JR'S Free Thought Pages
The Real Christopher Columbus - Alien Butcher
Not the "Lies My Teacher Told Me"
History is the polemics of the victor. – William F. Buckley
In fourteen and hundred and ninety-three, Columbus stole all he could see. – Traditional Verse, Updated
What we committed in the Indies stands out among the most unpardonable offences ever committed against God and mankind and this trade (in American Indian slaves) as one of the most unjust, evil and cruel among them. – Bartolome de Las Casas
[Las Casas, Dominican priest, came to the Indie early, knew Columbus and was the editor of the Admiral's journal. He knew conditions in the Americas first hand and was present during Spanish genocidal attacks on the native population of the West Indies. Las Casas has been called the Father of anti-imperialism and anti-racism. Others take a more guarded or modest view of his achievements. What there is little or no dispute about is that Las Casas was an early and energetic advocate and activist for the rights of native peoples.]
On October 12, 1492, the day Christopher Columbus first landed in what came to be called the "New World," the western hemisphere was inhabited by a population of well over 100 million people. Two centuries later, it is estimated that the indigenous population of the Americas had been reduced by some 90 percent and was continuing to fall steadily. In the United States, the native population bottomed out during the 1890s at slightly over 237,000—a 98-percent reduction from its original size. Such extreme demographic catastrophe as that evidenced in the United States— indicative of a population "collapse" or "obliteration" rather than of mere "decline" —is not atypical.
To the contrary, the average nadir population for surviving indigenous peoples everywhere in the Americas is about 5 percent (meaning we experienced a reduction of 97-98 percent during the history of invasion, conquest, and colonization which afflicted us all). Moreover, the processes at issue cannot be relegated to some "tragic and regrettable"—but unalterable—past. Instead, they are very much ongoing as I write, imbedded in the policies of the various settler-states of North, South, and Central America, and in the attitudes of the immigrant citizenry of these states. This history can be fittingly identified as a 500 year holocaust.
One way to measure the fears of those who hold political and economic power is by the intensity of their quest for control over knowledge. Even the most basic notions most of us have about Columbus is demonstrably false, including the belief that it was he who discovered America. After all, there were native peoples in the Americas thousands of years before Columbus’ visit. In school we are taught that Columbus is a hero, a man who brought Christianity and Civilization (the two are generally still alleged to be synonymous by the vast majority of Americans) to the “savages”. This is the sanitized version was inculcated both by our schools and the culture as a whole. The truth however is that Columbus was an arrogant racist theocrat and mass murderer. Continue reading to the section beyond this introduction and decide for yourself who were the civilized and who the savages were. Why do we have national holidays to honor mass murderers? Does modern Germany have a state holiday in honor of Hitler?
One vehicle for taming history is various patriotic holidays, with Thanksgiving at the heart of American myth-making. One indication of moral progress in the United States would be the replacement of Thanksgiving Day and its self-indulgent family feasting with a National Day of Atonement accompanied by a self-reflective collective disgrace and dishonor over the 500 years of genocide and subsequent marginalization and callous treatment of indigenous peoples. That the world’s great Western powers achieved “greatness” through criminal brutality and slavery on a grand scale is not news, of course. Moreover, that those same societies have become reluctant to even acknowledge this history of tyranny is predictable. It’s now standard practice, especially, among conservative pundits, to describe the United States and Western European powers as an empire, so long as everyone understands we are an inherently benevolent and peaceful one. Because our entire history contradicts that claim, history must be twisted, distorted and fabricated to serve the purposes of the powerful. History does matter, which I suppose is why people in power put so much effort into controlling it
The first president, George Washington, in 1783 said he preferred buying Indians’ land rather than driving them off it because that was like driving “wild beasts” from the forest. He compared Indians to wolves, “both being beasts of prey, tho’ they differ in shape.” Thomas Jefferson -- president #3 and author of the Declaration of Independence, which refers to Indians as the “merciless Indian Savages” -- was known to romanticize Indians and their culture, but that didn’t stop him in 1807 from writing to his secretary of war that in a coming conflict with certain tribes, “[W]e shall destroy all of them.”
