Skip to main content
Related Content
Australia and New Zealand

Wilkes' orders would have made the Fiji Island survey the next item on his agenda, but as exploration of Antarctica could only be carried out in the southern hemisphere's summer, he modified his itinerary. The expedition sailed south from Samoa on 11 November for Sydney, New Holland (Australia) to prepare. On 14 November Wilkes deemed that the International Date Line had been crossed and ordered that 14th be dropped from all orders, journals, and reports and the 15th be substituted.


When the ships arrived in Sydney in late November, the American consul informed them that Relief had departed for the United States about ten days before after depositing supply caches there and at Honolulu as ordered. The crews immediately began re-supplying and making repairs at Fort Jackson in anticipation of another difficult foray southward. While there, the ships were open to visits from the local population. Being familiar with other voyages to the Antarctic Circle, the residents were amazed that such a trip would be attempted in such flimsy and ill-equipped vessels. Wilkes reply was that such were their orders and they would obey. Visitors particularly commented on the tender Flying Fish, predicting that its fate would be to freeze among the icebergs.


The men of the squadron took every opportunity to enjoy the sights of Sydney, delighted to be in a port of their own culture, where their language was spoken. Wilkes described the town as riotous, but was pleased to note that no complaints of his crew's behavior returned to the ship. With a population of 24,000, Wilkes figured that there was a tavern for every 100 inhabitants. He also noted with disapproval that public drunkenness was not uncommon, even among women. He ascribed these cultural phenomena to the fact that the rum trade was important in the early development of New South Wales, and for a period of time rum was a medium of exchange in the colony. In his diary, Titian Peale noted the large number of policemen, saying that they were seldom out of sight, a reminder of the penal colony origins of the settlement.


Soon after their arrival, Wilkes suggested to the scientifics that he would receive any requests they might make about a leave of absence from the squadron while the ships were in the Antarctic. As in the first foray to the south, he was reluctant to endanger their lives and there would be no opportunities to go ashore. Thus, it seemed pointless to him to have them suffer through the experience. The scientifics understood the invitation and submitted their requests to study in Australia while the ships explored to the south. Wilkes offered to reimburse expenses for scientific excursions and their passages to the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, where they were to be ready by 1 March to rejoin the squadron. With these instructions, the scientists divided into small groups and headed in different directions. Alfred Agate participated in several excursions into the interior of Australia. With Joseph Hale, he went to Newcastle and the Hunter River, 80 miles north of Sydney. There they documented the aboriginal culture, including a night spent witnessing an aboriginal dance called a corrobory. He also traveled with William Rich and Joseph Drayton to the Illawarra region, south of Sydney, an area that Wilkes described as the "bread basket" of Australia. While he described the majority of New South Wales as subject to extremes of moisture, mountains protected this narrow strip of land below Sydney causing its climate to be more tropical.