Columbus was one of hundreds of entrepreneurial pilots and autodidact cosmographers plying the waters off the coast of Africa in the 1400s, spreading Christianity on the eve of the millennium, and desperately striving to become an aristocrat. These men were ruthless. In the 1400s, they raided the Azores, Madeira, Canaries and Cape Verde and set up fortified posts and families all over the coast of Guinea and Senegal, trading and shipping spices, materia medica and slaves to Lisbon, Seville and Venice. In Africa, Columbus learned to navigate the Atlantic. Dozens in Columbus’s crews were Luso-African slaves or manumitted slaves. In Italy, he learned how to peddle deeply flawed cosmographies that had India, Japan and China within weeks of Europe by sailing west. The Spanish monarchs signed a contract with this man risking little: Three tiny caravels in exchange for titles and authority over largely hypothetical new Canaries and Azores on the way to Asia — that by all informed accounts were months, not weeks away. Columbus transferred the African world he knew to the Caribbean: trading, raiding, slaving, aristocratic-mercantile piety and endless litigation. Like hundreds of garage-startup entrepreneurs who risked everything and rarely succeeded, Columbus never read the fine print of the contract he signed with the Iberian crown. Columbus ended his life moving between Spain and a world he mistakenly thought was Asia, while engaged in dozens of public and private legal cases against his freedom, fortune and authority. Columbus died infamous, despised by almost everyone around him except a few friars. He was not unique yet he became famous. Why?
The year after Columbus died, the German cosmographer Martin Waldseemuller christened the lands Columbus “discovered” as America to celebrate Amerigo Vespucci, the captain under Portuguese flag who in 1499 first realized that this was an entirely new continent, not islands off the coast of India. Columbus’s brother and Columbus’s son spent fortunes trying to restore his reputation. Columbus was like Francis Drake: a run-of-the-mill, ruthless raider, trader and commoner-turned-aristocrat who became famous largely due to geopolitics. Fame has little to do with the deeds of an individual but with whom societies deliberately chose to honor.
Columbus was first rescued from oblivion by Bartolome de las Casas, the same friar who thought that all garage-startup entrepreneurs like Columbus were the spawn of Satan. Columbus offered providential meaning to the demographic catastrophe and genocide unfolding in America. When Columbus was taken back to Spain in chains, his mood darkened. Columbus began wearing tattered Franciscan robes and calling attention to his name: Christopher, Latin for the carrier of Christ. Columbus also began to promote a providential connection between the gold of the Caribbean with the recovery of Jerusalem from Islam. De las Casas built on these cues to give meaning to the meaningless. He deliberately overlooked Columbus’s brutality to rescue Christianity from the Conquest. The great defender of the Indians, de las Casas accomplished something that took centuries to undo: He severed Columbus from the thousands of “Spanish” conquistadors then swarming the waters of Africa, India, Asia and America.
The Enlightenment inherited a Columbus who, thanks to de las Casas, had nothing to do with, say, Hernando de Soto. The Enlightenment separated modernity in half. On the one hand, there stood Columbus’s navigational skills, entrepreneurship, preternatural cosmographical insights, Galilean stand against authority and the science and technology of his ship pumps, lateen sails, armillary spheres and portolan maps. On the other hand, there stood the slaving and brutality of conquest and the Iberian Inquisition. By embracing Columbus and rejecting the Spanish Conquest, the Enlightenment cleansed modernity. Modernity has ever since remained split. The global North has claimed as its own the shining side of modernity: science, anti-authoritarianism, entrepreneurship. The global South has been left with its underbelly: slaving, war, corruption, intolerance. The Enlightenment first built Trump’s wall.
The American Founding Fathers embraced the Enlightenment and transformed Columbus into the avatar of sanitized modernity. Columbus allowed lovers of things British like Benjamin Franklin to rescue their “American” side. King’s College became Columbia University. Spanish-American patriots paradoxically used Columbus to imagine Colombia as a potentially new modern continent, to emerge from the ashes of slavery that was Spain. Simon Bolivar called the four countries he liberated Colombia.
It is true that we no longer see Columbus as a hero. He does not stand for science and progress anymore. Rejecting Columbus now takes no courage. Accepting who he actually was does: He was the storm trooper of a capitalist modernity and entrepreneurship that first began in the global South. Today, his largest monuments are Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Trump’s Wall.
Jorge Canizares-Esguerra is a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin.