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
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
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
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)
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
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).
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
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:
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
James W. Lies My Teacher Told Me. New
York: Touchstone, 1995.
James L., et al. The American Promise. Boston:
George. Bartholomew De Las Casas. New
York: Random House, 1971.
John, ed. Confronting Columbus.
Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1992.
Howard. A People’s History of the United States. New York: Harper Collins, 2003.