Samuel Eliot Morison

I believe it was when I was in Junior High that friend of our family gave me a copy of Samuel Eliot Morison’s book Admiral of the Ocean Sea:  a Life of  Christopher Columbus.   That was my introduction to the writings of Dr. Morison, who, unbeknownst to me when I was a teenage boy, was a historian studying the naval history  of the new world.  Over the years, and he wrote and published just short of his death in 1978, Morison produced seven books relating that aspect of American history, besides publishing his fifteen volume History of United States naval operations in World War II,  and multiple books on the history of  his native New England, as well as co-authoring an American history textbook in 1930 that is it’s 7th edition.   For the purpose of this blog I am going to concentrate Morison’s book  The Great Explorers.

 The Great Explorers is an abridgment of  The European Discovery of America :  The Northern Voyages and The Southern Voyages .  When Morison wrote the preface to the latter volume, he dated it exactly two years before he died at the age of 88.  While writing these two volumes, he was traveling all over the world tracing the voyages of Columbus and the men who followed him to the coasts of North and South America, and in the cases of Magellan and Drake, circumnavigated the globe.  Morison concentrates on the voyages, how they arrived at the Americas, the ships they sailed on, not what happened after they got here.  For some reason I can’t figure out, Morison wrote about the northern voyages before the southern ones, although he suggests Columbus’ trips laid the ground work for the rest of the fifteenth and sixteenth century explorers.

Columbus made four trips to the Americas.  The first one as we learned in school was in 1492.  Although Columbus sailed under the colors of the Spanish kingdom Castile and Aragon, he was born Cristoforo Columbo¹ in Genoa long before it was considered Italian.  Columbus and a number of other Europeans believed if one sailed west across the Atlantic they would find a short cut to East Asia.   On his first voyage he took three vessels:  The Santa Maria, the Pinta, and the Nina.  The first was 85 feet in length, the two were smaller. Morison reckoned Columbus touched San Salvador and Cuba on that trip.  The Nina was only the one that made it back.  During the second and fourth voyages Columbus visited Cuba, Jamaica, and Hispaniola.

A quarter of a century after Columbus set foot on the “New World,”  Ferdinand Magellan was in Seville, giving up his Portuguese citizenship to become a subject of Emperor  Charles V of Spain.  Two years afterwards Magellan was in command of five ships with a commission to explore the Pacific Ocean.  His fleet sailed south along the coast of South America, through the strait which now bears his name, and out into the Pacific in the latter of November 1520.  By February the following year, he reached the Caroline Islands and by March, after touching at Guam, he was in the Philippines; where he died during a battle with natives on April 21.  Eighteen survivors made it to back to Seville on the Victoria, Magellan’s flag ship, which had sailed three and month before.

Unlike Magellan, Sir Frances Drake survived his circumnavigation and went up the west coast of the Americas besides.  Drake was regarded as a naval hero to the English and a pirate to their enemies, the Spanish.  The purpose of this voyage was two f0ld:  first, harassment of the Spanish settlements in the Americas, second, exploration. Unlike the voyages of the Spanish and Portuguese, Drake’s was funded by private monies.  There were six vessels in his fleet, which sailed in December 1577, headed by the “The Golden Hind,” armed with a total of 56 guns and, in addition to crew members, men at arms.  Each time they found a Spanish  settlement  it was attacked.    The English expedition traveled as far north as what is now known as San Francisco Bay.  Despite Drake claiming that part of Calfornia for Queen Elizabeth I,   the Spanish built a series of missions there.  The voyage ended in Plymouth harbor on September 26, 1580.  The whole expedition was profitable for the investors, the throne, and Drake as well.

Unlike Drake, John Cabot was an explorer. Cabot is the anglicized version of his Italian name, Giovanni Caboto.   Cabot’s home base in England  was at Bristol on the Avon River which empties into the Irish Sea.  Cabot made his first seaworthy trip to North America in 1497 by sailing due west to the southern tip of Ireland, then west northwest before resuming a more westerly direction, which took him directly to the island of Newfoundland off the coast of what became Canada.  For the next 36 years several Englishmen and a Portuguese, Joāo Alvares Fagundes, made voyages to Newfoundland and Labrador on the mainland. Toward the end of the 16th century, the English became involved in the search for the fabled Northwest Passage.  Martin Frobisher  made several voyages, all of which ended in failure.  John Davis was another mariner who failed to find it.

The first voyage under French colors was led by a man of Italian descent, Girolamo da Verrazzano, whose first trip led to landfall of the present coast of North Carolina.  Sailing north from the outer banks, he came the Narrows that leads into what is now New York harbor.  From there he explored the shore opposite what we now call Long Island and from there proceeded to what become Maine, where he had contact with natives.  Verrazzano was followed to North America by a native of Normandy, Jacques Cartier.    Cartier made three visited North America three times between 1534 and 1542.  On his third voyage, Cartier founded a colony named Charlesbourg-Royal after the Charles duc d’Orléans, son of the King of France.²

Morison’s book is filled with illustrations of old maps, which gives readers an inkling of the geographical ignorance that Europeans had of the western approaches to the Far East from Europe.  Particularly not realizing there was a whole large continent between Europe and Asia.  In addition to those maps, there are portraits of many of the explorers and photographs the author took from his flights which traced to routes used by the explorers to find their way west.

Author’s note:   To be sure the Europeans brought war and disease to the indigenous peoples of the “New World,”  and started a genocide that lasted in North America until late in the nineteenth century.  But Morison concentrates on the voyages, how they arrived at the Americas, the ships they sailed on, and how they navigated without any of the modern aides modern sailors have at their disposal.

 ¹ In Portugal he was known as Christovão Colom.

² Archaeologists discovered remains of the colony in 2006 at the junction of the Cap Rouge River and the St. Lawrence River.

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