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Education: After Columbus

3 minute read

One morning this week a ketch-rigged three-master put to sea from a Brooklyn shipyard. It was captained by a famed racing yacht skipper, Paul Hammond, and among its crew were Harvard undergraduates, Mr. and Mrs. Dwight W. Morrow Jr. (see above) and the wife and eldest daughter of Harvard’s Professor Samuel Eliot Morison. Professor Morison sat tall and erect in the bow, clutching a copy of Christopher Columbus’ journal in one hand, a notepad and pencil in the other. The professor and his companions were setting out on a Harvard expedition to retrace part of Columbus’ eastward and westward voyages and find out how good a navigator Columbus was.

Sam Morison, who wrote a salty, prize-winning history of Harvard for its Tercentenary, is Harvard’s official historian. He is also a Harvard legend himself. Fanatically fond of his university’s traditions, he had the old pump restored in Harvard’s Yard three years ago, presided solemnly at its dedication. He is a familiar campus figure, is often seen striding stiffly across the Yard in smart riding clothes. His students admire his scholarship, enjoy his classes because he humanizes history by such devices as describing Thomas Morton’s Merrymount Maypole as “a roadhouse between Boston and Plymouth at which both Indian and unscrupulous white alike got drunk.” Professor Morison, an old St. Paul’s boy and a High Church Episcopalian, is no Boston Brahmin. In his office, in a remote corner of Widener Library, hangs a framed letter of thanks from Sacco and Vanzetti, whose cause he championed.

Two years ago Professor Morison decided to try to find out more about Columbus than he could in libraries. He had discovered that nearly all writers about Columbus were scholars ignorant of navigation, that they disagreed about whether he was history’s greatest navigator or a landlubber. The professor went to the West Indies, sailed among the Lesser Antilles in a yawl, checking up on the western end of Columbus’ second voyage. Last .year Professor Morison retraced part of Columbus’ first voyage in a ten-day cruise around Haiti, claimed to have found the site of Navidad, first European settlement in the New World.

Now eager as a dog on the scent, the professor returned to Harvard, wrote in the Alumni Bulletin that if any generous alumnus provided him with a suitable boat, he would be glad to pilot the donor over Columbus’ whole route. Alumni and three foundations soon gave him a boat, sails, oils, wines, a surgical kit, heraldic designs and flags. When he sailed this week in his Capitana (named for the flagship of Columbus’ third voyage), he had a few items that Columbus lacked: an auxiliary Diesel engine, a direction finder, a two-way radio set. Professor Morison headed for the Azores, where a second Harvard sailboat will join the expedition.

After retracing part of Columbus’ first return voyage to Lisbon, they will set sail across the Atlantic from Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Spain, following his third voyage as far as Trinidad, then go to Honduras to pick up his fourth voyage. They expect to end their expedition in Haiti, February 1.

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