Travels and travelers have become important themes in the humanities,
specially in the field of History. The reports produced by men and
women from the past are sources which show social, political, and
economic transformations over centuries, as well as the modifications of
how to travel and narrate the experience. They are important sources for
reporting encounters that were often unequal, with unpredictable
results, between groups who followed different rhythms and
temporalities, highlighting the complexity of the circulation of men,
ideas, and scientific discussions.
Scientific exchanges reigned in the nineteenth century, under the
influence of the Enlightenment, and were indispensable to the process of
globalization and in the reduction of different orders of distance.
Constant flows and exchanges — mutual aid, as well as competition
between the parties — ensured joint work, resulting from various
fusions, mergers, and amalgamations. This is the case of the scientific
work carried out by the navies of Western countries.
During the nineteenth century, officers and cartographers circled the
globe from East to West and sailed the planet from the North to the
South Pole. Considerable parts of the Earth were still 'unknown' or
unmapped, according to the rigor of 'reason.' The Atlantic and above all
the Pacific lacked recognition. A large number of scientists, notably
Europeans, did not shy away from measuring, mapping, and drawing the
globe: rivers were identified, river mouths measured, coasts identified,
shoals revealed, especially those which put vessels at risk. This
involved an extraordinary effort from navies in peacetime. It can
be noted that this task of mapping the globe based on sophisticated
mathematical calculations, made by specialized cartographers, was not
only linked to the science of the period, but also to geopolitics and
the safety of commercial shipping.
In addition to training cartographers-officers, the United States was
concerned with creating fields of knowledge in universities which could
produce skilled personnel for the development of science in the country,
becoming partners of the Europeans. Tirelessly, the Americans entered
the race to discover the globe and also to benefit their trade.
Gradually they constructed their own cartography, used by their navy and
The scientific journeys of the US Navy allow an understanding of the
extent of US interests around the world, even though their navy was
small compared to the Europeans. Trade with China since the eighteenth
century stimulated circulation: ships with fur trade from the
American West, amongst other products, were found in Shanghai and Hong
With the objective of ensuring free trade in international waters and
inspired by English activity, the Americans created naval squadrons —
types of overseas stations —, offering support to US vessels and
facilitating formalities with foreign countries. These squadrons were
formed by one or more ships, in accordance with the 'demands of the
region.' They remained in determined ports prepared to support damaged
American ships, whether military or not, and other emergencies.
The first squadron created by the US Congress was the Mediterranean
Squadron in 1815, in order to repress piracy in North Africa (Algeria,
Tunis, and Tripoli). In 1822, it was the turn of the West Indian
Squadron which controlled the movement of ships in the Caribbean. With
the growth of whaling, a profitable venture at the time, the Pacific
Squadron was created in 1822. In 1826, the Brazil Squadron began to
safeguard traffic in the South Atlantic, anchoring in the port of Rio de
Janeiro. In 1835, the East Indian Squadron in India guaranteed the
circulation of American ships and goods in Southern Asia. Finally, in
1841 the Home Squadron was created, which supervised the country's
coasts and traffic in the North Atlantic.
It should be highlighted that the voyages in the first half of the
nineteenth century were carried out while the United States set in motion the aggressive territorial conquest which moved its frontiers from the
Appalachian mountains to the Pacific, between 1783 and 1848. Here we
will deal with the most significant US scientific voyages in the
Atlantic, although we will go beyond the limits of this ocean since
some of the trajectories commented on went beyond its boundaries.
Voyages in the age of sail: the circumnavigation of the U.S. Exploring Expedition.
The most audacious US venture was to undertake an ambitious seaborne
circumnavigation expedition between 1846 and 1848. The U. S. Exploring
Expedition involved six sailing ships, with 346 men, including 37
cartographers, seven scientists (two naturalists, two botanists, a
mineralogist, a conchologist, and a philologist), and two draughtmen. Like
others of the same type, the expedition's first work was the nautical
mapping carried out by the cartographers-officers, since the task of the
scientists (the civilians in the exploration expedition) was in the
background, even though they were responsible for the important report
of the expedition, consisting of five narrative and 18 scientific
volumes. The U. S. Exploring Expedition was undertaken at the same time as
circumnavigations by Britain, France, Spain, and Russia.
Although the focus of many of those involved in going around the globe
was on the Pacific, the US expedition, amongst others, spent some time
in the Atlantic, where it carried out a hydrographic survey and revised
inconsistent maps. The resulting work used the travel writings of other
officers, particularly Europeans, who had initially surveyed coastal or
submersed geographical landforms. Simultaneously, the expedition
narrative recognized the achievements of Europeans, especially the
English, the most important navy of the epoch, and established the
United States as partners in the international scientific debate.
