Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Review of Address on the Subject of a Surveying and Exploring Expedition to the Pacific Ocean and South Seas,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. IX: Literary Criticism - part 02 (1902), 9:306-314


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[Southern Literary Messenger, January, 1837.]

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 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 projet, 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 [page 307:] 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 [page 308:] mere interchange 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 of man — new generations will be 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 bèche de-mer, in feathers, in quills, in sea-oil [[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 [page 309:] 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 he 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 [page 310:] the enterprise in the most earnest manner to the favorable consideration of Congress. As early as January 1828, 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, 1827, 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 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 [page 311:] 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 far 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 fur [[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, [page 312:] 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 purchase — 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 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 [page 313:] 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 enterprise. Captain Thomas ApC. 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. She 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 [page 314:] he has met with the most gratifying reception and with ardent wishes for the success of the contemplated enterprise.

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 enthusiasm, point him out as the man of all men for the execution of the task. We look forward to this finale — to the public [[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 enterprises, 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:

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[S:1 - JAH09, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Review of Address on the Subject of a Surveying and Exploring Expedition to the Pacific Ocean and South Seas)