Christopher Columbus is the patron saint of everyone who misses the turnoff and winds up in Cleveland.
The finest way to spend Columbus Day weekend is to put down whatever else you are doing and sit awhile with Samuel Eliot Morison’s Christopher Columbus, Mariner. It is the popular version of his magisterial two-volume Admiral of the Ocean Sea, which won a 1942 Pulitzer. America’s pre-eminent naval historian, Morison was a commissioned officer in the Naval Reserves, a seaman himself. During World War II, he saw active duty aboard twelve battle ships, reaching the rank of Rear Admiral by the time he retired in 1951. In a lovely assessment by James Hornfischer, writing for the Smithsonian: “For Morison, fine writing required deep living.”
The man who called himself “a sea-going historiographer,” lived his subject by leaving the archives. To research the life of Columbus, Morison abandoned the safety of the stacks for five months on a three-masted sailing ship, retracing Columbus’ ten thousand mile odyssey across the Atlantic and around the Caribbean. That radical empiricism is the hearts’ blood of Morison’s narrative. No matter how many times I have read his opening salute to Columbus, it still stirs me:
At the age of twenty-four, by lucky chance he was thrown into Lisbon, center of European oceanic enterprise; and there . . . he conceived the great enterprise that few but a sailor would have planned, and none but a sailor could have executed. That enterprise was simply to reach “The Indies”—Eastern Asia—by sailing west. It took him about ten years to obtain support for the idea, and he never did execute it because a vast continent stood in the way. America was discovered by Columbus purely by accident and was named for a man who had nothing to do with it; we now honor Columbus for something he never intended to do, and never knew that he had done. Yet we are right in so honoring him, because no other sailor had the persistence, the knowledge and sheer guts to sail thousands of miles into the unknown ocean until he found land.
. . . Born at the crossroads between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, he showed the qualities of both eras. He had the firm religious faith, the a priori reasoning and the close communion with the Unseen typical of the early Christian centuries. Yet he also had the scientific curiosity, the zest for life, the feeling for beauty and the striving for novelty that we associate with the advancement of learning.
Son of a Genoese wool weaver and a weaver’s daughter, the boy took to heart the legend of his namesake, St. Christopher:
In his name, Christopher Columbus [Christoforo Columbo] saw a sign that he was destined to bring Christ across the sea to men who knew Him not. Indeed, the oldest known map of the New World, dated A.D. 1500, dedicated to Columbus by his shipmate Juan de la Cosa, is ornamented by a vignette of Saint Christopher carrying the Infant Jesus on his shoulders.
The Roman calendar has erased the great Discover’s namesake. Contemporary academicians have erased all honor due him. Entering the past from the poisonous ambitions of the present, historians such as Kirkpatrick Sale (The Conquest of Paradise) and David Stannard (American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World) reduce his life to an excuse for moral outrage: a symptom of European egocentrism and a genocidal calamity. They would have us repent one of the most significant achievements of human history. Christopher Columbus—an imperfect man of imperfect times—has been dissolved in the acid bath of the self-flagellating ideologies of our time.
Better to leave the last word to Morison:
He had his flaws and his defects, but they were largely the defects of the qualities that made him great—his indomitable will, his superb faith in God and in his own mission as the Christ-bearer to lands beyond the seas, his stubborn persistence despite neglect, poverty, and discouragement. But there was no flaw, no dark side to the most outstanding and essential of all his qualities—his seamanship. As a master mariner and navigator, Columbus was supreme in his generation. Never was a title more justly bestowed than the one he most jealously guarded—Almirante del Mar Océano, Admiral of the Ocean Sea.
Could Morison’s sympathy for Columbus find a publisher today? I read him and tremble for a generation raised against itself, instilled with suicidal guilt, and poised to denounce protagonists of the civilization that sustains them.