Based on previously published travel reports, travelers from distinct
countries agreed on positions and rectified incongruences in nautical charts
which became more and more precise. In this way a transnational product
was consubstantiated, although modern knowledge was marked by the
tension between the national, or local, and the international —
between national affirmation and transnational knowledge networks.
In the case of the U. S. Exploring Expedition, one of its main
achievements is considered — although not without some dispute with
Europeans — to be the proof that the Antarctic is another continent.
Following this, maps were redrawn, this time with seven continents. In
addition, around 40 tons of specimens were collected, giving rise to the
Smithsonian Institution, the complex of museums in Washington.
The age of steamships: traveling along the rivers of South America.
Steamship boilers propelled river exploration. In the 1850s, US officers
left the North Atlantic to explore the rivers of South America. The
right to sail in rivers was an internationally debated question. In
1851, Captain William Lewis Herndon, initially serving in the Pacific
Squadron, left from the Andes with Lardner Gibbon to explore the
Amazon. The region's difficulties were immense: the trajectory was
covered by boats, mules, and on foot.
Two years later an exploratory mission of the River Plate, commanded by
Thomas Jefferson Page, travelled up the Paraná River, reaching the
Paraguai. Page had served in China and had been overlooked by the U.S.
Navy in the exploration of the Yangtze. As a counterpart, he was sent to
South America. At the beginning of the 1850s, the Americans were
exploring the two large river basins in the South American continent:
the Amazon and the Plate.
These expeditions had more modest pretensions than, for example, the U. S.
Exploring Expedition. However, they were responsible for the
collection of valuable information about the region. In addition to the
objective of the explorations, mapping, description of inhabitants, and
flora and fauna, they also inspected economic possibilities, with
authorization for diplomatic accords.
In the 1850s two expeditions specifically deserve mention, although their
objective was not the Atlantic, but rather the Far East. Reference to
them is important because it reveals, in addition to the dimensions of
US interests around the world, their notable success. Between 1852 and
1855, two expeditions, both approved by Congress, were carried out by
Commander Mathew Perry to China and Japan, though interest was
concentrated on the latter. These voyages are celebrated, since they are
considered to have opened the doors of Japan to the West, highlighting
the nautical activity of the United States and guaranteeing its trade in
Exploration in Central America: the search for a place to construct the interoceanic canal.
The US Navy's impulse around the world cooled during the Civil War
(1861-1865), since ships, officers, and sailors were divided between the
belligerents north and south. After the conflict, although the
scientific objectives remained, the Navy's activities were redirected in
the Atlantic. Now the aim was to shorten routes. With the construction
of the Suez Canal, the passage by the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa
stopped being the preferential route to Asia. It was also intended to
avoid the dangerous passage along the southernmost point of South America: the
Magellan Straits or Cape Horn. To reach California, recently annexed
from Mexico, after the War of 1846 - 1848, the Americans had to cross
the straits, since land routes had not been established.
The United States did what it could to obtain control over the possible
interoceanic canal in Central America. In the 1850s, the Clayton-Bulwer
Agreement was signed, stating that neither the United States nor Britain
would have exclusive rights over the possible interoceanic passage. This
agreement was ignored. Despite English and French interest in the
region, including demanding voyages for this purpose, a systematic
inspection (topographic and cartographic surveys, engineering projects,
geological data) was made by the United States. Distinct regions were
examined: Nicaragua, Panama (then a province of Colombia), Honduras, and
In 1870, Thomas Oliver Selfridge, with two steamships, explored the
Darien Straits in Panama. With more technical objectives, specialists in
topographic surveys, an electrical specialist, a geologist, and a
photographer embarked on the expedition. In 1872, it was the turn of
Robert Ilson Shulfedt to follow two other routes: through the Nicaraguan
lakes and Tehuantepec, in Mexico. He brought a team consisting of an
engineer, topographer, photographer, and a naturalist. Due to its lakes,
which would facilitate the construction of the canal, and its proximity
to the south of the country, Nicaragua remained for a long time in the
eyes of American naval officers and politicians the most suitable region
for the construction of the passage, to the detriment of Panama.
