Posted by: Tom Owen | September 2, 2009

Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus (1943) – Samuel Eliot Morison, SPS 1903

Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus
Winner of the 1943 Pulitzer Prize in Biography

Biographical Notes (adapted from Wikipedia)
Samuel Eliot Morison, Rear Admiral, United States Naval Reserve (July 9, 1887 – May 15, 1976) was an American historian, noted for producing works of maritime history that were both authoritative and highly readable. A sailor as well as a scholar, Morison garnered numerous honors, including two Pulitzer Prizes, two Bancroft Prizes, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Image: Wikipedia.

Image: Wikipedia.

Upon receiving his doctorate, Morison went to Berkeley to serve as an instructor in history, and, in 1915, returned to Harvard in the same capacity. After spending 1922–25 at Oxford as Harmsworth Professor of American History, he became full professor at Harvard in 1925. Morison was promoted to Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History in 1941 and retired from Harvard in 1955. Morison continued writing prolifically after his retirement.

Unlilke World War I, for which the US military had not prepared a full-scale official history of any branch of service, it was decided that World War II would be meticulously documented. Professional historians were attached to all the branches of the US military; they were embedded with combat units to witness the events about which they would later write.

Toward this end, in 1942, Morison was commissioned into the United States Naval Reserve with the rank of Lieutenant Commander. The result was the History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, a work in fifteen volumes that covered every aspect of America’s war at sea, from strategic planning and battle tactics to the technology of war and the exploits of individuals during the conflict.

In recognition of his achievements, the Navy awarded him the Legion of Merit and eventually promoted Morison to the rank of Rear Admiral (Reserve). In addition, the Oliver Hazard Perry class guided-missile frigate, USS Samuel Eliot Morison, was named in his honor. A bronze statue of Morison is on the Commonwealth Avenue mall in Boston, Massachusetts, between Exeter and Fairfield Streets. The celebrated British military historian Sir John Keegan has hailed Morison’s official history as the best to come out of the Second World War. One of his research assistants on that project, Henry Salomon, went on to conceive the epic NBC documentary series Victory at Sea.

Morison advocated that writing history should be a combination of research and experience – not just facts.  This ground-breaking philosophy is perhaps best utilized in his Puliter Prize-winning biography Admiral of the Ocean Sea, in which Morison (an avid sailor) recreated Christopher Columbus’ expedition to the New World on his own boat.  The book has been critically acclaimed for Morison’s extensive historical knowledge combined with his vivid descriptions of his own journey.

Written for the 450th anniversary of Columbus’ 1492 voyage, Morison spent 2 years sailing the Atlantic in order to write this biography.  In a 147-foot schooner and a 47-foot ketch, approximating the dimensions of the Santa Maria and Niña, he recreated the voyage as best he could.  To make his expedition as accurate as possible, as well as dispel numerous myths about the event, Morison used an unprecedented amount of primary sources in his research.  Morison describes his experiences – the geography, the weather conditions, the monotony of the waves – and weaves them into his tapestry of stories and charts.  He describes everything in layman’s terms, and explains difficulties Columbus would have had sailing in the 15th century.

Until recent evidence cast new light on Columbus, Admiral of the Ocean Sea was the be-all, end-all Columbus biography.The result of Morison’s years of work is a biography written with great authority – authority that only comes with having been there.  Few non-fiction books reach the level of excitement Morison reaches in his thrilling account of history’s most famous navigator.


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