Charles Wilkes claims portion of Antarctica for U.S.

Charles Wilkes claims portion of Antarctica for U.S.

During an exploring expedition, Captain Charles Wilkes sights the coast of eastern Antarctica and claims it for the United States. Wilkes’ group had set out in 1838, sailing around South America to the South Pacific and then to Antarctica, where they explored a 1,500-mile stretch of the eastern Antarctic coast that later became known as Wilkes Land. In 1842, the expedition returned to New York, having circumnavigated the globe.

Antarctica was discovered by European and American explorers in the early part of the 19th century, and in February 1821 the first landing on the Antarctic continent was made by American John Davis at Hughes Bay on the Antarctic Peninsula. During the next century, many nations, including the United States, made territorial claims to portions of the barely inhabitable continent. However, during the 1930s, conflicting claims led to international rivalry, and the United States, which led the world in the establishment of scientific bases, enacted an official policy of making no territorial claims while recognizing no other nation’s claims. In 1959, the Antarctic Treaty made Antarctica an international zone, set guidelines for scientific cooperation, and prohibited military operations, nuclear explosions, and the disposal of radioactive waste on the continent.

19/01/1840: Charles Wilkes tuyên bố một phần châu Nam Cực thuộc Mỹ

Vào ngày này năm 1840, trong một chuyến thám hiểm, Thuyền trưởng Charles Wilkes đã nhìn thấy bờ biển phía đông châu Nam Cực và tuyên bố nó thuộc về Hoa Kỳ. Đội thám hiểm của Wilkes đã lên đường vào năm 1838, đi quanh Nam Mỹ đến Nam Thái Bình Dương và sau đó tới châu Nam Cực, nơi họ thám hiểm dải bờ biển phía đông châu Nam Cực kéo dài 2.414km mà sau này được gọi là Wilkes Land. Năm 1842, đoàn thám hiểm trở về New York sau khi hoàn thành chuyến đi vòng quanh thế giới.

Châu Nam Cực được phát hiện bởi các nhà thám hiểm người Mỹ và châu Âu vào đầu thế kỷ 19. Tới tháng 02/1821, John Davis (người Mỹ) đã đáp chuyến bay đầu tiên xuống châu Nam Cực tại Vịnh Hughes trên Bán đảo Nam Cực. Trong thế kỷ tiếp theo, nhiều quốc gia, bao gồm Hoa Kỳ, đã đưa ra các yêu sách lãnh thổ đối với các khu vực có khả năng cư trú cao nhất của châu lục này. Tuy nhiên, vào những năm 1930, mâu thuẫn từ các yêu sách đã dẫn đến sự tranh giành quốc tế và Hoa Kỳ, vốn tiên phong trong việc thiết lập các cơ sở nghiên cứu khoa học, đã ban hành một chính sách không đưa ra yêu sách lãnh thổ đối với châu Nam Cực, đồng thời cũng không công nhận yêu sách của bất cứ quốc gia nào khác.

Năm 1959, Hiệp ước Nam Cực tuyên bố châu Nam Cực là khu vực quốc tế, đưa ra các chỉ dẫn về hợp tác khoa học và cấm các hoạt động quân sự, các vụ thử hạt nhân và xả chất thải phóng xạ trên lục địa.

Charles Wilkes claims portion of Antarctica for U.S. - HISTORY

Today in 1840, US Navy Lieutenant Charles Wilkes claimed part of Antarctica for the United States. Wilkes was the commander in charge of the United States Exploring Expedition, a four year round-the-world surveying mission aimed at expanding knowledge of the Southern Seas, as they were then called.

The idea of a multi-year, government-funded global surveying mission dates back to 1828, when President John Quincy Adams convinced Congress to grant funds for such an endeavor. In addition to the scientific knowledge gained by such a journey, the US government wanted to provide some level of protection to the American whaling ships that plied the vast reaches of the Pacific. Whale and seal hunting were tremendously important to the US economy in the 19th century, but the hunting grounds in the Pacific were remote and ships often found themselves thousands of miles from friendly waters. Even a small, temporary naval presence in the area might draw more investment in the risky industry.

