantucket — then occupied, at distant intervals, by a few inconsiderable fishing stations. The returns even of these first efforts were lucrative, and more appropriate vessels for the service were fitted out. These extended their cruises northward to Labrador, and southward to the West Indies. At length the adventurers, in vessels of yet greater capacity, strength and durability, crossed the Equator and followed their hardy calling along the Eastern Shore of the Southern Peninsula and on the Western and North Western coast of Africa. The Revolution of course operated as a temporary check to their prosperity, but shortly thereafter these dauntless mariners doubled Cape Horn, and launched their daring keels into the comparatively unknown waste beyond, in search of their gigantic prey. Since that fortunate advent, the increase in the shipping, extent, and profits of the fishery, has been unprecedented, and new sources of wealth the importance of which it is at present impossible to estimate, have been opened to us in the same quarter. The trade in skins of the sea-otter and seal, in the fur of land animals on the North West coast, &c. has been extensive in extent and avails. The last mentioned animal, besides the valuable ivory it affords, yields a coarse oil which, in the event of the whale becoming extinct before the perpetual warfare of man, would prove a valuable article of consumption. Of the magnitude of the commercial interest involved [page 87:] in different ways in the Pacific trade, an idea may be gathered in the following extract from the main subject of our review. Let it be borne in mind, that many of the brunches of this undo are as yet in their infancy, that the natural resources to which they refer are apparently almost inexhaustible; and we shall become aware that all which is note in operation, is but as a dim shadow to the mighty results which may be looked for, when this vast field for national enterprise is better known and appreciated.

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In a letter from Commodore Downes to the Honorable John Reed, which forms part of the supplement to the report, that experienced officer observes —

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In reading this evidence (derived from the personal observation of a judicious and experienced commander) of the vast range of our commerce in the regions alluded to, and of the imminent risks and perils to which those engaged in it are subjected, it cannot but create a feeling of surprise, that a matter of such vital importance as the adoption of means for their relief, should so long have been held in abeyance. A tabular view of the discoveries of our whaling captains in the Pacific and Southern seas, which forms part of another document, seems still further to prove the inaccuracy and almost utter worthlessness of the charts of these waters, now in use.

Enlightened liberality is the truest economy. It would not be difficult to show, that even as a a [[sic]] matter of pecuniary policy the efficient measures at length in progress to remedy the evils complained of by this portion of our civil marine, arc wise and expedient. But let us take higher ground. They were called for — [page 88:] Firstly: as a matter of public justice. Mr. Reynolds, in his comprehensive and able letter to the chairman of the committee on Naval Affairs, dated 1823, which, with many other conclusive arguments and facts furnished by that gentleman, forms the main evidence on which the late committee founded their report — observes, with reference to the Pacific:

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So far, then, we have done little as a nation to facilitate, or increase, the operations of our commerce in the quarter indicated; we have left the adventurous merchant and the hardy fisherman, to fight their way among reefs of dangerous rocks, and through the channels of undescribed Archipelagos, almost without any other guides than their own prudence and sagacity; but we have not hesitated to partake of the fruits of their unassisted toils, to appropriate to ourselves the credit, respect and consideration their enterprise has commanded, and to look to their class as the strongest support of that main prop of our national power, — a hardy, effective, and well disciplined national navy.

Secondly. Our pride as a vigorous commercial empire, should stimulate us to become our own pioneers in that vast island-studded ocean, destined, it may be, to become, not only the chief theatre of our traffic, but the arena of our future naval conflicts. Who can say, viewing the present rapid growth of our population, that the Rocky Mountains shall forever constitute the western boundary of our republic, or that it shall not stretch its dominion from sea to sea. This may not be desirable, but signs of the times render it an event by no means without the pale of possibility.

The intercourse carried on between the Pacific islands and the coast of China, is highly profitable, the immense [page 89:] returns of the whale fishery in the ocean which surrounds those islands, and along the continental coasts, have been already shown. Our whalers have traversed the wide expanse from Peru and Chili on the west, to the isles of Japan on the east, gathering national reverence, as well as individual emolument, in their course; and yet until the lute appropriation, Congress has never yielded them any pecuniary assistance, leaving their very security to the scientific labors of countries far more distant, and infinitely less interested, than our own.

Thirdly. It is our duty, holding as we do a high rank in the scale of nations, to contribute a large share to that aggregate of useful knowledge, which is the common property of all. We have astronomers, mathematicians, geologists, botanists, eminent professors in every branch of physical science — we are unincumbered by the oppression of a national debt, and are free from many other draw backs which fetter and control the measures of the trans-Atlantic governments. We possess, as a people, the mental elasticity which liberal institutions inspire, and a treasury which can afford to remunerate scientific research. Ought we not, therefore, to be foremost in the race of philanthropic discovery, in every department embraced by this comprehensive term? Our national honor and glory which, be it remembered, are to be “transmitted as well as enjoyed,” are involved. In building up the fabric of our commercial prosperity, let us not filch the corner stone. Let it not be said of us, in future ages, that we ingloriously availed ourselves of a stock of scientific knowledge, to which we had not contributed our quota — that we shunned as a people to put our shoulder to the wheel — that we reaped where we had never sown. It is not to be controverted that [page 90:] such has been hitherto the case. We have followed in the rear of discovery, when a sense of our moral and political responsibility should have impelled us in its van. Mr. Reynolds, in a letter to which we have already referred, deprecates this servile dependence upon foreign research in the following nervous and emphatic language.

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It is delightful to find that such independent statements and opinions as the above, have been approved, and acted upon by Congress, and that our President with a wisdom and promptitude which do him honor, is superintending and facilitating the execution of legislative design. We extract the following announcement from the Washington Globe.

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Thus it will be seen, steps are being taken to remove the reproach of our country alluded to by Mr. Reynolds, and that that gentleman has been appointed to the highest civil situation in the expedition; a station which we know him to be exceedingly well qualified to fill. The liberality of the appropriation for the enterprise, the strong interest taken by our energetic chief magistrate in its organization, the experience and intelligence of the distinguished commander at its head, all promise well for its successful termination. Our most cordial good wishes will accompany the adventure, and we trust that it will prove the germ of a spirit of scientific ambition, which, fostered by legislative patronage and protection, shall build up for us a name in nautical discovery commensurate with our moral, political, and commercial position among the nations of the earth.

 


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - JAHCW, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Review of Report on the Committee on Naval Affairs)