May 10, 2006

Review: Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus

Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1942. Vol. I – 448 pages, Vol. 2 – 444 pages

Left: Samuel Eliot Morison (seated)

Samuel Eliot Morison was an American historian, graduating with his doctorate from Harvard in 1912. He began teaching at the same university in 1915, becoming full professor in 1925 and the Jonathan Trumbull professor of American history in 1941. He also had a short stint at Oxford (1922-25), where he was the Harmsworth professor of American history. Morison was appointed Harvard’s official historian in 1926, and was commissioned by FDR to write a history of US naval operations in 1942. He received the rank of Lieutenant Commander for this work, and retired from the Navy in 1951 as a rear admiral. Both this two-volume text, as well as his biography John Paul Jones (1959), received the Pulitzer Prize.

Morison completed what might be the ultimate in gonzo historical research: he assembled a team of historians and navigators to attempt to use the ship logs of Columbus and recreate the transatlantic voyages of the Genoese captain. In the summers of 1939 and 1940, Morison and his assistants painstakingly mapped the Four Voyages as they sailed across the Atlantic and through the Caribbean. He oversaw the drafting of these sailing charts by members of the Harvard Institute of Geographical Exploration, and thus added a dimension of scientific evidence to the debates regarding the true routes that Columbus sailed.

Traditional historiographical views of Columbus and the era of European expansion are in abundance in this text. Morison uses broad, sweeping rhetoric to describe what he argued were the gloomy state of affairs in Europe in 1492, claiming that “[a]t the end of the year 1492 most men in Western Europe felt exceedingly gloomy about the future.” Europe, according to Morison, was a picture of “degeneracy and decay,” and Columbus arrived on the scene to “become the sign and symbol of this new age of hope, glory, and accomplishment.” Columbus was thus a quasi-Messiah for early modern Europe, in the view of Morison, and his voyages ushered in an era of economic wealth, scientific discovery, and religious revitalization. Morison’s penchant for Eurocentric sycophancy and bombastic rhetoric is never more evident than in the following passage:
Never again may mortal men hope to recapture the amazement, the wonder, the delight of those October days in 1492 when the New World gracefully yielded her virginity to the conquering Castilians.
Left: Columbus - maritime Messiah?

Morison devoted a great deal of this monograph to an examination of Columbus as a man of the sea. Entire chapters are dedicated to essays on such topics as ships and shipbuilding, navigation techniques, and the logistics of transatlantic voyages. Columbus, according to Morison, was a natural sailor:
Columbus must have had a born navigator’s innate sense of direction, as well as a practiced seaman’s knowledge of what to expect from cloud formations, the look of the water, and the behavior of the wind.
Morison argued that it was Columbus’s skill with dead reckoning that made him such a superlative sailor, noting that the Admiral was “unable to use the astrolabe on his First Voyage, and there is no evidence of his taking such an instrument on any other.” Morison also lauded the coastal piloting ability of Columbus, making the following claim:
Seldom in history, perhaps never again except in Captain James Cook, have the top two grades of these two qualities [deep-sea and shallow-water navigational skills] been united in the same mariner.
Like all explorers, Columbus undoubtedly had his reasons for leaving shore and departing for parts unknown. Morison argued that religion was the primary motivator for the Genoese captain, and that the faith of Columbus was “genuine and sincere.” Morison continued:
[his faith] gave him confidence in his destiny, assurance that his performance would be equal to the promise of his name. This conviction that God destined him to be an instrument for spreading the faith was far more potent than the desire to win glory, wealth, and worldly honors…
The strengths of this book are to be found in the exhaustive technical details, highlighted by the aforementioned Harvard maps. There are diagrams that illustrate, for example, the processes of “beating to windward” and “clawing off a lee shore.” Spanish coinage from the Columbian era is displayed with conversion charts, and Morison even offered a short essay on the controversy surrounding the remains of Columbus; the author argued that “Columbus belongs to America, the New World of his discovery.” Of course, the indigenous peoples of the Americas might have other ideas about what to do with the bones of the Genoese captain, but that is the subject of an altogether different essay. Despite its fawning adulation for Columbus and heavy-handed Eurocentrism, Morrison's book remains valuable for its nautical insights and practical approach to understanding the Columbus voyages.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

please stop screaming, thanks

LTLOP said...