Through a series of unforeseen political events, the expedition was not funded until 1836. It took another two years to assemble a flotilla of naval vessels adequate to the task. The six ships, ranging in size from 96 to 780 tons, left Hampton Roads, Virginia in August, 1838. The officer in charge of the group was Charles Wilkes. Wilkes had never handled responsibility of this magnitude, but several more senior officers had either turned down the assignment or resigned rather than accept it. In addition to his fellow officers and enlisted men, the flotilla carried nine scientists of different disciplines.

By the time the squadron sailed into the Antarctic Ocean due south of Sydney, Australia in December, 1839, the mission had already lost one ship and fifteen members of her crew. After catching sight of the Antarctic continent in January, 1840, Wilkes claimed the continent for the United States. This claim would not have stood up to scrutiny, for other explorers had sighted (and even explored) small parts of Antarctica as early as the 1820’s. The squadron did, however, make a very notable discovery while in the Southern Seas. Until Wilkes’ mission, some explorers theorized that the Earth’s southern continent was actually just a collection of islands. The US Exploring Expedition surveyed 1,500 miles of Antarctica’s nearly 12,000 mile coastline, proving that the area was, most likely, a solid land mass. However, this did not become a proven fact until well into the 20th century. The area surveyed by the flotilla is today called Wilkes Land in honor of the squadron’s commander.

By the time the United States Exploring Expedition returned home in 1842, Wilkes had lost two ships and 28 men. A court of inquiry into the losses was held, after which Wilkes was court-martialed and acquitted of all charges except the illegal punishment of some of the men under his command. Wilkes was a harsh officer, so much so that some historians claim that he was used as a model for Captain Ahab in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

Charles Wilkes would have a long and fairly successful naval career full of controversy and another court-martial during the Civil War. But we’ll save that for another day.


The Wilkes expedition was somewhat of a nautical coup for the United States, as it was the first major voyage of exploration undertaken by the young nation. (Though the 1804-06 expedition of Lewis and Clark was, granted, a major expedition, it was entirely land-based and mostly within the confines of the United States.) There were several ways in which Wilkes's expedition had an impact on society:

1. Wilkes returned with a great deal of scientific knowledge, much of which could be used to enhance the position of American sailing ships (especially whalers and sealers) when operating in extreme southern waters. Several American scientists—among them, James Dwight Dana(1813-1895), a geologist and biologist who rose to prominence because of his work on this expedition—got their start with Wilkes.

2. Wilkes, in a race with the French and British to confirm or deny the existence of a southern continent, was able to claim for the United States the distinction of being the first person to sight the last continent discovered on Earth. Other discoveries in geography included mapping large sections of Australia for the first time and helping to chart many of the islands of the South Pacific.

3. The information returned by Wilkes on weather, sea conditions, and commercial animals helped American sailors gain a foothold in the lucrative whaling and sealing grounds of the Southern Ocean.

4. As the last continent discovered, this expedition can be said to have completed the initial phases of mankind's exploration of the Earth. With all of the major land masses now discovered, attention shifted towards exploring the interiors of the lesser known continents as well as well-publicized races to the north and south poles of later years.

Although Wilkes's primary charge was to return with information that could give the United States an advantage over other nations in hunting whales and seals, the longest lasting benefit of this expedition was the scientific information brought back to the United States. At least three scientists accompanying Wilkes achieved international renown for their work and the specimens returned to the United States provided many years of fruitful work for many more researchers. In fact, at one point Charles Darwin (1809-1882), when writing a monograph on barnacles, requested the loan of "some of the species (of barnacles) collected during your great expedition." These specimens were later donated to become the foundation of the National Museum of Natural History, a part of the Smithsonian Institution complex.

During his expedition, Wilkes became aware that the Frenchman Jules-Sébastien-César Dumont d'Urville (1790-1842) and Englishman James Ross (1800-1862) were both seeking the southern continent at the same time. All were seemingly aware of Palmer's and Bellinghausen's sightings and all were attempting to claim for their nations the honor of discovering the last continent on Earth. In one of the incidents that led to scandal, Wilkes initially logged that he first sighted the Antarctic continent on January 19, 1840. Later, realizing that Dumont d'Urville had logged the same date, Wilkes changed his logs to indicate the sighting took place on January 16th. In fact, Wilkes ended up charting more of the Antarctic continent than either other captain and was the first to be able to prove he had sighted a continent rather than a long archipelago encased in ice. This incident generated such controversy, though, that as late as 1910 there was considerable acrimony between the English, French, and Americans regarding who should be properly credited with this discovery and who it was appropriate to name various features for. Although generally a debate among the upper classes and intelligentsia, the debate was followed sporadically by larger segments of the population when various arguments were reported in the popular media.

