Behind the Santa Maria discovery, a Harvard professor’s obsession
How an unlikely Boston historian brought Columbus and his lost ship to life
On May 13, the underwater archeologist Barry Clifford announced that he had located the final resting place of the Santa Maria, the flagship of Christopher Columbus, in shallow water off Haiti’s northern coast.
His discovery—a pile of Iberian ballast-stones, minus a cannon that was recently looted—hasn’t yet been confirmed as the remains of the Santa Maria, but if it does pan out, it’s an exciting end to a very old story. The four voyages of Columbus constituted a quantum leap forward in geographical knowledge; it has taken us over five centuries more to make a claim, with GPS precision, about where Santa Maria lies.
To a surprising extent, the trail that led to the ship winds through New England. Columbus never came here, of course; his four voyages crisscrossed the Caribbean. But in his search for clues, Clifford inevitably found himself sailing in the wake of other Massachusetts explorers, most notably the Harvard professor Samuel Eliot Morison—a proper Bostonian whose quest for Columbus led to radical changes in his own approach to history. Like Clifford’s discovery, Morison’s work off Haiti also pointed to the long and intricate ties between Boston and an island that has never been as distant as it seems.
Near the intersection of Commonwealth Avenue and Exeter Street, an unusual baseball-hat- wearing statue of Morison looks down on passersby with stony detachment. At Harvard, he was legendary for his Brahmin bearing and exacting standards; he was the last professor to arrive on horseback, a privilege he extended well into the 20th century. He loved his university, his city, and their concentric circles. Even as a child, he firmly believed “America to be the best country and Boston the finest city on earth.”
But from an early age, he was smitten by a much older story. As a child, Morison had an epiphany involving Columbus, and never stopped reliving it. Walter Muir Whitehill recounted a visit they once made to Trinity Church, to attend an ordination. During a quiet moment, Morison whispered to him that as a boy, he had gazed at one of the church’s stained-glass windows and imagined it showed not the Last Supper, but a scene from the life of Columbus.
Morison might easily have settled into comfortable antiquarianism, but the Admiral kept beckoning to him. In 1916, when asked to teach a survey course, he lingered for weeks on the Columbus material. Twenty years later, he still felt the calling, and he began to answer it in a most unusual way. After years of reading the Columbus diaries, Morison decided in 1937 that he needed to see the same places Columbus had. That meant sailing around in those waters, not well mapped, off northern Haiti. New Englanders had traded there for centuries, through all kinds of regime changes. But this kind of expedition was new for a professional historian. To a degree that would be inconceivable today, Morison embraced the role of the colonizer, sailing on a vessel with the Harvard seal on the sail, arranging corporate sponsorship, and liberally invoking the prestige of the United States. (His fellow Harvard alumnus, Franklin D. Roosevelt, cleared away many diplomatic obstacles.) Remarkably, his longest expedition set sail on Sept. 1, 1939, on the day that general war broke out in Europe. One senses that he was escaping the old world as much as he was seeking to encounter the new—a motive that may have applied to Columbus as well.
In any event, he soon found a new orientation, just as his hero had. In spite of the danger, or perhaps because of it, Morison began to write wonderfully immersive histories, in which readers could almost feel the spray of the sea on their face. In these years before television, he tried to give readers the sights and sounds as well as the facts of history. He later explained that the idea owed something to another Boston historian, from a different century—Francis Parkman, who traveled widely in the West, living among the Sioux and sleeping under the stars, before returning to Boston, where he improbably wrote his epic work on the Oregon Trail.
Morison’s innovative approach engaged new audiences, who responded in a way that they never would have to his dutiful paeans to the Puritans. It also yielded considerable new geographical and scientific knowledge. To the extent that Americans thought about Columbus at all, it was filtered through ancient biographies like those of Washington Irving, whose literary art had preserved a number of false notions, such as the still-vivid idea that Columbus “proved” the earth was round. Morison called this “pure moonshine,” and set the story in a framework of known facts. The result was a series of breakthroughs about Columbus, beginning with a long 1940 article in the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society that cleared away a lot of the debris and explained exactly where Columbus had sailed, including the likely area in which Santa Maria had sunk, in the reefs to the east of Cap-Haitien.
That led to a book-length study, “Admiral of the Ocean Sea,” which won a Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1943. Franklin D. Roosevelt was so impressed by his friend’s approach that he arranged for Morison to write the history of the United States Navy in World War Two, as a participant, sailing with them as he had, in effect, with Columbus. That 15-volume set remains a classic.
Barry Clifford comes at Columbus from a very different vantage point than Morison. He has spent most of his life outside the academy, and close to the water, as a specialist in underwater exploration and salvage. But his attention inevitably was drawn to the holy grail of underwater shipwrecks—the Santa Maria. To get there, he appreciated the fact that Morison had gotten close. Clifford read all of Morison’s accounts, and the different editions of the Diario—the diary kept by Columbus on his first voyage. In a phone interview, he credited Morison’s “brilliant” research for narrowing down the search area for the Santa Maria, and eliminating the eastern half of the Bay of Cap-Haitien. (Ever the New Englander, he briefly said he was looking for a reef area the size of Yankee Stadium, before self-correcting, and saying that it was more the size of Fenway Park).
Clifford also shares with Morison an admiration for a supporting actor in this drama: the country in whose jurisdiction the wreck lies. If his find is verified, Clifford hopes it will attract history-loving tourists to Haiti; by coincidence, the site of the wreck is near a large industrial park at Caricol, which the US government helped launch in the aftermath of the terrible earthquake of January 2010.
If that happens, it will close a historical loop in a way that pulls together Clifford, Morison, and Columbus. We don’t normally associate Columbus with Haiti—he was born in Italy, first landed in the Bahamas, and the lands he claimed in his voyages now largely speak Spanish. But Haiti was as key to his explorations as it was to Morison’s research. Columbus found rejuvenation in Haiti—he was overheard to say that it was the most beautiful place he ever seen—and Morison appeared to find a fresh wind there as well.
The discovery of the Santa Maria near Cap-Haitien offers a reminder that Haiti was not peripheral to American history, but central. Our hemispheric history begins, in a sense, right here—where Columbus ceased the island-hopping phase of his journey and, after the loss of his flagship, began to think about permanent settlement.
That decision led to profound change, and much devastation, especially for the indigenous Taino people. Haiti’s long history since has included great wealth, great poverty, and a revolution that was never entirely accepted here. If, as Clifford hopes, the discovery of the Santa Maria allows a new kind of historical tourism to flourish off Haiti’s northern coast, it would be a worthy end to centuries of New Englanders plying these waters—and, in its way, it could mark a beginning.
Ted Widmer is assistant to the president for special projects at Brown University and a senior research fellow with the New America Foundation. He is an Ideas columnist.