Columbus’s Genocide

By Gregory Marino

 

            As time progresses, our perceptions of the past change.  What we know today may be disproved twenty years from now.  There is nothing that exemplifies this more than how history has treated Christopher Columbus.  It is said that history is written by the victors.  In the case of Columbus, this statement was very true until recently when historians wanted to investigate the side of the losers in the story of Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas.  Most of us are taught the same heroic account of Columbus however there is a much darker side to this story.  The complete story of Columbus contains atrocities against Indians and the beginnings genocide.  With a new look at such a famous figure in American history, Columbus should be taught without omissions, and he should be held responsible for triggering the annihilation of entire peoples.

           

On October 12, 1492, Columbus and his crew came ashore to the Bahamas and were greeted by a native tribe called the Arawaks (Davis 4).  In his journal, Columbus praises the Indians for their immediate generosity and for their “well built bodies and handsome features” (Zinn 1).  However, soon after Columbus met the natives he writes about his intentions toward them:   “They would make fine servants… With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want” (qtd. in Zinn 1).  As shown over and over again through his writings, what Columbus wanted more than anything was gold.   “I took some natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts” (qtd. in Zinn 2).  Other evidence of Columbus’s desire for gold came from a crew member by the name of Michele de Cuneo who wrote: “…It seemed to the Lord Admiral that it was time to put into execution his desire to search for gold, which was the main reason he had started on his voyage full of great dangers” (qtd. in Loewen 43).  This clearly demonstrates the greed of Columbus and his men.

 

            The encounter between Columbus and the Indians was a complete clash of cultures.  The Indians were described as being very hospitable, and were thought of as remarkable for their belief in sharing.  This was much in opposition to the Europeans who were dominated by religion, kings, and an obsession for wealth (Zinn 1-2).  It is very important to understand the background of both cultures in order to truly appreciate this momentous event in history.  After realizing the basic structure of both societies, it is easy to see why history went the way it did.  From what the Europeans described, the Indians appeared to be very naïve, which made it easy for Columbus to conquer them.  All it took for Columbus was to see small gold jewelry that the Arawaks wore to begin a massive expedition, which cost many Indian lives (Zinn 4).

 

            Although Columbus demonstrated great qualities and was one of the most important figures of history, his story should be viewed from all angles.  The discovery of America was one of the most important events in history, but as Kenneth Davis puts it, “Few eras in American history are shrouded in as much myth and mystery as the long period covering America’s discovery and settlement” (3).  Most books about Columbus paint an overly dramatic and heroic picture of him.  Historian Samuel Eliot Morrison, in his book Christopher Columbus, Mariner, writes:

 

He had his flaws and his defects, but they were largely defects of the qualities that made him great—his Indomitable will, his superb faith in God and his own mission as the Christ-bearer to lands beyond the seas, his stubborn persistence despite neglect, poverty and discouragement.  But there was no flaw, no dark side to the most outstanding and essential of all his qualities—his seamanship. (qtd. in Zinn 8)

 

This assessment of Columbus may be accurate, however, it omits and downplays very important details.  There is never any word of the atrocities and genocide of the Indians anywhere near a history textbook. 

 

            Another very important detail left out of textbooks is anything about Bartholomew De Las Casas.  Las Casas transcribed Columbus’s journal and wrote his own History of the Indies (Zinn 5).  In this multi-volume work, Las Casas describes the indigenous people with high admiration (Sanderlin 35).  Las Casas also tells a first hand account of the treatment of the Indians by Columbus and the Spaniards:

 

Endless Testimonies… prove the mild and pacific temperament of the natives… But our work was so exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy; small wonder, then, if they tried to kill one of us now and then… The admiral, it is true was blind as those who came after him, and he was so anxious to please the King that he committed irreparable crimes against the Indians… (qtd. in Zinn 6).

 

An account of history such as this should not be kept out of history books.  Around that time there were few observers on hand and historians should use every source they can find (Davis 4).

 

            There are many historians who do not agree with the revisionist view of Columbus.  Many people believe that Columbus should be glorified as a hero.  As Michael Berliner puts it, “The critics do not want to bestow such honor, because their real goal is to denigrate the values of Western civilization and to glorify primitivism” (Ayn Rand Institute).  As a critic of the way Columbus is remembered and celebrated, I do not agree with this accusation.  The problem with the way we teach about Columbus is the same problem with most of our history.  History is written by the conquerors, and rarely are there any accounts of the conquered.  It is more important to view history from every angle possible than to use historical figures, such as Columbus, to enhance nationalism. 

