Christopher Columbus, Mariner
The discoverer of the New World was first and foremost a sailor
December 1955 | Volume 7, Issue 1
”I reached the conclusion,” writes Samuel Eliot Morison, “that what Columbus wanted was a sailor biographer, one who knew ships and sailing and who had visited, under sail, the islands and mainland that he discovered.” Accordingly Professor Morison organized the Harvard Columbus Expedition, which in 1939–40 retraced the great navigator’s voyages.
The fruit of these travels and of many years’ research was Admiral of the Ocean Sea , a monumental biography which won the Pulitzer Prize for 1942. Professor Morison, who subsequently became a rear admiral himself and official U.S. Navy historian of World War II, has now rewritten the entire Columbus story in shorter form under the title Christopher Columbus, Mariner (Little, Brown and Company and Atlantic Monthly Press, $3.75). The selections on the following pages deal with the preparation for the First Voyage, the voyage itself and the result.
Christopher Columbus, Discoverer of the New World, was first and foremost a sailor. Born and raised in Genoa, one of the oldest European seafaring communities, as a youth he made several voyages in the Mediterranean, where the greatest mariners of antiquity were bred. At the age of twenty-four, by a lucky chance he was thrown into Lisbon, center of European oceanic enterprise; and there, while employed partly in making charts and partly on long voyages under the Portuguese flag, 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 this 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 doing something that 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 the sheer guts to sail thousands of miles into the unknown ocean until he found land.
This was the most spectacular and most far-reaching geographical discovery in recorded human history. Moreover, apart from the magnitude of his achievement, Columbus was a highly interesting character. 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. And he was one of the greatest seamen of all time.
The story starts in Genoa with the Discoverer’s parents: Domenico Colombo, a wool weaver as his father had been before him, and his wife Susanna, a weaver’s daughter. Domenico belonged to the middle class of Genoa. He was a member of the local woolweavers’ gild, the medieval equivalent of a trade union. He owned his own looms and employed journeymen to help him produce woolen cloth. Popular in his community, he was elected to small offices in the gild, but his wife and family found him a somewhat poor provider. He was the kind of father whom boys love, who would shut up shop on a fine day and take them fishing. So the good canceled out the bad, and Christopher named the oldest city in the New World, Santo Domingo, after his father’s patron saint.
At some time between August and October 1451, the exact day is unknown, Susanna Colombo gave birth to a son who was named Cristoforo. Why his parents chose this name we do not know, but in so doing they furthered the natural bent of the boy’s mind. Saint Christopher was a tall, stout pagan who yearned to know Christ but could not seem to do anything about it. He dwelt on the bank of a river in Asia Minor where there was a dangerous ford, and by reason of his great stature and strength helped many a traveler to cross. One day when he was asleep in his cabin he heard a Child’s voice cry out, “Christopher! Come and set me across the river!” So out he came, staff in hand, and took the Infant on his shoulders. As he waded across, the Child’s weight so increased that it was all he could do to keep from stumbling and falling, but he reached the other bank safely. “Well now, my lad,” said he, “thou hast put me in great danger, for thy burden waxed so great that had I borne the whole world on my back it could have weighed no more than thee!” To which the Child replied, “Marvel not, for thou hast borne upon thy back the whole world and Him who created it. I am the Child whom thou servest in doing good to mankind. Plant thy staff near yonder cabin, and tomorrow it shall put forth flowers and fruit—proof that I am indeed thy Lord and Savior.” Christopher did as he was bid, and sure enough, next morning, his staff had become a beautiful date palm.
So from that day forth Christopher has been the patron saint of all who travel by land, sea or air. In his name Christopher Columbus 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.