“I declare the earth is hollow, and habitable within; containing a number of solid concentrick spheres, one within the other, and that it is open at the poles 12 or 16 degrees; I pledge my life in support of this truth, and am ready to explore the hollow, if the world will support and aid me in the undertaking.”
Crazy as this pledge may sound in the twenty-first century, the words of retired U.S. Army Captain John Cleeves Symmes, written in 1818, initiated an idea that would lead to the greatest organized exploring venture since Lewis and Clark. Symmes was not the first to proffer a hollow earth theory. His predecessors included no less than Edmond Halley, the seventeenth century astronomer, who posited the concept as a way of explaining the different locations of the geographic and magnetic poles.
After publishing his hollow earth theory in 1818, Symmes set forth on a lecture tour in 1820, promoting the idea that mild and navigable rivers flowed into large portals at the north and south poles. He believed that a ship sailing at the edge of one of the portals wouldn't even feel the downwardness of the journey into the interior of the planet; all the sailors would notice would be succeeding layers of land on either side of these polar holes, land teeming with wildlife and possibly previously undiscovered peoples.
Though Symmes wasn't a particularly vibrant speaker his theory gathered a number of estimable follwers including professors and men of science. In 1822 Symmes petitioned the U.S. Congress, announcing his “belief of the existence of an inhabited concave to this globe.”
Symmes' letter to Congress made a specific request “that two vessels of 250 or 300 tons” be commissioned for the expedition. One of Symmes' admirers was a young newspaper editor from Ohio, Jeremiah Reynolds. Reynolds proved a charismatic speaker on the subject, but eventually the two hollow earth believers went their separate ways. While Symmes favored a voyage to the North Pole, Reynolds adamantly espoused an expedition seeking the South Pole.
Reynolds's speaking prowess and his ability to make friends in high places led scientific groups to inundate Congress with letters of support for a government sponsored exploration of the uncharted islands of the South Pacific and a search for an ice covered continent surrounding the supposed hole at the South Pole.
Symmes died in 1829, but, by then, the possible sea going exploration of the south seas grew closer to reality. A handful of expeditions were conceived, but mostly due to naval and political infighting failed to leave the docks until 1838.
August marks one hundred seventy-nine years since the United States Exploring Expedition set sail from Norfolk, Virginia. Most any American will recognize the names Lewis and Clark, but few can tell you anything about Lt. Charles Wilkes, commander of six vessels and nearly 350 men on the four year sea voyage of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, or Ex Ex as it was commonly referred to at the time.
Wilkes' voyage stopped at the Madeira Islands, Rio de Janeiro, went around Cape Horn, up the west side of South America to Chile and Peru, then into the great wide open of the Pacific. Lt. Wilkes was a nautical surveyor of some note, having mapped Georges Bank off New England (his charts were followed well into the twentieth century). The Ex Ex included several civilian scientists including Titian Peale and James Dwight Dana (from the vast Dana family of Massachusetts that also produced his contemporary, Richard Henry Dana of Two Years Before the Mast fame).
Wilkes' vessels located an Antarctic continent west of the Balleny Islands (named for the English whale ship captain who first discovered these volcanic isles). On the Hawaiin Islands Wilkes insisted on carrying a housed pendulum to the top of Mauna Loa. He forced locals to act as porters, ignored their instructions to follow a well-worn trail, blazed his own much lengthier one, and by the end of the elongated trek many of his own men, not to mention the locals, suffered from snow blindness, altitude sickness, and assorted other injuries.
On Fiji, Wilkes killed eighty or more locals as retaliation for his nephew and another crewman being killed while bartering for food supplies. The expedition produced the first thorough map of the Oregon and Washington coastline; however, one of the group's ships, Peacock, foundered on the Columbia River bar. Wilkes sent an overland party south; it eventually reached Sutter's Fort, supping there with Mr. Sutter himself.
Wilkes predicted that San Francisco and Puget Sound would one day provide wondrous ports, but he was court-martialed, in part, for whipping mildly disobedient sailors repeatedly with a cat o' nine-tails. History being as inherently contradictory as Wilkes, the record shows he was acquitted of the court-martial charges. In short Wilkes's legacy proved a mixed bag. Many discoveries of a geographic, botanical, and zoological point of view, but the loss of twenty-eight crewmen and two ships.
John Cleeves Symmes and Jeremiah Reymolds might have been dismayed that Wilkes did not find a portal to the hollow earth at or near the South Pole, but without their outlandish beliefs and their prosletizing for the hollow earth theory, Wilkes' four year voyage of discovery may not have taken place.
The finest study on Wilkes' exploring expedition resides within the pages of Nathaniel Philbrick's Sea of Glory. Philbrick is also the author of In the Heart of the Sea, the real life story of the whale ship Essex and its fateful encounter with a very large whale. Herman Melville, of course, based a good deal of Moby-Dick on the misfortunate of the Essex. It is believed by some that Captain Ahab's manaical nature was based on Lt. Wilkes' ruthless treatment of his sailors.