admiral-ocean-sea-life-christopher-columbus-samuel-eliot-morison-paperback-cover-artOl’ Robbo is currently reading Samuel Eliot Morison’s Pulitzer-winning book, Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus.  (I picked it up based on a tip from the Puppy-Blender back in October, but am only now getting around to it.)

I won’t get into a detailed discussion of the substance, as I am currently only about halfway through.  So far, I would say that while Morison obviously admires Columbus tremendously, he recognizes the man’s flaws, too.  Morison also tackles the issues raised by the European discovery of the Americas (specifically, the treatment of the Indians), firmly but fairly and in the context of the times as they actually were, not as we would have liked them to be.  While he certainly condemns the general Spanish colonial policy of stripping everything of value and enslaving the natives, the book was written in the early 40’s, so there is none of that wretched post hoc self-flagellation that is bringing Western Civilization to its knees these days.  Further, Morison has absolutely no use for the myth of the Noble Savage.

The style reminds me very much of the great Francis Parkman (one of ol’ Robbo’s favorites).  For one thing, it is a combination of learned analysis of available data, intelligent opinion and personal anecdote, all deliberately keyed for a non-specialist readership.  (I will say, however, that I am glad I’ve spent so many years sailing with Jack Aubrey or I might have got lost among some of the nautical jargon.)  For another, Morison, like Parkman, was a doer.  The latter, in order to get a feel for frontier history, actually hiked the Oregon Trail and spent time living with the Sioux.  The former and his mates obtained a sailboat of approximately the same tonnage as a Spanish caravel of the late 15th Century and sailed Columbus’ routes across the Atlantic and round the Caribbean to better understand what he found himself facing.  The application of personal experience to historickal analysis certainly raises both writers’ works above the level of armchair punditry.

Curiously, as I read of the great Age of Discovery, of bold adventurers setting out from Portugal and Spain, England and France to go see what was over the horizon, I find myself grumbling in frustration that we moderns don’t seem to be able to show the same spirit when it comes to our own exploration of Space.   In those days, the monarchies recognized and exploited the tremendous motivating power of self-interest and private enterprise.   Now?  Top-heavy, sluggish bureaucracy producing useless programs like the Shuttle.  I’d say that NASA ought to abandon the mechanics of space travel altogether,  transform itself into a charter agency  and then get the hell out of the way.  You’d see Moon and Martian colonies, asteroid mining and God knows what else pretty damn quick, I’ll bet.

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