Monday, October 13, 2008

Christopher Columbus the Tyrant

Is Columbus Day something that should really be celebrated?

The following is an excerpt from Howard Zinn's, A People's History of the United States. It is a gruesome look at the real Christopher Columbus. Not the Christopher Columbus celebrated in 1st and 2nd grade classrooms across the United States, but the Christopher Columbus who allowed greed and power to get the best of him.

A People's History of the United States - Chapter 1:
"Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island's beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. He later wrote of this in his log:
"They... brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks' bells. They willingly traded everything they owned.... They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features.... They do not bear arms, and do not know them,
for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane.... They would make fine servants.... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want."

These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality, their belief in sharing. These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.

Columbus wrote:
"As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts."

The information that Columbus wanted most was: Where is the gold?

The Indians, Columbus reported, "are so naive and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone...." He concluded his report by asking for a little help from their Majesties, and in return he would bring them from his next voyage "as much gold as they need . . . and as many slaves as they ask." He was full of religious talk: "Thus the eternal God, our Lord, gives victory to those who follow His way over apparent impossibilities."

Because of Columbus's exaggerated report and promises, his second expedition was given seventeen ships and more than twelve hundred men. The aim was clear: slaves and gold.

They went from island to island in the Caribbean, taking
Indians as captives. But as word spread of the Europeans' intent they found more and more empty villages. On Haiti, they found that the sailors left behind at Fort Navidad had been killed in a battle with the Indians, after they had roamed the island in gangs looking for gold, taking women and children as slaves for
sex and labor.

Now, from his base on Haiti, Columbus sent expedition after expedition into the interior. They found no gold fields, but had to fill up the ships returning to Spain with some kind of dividend.

In the year 1495, they went on a great slave raid, rounded up fifteen hundred Arawak men, women, and children, put them in pens guarded by Spaniards and dogs, then picked the five hundred best specimens to load onto ships. Of those five hundred, two hundred died en route. The rest arrived alive in Spain and were put up for sale by the archdeacon of the town, who reported that, although the slaves were "naked as the day they were born," they showed "no more embarrassment than animals." Columbus later wrote: "Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold."

But too many of the slaves died in captivity. And so Columbus, desperate to pay back dividends to those who had invested, had to make good his promise to fill the ships with gold. In the province of Cicao on Haiti, where he and his men imagined huge gold fields to exist, they ordered all persons fourteen years or older to collect a certain quantity of gold every three months. When they brought it, they were given copper tokens to hang around their necks. Indians found without a copper
token had their hands cut off and bled to death.

The Indians had been given an impossible task. The only gold around was bits of dust garnered from the streams. So they fled, were hunted down with dogs, and were killed.
Trying to put together an army of resistance, the Arawaks faced Spaniards who had armor, muskets, swords, horses. When the Spaniards took prisoners they hanged them or burned them to death. Among the Arawaks, mass suicides began, with cassava poison. Infants were killed to save them from the Spaniards. In two years, through murder, mutilation, or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead.
When it became clear that there was no gold left, the Indians were taken as slave labor on huge estates, known later as encomiendas. They were worked at a ferocious pace, and died by the thousands. By the year 1515, there were perhaps fifty thousand Indians left. By 1550, there were five hundred. A report of the year 1650 shows none of the original Arawaks or their descendants left on the island."


Zinn's book is eye-opening to say the least. I was used the book as an alternate text in an accelerated history class, and it was well received by the students. They seem to love anything that is anti-authoritarian, or something that is different from traditional thinking.

You can see more reviews of Zinn's updated book... A People's History of the World here.

I had the learners read certain chapters from the book, write essays and comment on this blog. You can see their comments here:

I'm wondering if any other teachers have done anything similar?

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Bathsheba said...

Hi klkatz
I wondered if you would like to feature two of my blogs: (not yet completed)

Both concern my family history, the first being the diary of my grandmother who was stranded in Europe at the outbreak of WWI and the second being letters home from a tour of Europe taken by my g/father, g/mother and father in 1932. They both offer personal testimonies on conditions of the time and although not ground-shaking stuff may provide source material for somebody's thesis.

I am a history grad (as you say), child of US citizens long resident in London (now both deceased) and I salute your wonderful enthusiasm.

Best wishes and hoping to hear from you (my email is I go by the name of Bathsheba online.

Kevin said...

I agree that History being taught in elementary school isn't always accurate..hell, washington never really cut down a cherry tree...but why are people so intent on dismantling this holiday? Every nation at that time period was trying to explore and make a land grab. Yes, horrible things happened because of his discovery but that's life. People talk as though horrible things never ever happened before in the history of man kind. Without Columbus discovering the Americas we probably would not be living the life we would be living today. What if the United States never existed? Many of our ancestors would probably have been killed off or conquered by Nazi Germany and my ancestors probably would be living under Japanese rule. I am a big history buff and yes, the truth of history should be taught but people need to accept the past and not waste petty time griping about it and trying to change the wrongs of generations past. I mean, how far back do we go to change the wrongs? Should I go back to China and start a campaign to make the Mongolians pay retribution for terrorizing China in centuries past? We should celebrate the Columbus's discovery and use the holiday to reflect on the past and learn from it instead of doing away with it (as is already happening across the country).

mike said...

Kevin. with all due respect i think your perspecticive is a bit scewed. history is history and that can't be changed but let's not act as if this guy was a good guy. 1st of all you cant discover land that is already inhabited so let's correct the books that our kids are learning from. my child asked his teacher today "how come there's no african american history being taught in his social studies class?" his teacher replied there was a mention of slaves in the lewis and clark era. And as far as your question "what if the united states never existed?" my people may not have been enslaved and packed in ships like sardines and used as a commodity and the blacks in this country would maybe have some since of heritage. we the only race on this earth that cannot properly trace back our roots to where we came from or what our customs were. just tell the real story in the books! My anscestors were killed off!

Thanks Mr. Columbus!

klkatz said...

Thanks for your comment. You're obviously referring to the Kevin who commented on this post and not me (the Kevin who wrote it).

I think your bluntness is refreshing yet a little disheartening. There is a better alternative. Try having your kid read "Still I Rise" - it's a graphic novel about highlighting african american history.

I teach in the Philadelphia school district where we have 10th graders learn African American history - an entire class dedicated to it. To be honest, I'd prefer to change the US history class to incorporate more African american history as opposed to creating an entire class on the subject, but it is a progressive move.

Thanks for reading mike... keep your kid asking those questions and maybe change will come.

Anonymous said...

History cannot be changed, that's true, but when the history being taught is a lie, that's a crime! If we teach that Christopher Columbus is a good man when you read about what he really did and what his motivations were it truly is a let down. I feel betrayed. He enslaved a people and was the cause of the destruction of cultures. They chopped off hands of natives who didn't collect enough gold. We really need to stop this worship of this evil man.

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