A Great and Rising Nation: Naval Exploration and Global Empire in the Early US Republic

07 Jul 23


(The University of Chicago Press – £29.18)
ISBN 9780226819921

320 pages

This rich and engaging book situates American naval exploration and science in the period between the War of 1812 and the Civil War, an era that re-shaped and popularised American political life, and greatly extended the territorial sway of the Imperial Republic, acquiring a Pacific coastline in the process.  At the heart of national decision-making and oceanic visions loomed the dominating divisive reality of slavery, polarising opinion, and shaping attitudes to overseas expansion, relations with foreign powers, and the locations to be explored. While race, faith and science were important, these costly expeditions were driven by a search for status: they signalled the arrival of a rich, powerful and sophisticated state on the other side of the world, yet still looked back to Europe for applause. Verney brings his expertise on the domestic political dimension to bear on the genesis, conduct and reception of five of the 17 naval expeditions of the period, emphasising the divergent aims and ambitions of those who sponsored, supported and conducted oceanic missions. The exploration of the Amazon Basin and the Rio Parana was driven by Southern slave-owners seeking fresh land to cultivate, a project that collapsed when the Brazilian government closed the mighty river to foreign vessels, well aware the United States had already seized Mexican territory, and threatened other regional states, notably Nicaragua and Spanish Cuba. The architect of this project, world famous oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury, joined the Confederacy in 1861, as did William Francis Lynch, leader of an expedition to the Dead Sea, driven by evangelical conviction to prove the literal truth of the Bible through archaeological research. By contrast the Pacific voyage of the United States Exploring Expedition, which predated America acquiring a Pacific coast, was led by Charles Wilkes, who nearly caused a war in 1861 by illegally seizing the Royal Mail Steamer Trent.

Although these voyages shared scientific methods and agendas with contemporary British expeditions, they were aggressively American Republican exercises. Scrutiny by Congress, divided over slavery and the proper use of Federal Funds, made it essential to align the project with the incumbent administration, secure external support and positive media coverage. While scientific enquiry helped to make a case, as long as it did not challenge the literal truth of the Bible, national prestige and status were more significant arguments. While lavish publications boosted the achievements of these voyages the Americans judged their expeditions by reception afforded to them abroad. The Gold Medal by the Royal Geographical Society was the ultimate endorsement. Elisha Kent Kane, a US Navy doctor, received it after an expedition that failed to find Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition. This shared ‘humanitarian’ project climaxed with HMS Resolute, a British arctic search vessel abandoned in the ice, recovered by American whalers, and restored to the Royal Navy in December 1856, with befitting ceremony – which included visits by the Queen and the Prime Minister. This shared ‘scientific’ interest provided a rare opportunity for London and Washington to exchange pleasantries, rather than insults and threats. The ‘gentlemanly’ Captain Hartstene USN was another who joined the Confederacy in 1861.

The specimens and exhibits collected by these expeditions played a major role in the creation of American national museums, notably the Smithsonian, anthropological collections and science. They also engaged a growing middle-class public with the wider world beyond their own ever expanding borders. Finally, these pre-1861 expeditions provided a base for the revival of American curiosity about the wider world in the last quarter of the century. If anyone doubts how closely Anglo-American ocean science projects became they can check the names of the Space Shuttles – the ‘ships’ that enabled the next great scientific leap – several honour key British oceanographic vessels.