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The Great South Sea

Most sailors did not refer to it as the Pacific Ocean. They called it the South Sea, a name that dated back to 1513 when Vasco Núñez de Balboa ventured across the sliver of mountainous, jungle-choked terrain known as the Isthmus of Panama. The isthmus runs west to east so that when Balboa first glimpsed water, it appeared to extend to the south. Quite sensibly, he dubbed his discovery the Great South Sea.

Seven years later, Ferdinand Magellan and his men, on their way to the first circumnavigation of the world, penetrated the mazelike strait at the craggy bottom of South America. After weathering the terrible gales typical of one of the most inhospitable places on earth, they found themselves in a quiet, vast ocean that Magellan called, with tearful thanks to God, the Pacific—a name that would not catch hold until the mid-nineteenth century.

Balboa found it, Magellan named it, but for any young boy taken with tales of the South Sea—like the young Charles Wilkes—the central figure had to be James Cook. It had been Cook who had first crisscrossed the Pacific, discovering islands at almost every turn. Cook had been a product of the Enlightenment’s search for knowledge through the empirical observation of nature. Although not trained as a scientist, he was one of the most expert nautical surveyors in the British navy, a skill that served him well in his voyages to distant lands. First and foremost, however, Cook had been an explorer, and the Pacific had served as his route to glory. For the young Wilkes, the South Sea came to represent not only a means of escape from an unhappy childhood but, even more important, a way to win the praise and adulation he had been craving for as long as he could remember.

Wilkes was born to well-to-do parents in New York City in 1798. When his mother died just two years later, he was placed in the care of an aunt, Elizabeth Ann Seton, who would later convert to Catholicism, become an abbess, and eventually be canonized as America’s first native-born saint. Wilkes’s exposure to sainthood proved short-lived, however. At just four years old, he was sent away to boarding school. When he realized he was about to be abandoned at the school, Wilkes clung to his father’s leg and refused to let go. “Young as I was,” he wrote, “the impression is still on me & it is the first event of my life that I have any distinct recollection of.”

For the next ten years, Wilkes was, in his own words, “a poor castaway boy,” attending a series of boarding schools that he hated, always yearning to be at home with the father he loved. The one maternal figure in Wilkes’s life was a nanny named Mammy Reed—a fat, dark-eyed Welsh woman who, in stark contrast to his earlier caretaker, had a reputation as a witch. Reed’s gaze was so intense that Wilkes claimed, “It was impossible to meet her stare.” Reed doted on her “Charley boy,” a youngster with a black hole of loneliness at the center of his being. “I had no other companions than my books and teachers,” he remembered.

But there was always the sea. Manhattan was surrounded by water, and hull to hull along the waterfront was a restless wooden exoskeleton of ships, their long bowsprits nuzzling over the busy streets, the eyes of even the most jaundiced New Yorker irresistibly drawn skyward into a complex forest of spars and rigging. This was where a boy might turn his back on all that he had once known and step into an exotic dream of adventure, freedom, opportunity, and risk…

Copyright (c) 2003 by Nathaniel Philbrick