As the 500 year genocide was winding down in the early 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt who would be the 26th President of the United States defended the expansion of whites across the continent as an inevitable process “due solely to the power of the mighty civilized races which have not lost the fighting instinct, and which by their expansion are gradually bringing peace into the red wastes where the barbarian peoples of the world hold sway.” Roosevelt also once said, “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.” How does a country deal with the fact that some of its most revered historical figures clearly had moral sensibilities and political views virtually identical to Nazis?
At this point in history, anyone who wants to know this reality of U.S. history - that the extermination of indigenous peoples was, both in a technical legal sense and in common usage, genocide - can easily find the resources to know. If this notion is new to you, I would recommend three books. First, I would read Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970) and follow up with the more recent scholarly publications of David E. Stannard’s American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World and Ward Churchill’s A Little Matter of Genocide. While the concept of genocide, which is defined as the deliberate attempt “to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” came into existence after World War II, it accurately describes the program that Europeans and their descendants pursued to acquire the territory that would become the United States of America.
Below are selected passages from Chapter Two of Lies My Teacher told me (2007 edition) by sociology professor emeritus from the University of Vermont, James W. Loewen.
Christopher Columbus introduced two phenomena that revolutionized race relations and transformed the modern world: the taking of land, wealth and labor from indigenous peoples in the Western Hemisphere, leading to their near extermination, and the transatlantic slave trade, which created a racial underclass.
Columbus’s initial impression of the Arawaks, who inhabited most of the islands of the Caribean, was quite favorable. He wrote in his journal on October 13, 1492: “At daybreak great multitudes of men came to the shore, all young and of fine shapes, and very handsome. Their hair was not curly but loose and coarse like horse-hair. All have foreheads much broader than any people I had hitherto seen. Their eyes are large and very beautiful. They are not black, but the color of the inhabitants of the Canaries." (This reference to the Canaries was ominous, for Spain was then in the process of exterminating the aboriginal people of those islands.) Columbus went on to describe the Arawaks' canoes, "some large enough to contain 40 or 45 men." Finally, he got down to business: "I was very attentive to them, and strove to learn if they had any gold. Seeing some of them with little bits of metal hanging at their noses, I gathered from them by signs that by going southward or steering round the island in that direction there would be found a king who possessed great cups full of gold." At dawn the next day, Columbus sailed to the other side of the island, probably one of the Bahamas, and saw two or three villages. He ended his description of them with these menacing words: "I could conquer the whole of them with fifty men and govern them as I pleased."
“So tractable, so peaceable, are these people,” Columbus wrote to the King and Queen of Spain, “that I swear to your Majesties there is not in the world a better nation. They love their neighbors as themselves, and their discourse is ever sweet and gentle, and accompanied with a smile; and though it is true that they are naked, yet their manners are decorous and praiseworthy.”
All this, of course was taken as a sign of weakness, If not heathenism, and Columbus being a righteous European Christian was convinced the people should be “made to work, sow and do all that is necessary and to adopt our ways.” Over the next four centuries millions of Europeans and their descendants did just that, undertaking a pogrom of slavery, slaughter and cultural genocide to enforce their ways upon the people of the New World.
On his first voyage, Columbus kidnapped some ten to twenty-five American Indians and took them back with him to Spain.55 Only seven or eight arrived alive, but along with the parrots, gold trinkets, and other exotica, they caused quite a stir in Seville. Ferdinand and Isabella provided Columbus with seventeen ships, twelve hundred to fifteen hundred men, cannons, crossbows, guns, cavalry, and attack dogs for a second voyage.
One way to visualize what happened next is with the help of the famous science fiction story War of the Worlds. H. G.Wells intended his tale of earthlings' encounter with technologically advanced aliens as an allegory. His frightened British commoners (New Jerseyites in Orson Welles's famed radio adaptation) were analogous to the "primitive" peoples of the Canaries or America, and his terrifying aliens represented the technologically advanced Europeans. As we identify with the helpless earthlings, Wells wanted us also to sympathize with the natives on Haiti in 1493 or on Australia in 1788, or in the upper Amazon jungle today.56
When Columbus and his men returned to Haiti in 1493, they demanded food, gold, spun cotton—whatever the Natives had that they wanted, including sex with their women. To ensure cooperation, Columbus used punishment by example. When an Indian committed even a minor offense, the Spanish cut off his ears or nose. Disfigured, the person was sent back to his village as living evidence of the brutality the Spaniards were capable of.
