Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus, By Samuel Eliot Morison. Little, Brown and Company. $3.50.
Those who some years back learned in school their lesson about Columbus, and have since been occasionally bothered because of a lack of time and energy to follow the controversial literature by which successive writers have sought to revise the lesson, will welcome the word that Samuel Eliot Morison brings in his “Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus.” For that word, in brief, is that “Christopher Columbus, a Genoese, discovered America on October 12, 1492, when searching for a western route to the Indies.” To pass up the book on this assurance, however, would be a serious error for any who enjoy good biography and well told narratives of the sea. For while the main lines of the portrait are conventional, the author’s approach to his subject is unique and the total effect a truly fresh study.
Other biographers have followed Columbus’s voyages by chart and through manuscript, but Mr. Morison, with Francis Parkman as his model, abandoned bookish research for direct investigation at sea. His purpose was to subject the record of a sea-faring adventurer to tests that could be made only on the sea. The tests were undertaken, principally through the Harvard Columbus Expedition of 1939, in sailing vessels very nearly the size of those employed by Columbus. The approximate routes the admiral followed, his landfalls, his anchorages, and his landings, were sought out in an attempt to see what he had seen and to feel what he had felt. Mr. Morison had a good time, and fortunately he has a gift for sharing his experience with the reader. The story is of a great seaman, of the ships in which he sailed, of the men who sailed with him, of the skill with which he navigated, and of the will that led him on to the opening of a new world and a new era in history. The ships he commanded, we are assured, were fine vessels, and “no more chatter” should be heard “about Columbus setting forth in ‘tubs,’ ‘crates,’ or ‘cockleshells.” And his navigation, allowing for the limited aids existing at the time, bespeaks a mastery of his trade. His major, and most significant, mistake was to underestimate the circumference of the globe, and thereby the distance to the Orient. The savants who rejected his proposals on more than one occasion (the roundness of the world was, of course, never at issue) were right and Columbus was wrong, but how fortunate that he was!
Mr. Morison has no doubt that Columbus’s purpose was to reach the East Indes by sailing west. Indeed, the author’s obvious impatience to have done with the preliminaries and get out to sea with Columbus is restrained principally by a desire to lash out at a wide variety of “new views” on Columbus. And this he does right lustily. Not only was the admiral “a Genoese-born Catholic Christian,” but neither to Pinzón nor any other person belongs the credit for the accomplishment of his voyages. National and racial pride notwithstanding, there was in 1492 “no Englishman or Irishman or other North European aboard.” An earlier voyage to Iceland had netted, in Mr. Morison’s judgment, only experience and adventure. The story of an old seaman who had been blown across the North Atlantic to return and make a deathbed revelation of his secret Columbus (a story gaining an early currency) is dismissed as simply the sort of yarn that so frequently expresses a human inclination to topple the great from their pedestals. The dismissal, in characteristic fashion, is supported by the assertion that it is impossible for a ship to be “blown across” the North Atlantic from east to west, and by a challenge to produce a single instance. On the more important question of Columbus’s purpose, it is pointed out that his life and voyages have a fuller documentation than those of any other great explorer for hundred years thereafter. From this documentation a convincing case for the traditional view is established.
To the discussion of this controversial issue the author’s principal contribution is the report he makes on Columbus’s Journal of the first voyage. This document, extant only in an abstract, has been “the target of every writer with a peculiar theory.” Whether undertaking to prove that Columbus was not seeking “The Indes,” that to Pinzón must go the chief credit, or other such theses, it becomes necessary, as Mr. Morison notes, “to discredit the document.” Hence the special significance of his conclusion, based upon an unusual opportunity for intensive study, that it must be accepted, barring a few minor details, at its face value. It is unlikely that the discussion will now end, but this study, at the least, has undoubtedly narrowed the field of controversy.