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Books: Cheering on the Salts

4 minute read
Melvin Maddocks

THE EUROPEAN DISCOVERY OF AMERICA: THE NORTHERN VOYAGES by Samuel Eliot Morison. 712 pages. Oxford University Press. $15.

So now you know, unless you’re a fool, That they told you all wrong, when you studied at school!—Samuel Eliot Morison

Like the Ancient Mariner he is, Samuel Eliot Morison stoppeth one of three—among the myths that pass for history in the European discovery of America. As a seagoing admiral, U.S.N.R. (and Harvardman), Morison gives the back of his salty hand to those modern “library navigators” (particularly Yalemen) who in 1965 swallowed whole the Vinland map story. Morison sees a fine post-1600 hand behind this document, which was dated about 1440 by its discoverers. “I have ‘serious reservations,’ ” he writes, “the polite scholarly term for saying that you suspect fakery.” Growling about “phony voyages,” he swiftly slaps down as nonsense the folk legend of Prince Madoc and the Welsh-speaking Indians.*

This is corrective—and finally definitive—history issued in “Now hear this” tones from one of scholarship’s loftiest quarterdecks. Morison quotes the German statesman-naturalist Alexander von Humboldt: “There are three stages in the popular attitude toward a great discovery: first, men doubt its existence; next, they deny its importance; and finally they give the credit to someone else.” Author of Admiral of the Ocean Sea and other books about Columbus, Morison does all an old salt can to set the log straight about those before and after his favorite explorer.

But beneath the dense set-’em-right facts, the book is a hymn to the life of the mariner. Morison has gathered together into a 1,000-year epic the sagas of all those serendipitous seamen who set sail with visions of Cathay or a Northwest Passage—or at least a new fishing ground—and instead bumped into places like Greenland, Labrador and finally the rest of North America. The familiar names are here: Leif Ericsson, discovering his mysterious Vinland around 1000 (Morison would like to believe it was Newfoundland); John Cabot, who sought a short cut to the Indies and ended up at Newfoundland in 1497; Giovanni da Verrazzano, the gentleman-explorer from Florence, who found offshore New York “a very pleasant place” to visit in 1524. There are unfamiliar names, too, like St. Brendan the Navigator, who in the 6th century took to sea, Morison speculates, in search of guaranteed chastity. After all, even a monastery had Irish milkmaids to leeward.

Somehow, between all the landfalls, mini-histories are fitted in—asides about mutinies and scholarly lectures on navigation, on fishing, on map making, on sea chanteys (“Heisa, heisa, vorsa, vorsa, wow, wow,” to quote one). The sea turns Morison into a lyric poet who sometimes applies looser moral standards to seamen than to shorebound sinners.

In the end, The European Discovery of America represents Morison’s romantic search for the perfect hero—the perfect mariner. He admires the seagoing sophisticates, like Sir Humfry Gilbert and Sir Walter Raleigh, who, he quotes, also made “voyages of the mind.” But he loves the men who were professional sailors first and last. Of Sir Martin Frobisher, who tried three times for a Northwest Passage, he writes: “A very great seaman indeed.” There is no higher praise in the Morison lexicon.

Frobisher’s last letter contained this sentence: “It was tyme for us to goa through with it.” For Morison this sums up the code of the best mariners. It is his code too. At 83, Morison still sails. He rides horseback, too, and occasionally shows up at his office in Harvard’s Widener Memorial Library in his riding britches, looking more like a pukka-sahib colonel than a professor or an admiral. At present he is working on a biography of Samuel de Champlain as well as a sequel to his present volume. When his own time comes, the admiral will be able to say, as another of his favorites, John Davis, said to his men off the fearsome Strait of Magellan: if it be God’s will “that our mortall being shal now take an ende, I rather desire that it may be in proceeding than in returning.”

*In the 12th century, so the Madoc myth goes, a Welsh prince led a colony to America. “By some mysterious process,” Morison marvels, “this colony became a Welsh-speaking Indian tribe which moved west from the Atlantic shore until it became the Mandan in the Far West.”

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