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Captain Charles Wilkes USN

American, 1798 - 1877

Captain Charles Wilkes was a US naval officer and explorer who was famed for leading the United States Exploring Expedition from 1838 - 1842 (also known as the Wilkes Expedition). This voyage took him south originally past the west coast of South America, then to Sydney, New South Wales, the Antarctic (where they encountered the French expedition headed by d'Urville), New Zealand, Fiji then back up the west coast of South America and the West coast of North America before again heading out back to the Pacific charting the Philippines, the Sulu Archipelago, Borneo, Singapore, Polynesia and the Cape of Good Hope, reaching New York in 1842.
Despite the geographic and scientific success of the expedition, Wilkes command of it was tarnished by claims of brutality towards his fellow officers and crew and there were major skirmishes between the expedition and local inhabitants they had encountered on their way, particularly at Fiji where an estimated 80 inhabitants were killed.
Wilkes was court-martialled for the loss of one of the ships, the PEACOCK, and his perceived mistreatment of the crew. He was found guilty of the latter yet managed to still be promoted throughout the rest of his life to the rank of Rear Admiral. It has been suggested, yet never proved, that his behaviour and notorious reputation was the basis for the character of Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick.
The material and specimens gathered on the expedition contributed to the formation of the Smithsonian Museum and the United States Botanic Garden.