While most of the plaudits received by this expedition are for its scientific discoveries, Wilkes's work did benefit whalers, fishermen, and sealers greatly. Where, previously, many ships were lost or damaged by storms, uncharted islands, or uncharted reefs, several safe transit lanes were identified. However, to some extent, the commercial impact of Wilkes's work was shorter-lived than the scientific impact because, once discovered, the stocks of whales and seals were quickly depleted. This made the long trip south less profitable, leading fewer and fewer whalers in that direction. In addition, many individual captains had fairly detailed knowledge about parts of the Southern Ocean, but were unwilling to share it for fear of losing their competitive advantage. So, in a sense, Wilkes managed to recreate, consolidate, and make public knowledge that already existed in small, scattered bits and pieces.

The final major impact of this expedition was that it signaled an end to the age of discovery, if that age is defined as mankind's learning of the large details of our world. As the last continent to be discovered, attention turned increasingly towards exploring continental interiors and exploiting the wealth found there. To be sure, the mapping of the Earth was far from complete, but its broad outlines were now known.

Wilkes returned to the United States in 1842, having spent four years on his expedition. The expedition covered a total of 87,000 miles (139,000 kilometers) through some of the most dangerous waters on Earth, charting over 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) of Australian coast, 1,500 (2,400 kilometers) miles of the Antarctic coast, and several hundred islands and reefs. He also charted and explored large sections of the North American Pacific coast, the Philippine Islands, Hawaii (then called the Sandwich Islands), and Fiji. Expedition scientists returned thousands of specimens of insects, plants, fossils, minerals, corals, seashells, and artifacts from the native peoples of the lands they visited. During this time, he lost only one ship and 15 men through disease, drowning, or injury.

On May 11, 1841, the U.S. Navy ships Vincennes and Porpoise, commanded by Lt. Charles Wilkes (1798-1877), drop anchor in southern Puget Sound, near the mouth of Sequalitchew Creek and the Hudson's Bay Company's Fort Nisqually. Wilkes' crew proceeds to chart Puget Sound and name numerous landmarks, including Elliott Bay. This United States Exploring Expedition marks America's first formal entry into Puget Sound waters.

Wilkes was an ambitious and autocratic officer who took command of the United States Exploring Expedition in 1838 with the aim of circumnavigating the globe and charting Antarctica and the Pacific Coast of North America. By the time he returned to Norfolk, Virginia, in 1842, his fleet of six ships had dwindled to two.

Which "Elliott" Gets the Bay?

The expedition dropped anchor at Discovery Bay on May 2, 1841, precisely 49 years after Capt. Vancouver, and then proceeded south into Admiralty Inlet. It arrived at the mouth of Sesquilatchew Creek on May 11 and approached Fort Nisqually unsure of the welcome it would receive from its British residents. The Hudson's Bay Company turned out to be a good host, and Wilkes established a scientific observatory near the fort.

On May 17, Porpoise Master George Sinclair chose "Commencement Bay" as the point at which to begin a detailed survey of upper Puget Sound. Wilkes was not impressed by the data on the waters off the future city of Seattle -- "I do not consider the bay a desirable anchorage" -- but he did name it "Elliott Bay." Unfortunately, Wilkes did not specify the eponym. There were three Elliotts in his crew: ships' boy George, chaplain Jared, and Midshipman Samuel. Although many historians have assumed that the pious Rev. J. Elliott was the honoree, Murray Morgan believes that Wilkes had the more amiable Samuel Elliott in mind (Puget's Sound, p. 53).

First Fourth of July Celebration on Puget Sound

Dr. John P. Richmond had established an American-led Methodist mission near Fort Nisqually in 1840. On July 5, 1841, Wilkes marched his crew from the shoreline to the mission to celebrate the Fourth of July (a day late because the Fourth fell on the Sabbath that year) for the first time in the Pacific Northwest. The parade and Richmond's speech, which declared the inevitability of American control of Oregon, subjected the fort's British subjects to a deliberately provocative display of American patriotism. Wilkes left the Sound soon after and sailed down the Pacific Coast, around Cape Horn, and back to Virginia.

