Samuel Wallis is best known for his voyages as Captain of the HMS Dolphin, a British vessel that circumnavigated the world under his command between 1766 and 1768. During this voyage, the Dolphin discovered the island of Tahiti and many other South Pacific islands that were soon to become famous. His reports inspired the voyages of Captain James Cook (1728-1779) and those of several French explorers who followed.
Wallis was born in Lanteglos-by-Camelford in 1728. Not much is known of his childhood or early adulthood, although it is likely that he received some degree of formal education before joining the Navy. It is certain that he was appointed flag lieutenant for Admiral Boscawen due to his high levels of performance, and was given command of the HMS Dolphin in 1766, shortly after the Dolphin's return from a recordbreaking circumnavigation under the command of John Byron (1723-1786).
Wallis was sent to the Pacific with instructions to search for a postulated great southern continent, thought to exist in order to counterbalance the weight of the great land masses in the Northern Hemisphere. Wallis set out with the Dolphin and a second ship, HMS Swallow, which was under the command of Lieutenant Philip Carteret (1733-1796) for the South Pacific. Unfortunately, the Swallow and Dolphin became separated in a storm while entering the Pacific and were not to rejoin each other for the duration of the voyage.
Wallis continued across the Pacific, trying to stay to low latitudes in search of the southern continent. Unfortunately, he did not go far enough south to find Antarctica, partly because the size the continent was thought to be large—on the same order of size as Asia and Europe—and he assumed it would extend to a lower latitude than is the case with Antarctica. For most of the next 20 months, Wallis searched for the phantom continent, discovering in the process Tahiti, the Society Islands, and some of the Tuamotu Islands.
Wallis finally gave up on his search in 1768 and returned to Britain to complete his circumnavigation. This voyage made Dolphin the first vessel to complete two such trips, accomplishing this feat in just over four years. Carteret returned to Britain 1769 after continuing his explorations at lower latitudes, where he discovered and mapped many islands in the vicinity of New Guinea and surrounding islands.
Sadly, although Wallis's achievements were important, they consisted primarily of negative accomplishments; that is, he was able to show where the southern continent was not located. Although it is valuable to discover that something does not exist, explorers were expected to find new lands, not to find more ocean. Because of this, Wallis has remained an under-appreciated explorer for more than two centuries. It is important to note, however, that Wallis's explorations and discoveries provided a great deal of impetus to launch the expeditions led by James Cook, considered by many to have been the greatest marine explorer of this time or, indeed, of any time.
Wallis's voyage also helped encourage the French to begin Pacific exploration in earnest. In fact, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville (1729-1811) had already departed for the Pacific when Wallis returned to England, but his confirmation of many of Wallis's findings combined with Wallis's reports of new lands helped persuade the French to invest in exploration, too, in order to keep up with her European rivals.
Following his return in 1768, Wallis continued serving Britain as a naval officer. He died in 1795, following a long and honorable career.
P. ANDREW KARAM