           

Other historians who may recognize the devastation that Columbus and the Spaniards caused, try to give them justification.  In the history textbook, The American Promise, the author tells the reader to view Columbus through the standards of his time and to disregard the importance of his treatment of the Indians (Roark 27).  Yet surely Columbus and others of his time knew that murder was wrong (Yewell 12).  To understand the present is the main reason to study history.  If we look at history only through the eyes of the past we are doomed to repeat its mistakes.  Emphasizing the heroics of Columbus and those who came after him and to downplay their genocide, serves to justify what was done (Zinn 9). 

 

            Some historians treat this event as one necessary for human progress.  As Michael Berliner writes, “Whatever the problems it brought, the vilified Western culture also brought enormous, undreamed-of benefits, without which most of today's Indians would be infinitely poorer or not even alive” (Ayn Rand Institute).  Human progress cannot be determined objectively.  It can mean many different things to many different people.  It certainly meant something much different to Columbus than to the Indians.  If it is required to make sacrifices for human progress, then those who make the sacrifice should make that decision for themselves (Zinn 17).

 

            Despite all of the controversy, and all of what we now know about Columbus’s “discovery” of America, we still celebrate Columbus Day.  As Jack Weatherford points out:

 

The United States honors only two men with federal holidays bearing their names.  In January we commemorate the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr., who struggled to lift the blinders of racial prejudice and to cut the remaining bonds of slavery in America. In October, we honor Christopher Columbus, who opened the Atlantic slave trade and launched one of the greatest waves of genocide known in history. (qtd. in “Bands March On”)

 

Over the past few years, however, Columbus Day has acquired a new meaning.  The 500 year anniversary in 1992 has provoked many to question the importance of this holiday (Yewell 12).  The celebration of the Quincentennial of Columbus’s arrival in the Americans compelled many people to write and speak out for the truth.

 

            Many of the people who began to speak out include members of the diminished Indian population.  In a Northeastern Indian magazine, writer John Mohawk wrote, “The obvious fiction of a ‘discovery’ of lands occupied by millions of people for tens of thousands of years underscores the ethnocentrism evident in most historical accounts” (qtd. in Yewell 15).  This rise to defy Columbus shows the bitterness still left in the mouths of the forgotten peoples of the Americas.

 

This challenge to the traditional view of Columbus sparked several movements to encourage changes in the way this history is taught in schools.  Articles such as William Bigelow’s “Once Upon a Genocide” make the case for the revisionist view of Columbus to be taught in schools (Yewell 109).  Over the past decade, many more Americans have become aware of their true history.  The point of teaching about the genocide of the Indians is not to condemn Columbus.  This event happened over five hundred years ago and there is nothing anyone can do about it now.  However, burying the truth and glorifying Columbus gives the wrong impression to students.  Omitting the point of view of the conquered gives students the impression that those in power are always right.  This is a very dangerous thing because people need to be able to question their rulers and rebel when times are in need of change.

 

            The new conception of Christopher Columbus should be brought to the attention of the people.  Columbus’s quest for gold and the atrocities he and his men committed against the Indians should not be left out of our accounts of history.  It is also necessary to reveal the harsh accounts that Bartholomew De Las Casas shares in his writings.  To overlook these parts of history and give them justification defeats the purpose of telling history.  Although in recent times the true story of Columbus has been revealed, it is up to teachers and historians to provide everyone with the complete story of Columbus and his genocide. 

 

Works Cited

“Bands March On As Columbus Day Controversy Continues.” Columbus Day Controversy. October 1997. 24 February 2006. http://www.umb.edu/news/1997news/reporter/ureporter1097/columbusday.html.

 

Berliner, Michael S. “The Christopher Columbus Controversy.” The Ayn Rand Institute. 10 October 1999. 24 February 2006. http://www.aynrand.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=6165.

 

Davis, Kenneth C. Don’t Know Much About History. New York: Harper Collins, 2004.

 

Loewen, James W. Lies My Teacher Told Me. New York: Touchstone, 1995.

 

Roark, James L., et al. The American Promise. Boston: Bedford, 2003.

 

Sanderlin, George. Bartholomew De Las Casas. New York: Random House, 1971.

 

Yewell, John, ed. Confronting Columbus. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1992.

 

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. New York: Harper Collins, 2003.