Upon his return to the East Coast, word of Wilkes' harsh discipline and personal arrogance earned him public rebuke and inspired Herman Melville's most famous character, Captain Ahab. Only 100 copies of the expedition report were published, but they helped to establish Oregon and Puget Sound as new prizes for America's manifest destiny.


Wilkes was born in New York City, on April 3, 1798, as the great nephew of the former Lord Mayor of London John Wilkes. His mother was Mary Seton, who died in 1802 when Charles was just three years old. As a result, Charles was raised by his aunt, Elizabeth Ann Seton, who would later convert to Roman Catholicism and become the first American-born woman canonized a saint by the Catholic Church. When Elizabeth was left widowed with five children, Charles was sent to a boarding school, and later attended Columbia College, which is the present-day Columbia University. He entered the United States Navy as a midshipman in 1818, and became a lieutenant in 1826.

In 1833, for his survey of Narragansett Bay, he was placed in charge of the Navy's Department of Charts and Instruments, out of which developed the Naval Observatory and Hydrographic Office. Wilkes' interdisciplinary expedition (1838–1842) set a physical oceanography benchmark for the office's first superintendent Matthew Fontaine Maury.

During the 1820s, Wilkes was a member of the prestigious Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences, which counted among its members presidents Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams and many prominent men of the day, including well-known representatives of the military, government service, medical and other professions. [2]

In 1838, although not yet a seasoned naval line officer, Wilkes was experienced in nautical survey work, and was working with civilian scientists. Upon this background, he was given command of the government exploring expedition ". for the purpose of exploring and surveying the Southern Ocean. as well to determine the existence of all doubtful islands and shoals, as to discover, and accurately fix, the position of those which [lay] in or near the track of our vessels in that quarter, and [might] have escaped the observation of scientific navigators." The US Exploring Squadron was authorized by act of the Congress on May 18, 1836.

The Exploring Expedition, commonly known as the "Wilkes Expedition," included naturalists, botanists, a mineralogist, taxidermists, artists and a philologist, and it was carried by USS Vincennes (780 tons) and USS Peacock (650 tons), the brig USS Porpoise (230 tons), the store-ship USS Relief, and two schooners, USS Sea Gull (110 tons) and USS Flying Fish (96 tons). [3]

Departing from Hampton Roads on August 18, 1838, the expedition stopped at the Madeira Islands and Rio de Janeiro visited Tierra del Fuego, Chile, Peru, the Tuamotu Archipelago, Samoa, and New South Wales from Sydney sailed into the Antarctic Ocean in December 1839 and reported the discovery "of an Antarctic continent west of the Balleny Islands" [4] of which it sighted the coast on January 25, 1840. After charting 1500 miles of Antarctic coastline, [5] [6] the expedition visited Fiji and the Hawaiian Islands. In Fiji, the expedition kidnapped the chief Ro Veidovi, charging him with the murder of a crew of American whalers. [7] And, in July 1840, two sailors, one of whom was Wilkes' nephew, Midshipman Wilkes Henry, were killed while bartering for food on Fiji's Malolo Island. Wilkes' retribution was swift and severe. According to an old man of Malolo Island, nearly 80 Fijians were killed in the incident.

From December 1840 to March 1841, he employed hundreds of native Hawaiian porters and many of his men to haul a pendulum to the summit of Mauna Loa to measure gravity. Instead of using the existing trail, he blazed his own way, taking much longer than he anticipated. The conditions on the mountain reminded him of Antarctica. Many of his crew suffered snow blindness, altitude sickness and foot injuries from wearing out their shoes. [8]

He explored the west coast of North America, including the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Puget Sound, the Columbia River, San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento River, in 1841. [4]

He held the first American Independence Day celebration west of the Mississippi River in Dupont, Washington, on July 5, 1841. [9] [10]

The United States Exploring Expedition passed through the Ellice Islands and visited Funafuti, Nukufetau and Vaitupu in 1841. [11] The expedition returned by way of the Philippines, the Sulu Archipelago, Borneo, Singapore, Polynesia and the Cape of Good Hope, reaching New York on June 10, 1842. [4]

After having completely encircled the globe (his was the last all-sail naval mission to do so), Wilkes had logged some 87,000 miles and lost two ships and 28 men. Wilkes was court-martialled upon his return for the loss of one of his ships on the Columbia River bar, for the regular mistreatment of his subordinate officers, and for excessive punishment of his sailors. A major witness against him was ship doctor Charles Guillou. [12] He was acquitted on all charges except illegally punishing men in his squadron. For a short time, he was attached to the Coast Survey, but from 1844 to 1861, he was chiefly engaged in preparing the report of the expedition. [4]

His Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition (5 volumes and an atlas) was published in 1844. He edited the scientific reports of the expedition (19 volumes [13] [14] and 11 atlases, 1844–1874) and was the author of Vol. XI (Meteorology) and Vol. XXIII (Hydrography). Alfred Thomas Agate, engraver and illustrator, was the designated portrait and botanical artist of the expedition. His work was used to illustrate the Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition. [15]

The Narrative contains much interesting material concerning the manners, customs, political and economic conditions in many places then little known. [4] Wilkes' 1841 Map of the Oregon Territory pre-dated John Charles Fremont's first Oregon Trail pathfinder expedition guided by Kit Carson during 1842.

Other valuable contributions were the three reports of James Dwight Dana on Zoophytes (1846), Geology (1849) and Crustacea (1852–1854). Moreover, the specimens and artifacts brought back by expedition scientists ultimately formed the foundation for the Smithsonian Institution collection. In addition to many shorter articles and reports, Wilkes published the major scientific works Western America, including California and Oregon in 1849 and Voyage round the world: embracing the principal events of the narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition in one volume: illustrated with one hundred and seventy-eight engravings on wood in 1849, and Theory of the Winds in 1856.

Wilkes was promoted to the rank of commander in 1843 and that of captain in 1855. At the outbreak of the American Civil War, he was assigned to the command of USS San Jacinto to search for the Confederate commerce destroyer CSS Sumter. [4]

Trent Affair Edit

As part of these duties he visited the British colony of Bermuda. Acting on orders, Wilkes remained in port for nearly a week aboard his flagship, USS Wachusett, violating the British rule that allowed American naval vessels (of either side) to remain in port for only a single day. While Wilkes remained in port, his gunboats USS Tioga and USS Sonoma blockaded Saint George's harbor, a key Confederate blockade runner base. The gunboats opened fire at the Royal Mail Ship Merlin.

When Wilkes learned that James Murray Mason and John Slidell, two Confederate commissioners (to Britain and France, respectively), were bound for England on a British packet boat, RMS Trent, he ordered the steam frigate San Jacinto to stop them. On November 8, 1861, San Jacinto met Trent and fired two shots across its bow, forcing the ship to stop. A party from San Jacinto led by its captain then boarded Trent and arrested Mason and Slidell, a further violation of British neutrality. The diplomats were taken to Fort Warren in Boston Harbor.

The actions of "The Notorious Wilkes," as Bermuda media branded him, were contrary to maritime law and convinced many that full-scale war between the United States and the United Kingdom was inevitable. [16]

He was officially thanked by Congress "for his brave, adroit and patriotic conduct". [17] However, his action was later disavowed by President Lincoln due to diplomatic protests by the British government (Mason and Slidell were released). His next service was in the James River flotilla and he was placed on the retired list on December 21, 1861. Subsequently, after reaching the rank of commodore on July 16, 1862, he was assigned to duty against blockade runners in the West Indies. [4]

Promotion controversy Edit

Wilkes acquired a reputation for sometimes acting arrogantly and capriciously, perhaps partly because of his open conflict with Gideon Welles, who was the Secretary of the Navy. Welles recommended that Wilkes had been too old to receive the rank of commodore under the act then governing promotions. Wilkes wrote a scathing letter to Welles in response. The controversy ended in his court-martial in 1864. He was found guilty of disobedience of orders, insubordination, and other specifications. He was sentenced to public reprimand and suspension for three years. However, Lincoln reduced the suspension to one year, and the balance of charges were dropped. On July 25, 1866, he was promoted to the rank of rear admiral on the retired list. [4]

Some historians speculate that Wilkes' obsessive behavior and harsh code of shipboard discipline shaped Herman Melville's characterization of Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick. [18] Such speculation is not mentioned in the U.S. Naval historical archives.

In addition to his contribution to U.S. Naval history and scientific study in his official Narrative of the Exploration Squadron (6 volumes), Wilkes wrote his autobiography.

Wilkes died in Washington, DC, with the rank of Rear Admiral.

