Samuel Eliot Morison has long been one of my favorite historians, coming into my life in the summer of 1978 when I worked as an intern at Houghton-Mifflin in Boston and walked to work every day up and down the Commonwealth Avenue mall through the Public Gardens and across Boston Common to the publishing house’s offices on Beacon Hill. The mall had a new statue of Morison between Exeter and Fairfield Streets — a bronze of him sitting on a seaside boulder in oilskins, binoculars around his neck, gazing out to an imaginary sea. Over the years I’ve read most of his work (with more to go), driven out of my studies in American maritime history in college, but also because of his remarkably fluent voice and style. Morison taught history at Harvard his entire life, was a rear Admiral in the U.S. Navy and wrote the official history of the navy in World War II, but he is best known for his writings on Christopher Columbus, which under the title of “Admiral of the Ocean Sea” won him the first for two Pulitzer prizes for history .
That book, which I strongly recommend reading, was an account of Morison’s meticulous primary research into Columbus’ life, his four voyages of discovery to the New World in the last decade of the 1400s, and a dispelling of the “flat earth” myth which had flourished in the minds of school children such as myself thanks to the fictional liberties taken by Washington Irving. Morison is an excellent historian, relying on first hand observation and primary research in the archives of Spain, Portugal and Italy, but also unique in that he was every inch a sailor himself, and took the time to re-sail Columbus’ meanderings from Spain through the Caribbean to understand the challenges of navigating into the unknown with only the crudest rudiments of navigation and understanding.
Columbus, in Morison’s estimation, was a pious, complicated man driven by dreams of wealth and fame, but also a deep piety and love of God. The Genoese sailor never let go of his dreams of sailing west to the Indies, convinced of his theories due to misconceptions and errors which did not include any superstitions about sailing off the edge of the map.
This holiday began as an official holiday in 1906, but has been out of favor and rarely observed except in places where there is a strong Italian-American community like New York, New Haven and Boston. It, like Thanksgiving, has been revised by contemporary critics to an opportunity to discredit the noble of myths of discovery with the brutal realities of indigenous genocide. Doubtlessly, (and Morison was aware of that brutal truth when he wrote Admiral of the Ocean Seas) Columbus’s discovering of Hispaniola and the establishment of the Spanish capital of the New World there, led to one of the most massive examples of genocide in world history, setting the foundations of misery for that island that persists today in the struggles in Haiti.
Although Columbus himself doesn’t emerge as a cold, rapacious villain in Morison’s account — nothing close to the subsequent horrors of Cortez and Pizaro (who accompanied Columbus on subsequent voyages following the first of 1492) — he does stand as one of the great sailors in history because of his voyage home in the doughty Nina to deliver the news to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of his discoveries.
Columbus was an excellent sailor, with years of experience under the tutelage of the voyaging Prince Henry of Portugal in that sea-faring nation’s explorations of the west coast of Africa. His first voyage, consisting of the fabled fleet of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria, was undertaken in proven ships which he modified to take advantage of the prevailing trade winds he expected to encounter in his crossing of the Atlantic. He lost not a single man during the voyage — but did lose the Santa Maria on Christmas Eve, 1492 on a reef off the northern arm of present day Haiti near a tragic settlement he would call “Navidad.” Leaving a contingent of sailors and caballeros at Navidad after constructing a block house from the salvaged wreckage of the Santa Maria, Columbus sailed home for Spain in the Nina.
As he approached Europe that February he encountered a brutal storm, a perfect storm, which Morison is able to recreate in amazing detail from Columbus’ own ships logs and the insights of modern meteorologists. Columbus survived a storm on a furious scale which would have destroyed a modern fleet, limping ashore in Portugal under a wisp of a remaining sail against all odds. Not only his skill — and religious promises by him and the pious crew to go on pilgrimages of thanks should God spare them — but the almost magical luck of the Nina stand out as the heroes of Morison’s account. I had never been aware of that aspect of the Columbus story until reading Morison, and now would now place his voyage home in the tiny Nina in the pantheon of epic feats of seamanship that include Bligh’s voyage in an open boat across 4,000 miles of the south Pacific ocean and Slocum’s first solo circumnavigation in the Spray.
So tomorrow, this Columbus Day of 2016, a day of mourning for many, a holiday barely honored anymore at the last long weekend of the Fall, “National Indigenous Peoples Day” on some campuses, I chose to remember the scene on the poop deck of the Nina somewhere north of the Azores in February 1493, fighting for its life, with the Admiral of the Ocean Seas standing resolute before his terrified crew begging their God Almighty to deliver them onto dry land after a voyage of discovery Morison declares every bit as significant as man’s landing on the moon.