A history book that holds particular joy for me is Samuel Elliot Morison’s ” Admiral of the Ocean Sea”. Morison was one of America’s greatest literary historians and an expert seaman in his own right. Eventually achieving Rear Admiral U.S.Navy status for his personal involvement and superb documentation of the role of the U.S. Navy in World War II, Morison first achieved fame as a Harvard history professor for his hands on biography of Christopher Columbus, “Admiral of the Ocean Sea”, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1942. Morison took it upon himself prior to the war to sail to the precise locations of the Columbus voyages, to feel what he felt and see what he saw, bringing an irreplaceable awareness to the historical tome.
For many years prior to its destruction by political correctness, October 12th had a special place in the American experience as a day that separated all that came before, from all that came after in history. A single man, the explorer from Genoa, Christoffa Coromba in Genoese, or as we have come to know him, Christopher Columbus, determined to find the western route to the East Indies, and looked to find any government who could find a legitimate reason to underwrite his voyage. Columbus was not a specially intellectual man, but was a well read one, who had come to believe strongly on the basis of his extensive sea voyages and what he had gleaned from books that a viable shorter way to the Orient existed sailing west that would compare favorably economically to the recent Portuguese discoveries of trade routes around the Cape of Africa. The obvious financial benefits of such a shorter trade path were clear to all European powers, who were just beginning to escape the introverted scope of the Middle Ages and enter into a period of aggressive questioning and exploration known as the Renaissance. Columbus went to Portugal first as this small country was the pathfinder in extensive transoceanic voyage. King John of Portugal, whose own brother Henry had discovered the trans-African route, saw no reason to undercut his current seafarers. Next, Columbus went to England, than Italy, but received little encouragement. After all, most thought Columbus was seriously off base in his calculations and unlikely to return from such an expensive and risky undertaking. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain were initially not significantly more helpful, but changed their mind and granted Columbus a fairly generous contract they would later regret, of 10% of all economic benefits achieved from a successful trade route and expected discoveries. They were comfortable with doing so as they thought he had little if any chance of succeeding.
Columbus was one of a growing number of conceptualizers that saw the world as round, as such, logically available to circumnavigation from either direction. He seriously underestimated the world’s diameter, concluding Japan likely some 3000 miles due west of the Canary Islands, rather than the 19,000 it actually was. A miscalculation of this magnitude of the distance between land masses was serious business for certainly no ship in 1492 was capable of maintaining necessary supplies to keep the ships going without replenishment anywhere near such a distance. The Spanish monarchs, desperate to be players in the burgeoning European outreach to distant worlds, determined anyway to provide him three small ships, the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria, and sufficient men to staff the ships. Columbus left the Canary Islands September 9th, 1492, and, understanding the existence of the “trade” winds better than most, headed due west.
Morison, traveling Columbus’s route, reproduces much of the tension and disappointment in the succeeding five weeks directly from Columbus’s journals, Nada it became clear to most on board that Columbus was willing to sacrifice them all to prove himself right, as he sailed far beyond the theoretical turn around point that supplies would allow. Mutinous grumblings grew ominously as weather grew worse and no evidence of land was apparent. Morison describes a risky moment where Columbus in early October commands a perilous cross ship meeting to impel the sub commanders to direct their men to go a few days more, and is rewarded finally by some floating evidence of human activity on the water that buys him some time. Then, the night of October 11th, 1492, and Columbus “sees” a light in the distance, and men begin to believe that a momentous day is upon them, and fully understand the significance. Morison captures the moment:
“Anyone who has come onto the land under sail at night from uncertain position knows how tense the atmosphere aboard ship can be. And on this night of October 11-12 was one big with destiny for the human race, the most momentous ever experienced aboard any ship on any sea. Some of the boys doubtless slept, but nobody else. Juan de la Cosa oand the Pinzons are pacing the high poops of their respective vessels, frequently calling down to the men at the tiller a testy order-‘keep her off your damn eyes must I go below and take the tiller myself?'” …Under such circumstances, with everyone’s nerves as taut as the weather braces, there was almost certain to be a false alarm…only a few moments now and a moment that began in remotest antiquity will end. Rodrigo de Triana, lookout on the Pinta’s forecastle, sees something like a white sand cliff gleaming in the moonlight on the western horizon, then another, and a dark line of land connecting them…tierra, tierra! he shouts, and this time, land it is…”
The point of contact with the New World, not the orient Columbus surmised, was an island in the Bahaman chain, Guanahani, or as it was christened by Columbus San Salvador, and the world was never the same. Columbus had reached beyond what men could do, and what men feared to try, and was victorious. The untoward actions of Spain and other powers evermore in their treatment of the natives and resources of the American continent does not diminish the singular achievement of the explorer hero Columbus, who imagined the far side of creation and had the will to take the perilous journey to live out his dream.