In August 1909, the United States moved his remains to Arlington National Cemetery. His gravestone says that "he discovered the Ant-arctic continent." [19]

The US Navy named four ships for Wilkes: torpedo boat USS Wilkes (TB-35) served around the turn of the 20th century, [20] destroyer USS Wilkes (DD-67) served during World War I, [21] and destroyer USS Wilkes (DD-441) served during World War II. [22] An oceanographic survey vessel, USS Wilkes (T-AGS-33), was launched in 1969, sponsored by Mrs. Hollis Lyons Joy (Deborah Wilkes Joy), Wilkes' great granddaughter. [23]

Wilkes Land in Antarctica is named after him.

In 1923, Wilkes Island, one of the three islands surrounding the lagoon at Wake Atoll was named for Wilkes by Alexander Wetmore, lead scientist of the Tanager Expedition.

Captain Charles Wilkes Elementary in Bainbridge Island, Washington is his namesake. [24]

Wilkes Boulevard in Columbia, Missouri, is named in his honor, as is the Hawaiian plant genus Wilkesia. [25]

The Forgotten American Explorer Who Discovered Huge Parts of Antarctica

The early-1900s exploits of intrepid explorers like Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton captured the public imagination. With the benefit of cameras and deft handling of newspaper media, the Edwardian British explorers, alongside their Norwegian rival Roald Amundsen, established themselves as heroic polar pioneers. In the process, however, the south polar exploits of their American forerunner, Charles Wilkes, have been largely forgotten.

It was the round-the-world expedition by Wilkes—whose scientific collection constituted the first treasures of the infant Smithsonian—that first established the continental dimensions of Antarctica. But in a twist of 19th-century international politics, that claim to Antarctica was denied to the Americans by the pole-hungry British. Fast forward to today, and the United States finds itself in another nationalistic race to capitalize on the frozen southern continent. This time, its sparring partner is China.

Land of Wondrous Cold: The Race to Discover Antarctica and Unlock the Secrets of Its Ice

A deep-time history of monumental scale, Land of Wondrous Cold brings the remotest of worlds within close reach―an Antarctica vital to both planetary history and human fortunes.

Amundsen might have been the first man to reach the South Pole, in 1911, but the discovery of the Antarctic continent occurred several generations earlier. In January 1840, when Wilkes was commander of the United States Exploring Expedition, he charted 1500 miles of the east Antarctic coastline in his flagship U.S.S. Vincennes. Before this American expedition, only small, rocky outcrops of Antarctica had been sighted. Most exploreres believed an open polar sea or, at most, a scattered archipelago lay at the planet’s far south.

In a remarkable coincidence, a French expedition led by the legendary Jules Dumont D’Urville reached the same stretch of coastline on the same day. But D’Urville stayed just long enough to plant the French flag on a tiny offshore island before sailing back north. Wilkes, meanwhile, against the advice of his medical staff and officers, braved the cold, ice, and howling katabatic winds to claim glory for the Vincennes.

Charles Wilkes barely had time to announce his Antarctic triumph before British rival James Clark Ross (celebrated discoverer of the North Magnetic Pole) began to steal his thunder. Wilkes’s mistake was to send the lagging Ross his historic first chart of the east Antarctic coast. A year later, when Ross retraced Wilkes’s route, he found the American had been deceived in places by glacial reflections and had mistaken ice shelves for actual coastline, marking it several degrees too far north. These errors did nothing to undermine the substance of Wilkes’s discoveries, yet Ross and the British Admiralty built a public case against the American claim—with great success. Most 19th-century maps of Antarctica do not recognize Wilkes’s remarkable 1840 feat. Even his obituaries in American newspapers made only passing mention of Wilkes’ polar discoveries.

Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, commander of the United States Exploring Expedition, 1838 to 1842 (Thomas Sully, U.S. Naval Academy Museum)

In the 20th century, Wilkes would finally get his due. In 1912-13, Australian explorer Douglas Mawson was the first to revisit the east Antarctic shores mapped by the Vincennes. Mawson so admired Wilkes’ navigation of the ice pack in a wooden sailing ship that he christened the entire coast “Wilkes Land,” which remains the largest continuous territory on Earth named for a single individual.

Wilkes’ rehabilitation reflected the changing power dynamics of the polar great game. The British and French eventually ceded the argument, and corresponding territory, to the United States as the world’s emerging polar power. During the Cold War, the United States continued to assert its leadership in Antarctic affairs, brokering the international Antarctic Treaty of 1958 and investing in cutting-edge polar research. Much of what we know about climate change, for instance, comes from secrets revealed in drilling Antarctic ice cores, an outgrowth of America’s interest in polar science.

