Brief Review of Samuel Eliot Morison’s “The European Discovery of America: The Southern Voyages”

Posted on March 7, 2015. Filed under: Book Reviews |

1. Morison, Samuel Eliot. The European Discovery of America: The Southern Voyages A.D. 1492-1616. Oxford University Press: New York, 1974, (758p.)

I purchased this book in 2000 and began reading it but never completed it. I restarted the book again in Nov.2013 and finished in 03-06-15. This book was somewhat of a difficult read as it is not just long but quite detailed. But Professor Morison (he was a US Navy Admiral and with a Ph.D. he was a professor at Harvard) writes with excitement that comes with having sailed many of the same routes that he writes about. So when he writes about Columbus he writes not just as a scholar but as a sailor who has made the same journey in a small ship. When he writes about Magellan, he writes as one who has sailed a ship through the Straits named for Magellan. When he writes of Drake on the California coast he writes as one who personally sailed the coast looking for the bay Drake put in to.

Where I struggled in the book was with the lesser known explorers. At any rate, I am glad I have read it and plan on reading volume one of this set, The Northern Voyages in the future. The two things I was amazed at as I read this book was the frequency with which the Explorers were punished and imprisoned by the kings when they returned home. Morison makes much of this. The other thing I found amazing was the casualty rate of roughly 25% of all the mariners who set out on these voyages never made it home.

Another area of the book that was fascinating was the descriptions of the various native tribes encountered along the way. I know that for the past 40 years or so it has become fashionable to bemoan Columbus’ discovery because of what it did to the Indians, but, seriously, when you read the stories of the encounters with the natives of America you realize that most of the cultures were even worse than the Europeans. Torture and cannibalism, extreme sexual promiscuity including incest were common.

In looking at the future of our culture, if we do not blow ourselves up, and if the Lord tarries, our Solar System beckons. The riches of the asteroid belt await, the wonders of Mars are calling us. Will we, like our ancestors, have the courage and wherewithal to boldly go where no man has gone before? Will we accept the costs and casualties that Charles V and Philip II did?

These are stories of tremendous courage as well as depravity. It is the story of Western Civilization at its finest and worst. I choose to emphasize the good as does Morison. While I cannot recommend this book for the general reader, it is an excellent book for those with an interest in sailing and in the Age of Discovery.

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