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The Alfred Agate Collection: The United States Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842


Vincennes and Flying Fish left Manila on 21 January in order to chart as much of the Sooloo (Sulu) Sea and its islands as possible. Time was running out for the expedition. At their stop in the Hawaiian Islands in the fall of 1840, Wilkes had promised his crew to return to the United States by 31 May 1842. The scientifics went ashore on several islands, including Panay, Mindanao, and Sooloo, but surveying was again the primary interest. The Sultan of Sooloo had sent word to the United States that he was interested in a closer trading relationship, so Wilkes made a particular study of its economic potential. Sultan Mohamed Damaliel Kisand (Jamal ul-Kiram I) and Wilkes signed a trade treaty on 5 February guaranteeing protection for American ships. Vincennes then departed to investigate other islands on its way to Singapore, which it reached on 19 February to find the other ships of the squadron waiting. Oregon and Porpoise had arrived on 19 January to find U.S.S. Constellation and Boston there on station as the East India squadron.

Sooloo Islander, Philippine Islands
Alfred T. Agate
Ink wash and pencil





Sooloo Town

Alfred T. Agate
Ink wash and pencil


Singapore was the major port at the gateway between what was deemed to be between east and west, open to all commerce without tariff, and governed by the East India Company. The city teemed with people from a variety of cultures, religions, and languages, who lived together, for the most part, in peace. The United States Consul was Mr. Joseph Balestier, an acquaintance of Wilkes, having met him in Washington prior to his posting. Wilkes had assisted Balestier with all the information he had on the region, including a copy of the best map he had at the time. Balestier now repaid Wilkes' kindness by introducing him to the cultures of Singapore. Wilkes recorded his impressions of the culture and practices of the Chinese, Shiite and Sunni Moslems of eastern and western rites, Africans, Armenians, and "Hindoos" - a term which Wilkes used to denote a native of India. For the faith of Hinduism, Wilkes used a common term of the era, "Gentoo." Among the many sights of the city, Wilkes observed what he believed was one of the most disgusting scenes of the entire voyage, an opium den. After describing the horrific effects the drug had on its users, he insightfully noted how some of those who knew its effects and condemned its use engaged in and defended its trade.

A Man from Singapore
Alfred T. Agate
Watercolor and pencil
98-89-BM (front)





Gentoo (Hindu) Monument, or
Monument In the Shape Of a Lotus Blossom In a Hindu Cemetery Outside Singapore

Alfred T. Agate


Flying Fish had been experiencing worsening structural trouble since its departure from San Francisco, and Wilkes decided to sell it at Singapore, after it had completed its use to him as a survey vessel. The men of the squadron viewed service on it as a hardship, though they retained a sentimental attachment to it. Wilkes formed an inspection team, which reported that it would not withstand the final leg of the homeward voyage, so he reluctantly asked Mr. Balestier to advertise it for sale. It brought three thousand seven hundred dollars and Wilkes distributed its crew among the remaining ships.

Wilkes notes on the culture of Singapore are so extensive that it is hard to believe that Vincennes was in port only a week. Three years of exploration seems to have only sharpened his perception. After departure from the city, the primary survey work of the expedition was completed and the ships were homeward bound, making only the surveys and stops that were convenient or necessary for re-supply. The crewmen pursued their duties with zeal, wanting to return home as fast as wind and current could carry them. The men of Porpoise and Oregon, however, had their cheer lessened when Wilkes ordered that they would proceed to Rio de Janeiro after leaving the Cape of Good Hope and St. Helena Island, in order to make some final experiments there. The men resented this, considering it a fool's errand that would allow Wilkes to arrive home first and receive the accolades that should be shared by all.

On 23 March, at sea in the Indian Ocean, Master's Mate Benjamin Vanderford died. Having had merchant ship experience in the Samoan Islands and some residence there before joining the Navy, he was the only man who could converse with Vendovi. Afterwards, Vendovi's health began to fail him.

Vincennes arrived at Cape Town on 13 April in order to buy bread, which was unavailable at Singapore. Wheat was one of the main exports of the Cape of Good Hope colony, along with wines, fruit, vegetable oils, and other foodstuffs. Here the expeditionaries were able to see Africans who had not abducted from their homeland, and as usual, Wilkes made notes on the various tribes, including Hottentots and Caffres. They had seen enslaved Caffres at the beginning of their voyage in Rio de Janeiro.

Hottentot from Capetown
Alfred T. Agate
Ink wash





Hottentot from Capetown
Alfred T. Agate
Ink and pencil




Capetown Cart
Alfred T. Agate
Pencil and watercolor


As Vincennes departed Cape Town on the 17th, the crew saw a mirage of a sailing ship in the distance, refracted horizontally and vertically, which was caused by a temperature inversion. At the time Wilkes noted that the temperature was 59°F on the deck and 73°F aloft in the mainmast. They had observed a similar phenomena when near Cape Horn, but not as distinct.

Mirage of Sailing Ship Off Cape Town
Alfred T. Agate


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27 March 2004