Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Los barcos y las letras

The post below about soldiers and writers got me thinking about sailors and writers, specifically, initially, Samuel Eliot Morison.  In trying to learn something about my dad's service in the Pacific (see also below), I came across Morison's The Liberation of the Philippines, volume XIII of his History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, which contains a brief account of the Mindanao campaign, in which my dad participated in 1945.  Morison, a Harvard historian, had gone to President Roosevelt shortly after America's entry into the war to propose a comprehensive naval history.  Roosevelt thought enough of the proposal to commission Morison as a lieutenant commander, and he spent much of the rest of the war on board ship in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters.

But Morison's bona fides as a sailor-writer predated that assignment.  In 1939 he and others, as part of what was called the Harvard Columbus Expedition, fitted out a barkentine, Capitana, and re-created, as nearly as practicable, Columbus' voyages to and around the New World.  This first-hand experience was then incorporated into Morison's biography of Columbus, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, published in 1941.

Columbus lived and died almost exactly a century before Cervantes.  We associate him with Spain, but of course he was Genoese, an Italian of the quatrocento.  We don't think of him as a man of letters, certainly not as a Renaissance humanist in the vein of Ficino, Erasmus, Castiglione or Machiavelli.  But Fr. Bartolomé de las Casas, the son of a soldier on Columbus' first voyage, says this about the mariner's learning in his Historia de las Indias:

Siendo, pues, niño le pusieron sus padres á que aprendiese á leer y á escribir, y salió con el arte de escribir formando tan buena y legible letra (la cual yo vide muchas veces), que pudiera con ella ganar de comer. De aquí le sucedió darse juntamente al aritmética y también á debujar y pintar, que lo mismo alcanzara si quisiera vivir por ello; estudió en Pavía los primeros rudimentos de las letras, mayormente la gramática, y quedó bien experto en la lengua latina, y desto lo loa la dicha Historia portuguesa, diciendo, que era elocuente y buen latino; y esto i cuánto le pudo servir para entender las historias humanas y divinas! Estos fueron los principios en que ocupó su niñez, y con que comenzó las otras artes que en su adolescencia y juventud trabajó de adquirir. Y porque Dios le dotó de alto juicio, de gran memoria y de veemente afección, tratando muchas veces con hombres doctos, y con su infatigable trabajo estudioso, y principalmente, alo que yo cierto puedo y debo conjeturar y aun creer, por la gracia singular que le concedió para el ministerio que le cometía, consiguió la médula y sustancia necesaria de las otras ciencias, conviene á saber, de la geometría, geografía , cosmografía , astrología ó astronomía y marinería.

These are remarkable asperations for a young sailor.  We normally see Columbus in light of the unintended consequences of that first voyage, and tend to hold him personally responsible for much of the good and evil that came out of the sudden meeting of Europe and America.  In his own eyes he aspired to greatness, first, as a sailor, by extending the reach of maritime Europe, as the Portuguese had done in Africa, but also as a man of letters, mining the mathematical and human sciences for confirmation of his intuition of what lay over the Ocean Sea.  But of course he was astonishingly wrong about the one thing that most concerned and motivated him, the one thing that the established learning of his day repeatedly threw in the teeth of his ambitions:  the size of the globe.

Columbus, the European discoverer of a new world, never believed that he had come across anything other than the islands scattered about the coast of Cathay.  He was remarkably lucky that America was there to receive him.  But he was remarkably deceived as well.  Look at any globe, and it jumps out at you that there are only two regions in the world with vast areas of ocean occupied by chains of large and small islands.  We call them the East Indies and the West Indies.  Columbus, looking for the former, sailed smack into the latter.  How could he not have believed that, somewhere, just over the horizon, lay the mainland of the Orient?

The Spanish literary revival came a century later.  It is sometimes called the Spanish Renaissance, but more often the Siglo de Oro.  Too counter-reformation to be entirely comfortable with the Italian Renaissance,  its mystics and missionaries, novelists, playwrights and painters evidence a remarkable flowering in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  From my admittedly slight acquaintance with this body of letras, I find it surprising how little the New World comes into it.  Perhaps, as a revival, as a renaissance, as a reformation, as an appeal to an Age of Gold, it necessarily looks first to the Old World, and understandably averts its gaze from the chaotic scramble for wealth, slaves and power that tragically characterizes the flood of European adventurers into the exotic realms of the Aztec, the Maya and the Inca.    

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