Feb 5, 2007

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

Samuel Eliot Morison, American historian and biographer of Christopher Columbus Morison, Samuel Eliot

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 Columbian 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.


Kathleen Marie said...

You did a fabulous job on this review. I will have to check the book out. Thanks!

ltlop said...

Hey Mike,

When are you going to do a review of 1427 by Gavin Menzies? This is a very interesting theory. I personally have not read the book but have done some work regarding this theory.

historymike said...

Kathleen Marie:

Thanks - it's a good book on Columbus, as long as you can get past Morison's occasional hero worship.

historymike said...


I have a copy of 1427, and I got about 50 pages into it.

I need to finish it in the next few months.

The one criticism I can offer, based on my cursory reading, is that the book is highly speculative.