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The Southern Voyages

ISSUE:  Summer 1975
The European Discovery of America: The Southern Voyages. By Samuel Eliot Morison. Oxford University Press. $17.50.

THE present volume forms the capstone of the historical edifice erected during the many productive years of Admiral Morison’s 88-year existence. It is a labor of love as well as of scholarship, for its creation was shared more completely than Morison’s other volumes with his wife Priscilla who, though wracked with a terminal illness, accompanied her husband on many of the travels which he undertook in preparation for writing the book and who served as critic of the draft of each chapter as it was written. The book contains a number of photographs of Mrs. Morison and the Admiral as they followed the trail of Magellan and the other navigators whose exploits the book chronicles. Indeed, perhaps the feature that most distinguishes this volume from conventional history is the author’s willingness to engage in reminiscences, anecdotes, and personal comments about other writers and about human nature in general. Few historians would dare to assume such a posture; fewer could carry it off. None could get away with the language Morison uses, as when he speaks of a “crummy mat,” a “hairy mug,” or “one hell of a wind.” Yet such personal idiosyncrasies seem natural and appropriate in Morison’s case, particularly in the context of his retelling the story of the great voyages of discovery in the southern parts of the New World.

Having early in his career dealt magnificently with Christopher Columhus, Morison’s retelling of the story of the great Genoese brings little new evidence to the fore, but it is a fresh look told with emphasis on the seamanship and dedication of this great navigator. Morison delves somewhat more deeply than hitherto into the numerous “minor voyages” that followed Columbus’s discovery, though fuller consideration of these “Andalusian Voyages,” as Professor André Vigneras calls them, will have to await Vigneras’s unpublished study of them. Morison’s unconcealed biases show when he deals with the pretensions of Amerigo Vespucci, who, he concludes, was essentially a “liar” though he cautions the reader not to forget that “he was an honest ship chandler!” who earned Columbus’s admiration for honestly and efficiently victualing the latter’s fleet prior to his third voyage. While Morison’s contempt for Vespucci’s exaggerated claims is unconcealed, so is his admiration for tough old Magellan, whose circumnavigation of the globe was, says Morison quoting Edward G. Bourne approvingly, “the greatest single human achievement on the sea.”

Morison, while concentrating on the nautical exploits of his captains, always provides sober evaluations of their conduct ashore. Thus Magellan, for all his courage and ability, is faulted for needlessly involving himself in a local squabble in the Philippines which cost him his life. Columbus, on the other hand, whose failures as an administrator are too often attributed to his personal weaknesses, gets sympathetic treatment from Morison who quotes approvingly Las Casas’s comment that the Archangel Gabriel would have been hard put to govern people as greedy, selfish, and egotistical as the early settlers of Hispaniola. The highest marks for fairness in dealing with the natives are given by Morison to Cabeza de Vaca and Villegagnon, but in each case their attempts to protect the Indians from the greed of their fellow Europeans led to their overthrow. Francis Drake gets high marks from Admiral Morison not only for his seamanship on his dramatic voyage to the “backside” of America and thence to England via the Pacific but for his treatment of the natives and of his Spanish prisoners, to whom he showed consideration even while divesting them of their material possessions. Thomas Cavendish, on the other hand, in his voyages duplicating some of Drake’s feats, was “indecisive, cruel at times, inhuman and unable by temperament to exercise control over a fleet.” Indeed, Morison hypothesizes that “there was a screw loose somewhere in Cavendish.”

Morison’s “Southern Voyages” is illuminated not only by his own terrestrial, nautical, and aerial experiences but by the labors of many other scholars whose work he has been able to consult in manuscript or through correspondence. Among these historians are Avelino Teixeira da Mota of the Portuguese Navy and Max Justo Guedes of the Brazilian Navy on matters concerning Portuguese voyages to South America, David Quinn of Liverpool on Cavendish, André Vigneras of Washington and Seville on the Andalusian voyages, Rolando Laguarda Trias of Montevideo on the discovery of the Rio de la Plata, and many others. The splendid aerial views of the coasts along which the navigators sailed are the product of Morison’s friends Mauricio Obregôn and James F. Nields and provide an insight into the voyages not available elsewhere. Countless reproductions of paintings and maps of the period as well as maps specially drawn for the book by Vaughn Gray enliven the massive 757-page text.

Daniel Boorstin has dubbed Morison the “Parkman of the Sea” and it is a tribute that Morison should and would take as a compliment. To many younger historians, neither Parkman nor Morison is taken so seriously as he once was. The waves of historical fashion have lapped at new shores: most notably those of sociology, psychology, and anthropology, where narrative history is dismissed as mere chronicles of the past: of little use except as raw material for the “social scientists” among whom historians have sought to insinuate themselves. In such circles, “story telling,” particularly when the personality of the story teller shows and when a popular audience is sought, seems simple and naïve. Yet, although out of fashion with the newer breed of historians, Morison’s achievement remains secure. Only he has made sense of the incomplete sources, conflicting theories, bitter rivalries, and speculative exuberances that characterize the historical record of the age of discovery. He has done so not with a computer but with a keen mind, honed by decades of research both on land and at sea, as a sailor and as a scholar. As he reaches the stage when he can look back on a life well spent, he seems more comfortable with the great captains of the past than with his contemporary academic colleagues. As he notes in his introduction, “My admiration for them [the captains, of course] increases with time . . . . God bless ‘em all! The world will never see their like again.” Nor is the world liable to see the likes of their greatest historian.


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