Ya know,,,,, I'm reminded of what was told to me in undergrad and I tell my social studies classes this every year, You cannot judge the past by what you know now. If you do you will get the wrong answer. You have to have look at this in the context of 1492 not 1942 or 1992 despite emotions that would like you to. We can discuss the repercussions of his voyage, motivations et. al. but still must be kept in context. Just remember had he never made that voyage and set in motion a series of events over the centuries that led to the formation of the 13 colonies, Constitution, 1st Amendment the monarch may not have allowed you to say such things.
Now for the pisser of questions and get my tinfoil conspiracy hat, were the "Native" Americans really the first ones here? Or is it a big Indian cover-up? Archaeologists may never know, anytime any potential evidence crops up that may refute this assertion, the Native American reburial laws are trotted out along with Euro guilt and the evidence disappears. There is a case like this happening either in Washington or Oregon. Just a thought or two to provoke and raise the level of social intercourse.

historymike said...

That was an odd post.

My thoughts:

1. I might give you "thief," although modern definitions of theft should not be anachronistically placed upon people in the past. This is an error in the world of historians that is known as "presentism," or projecting modern values on historical figures.

2. No evidence exists that Columbus "raped" anyone. Certainly members of his crews engaged in sexual activity with Taino and Arawak women, but I would assume that there was at least some consensual sex between them.

3. No evidence exists that Columbus murdered anyone. One might make the case that he unwittingly began the process of tranferring Eurasian diseases to the Americas, which led to massive depopulation, but to call him a "murderer" is a rhetorical stretch.

One might also make the case that the enslavement of Taino to work the gold mines in Hispaniola - which began under the governorship of Columbus - caused many deaths, but death was not a one-way street. The entire party that Columbus left behind - some 39 men - were killed before he returned on his second voyage.

historymike said...

And yes - no CAPS LOCK screaming.

(historymike places virtual fingers in virtual ears)

Long time lurker said...

I bow humbly before you Mike for giving a name to what I was talking about in my post.(presentism)I will use this term next year with my 8th grade Social Studies students.

Dariush said...

LTL: "Now for the pisser of questions and get my tinfoil conspiracy hat, were the "Native" Americans really the first ones here?"

Well one thing we do know, for which no tinfoil hats are necessary since it is now commonly accepted fact, is that the discovery of Solutrean culture in Western Europe has radically modified previously held perceptions of the origins of Clovis culture in the Americas.

See here, here, here and here for more.

Hooda Thunkit said...

Great read Mike.

Two Pulitzers..., Morrison certainly impressed a lot of knowledgeable people.

toddfoll said...

Mike, the atrocities committed in hispaniola seemed to have taken place during Columbus's absence and I went into the reading expecting to see a far worse opinion of Columbus. As a very experienced sailor who has travelled many of these waters, I add that it is remarkable how superb a sailor he is. I spent a lot of time in hispaniola visited most of the ports he did and he was just amazing but his DR work transiting the ocean is not to be believed. As an interesting juxtaposition, have you read 1491?

toddfoll said...

There can also be a case made that syphillis originated in the western hemisphere, you may remember that Morison discusses that. The fact that its first appearance in Europe was in 1493 may be a clue. Of course the introduction of disease in the America's by the Europeans was malicious, devastating and virtually depopulated the continent.
Speaking of the "America's" did you notice that Amerigo Vespucci first saw South America on Columbus's boat and later lied about "discovering" it? We should be living in the United States of Columbia. :-)

historymike said...

Hi Toddfoll:

I try to avoid anachronistic condemnations of Columbus and Europeans. They lived in a much more violent era, and they had practices that were acceptable in their time that would be despicable today.

Certainly the excesses documented by Las Casas were horrible, although his tendency toward hyperbole makes me look to him more as a representation of the general rather than the specific.

Morison, too, was a product of his times, and I did not want to go overboard with 21st century reviewing criteria.

The timing is right with syphilis, but evidence only exists for spirochaete diseases like yaws, which were external (skin) in nature.

My guess is that a spirochaete strain that was a skin disease in the Americas traveled back with Europeans and became an wildly virulent STD.

Good point about Johnny-come-lately Vespucci, who usurped much of the fame due to Columbus.