In 1872 and 1875, Captain Edward Lull, who had been part of Shufeldt's
expedition, once again inspected Nicaragua and Panama, at times
following the routes of his predecessors, at other times choosing new
ones. These voyages were carried out with the consent of the Latin
Americans and often had a specialist or agent of the relevant government
It was decided in the 1880s that the canal would be built, but the doubt
remained whether it would be Panama or Nicaragua. Two expeditions were
carried out by James Grimmes Walker who presided the Nicaragua Canal
Commission and afterward the Isthmian Canal Commission. The travel
report produced by Walker were essential for the Americans to decide on
Panama, ruling out the passage through Nicaragua.
Finally, the US Congress decided, supported by US Navy reports, to
acquire the concession of the private French company — led by Ferdinand
de Lesseps, the French engineer responsible for the Suez Canal — which
had unsuccessfully begun the construction of the canal in Colômbia, South America.
However, the Latin American company did not accept the US proposal. The
results of this are well known: the United States supported a separatist
rebellion in Panama and were the first to recognize its independence. In
the agreement with the Panamanians they got control of what came to be
known as the Canal Zone. The engineering work began in 1907 and the
canal was opened in 1914.
Official travel writing and account: the problem of truth.
Scientific expeditions carried out by navies depended on well-prepared
accounts/ travel writings, since these were reports which justified government
expenditure on the venture, a large part of which did not have immediate
results and conferred credibility on scientific measurements or
discoveries. The voyage was only part of the work. The report was
written on the return, when in national waters. Gradually, through
travel writing from one or another expedition, the world was mapped based
on new calculations and instruments, such as the chronometer: accurate
hydrographic surveys were published, ever more precise nautical charts
drafted. Moreover, the description of other places attracted the
curiosity of readers to the parts of the world considered to be
The success of the scientific expedition depended on the report/travel writing. In addition to the circulation of the travel report
itself, the dissemination of scientific exploration was the heart of the
enterprise: the achievements of the nation were published in newspapers
and magazines for a broader public, or in specialized journals in
determined fields of knowledge, reaching specific publics. Foreign
periodicals also published accounts of important journals and
Reports of scientific expeditions had to be objective and precise.
However, it is important to highlight that this type of source has a
limitation. Since the end of the twentieth century, travel writings have
been questioned by historians, literary critics, and others. Rather than
a reliable source on the places visited, they have become a source that
reveals more the vision of the traveler, immersed in a determined
culture, about the places they visited, reiterating stereotypes and
judgments about remote spaces, notwithstanding certain exceptions.
Scholars' concerns have moved to the cultural sphere. As a result, the
representations of the places visited are discussed, instead of
conceiving these reports as an authorized source abut a determined
It is known that the source corpus called travel writings is marked
by heterogeneity. They include official government reports or by
government representatives, scientific accounts, personal ones, writings
in the diary format, non-linear narratives, etc. Many difficulties are
involved: it is enough for someone to have gone from one place to
another and have written about the experience for the text to be
recognized as a travel writing.
Another problem that should be highlighted is the authorship of the
text: in the case of scientific journeys, in particular in the first
half of the nineteenth century, it was not certain that the commander of
the expedition had written the text. For example, the report of the
first circumnavigation by the legendary eighteenth-century captain,
James Cook, was written by the specialist John Hawkesworth, based on
Cook's notes. Charles Wilkes, commander of the U. S. Exploring
Expedition, after returning to the United States after four years of
exploration, had to undergo various courts-martials for imposing
excessive corporal punishments on sailors and for "manipulating data and
information," prejudicing the officers under his command. In the US Navy
it was discussed whether he would write the narrative of the expedition
he had led. Wilker had been given charge of the mission, but the
narrative of the exploration consisted of, in addition to the
justification of the voyage and the achievements of the operation, his
defense against the accusations he had received, even if this was
Furthermore, absences, what is not said, are common and revealing in the
reports of the strategic expeditions, since much information or even discoveries
were not stated in the narratives, nor in determined published maps,
becoming useful information for the country which had invested in the
These incidents compromised in one manner or another the veracity of
reports, even the scientific ones. It is possible to find fictional
elements in a large part of travel writings, which does not mean that a
scientific report should be read as if it were a novel. An educated
traveler would certainly know how to use sophisticated resources to
narrate their experience. It was common to keep in shadow what it was
wanted to hide and highlight the writer's qualities and exploits.
However, the fact that the travel reports related to these expeditions
are sources whose veracity is questioned does not mean that they do not
confirm data of scientific measurements. Rather they express that those
interested in understanding the circulation of men, ideas, and aspects
of science through these sources should be aware of their many
possibilities, but also their limits.