Matthew Fontaine Maury, Father of Oceanography: A Biography, 1806-1873

By Barbee, Matthew Mace | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, July 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Matthew Fontaine Maury, Father of Oceanography: A Biography, 1806-1873


Barbee, Matthew Mace, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Matthew Fontaine Maury, Father of Oceanography: A Biography, 1806-1873 * John Grady * Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland and Company, Inc., 2015 * vii, 354 pp. * $45.00

Matthew Fontaine Maury has not been subject to as substantial a body of research as one might expect, and the existing bibliography of historical work on Maury has tended to simplify his life and work. Traditionally, he has been celebrated for his contributions to the development of the scientific fields of meteorology and oceanography and remembered as "the Pathfinder of the Seas." Unfortunately, this legacy has obscured the complexities that make Maury such an interesting and significant figure.

Although an officer in the U.S. Navy and a significant figure in the Confederate government, Maury's career was largely spent away from the battlefield and devoted to scientific pursuits that he enacted in the belief that peace and prosperity could be attained through the development of improved transportation and commercial networks. Throughout his long and distinguished scientific career, which included his founding of the U.S. Naval Observatory, Maury often disagreed with his colleagues and superiors and struggled to gain support for his work. And though he was devoted to Virginia and southern traditionalism, he is also noteworthy for his attempts to prevent sectional division and his various proposals to preserve the southern plantation system through the mass migration of planters and slaves to Latin America. Thankfully, recent studies have situated Maury's scientific work within the political and economic contexts of the American Civil War and international relations during the mid-nineteenth century. In particular, Todd Wahlstrom and John Majewski have Maury's commitment to southern nationalism and his repeated attempts to induce southern planters to migrate to and colonize Latin America, first to Brazil in 1851 and then to Mexico in the aftermath of the Civil War. …

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