Defying the fury of the winds and the hunger of ship-eating monsters, Admiral Christopher Columbus set sail.
He did not discover America. The Polynesians had arrived a century previous, and the Vikings four centuries before that. And three hundred centuries before them all came the oldest inhabitants of these lands, people whom Columbus called Indians, believing he had entered the Orient by the back door.
Since he did not understand what they said, Columbus was convinced the natives did not know how to speak. Since they went about naked, were docile, and gave up everything in return for nothing, he believed they were not thinking beings.
Although he died insisting his travels had taken him to Asia, Columbus did begin to harbor doubts on his second voyage. When his ships anchored off the Cuban coast in the middle of June 1494, the admiral dictated a statement affirming that he was in China. He left written evidence that his crew agreed: anyone saying the contrary was to receive a hundred lashes, be fined then thousand maravedies, and have his tongue cut out.
At the bottom of the page, the few sailors who knew how to write signed their names.
Columbus deserves the credit or blame only for what he actually did: which was to discover a route that permanently linked the shores of the Atlantic and to contribute–more signally, perhaps, than any other individual–to the long process by which once sundered peoples of the world were brought together in a single network of communications, which exposed them to the perils and benefits of mutual contagion and exchange. Whether or not one regards this as meritorious achievement, there was a genuine touch of heroism in it–both in the scale of its effects and in the boldness which inspired it. There had been many attempts to cross the Atlantic in central latitudes, but all–as far as we know–failed because the explorers clung to the zone of westerly winds in an attempt to secure a passage home. Columbus was the first to succeed precisely because he had the courage to sail with the wind at his back.
So which was Columbus: hero or villain? The answer is that he was neither but has become both. The real Columbus was a mixture of virtues and vices like the rest of us, not conspicuously good or just, but generally well-intentioned, who grappled creditably with intractable problems. Heroism and villainy are not, however, objective qualities. They exist only in the eye of the beholder.