Misplaced vengeance topples Columbus’ statues. Tweets traduce him. He was mendacious, self-righteous, humorless and mean. But his virtues — including dazzling bravery and ingenuous charm — balanced his vices. He was sympathetic toward cultures other than his own, including those of Native Americans: Detractors are unpardonably ignorant of that.
Hero? Yes. Villain? Of course, because you can’t be one without the other. While sainthood is universal, heroism is partisan. Someone’s hero is always someone else’s villain.
To understand Columbus’ follies and feats, one has to realize that social ambition drove him: the desire, as some of his men noticed, “to be a great lord.” What mattered was not so much where he was going as whether, in a social sense, he would “arrive.”
From his allusions we know that he read the 15th-century equivalent of stationbookstall pulp: Storybook heroes take to the sea, discover islands, battle monsters and become great rulers. That was Columbus’ quest: to imitate in real life the romantic protagonists of sensational tales; or recreate, like the Knights of Columbus, a chivalric trajectory for modern times.
He was willing to take a risk that no reallife predecessor embraced: to ride the sea with the prevailing wind. Modern yachtsmen love breeze in their sails, but, until Columbus, seaborne explorers struggled outward against the wind, because the guarantee of a passage homeward was vital.
Columbus needed patrons. He hawked his services, extemporizing proposals suited to the audience of the moment. When he appealed to Ferdinand and Isabella, he emphasized what they wanted: a short route to Asia, where the world’s richest economies beckoned. He scoured the literature. Misreading some data and misrepresenting the rest, he speculated that Asia might lie only “a few days” from Spain.
Geographers knew the size of the globe and realized that the distance was untraversable. The monarchs, however, had nothing to lose: Bankers and bureaucrats put up the money. In 1492, the king and queen commissioned the attempt, promising Columbus noble rank and ill-defined shares in any profit.
He juggled newfangled instruments of navigation to impress his men, like a conjurer waving a wand; in reality, however, he navigated by timing the hours of daylight and reading the corresponding latitude off printed tables. Stories of impending mutiny among fear-struck seamen were probably part of a legend of his own making: the lonely visionary, persevering in adversity.
The islands he encountered were disappointing, bereft of evidence of the proximity of the Orient. About the natives he was genuinely conflicted. He recognized them as rational, redeemable humans, admiring their nakedness as a token of dependence on God, like the nakedness of St. Francis, or as a relic of the classical Golden Age. On the other hand, it also repelled him as a reputed feature of “savagery.”
As for the natives, at first they treated the strangers not as some in the United States do today, as “illegals” to reject or exploit, but as usefully objective arbiters, marriage partners, allies and holy men, touched with sanctity from the divine horizon.
The following year, however, Columbus’ return to what he called Hispaniola was disastrous. He found that 30 of his men, whom he had left on the island, were dead. The local chief blamed inland enemies for the massacre. Columbus set off with him on a punitive expedition, while desperados from Spain proved uncontrollable. The enterprise got ever costlier and less productive. Columbus’ main banker faced unmanageable debts. He fell back on a desperate, doomed expedient: enslaving natives. The monarchs banned the sale, ordering the liberation of the captives. Eventually, Columbus was recalled in disgrace.
He also turned to religion. He had begun to have visions on his way home on the first voyage, amid a terrible storm. Visions now multiplied. He found “prophecies” of his life in sacred and classical texts. He affected a Franciscan habit. Christopher became “Christoferens” — “bearer for Christ” — and the evangelization of indios became a reward worth more than riches. He wrote self-pitying poetry and petitions. His last few years were spent in disillusionment, begging the monarchs to meet their side of a bargain he had failed to fulfill.
Columbus’ legacy was inauspicious for the people whose islands were ravaged by disease and disrupted by intruders. It was equivocal for his heirs, who spent generations litigating against the crown. He left a myth of his own indomitability that suckered historians for centuries. The adamantine Columbus of the old history books must be rebuilt in mercury and opal — poor materials for statues.
Eventually, however, almost everyone in the Americas claimed him, as if he were an adoptive founding father: Italians by right of birth, Spaniards by naturalization. Nineteenth-century immigrants in the United States — Jewish, Portuguese, even Polish, Greek, English and Scottish — invented “evidence” to link him with their own communities. Now, at an even more perverse stage of the myth, postcolonial “correctness” blames him for consequences he never foresaw.
What he really accomplished matters more than the myths. His discovery, not of America but of a viable route there and back, put sundered cultures in touch and opened unimagined prospects for commercial and cultural exchange.
He launched the greatest humanly induced upheaval in the course of evolution: Until Columbus’ second voyage — for perhaps 150,000 years — life forms had diverged as landmasses drifted apart. Now, convergent evolution began, swapping biota between continents, enriching diversity and multiplying sources of food.
Columbus helped launch departures in Western science. China had long been ahead in innovation. But, thanks to Columbus’ wind-riding technique, access to specimens, samples and observations from afar gave Latin Christendom the chance to catch up.
The empire he adumbrated encompassed more cultures and biomes than ever before: a creative — as well as destructive — arena of exchange. Outcomes included ways of life, food, thought, worship, work, language and art that enrich our world.
His legacy resembles his life: complex, morally equivocal and full of wonder. Few individuals are more worthy of commemoration.
FELIPE FERNÁNDEZ-ARMESTO is the William P. Reynolds professor of history at the University of Notre Dame and a leading Christopher Columbus scholar. Among his many books are Columbus (1991), 1492: The Year the World Began (2009) and Columbus on Himself (2010).
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