2015 photograph of McMurdo station, Antarctica (Mike Lucibella, NSF)

Today, the Antarctic landscape is changing—and not just from melting glaciers. America’s interest in Antarctica appears to be waning, and so too is its influence.

In the decade following the 2008 global recession, funding for the Office of Polar Programs, which oversees American facilities and research in Antarctica, fell by 8 percent. Plans for the long-overdue replacement of aging facilities at McMurdo Station, the United States’ Antarctic headquarters, were drawn up during the Obama administration, but a further proposed cut of more than 10 percent in the 2021 budget places those rebuilding plans in jeopardy just as work is set to begin. Without modernization of McMurdo, which in its size and sophistication has long been the envy of other nations, the perception of America’s declining interest in Antarctica will grow.

China, long relegated to spectator status in Antarctic affairs, stands to gain the most. With four Antarctic stations already, China is now in the advanced planning stages for a fifth station—this one to be located in the heart of “downtown” Antarctica, on an island in the Ross Sea adjacent to McMurdo. The image of a rusting, outdated American station alongside a gleaming, state-of-the-art Chinese facility will communicate more clearly than a hundred polar policy papers the reality of the power transfer already under way in Antarctica, where China’s investments in icebreakers, communications hardware, and station infrastructure dwarfs that of other nations, including the United States.

China's 35th Antarctic expedition sends 37 members of two inland expedition teams to the Kunlun and Taishan stations in Antarctica Dec. 18, 2018. (Xinhua News Agency / Getty Images)

The French, British, and American expeditions of the 1840s sailed south in the hope of discovering a Terra Australis laden with mineral treasures, only to find towering glaciers and deathly cold. A couple of centuries later, it’s China that is determined to reap Antarctica’s mineral riches.

As the northern ice melts, the Arctic Ocean is already the scene of international jockeying for mining rights. But as China scholar Anne-Marie Brady has documented extensively, Beijing views Antarctica as the last great terrestrial frontier on Earth, hosting great deposits of coal, natural gas, precious minerals, added to plentiful fish stocks in the surrounding ocean and even vast freshwater reserves locked up in Antarctic ice. China intends to exploit the continent fully once the current Antarctic Treaty expires in 2048, if not sooner. With nations hungry for new sources of oil and mineral wealth, and China laying the groundwork for industrialization of the pole, the stakes for Antarctica couldn’t be higher.

An obvious irony looms over this new Antarctic rush. If Antarctic glaciers are already melting, and the consequent sea-level rise threatens to inundate coastal cities across the globe, why would any government make plans to exacerbate global warming by exploiting fossil fuel reserves in Antarctica? Will the 21st century end with oil fields in an ice-free Wilkes Land or strip-mining in the forested Transantarctic Mountains that are currently buried in ice? It seems outlandish, but this is exactly the future that Beijing’s plan could trigger, even if public pronouncements from China conform to the diplomatic polar language of international collaboration and disinterested scientific research.

Wilkes claims portion of Antarctica for U.S. - Jan 19, 1840 -

TSgt Joe C.

During an exploring expedition, Captain Charles Wilkes sights the coast of eastern Antarctica and claims it for the United States. Wilkes’ group had set out in 1838, sailing around South America to the South Pacific and then to Antarctica, where they explored a 1,500-mile stretch of the eastern Antarctic coast that later became known as Wilkes Land. In 1842, the expedition returned to New York, having circumnavigated the globe.

Antarctica was discovered by European and American explorers in the early part of the 19th century, and in February 1821 the first landing on the Antarctic continent was made by American John Davis at Hughes Bay on the Antarctic Peninsula. During the next century, many nations, including the United States, made territorial claims to portions of the almost-inhabitable continent. However, during the 1930s, conflicting claims led to international rivalry, and the United States, which led the world in the establishment of scientific bases, enacted an official policy of making no territorial claims while recognizing no other nation’s claims. In 1959, the Antarctic Treaty made Antarctica an international zone, set guidelines for scientific cooperation, and prohibited military operations, nuclear explosions, and the disposal of radioactive waste on the continent.

Charles Wilkes

Charles Wilkes spent his entire working life in the United States Navy. He is best known for leading a four-year voyage of exploration that circled the globe, mapped large parts of the Pacific and Australia, and charted over 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) of the Antarctic coast. He also constructed and opened the forerunner of the U.S. Naval Observatory near Washington, D.C.

Wilkes was born in New York City in 1798 to John and Mary Wilkes. He joined the Navy in 1818, specializing in oceanography. One of his first assignments was to take charge of the recently established Depot of Charts and Instruments, upon which he began construction of a simple astronomical observatory. This grew to become the U.S. Naval Observatory, an important center for astronomical research for many years.

In 1838 Wilkes was given command of a six-ship expedition of discovery, the U.S. Surveying and Exploration Expedition. This expedition, which was to last four years and covered 87,000 miles (139,000 km), mapped large tracts of the Pacific, Australia, and Antarctica, endured severe weather, and returned thousands of scientific and anthropological specimens for further study.

Wilkes was actually the fourth or fifth person asked to lead this expedition, but those asked before him either refused or left. An officer with very little time at sea, Wilkes proved himself to be a strict disciplinarian, driving both himself and his crews rigorously throughout the expedition. Leaving the United States with six ships, Wilkes returned from the voyage having lost only one ship and 15 men.

Following his return, Wilkes found himself court-martialed for inaccurate records (one British ship was logged as sailing across a stretch of what Wilkes recorded as solid land), excessive discipline, and possible falsification of records. All of the charges brought against him were eventually dropped, with the exception of one—he ordered more than the allowed 12 lashes for six crewmen found guilty of theft. Angry and disappointed, Wilkes spent the next three years writing a five-volume narrative of his voyage, of which 100 printed copies were distributed.

At the start of the Civil War, Wilkes returned to active duty and was given command at sea. In 1861, in command of the San Jacinto, Wilkes intercepted the British steamer Trent in the Caribbean and apprehended two Confederate agents, James Mason and John Slidell. The "Trent Affair" very nearly brought Great Britain into the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy and gained Wilkes more notoriety. Further commands followed as did several ill-advised comments against Gideon Welles, the Secretary of the Navy. These comments led to Wilkes's court-martial for disobedience, disrespect, insubordination, and conduct unbecoming an officer. Found guilty on these counts, Wilkes was subjected to a public reprimand and was suspended from the Navy for a year.


Navy personnel from the United States constructed the main part of Wilkes in a period of 16 days in January and February 1957, unloading 11,000 tons of material and supplies. It took a crew of over 100 to erect the station which housed 24 naval personnel and scientists for the next 18 months.

As this was the time of the Cold War, there was considerable concern by the United States and Australia about Russian activity in Antarctica. Wilkes was seen to be strategically located because of its proximity to the south magnetic pole.

Australia assumed custody of Wilkes, which remained the property of the U.S. State Department, in February 1959. Although Australia officially took over the operational command, the remaining US personnel did not take kindly to being under Australian control. Consequently, there was a 'back down' until 1961 when the station came under exclusive ANARE control.

Wilkes had originally been built in 1957 for a two-year period. By 1964 the buildings had become a fire hazard due to fuel seepage, and the station was becoming buried by snow and ice. The new station of Casey Repstat (Replacement Station) was developed on the other, southern, side of Newcomb Bay, about two kilometers across the bay south of Wilkes. It was commissioned in 1969 and Wilkes was closed down.

Wilkes Station is now almost permanently frozen in ice and is only occasionally revealed during a big thaw every four or five years. Many objects remain embedded in the ice, and visitors are often able to see the remains of the station through the ice.

What remains at Wilkes are a number of barracks buildings known as Clements huts, and the remnants of the semi-cylindrical canvas store buildings known as Jamesway huts.

Wilkes features a series of storage dumps and a considerable amount of waste resulting from 12 years of occupation, including approximately 7000 fuel and oil drums. In early 1988, the Australian Army's 17th Construction Squadron deployed Lieutenant Andrew Stanner to Wilkes Station, Antarctica in order to develop an environmental clean-up plan to remove, make safe or dispose of a large accumulation of rubbish, fuel in drums, explosives, chemicals and gas cylinders deposited since the late 1950s. The plan was subsequently carried out over a period of years for the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions by a series of detachments from the squadron. [1] [2]

The Coldest Place on Earth (1969), written by Robert Thompson who led the September 1962 Wilkes-Vostock Traverse, returning to Wilkes in January 1963.

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