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The Old Whaling Days

Wilkes' Expedition, 1839 and 1840

Wilkes' Expedition, 1839 and 1840.

The great development of American whaling in the Southern Pacific early directed the attention of that young nation to the necessity of exploring and surveying these page 318 waters, to determine the existence of doubtful islands, and to fix accurately the position of those that lay in the track of their whalers. For this purpose large Appropriations were made by Congress, and several vessels were put into commission. It is not necessary to go into the details of the difficulties which were encountered and overcome before the Expedition left Hampton Roads on 17th August, 1838: we are more concerned with what was actually accomplished. On the date just mentioned, Lieutenant Charles Wilkes sailed with a squadron consisting of the Vincennes, a sloop of war of 780 tons; the Peacock, a sloop of war of 650 tons; the Porpoise, a gun-brig of 250 tons; two tenders, the Sea Gull and the Flying Fish, of 110 and 96 tons respectively; and the store ship Relief.

The Expedition was in Sydney, preparing for the Antarctic portion of their voyage, when H.M.S. Druid arrived with Captain Hobson, on his way to take over the governorship of New Zealand. By this time it had been reduced to the Vincennes, the Peacock, the Porpoise, and the Flying Fish, the Relief having landed her stores and sailed for home some ten days before the arrival of the other vessels. Of these the Flying Fish was reported as quite unfit for the rigours of the Antarctic, and throughout all the vessels, indeed, it was felt that the equipment was not up to the standard required for the dangerous work ahead of them. It says a great deal for Wilkes, that after getting what refitting Sydney could give him, he pushed on for the Antarctic on 26th December, 1839.

The ships separated on 2nd January, 1840, and, as Macquarie Island had been named as the first rendezvous, they all made for that place. The Peacock reached the Island on the tenth and landed Mr. Eld and a quartermaster to fix up the signals agreed upon. After this was completed these two officers visited the penguin rookeries for specimens. The vast congregation of birds they found there was a revelation to the Americans, but, although they made strenuous efforts to secure some good specimens, they had to come away empty-handed, the difficulties page 319 encountered at the landing preventing the specimens being shipped. Before the Peacock left the Island, the Flying Fish had arrived, and those on board the latter saw the former, but were not in turn seen by them. On the eleventh the acting master of the Flying Fish got ashore and erected a staff and signal, and reported experiences similar to those of the Peacock officer.

The Vincennes and the Porpoise failed to reach the Island. On 7th January they found themselves to leeward of their objective, and Lieutenant Wilkes directed a course to be steered for Emerald Island, the second rendezvous.

That none of the four vessels ever reached the second rendezvous goes without saying when we mention the interesting fact that there is no such island as Emerald Island—at least in the South Seas.

We will not follow Wilkes' movements in the Antarctic, but will pick up the Porpoise, on her return, when she saw the Auckland Islands, on 5th March, and cast anchor in Sarah's Bosom two days later. Her stay was a short one of only two days, but Dr. Holmes took advantage of that short respite to explore the land and visit some of the smaller islands.

Near the watering place was a large hut erected by a French whaler, another ruined one stood near by, and the grave of a French sailor, with his name cut on a wooden cross, showed that this was the resort of French vessels to refit, and to await the coming of the whales in April and May. Before leaving, a board was erected on a pole and the following notice displayed:—“U.S. brig Porpoise,73 days out from Sydney, New Holland, on her return from an exploring cruize along the Antarctic Circle, all well; arrived the 7th, and sailed again on the 10th March, for the Bay of Islands, New Zealand.” A paper, with a statement of their visit endorsed, was also left as an additional notification.

It is interesting here to note that D'Urville anchored in Sarah's Bosom the following day, and actually saw the American brig and heard her guns.

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The only other visit of Wilkes' vessels to the Southern Islands was that of the Peacock to Macquarie Island on 4th February, but she merely sailed past, bound for Sydney, where she arrived on the twenty-first, and where she was joined by the Vincennes on 11th March. Two days before that date the Flying Fish had reached the Bay of Islands, where she was joined, on 26th March, by the Porpoise. The subsequent movements of the American squadron are outside the province of this work.