Buried in the Harvard University Archives, there is a photograph of a ship gliding over water, its sails billowing in the wind, pointing to the unknown. It looks like a boat from the late 1400s, ready to cross the Atlantic and pillage the Americas. The sails of this ship bear not the crest of a kingdom, but the insignia of Harvard.
The ship was part of the 1939 Harvard Columbus Expedition, a five-month voyage across the Atlantic. On board were a hodgepodge of academics, sailors, Harvard affiliates, and their wives. Samuel Eliot Morison, Class of 1908 and a Harvard professor of American history, led the expedition. Through this journey, he sought to determine once and for all whether or not Columbus had sailed to the Americas based on his nautical talent, or if he ended up there by chance.
Four years later, Morison would win a Pulitzer Prize for his book, “Admiral of the Ocean Sea,” a biography written using material from the Harvard Columbus Expedition. Despite his initial doubts, by the end of the journey, Morison concluded that Columbus was a “good dead-reckoning mariner.”
Morison’s own journey began long before he set sail on the Expedition. Morison first learned to sail as a teenager and enjoyed it. According to his obituary by Washington Star writer John McKelway, Morison “once told an interviewer that he would have preferred to have been an explorer. But he never had the time.”
Instead, he focused on his academic pursuits. Morison received his B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard, then returned to Cambridge to continue his academic career after stints at Berkeley and Oxford. By 1939, Morison had already published over 20 books.
Even then, Columbus’s reputation was hotly contested. Some contemporaries saw the seaman as an “ignorant and lucky landlubber.” Across the pond, in 1939, the Oxford Debate Union resolved to “deplore the discovery of America” and that “the discovery of America was a greater misfortune than the fall of Rome.”
Decades earlier, Morison had already begun pondering Columbus’ legacy as an incapable navigator, though notably, not questioning his role in colonizing the Americas.
In the summer of 1915, Morison started drawing up his curriculum for an American colonial history class he would teach in the fall. He found that he had spent almost an entire month researching Columbus for the course, and there was still much left to uncover about the man.
Ultimately, Morison decided “the only way to solve the problem of this great navigator, really to ‘get at’ him, was to explore, under sail, the coasts and islands he discovered.”
Thus, the Harvard Columbus expedition was born.
The expedition was funded mainly by Harvard and partially by some members of the expedition. The cabin’s mantel in their ship, Capitana, displayed an image of the president of the United States with a note written atop: “For Sam Morison, Columbus Jr., from his friend, Franklin D. Roosevelt.’” So, on Aug. 28, 1939, a “mixture of amateurs and professionals” set off from a yacht club in New York. They planned to travel along the route of Columbus’s third and final voyage across the Atlantic.
Sailing amid the war, the group of academics masqueraded as adventurers, though they painted an American flag to the boat’s exterior just to be safe.
Morison was joined by Captain John W. Elroy, a surgeon, multiple seamen, and graduate students. His wife, Elizabeth S. Greene, and his daughter, Elizabeth G. Spingarn, also came along on the journey. Morison was said to have preferred bringing women on board because they “keep the morale on a higher level.” And with their presence, “there are fewer swear-words and better dressing, and everybody is generally tidier and more amiable.”
Using only Columbus’s firsthand accounts and records from the time period, they traveled from Portugal to Trinidad, making stops along the way in the Portuguese island of Madeira and the Canary Islands.
After going to Portugal, Morison and part of his crew switched to sailing on the Mary Otis, a smaller boat that was a reproduction of the Nina on Columbus’s voyage. Capitana would follow them with the rest of the crew. They spent the voyage meticulously following the notes of Columbus, and in some instances proved his narrative of the voyage to be more accurate than some scholars believed. For instance, Morison could see the three hills of Tobago as he left Trinidad, just as Columbus noted, something that historians and mathematicians alike claimed was impossible.
The trip was not without its fair share of catastrophes. At 3 a.m. on their tenth night, the rough seas caused “an uneasy rolling and pitching” that caused the Capitana’s lifeboats to fall out. A few days later, the mizzen gaff — one of the parts of the Capitana that held up the sail — snapped in the middle of a “violent squall.” The crew quickly repaired the mizzen gaff and escaped dire consequences.
They did, however, face further troubles. On the second night after switching from the Capitana to the Mary Otis, the steering gear stopped working. The crew found themselves at the mercy of the seas, eventually entering Casablanca, “unseen, unchallenged, and through an unswept channel.” Soon after, French customs officers cornered the ship, asking how they managed to enter the port without getting shot by patrol planes. They congratulated the crew on “safely crossing a minefield” during the war.
In February 1940, the voyagers of the expedition made it back to U.S. shores and Morison began answering the question he had pondered for a quarter of a century. After two years of writing, Morison published “Admiral of the Ocean Sea,” which would end up being reviewed on the front page of the March 1, 1942, edition of The New York Times Book Review.
The reviewer, Philip A. Means, criticized the biography for not addressing the arguments of other historians. For instance, historian Vihjalmur Stefansson claimed that Columbus had previously visited Iceland in 1477, long before his famous expedition. Means claimed that instead of addressing this point, Morison disregarded those claims and continued in his analysis. However, Means also praised Morison’s beautiful pictures, which were “so vivid that we can almost smell the luscious exuberance of those tropical wilds.”
One member of the expedition, lawyer, and diplomat James MacGregor Byrne ’31, praised Morison in his chronicle of the journey, writing that despite the war, shipwrecks, and other tribulations along the journey, Morison “kept the Capitana on schedule.”
“Through his superb leadership the Harvard Columbus Expedition never wavered in its serious professional objectives and was brought to a successful and harmonious conclusion,” he added.
Morison’s academic adventures didn’t end with this voyage. Beyond “Admiral of the Ocean Sea,” Morison wrote a biography of Columbus in 1954 titled “Christopher Columbus, Mariner.” In writing his book, he upheld Columbus as a sailor with skill and glossed over the horrors of colonialism. Genocide and enslavement are briefly mentioned in the book, but the focus remained on Columbus’s skill as a navigator, polishing his legacy as a seaman over his contributions to colonialism.
Morison would go on to win a second Pulitzer in 1960 for his biography of John Paul Jones, another sailor, and receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964. He continued to teach at Harvard until 1955.
The Harvard Columbus Expedition is the stuff of legends — a legend that Morison created himself, mythologizing the voyage he took to relive the life of a man he glorified.
— Magazine writer Sophia N. Downs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Magazine writer Raihana Rahman can be reached at email@example.com.