“Columbus was a “Spanish” Conquistador and yet he came to be remembered as a hero of scientific and entrepreneurial modernity. The history of Columbus’s memorialization erased the fact that the “modernity” we praise (science, skepticism, entrepreneurship) emerged along many phenomena we decry (slavery, Amerindian genocide). Trump’s Wall is just one of the most recent efforts to keep these two dimensions of modernity as two separate cultural geographies”
Fig. 1. “Columbus the Ligurian overcame the terror of the Ocean to discover other regions of the earth that he appended to the realms of the King of Spain.” Print designed by Jan van der Straet in Americae Retectio (Antwerp, 1592)
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 (sugar), 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-start-up 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 Waldseemüller christened the lands Columbus “discovered” America, to celebrate 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’ 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-start-up 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. Las Casas built on these cues to give meaning to the meaningless. Las Casas deliberately overlooked Columbus’s brutality to rescue Christianity from the Conquest. The great defender of the Indians, 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.
Fig. 2. Columbus leads the Church to the Caribbean in the second voyage. Group of Benedictines directed by the Catalan friar Bernardo de Boyl who opposed trade of hundreds of Amerindian slaves that Columbus set in motion in 1493. Caspar Plautius, Nova Typis Transacta Navigatio (Linz, Austria,1621)
The Enlightenment inherited a Columbus who thanks to Las Casas had nothing to do with, say, Hernando de Soto. The Enlightenment separated modernity in half. On the one hand, there stood Columbus’ 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, antiauthoritarianism, 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 any more. 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.