Reckoning with a Racist Legacy in Ocean Science

By Penelope K. Hardy and Helen M. Rozwadowski


Graffiti on the statue of Matthew Fontaine Maury on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. Here’s an article about the monument with a photo showing the whole statue. Photo credit: Adam H. Domby

Among the numerous Confederate statues targeted by protesters around the country, the one of Matthew Fontaine Maury in Richmond, Virginia, inspired only the vague graffiti condemnation, “Fuck this guy too.” Maury, who is familiar to oceanographers, historians of the ocean sciences, generations of naval officers, and naval historians as the “father of oceanography” and the “pathfinder of the seas,” is clearly less well known outside of such specialist circles.

Maury was a Virginian, transplanted at a young age to Tennessee, who joined the navy after hearing an older brother’s adventurous sea stories. Always concerned about the lack of formal education for naval officers, Maury turned to science as a career path after a leg injury ended his hopes of pursuing the usual navy goal of command at sea. As head of the navy’s Depot of Charts and Instruments and then the first superintendent of the new Naval Observatory in Washington, DC, Maury applied navy resources to the development of science, particularly astronomy and hydrography. His career in the US navy came to an end in 1861, when he resigned his commission at the start of the American Civil War, for the duration of which he would serve in the Confederate navy.[1]

It is this latter service which led to the installation of the monument in Richmond, Virginia, one of five statues honoring men who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, and the only one who was not a general. On June 10, 2020, the nearby statue of Confederate president Jefferson Davis was torn down by protestors, and various levels of government in Virginia are discussing the disposition of the other Confederate leaders’ statues. This is an appropriate moment for reviewing Maury’s many and complicated legacies and to reflect on the responsibilities of historians of science to speak up about the inextricable links between Maury’s science and his ideology.

Historical assessments of Maury’s life and work run the gamut from the hagiographic, exemplified by his first biography compiled by his daughter[2] and the several books to come out near the year that the Richmond monument was unveiled in 1929,[3] to more balanced critiques, whether focused on his work on naval reform, navigational improvement, or science.[4] Within the history of science, Maury is recognized for innovating new ways to represent knowledge about the ocean environment, such as his wind and current charts, to enable mariners to navigate more swiftly and safely.[5] His status as a scientist, however, has been highly contested. A previous generation of historians of science denied that Maury could be considered a scientist, both taking a cue from his contemporaries and rivals who did not consider him as part of the scientific community and also applying a rather presentist lens to the definition of science.[6] Other historians who remained critical of Maury’s own science recognized his influence on government support for science.[7] By contrast, scholars today are more likely to judge Maury’s participation in science in the context of contemporary practices, institutions, and judgements.[8]

Understanding Maury’s activities and convictions in the context of his time does not, however, suggest that historians of science should avoid or even consider as separate his deeply-held support of the institution of slavery. Consider, by analogy, the historical legacy of Francis Galton, who created modern statistical techniques in pursuit of his eugenics research. It is nonsensical to separate out his dedication to racist eugenics from his mathematical accomplishments, and indeed historians do not try to do so. Historians have noted that Maury’s scientific and naval work supported American expansionism and projection of power. In this, Maury participated in the widespread nineteenth-century (and earlier) effort to employ science in the service of empire, a strategy widely recognized by historians of science. However, historians of science have not sufficiently linked Maury’s science to his racist ideology.

Apologists for Maury might point to the fact that, although a Southerner and although he did in fact resign his commission in the US Navy to support the rebellion against the United States, he did not own slaves himself. While true, this ignores the vigorous and consistent efforts Maury made to support and extend the institution of slavery. Starting in the 1830s, Maury wrote a series of influential articles advocating naval reform and assertive American military policy that was rooted in his proslavery beliefs.[9] By the 1850s, he was pursuing a concerted program of publication and lobbying to encourage US exploration in South America, with the design of expanding the American system of racial slavery to that region.[10] Maury sent instructions to Lieutenant William Lewis Herndon[11], also a Virginian, as the latter set out to explore the Valley of the Amazon in 1851. While this was one of many such scientific expeditions to South America, and conducted in the style Susan Cannon called “Humboldtian science,” which involved gathering as much data as possible using as many instruments as one could carry, its explicit aim was to assess the region’s potential for commercial exploitation – an imperial project, but hardly an uncommon one at the time.[12] Maury’s instructions, though, conveyed his interest in a longer-term project of American – and specifically Southern – colonization of the region. Find out, he told Herndon, if the government of Peru will “permit American Citizens with their slaves to go there and colonize[,] what guarantee will it afford the Institution?”[13] He inquired too about Bolivia – though here he would be foiled by that country’s early abolition of slavery – but he saw Brazil as a particular opportunity. Brazil, however, anticipated American designs and, while allowing the scientific exploration that might make them appear progressive on the world stage, moved to solidify regional political alliances to prevent American ships accessing the country.[14]

Maury’s efforts to expand the slave nation outlasted his service in the US Navy. He spent much of the American Civil War in Britain as an official agent of the Confederate government, trying to buy ships to engage in commerce raiding against US merchant shipping. (A service which so angered the American merchant mariners who had crowd-sourced much of the data for his earlier Wind and Current charts that the Salem (Mass.) Marine Society turned the portrait they had hanging of him around to face the wall.) As the war went increasingly poorly for the South, Maury switched flags again, entering the service of Maximilian I of Mexico as imperial commissioner of colonization, assisting with a plan to literally establish a “New Virginia” in Mexico, where he arranged customs waivers, tax exemptions, and land grants to entice Southerners to move and to take their enslaved laborers with them to work new plantations.[15] Unwilling to return to the US in the immediate aftermath of the war because he feared arrest for treason, he continued his diplomatic efforts with Mexico, writing to friends back home with ongoing enthusiasm for the project. He was so unwilling to let go of the institution of slavery that his friends found it hard to convince him that emancipation was already a fact, and that formerly enslaved Americans would have no interest in moving to Mexico with their enslavers to perpetuate their bondage. In the end, he stayed in Mexico until Maximilian’s own regime collapsed, returning to the US only in 1868 and only after enough other Confederate officers had received paroles for their treason that he felt safe to do so.[16]

The lionization of Maury represented by the installation of his statue on Richmond’s Monument Avenue formed part of the intentionally dishonest and ultimately damaging reinterpretation of history that took place in the 1920s and ’30s to support Jim Crow.[17] Some commentators make a distinction between memorialization of treasonous activities of the Confederacy and Maury’s earlier contributions, especially to navigation and science (which is too often assumed to be neutral). That is a distinction offered in defense of possibly retaining the name “Maury Hall” for the building housing various engineering departments at the US Naval Academy or for perhaps renaming it “Lt. Maury Hall” to emphasize that it is his pre-Civil War, scientific contributions that are being memorialized. Critics of removing statues and renaming buildings complain that these measures constitute a forgetting of history. However, the vague graffiti comment, “Fuck this guy too,” demonstrates that the Richmond statue is not serving to convey history effectively. It, along with its neighboring generals, should go, and we would urge the US Naval Academy community to change the name of the building that currently bears Maury’s name. Maury is an important and complex figure who should be remembered – in history books where his contradictions and racism can be represented alongside and, importantly – entangled with – his naval reform, navigational contributions, and science. Which other figures in the history of ocean sciences similarly need to be scrutinized to ensure that we have an accurate and balanced understanding of their contributions, including both the known and unacknowledged consequences?

[1] The most recent biography of Maury is John Grady, Matthew Fontaine Maury, Father of Oceanography: A Biography, 1806-1873 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015).

[2] Diana F. Maury Corbin, comp., A Life of Matthew Fontaine Maury (London, 1888).  For the role of Southern women in the formation of Lost Cause mythology, see Karen L. Cox’s book, first published in 2003 and reissued in 2019, Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2019).

[3] Charles Lee Lewis, Matthew Fontaine Maury: The Pathfinder of the Seas (Annapolis:  United States Naval Institute, 1927); Jaqueline Ambler Caskie, Life and Letters of Matthew Fontaine Maury (Richmond, VA: Richmond Press, 1928); John Walter Wayland, The Pathfinder of the Seas: The Life of Matthew Fontaine Maury (Richmond, VA: Garrett and Massie, 1930).

[4] For a recent re-assessment, see Helen M . Rozwadowski, “Introduction: Reconsidering Matthew Fontaine Maury,” International Journal of Maritime History 28, no. 2 (May 2016): 388–93, doi:10.1177/0843871416637991; Penelope K. Hardy, “Matthew Fontaine Maury: Scientist,” International Journal of Maritime History 28, no. 2 (May 2016): 402–10, doi:10.1177/0843871416637995; Jason W. Smith, “Matthew Fontaine Maury: Pathfinder,” International Journal of Maritime History 28, no. 2 (May 2016): 411–20,  doi:10.1177/0843871416638000; Margaret Stack, “Matthew Fontaine Maury: Reformer,” International Journal of Maritime History 28, no. 2 (May 2016): 394–401, doi:10.1177/0843871416637993.

[5] Penelope Hardy, “Where Science Meets the Sea: Research Vessels and the Construction of Knowledge in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,” (PhD diss., Johns Hopkins University, 2017), 24-60; Rozwadowski, Fathoming the Ocean: The Discovery and Exploration of the Deep Sea (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 43-46; Jason W. Smith, To Master the Boundless Sea: The US Navy, the Marine Environment, and the Cartography of Empire (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2018); D. Graham Burnett, “Matthew Fontaine Maury’s ‘Sea of Fire’: Hydrography, Biogeography, and Providence in the Tropics”, in Felix Driver and Luciana Martins, eds., Tropical Visions in an Age of Empire (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 113–34; Steven J. Dick, Sky and Ocean Joined: The U.S. Naval Observatory, 1830–2000 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 109–11.

[6] Nathan Reingold, Science in Nineteenth-Century America: A Documentary History (New York: Octagon Books, 1979). See the assessment of Maury in Hunter Dupree’s history of American science, which was first published in 1957 and revised in 1986: A. Hunter Dupree, Science and the Federal Government: A History of Policies and Activities (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 105–7, 136. For a similar perspective of Maury in the history of oceanography from this period, see Susan Schlee, The Edge of an Unfamiliar World: A History of Oceanography (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1973), 36–40, 50–63.

[7] Hugh R. Slotten, Patronage, Practice, and the Culture of American Science: Alexander Dallas Bache and the U.S. Coast Survey (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Steven J. Dick, ‘Centralizing Navigational Technology in America: The U.S. Navy’s Depot of Charts and Instruments, 1830–1842’, Technology and Culture, 33, no. 3 (1992), 467–509; Thomas G. Manning, U.S. Coast Survey vs. Naval Hydrographic Office: A 19th-Century Rivalry in Science and Politics (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1988).

[8] Hardy, “Scientist.”

[9] Matthew J. Karp, “Slavery and American Sea Power: The Navalist Impulse in the Antebellum South,” The Journal of Southern History 77, no. 2 (May 2011): 283-324; Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017). See also Matthew Karp, This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (Harvard University Press, 2016).

[10] Michael A. Verney, “‘The Universal Yankee Nation’: Proslavery Exploration in South America, 1850–1860,” Diplomatic History 44, no. 2 (April 2020): 337–364.

[11] Herndon famously went down with his ship off the coast of the Cape Hatteras in 1857, so he never faced the decision prompted by secession.

[12] Susan Faye Cannon, Science in Culture: The Early Victorian Period (New York: Dawson and Science History Publications, 1978).

[13] Maury to Herndon, 13 November 1850; Volume 6, 16 September 1850 to 26 May 1851; Letters Sent; RG 78, Records of the US Naval Observatory; National Archives Building, Washington, DC.  Underline in the original. 

[14] Verney, “‘The Universal Yankee Nation’.”

[15] John Majewski and Todd W. Wahlstrom, “Geography as Power: The Political Economy of Matthew Fontaine Maury,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 120, no. 4 (2012): 340-71.

[16] Majewski and Wahlstrom, “Geography as Power.”

[17] Adam B. Domby, The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2020).


3 thoughts on “Reckoning with a Racist Legacy in Ocean Science

  1. […] Dr. Penelope Hardy, a historian of science and technology who studies technologies of science, ocean science, and ocean exploration, has co-authored with me a piece on Matthew Fontaine Maury exploring links between his accomplishments, including his science, and his racist ideology.  It appears on the blog of the International Commission for the History of Oceanography:… […]

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