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- Nathaniel Philbrick, author of Sea of Glory, suggests that much of Lieutenant Charles Wilkes’s erratic and offensive behavior during the U. S. Exploring Expedition (the Ex. Ex.) was due to his having been denied the rank of captain. Why was rank so desperately important to Wilkes? Was there some reality to the problem of his having been denied a captaincy, or was it all in his mind? Was superior rank really essential to Wilkes’s ability to command the squadron effectively? In Wilkes’s place, how would you have handled the situation?
- Philbrick spends a great portion of Sea of Glory elaborating the negative points of Wilkes’s character. What, in your view, were the good points of Wilkes’s personality? To what extent do the flaws and strengths of a person like Wilkes tend to go together?
- Despite Wilkes’s many failings, James Dana, one of the most respected scientists who sailed with the Ex. Ex., said, “I much doubt if with any commander that could have been selected, we should have fared better, or lived more harmoniously” than under Wilkes (p. 364). Do you agree? Why or why not?
- Sea of Glory shows what can go wrong when a captain abuses his power. However, there are potent practical reasons for making sure that the captain’s authority is absolute and unchallenged. What, in your opinion, should be the limits of a captain’s authority, and when, if ever, is the crew justified in criticizing or resisting him? For the good of the squadron, should Reynolds and his fellow sailors have tried harder to keep their grievances to themselves?
- Imagine yourself as a judge at the court-martial of Charles Wilkes. Imagine further that Wilkes has been charged with every misdeed mentioned in Sea of Glory. On what counts would you find him guilty? On which would you acquit him? Why? What, if anything, do you think his punishment should have been?
- Charles Wilkes seems to have been a better man when he was under the influence of his wife, Jane. What was it about their relationship that made this so?
- At various points in Sea of Glory, the Ex. Ex. is shown to be the political football of the United States government, its fortunes rising and falling according to what party was in power or what momentary political expedient needed to be served. Should the government be involved in setting the limits and priorities of scientific research? Why or why not? If it is involved in this activity, what principles should guide its influence?
- Early in the voyage, Charlie Erskine, the cabin boy who was disgraced by Wilkes, contemplates killing his commander but relents at the last moment. Would he have been justified in killing Wilkes? Why or why not?
- At the end of Sea of Glory, Philbrick speculates about what might have been if Wilkes and Reynolds had been able to put aside their differences and work effectively together. Given their personalities, would cooperation between them have been possible? If they had been able to work together well, do you believe, as Philbrick apparently does, that the Ex. Ex. would occupy a larger place in America’s history? Why or why not?
- When the Ex. Ex. crew is among the friendly, docile natives of Tahiti, William Reynolds implies in his journal that one culture is wrong to judge another by its own ideas of religion and morality. Such expressions of tolerance vanish, however, when the Ex. Ex. encounters the cannibal tribes of the Fiji Islands. Are there reasonable limits to the idea of cultural tolerance? Are there, after all, some moral rules that ought to be universal?
- Arguably one of Charles Wilkes’s cruelest acts during the expedition was the brutal reprisal he ordered at Malolo following the murders of Joseph Underwood and Wilkes Henry. Yet the resulting massacre of natives was among the acts that his crew most universally approved. If you had been captain, what, if anything, would you have done to avenge the deaths of the two sailors? What principles would have underlain your decision?
- The devastation caused to native species around the world by the explorations of Europeans and Americans in the last five hundred years is well known and widely lamented. However, Philbrick observes that the far earlier expansion of Polynesian culture, which we tend to regard as “native,” also “led to the extinction of countless indigenous species.” Do you see any difference between the two destructive phenomena? Do you see ecological devastation as principally a western problem or a more universally human problem?
- Charles Wilkes’s accomplishments as leader of the Ex. Ex. were grand and heroic. His character was anything but. How does Sea of Glory help readers toward new insights into the complex meaning of heroism?
- Would you have liked to be a part of the Ex. Ex.? Why or why not?