Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama used to enjoy special status in our pantheon of heroes: Columbus for ‘discovering’ the continents that blocked his way to Asia, and da Gama for figuring out how to circumnavigate Africa for the same end. Both ventures ended up changing history by restructuring the networks of trade linking Europe to distant regions, and gave Europe an upper hand it had not previously enjoyed. Out of Europe’s seaward escape would emerge global capitalism and the social and political arrangements some call modernity.
Both men therefore mattered to history, though their reputations were not secure at the time. As Stanford University anthropologist Carol Delaney reminds us in her careful and thorough reconstruction of Columbus’s life, aristocratic and personal politics nearly erased him from the official version of Spanish conquests. The fact that we