After a while, the Natives had had enough. At first their resistance was mostly passive. They refused to plant food for the Spanish to take. They abandoned towns near the Spanish settlements. Finally, the Arawaks fought back. Their sticks and stones were no more effective against the armed and clothed Spanish, however, than the earthlings' rifles against the aliens' death rays in War of the Worlds.
The attempts at resistance gave Columbus an excuse to make war. On March 24, 1495, he set out to conquer the Arawaks. Bartolome de Las Casas described the force Columbus assembled to put down the rebellion.
Since the Admiral perceived that daily the people of the land were taking up arms, ridiculous weapons in reality ... he hastened to proceed to the country and disperse and subdue, by force of arms, the people of the entire island . . . For this he chose 200 foot soldiers and 20 cavalry, with many crossbows and small cannon, lances, and swords, and a still more terrible weapon against the Indians, in addition to the horses: this was 20 hunting dogs, who were turned loose and immediately tore the Indians apart.57
Naturally, the Spanish won. According to Kirkpatrick Sale, who quotes Ferdinand Columbus's biography of his father: "The soldiers mowed down dozens with point-blank volleys, loosed the dogs to rip open limbs and bellies, chased fleeing Indians into the bush to skewer them on sword and pike, and 'with God's aid soon gained a complete victory, killing many Indians and capturing others who were also killed.' "58
Having as yet found no fields of gold, Columbus had to return some kind of dividend to Spain. In 1495 the Spanish on Haiti initiated a great slave raid. They rounded up fifteen hundred Arawaks then selected the five hundred best specimens (of whom two hundred would die en route to Spain). Another five hundred were chosen as slaves for the Spaniards staying on the island. The rest were released. A Spanish eyewitness described the event: 'Among them were many women who had infants at the breast. They, in order the better to escape us, since they were afraid we would turn to catch them again, left their infants anywhere on the ground and started to flee like desperate people; and some fled so far that they were removed from our settlement of Isabela seven or eight days beyond mountains and across huge rivers; wherefore from now on scarcely any will be had." 59 Columbus was excited. "In the name of the Holy Trinity, we can send from here all the slaves and brazil-wood which could be sold," he wrote to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1496. "In Castile, Portugal, Aragon ... and the Canary Islands they need many slaves, and I do not think they get enough from Guinea." He viewed the Indian death rate optimistically: "Although they die now, they will not always die. The Negroes and Canary Islanders died at first."60
In the words of Hans Koning, "There now began a reign of terror in Hispaniola." Spaniards hunted American Indians for sport and murdered them for dog food. Columbus, upset because he could not locate the gold he was certain was on the island, set up a tribute system. Ferdinand Columbus described how it worked:
[The Indians] all promised to pay tribute to the Catholic Sovereigns every three months, as follows: In the Cibao, where the gold mines were located, every person of 14 years of age or upward was to pay a large hawk's bell of gold dust; all others were each to pay 25 pounds of cotton. Whenever an Indian delivered his tribute, he was to receive a brass or copper token which he must wear about his neck as proof that he had made his payment. Any Indian found without such a token was to be punished.61
With a fresh token, a Native was safe for three months, much of which time would be devoted to collecting more gold. Columbus's son neglected to mention how the Spanish punished those whose tokens had expired: they cut off their hands.62
All of these gruesome facts are available in primary-source material—letters by Columbus and by other members of his expeditions—and in the work of Las Casas, the first great historian of the Americas, who relied on primary materials and helped to preserve them. I have quoted a few primary sources in this chapter. Most textbooks make no use of primary sources. A few incorporate brief extracts that have been carefully selected or edited to reveal nothing unseemly about the Great Navigator. American Journey, for example, quotes the passage I include above, about the Arawaks being "handsome," but stops at that point. Nothing about how Columbus could conquer them "with fifty men and govern them as I pleased." 63
The tribute system eventually broke down because what it demanded was impossible. To replace it, Columbus installed the encomienda system, in which he granted or "commended" entire Indian villages to individual colonists or groups of colonists. Since it was not called slavery, this forced-labor system escaped the moral censure that slavery received. Following Columbus's example, Spain made the encomienda system official policy on Haiti in 1502; other conquistadors subsequently introduced it to Mexico, Peru, and Florida.64
The tribute and encomienda systems caused incredible depopulation. On Haiti the colonists made the Arawaks mine gold for them, raise Spanish food, and even carry them everywhere they went. They couldn't stand it. Pedro de Cordoba wrote in a letter to King Ferdinand in 1517, "As a result of the sufferings and hard labor they endured, the Indians choose and have chosen suicide. Occasionally a hundred have committed mass suicide. The women, exhausted by labor, have shunned conception and childbirth. . . . Many, when pregnant, have taken something to abort and have aborted. Others after delivery have killed their children with their own hands, so as not to leave them in such oppressive slavery.”
Beyond acts of individual cruelty, the Spanish disrupted the Native ecosystem and culture. Forcing Indians to work in mines rather than in their gardens led to widespread malnutrition. The intrusion of rabbits and livestock caused further ecological disaster. Diseases new to the Americans played a huge role, including swine flu, probably carried by pigs that Columbus brought to Haiti on his second voyage in I493.66 Some of the Arawaks tried fleeing to Cuba, but the Spanish soon followed them there. Estimates of Haiti's pre-Columbian population range as high as eight million people. When Christopher Columbus returned to Spain, he left his brother Bartholomew in charge of the island. Bartholomew took a census of Indian adults in 1496 and came up with 1.1 million. The Spanish did not count children under fourteen and could not count Arawaks who had escaped in the mountains. Kirkpatrick Sale estimates that a more accurate total would probably be in the neighborhood of three million. "By 1516," according to Benjamin Keen, "thanks to the sinister Indian slave trade and labor policies initiated by Columbus, only some 12,000 remained." Las Casas tells us that fewer than two hundred full-blooded Haitian Indians were alive in 1542. By 1555, they were all gone.67
Thus nasty details like cutting off hands have somewhat greater historical importance than nice touches like "Tierra!" Columbus not only sent the first slaves across the Atlantic, he probably sent more slaves—about five thousand— than any other individual. To her credit, Queen Isabella opposed outright enslavement and returned some American Indians to the Carribbean. But other nations rushed to emulate Columbus. In 1501 the Portuguese began to de- populate Labrador, transporting the now extinct Beothuk Indians to Europe and Cape Verde as slaves. After the English established beachheads on the Atlantic coast of North America, they encouraged coastal tribes to capture and sell members of more distant tribes. Charleston, South Carolina, became a major port of exporting American Indian slaves. The Pilgrims and Puritans sold the survivors of the Pequot War into slavery in Bermuda in 1637. The French shipped virtually the entire Natchez nation in chains to the West Indies in 1731.68
A particularly repellent aspect of the slave trade was sexual. As soon as the 1493 expedition got to the Caribbean, before it even reached Haiti, Columbus was rewarding his lieutenants with native women to rape.69 On Haiti, sex slaves were one more perquisite that the Spaniards enjoyed. Columbus wrote a friend in 1500, "A hundred castellanoes axe as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand." 70
The slave trade and the new diseases destroyed whole American Indian nations. Enslaved Indians died. To replace the dying Haitians, the Spanish imported tens of thousands more Indians from the Bahamas, which "are now deserted," in the words of the Spanish historian Peter Martyr, reporting in 1516.71 Packed in below deck, with hatchways closed to prevent their escape, so many slaves died on the trip that "a ship without a compass, chart, or guide, but only following the trail of dead Indians who had been thrown from the ships could find its way from the Bahamas to Hispaniola,"72 lamented Las Casas. Puerto Rico and Cuba were next.
Because the Indians died, Indian slavery then led to the massive slave trade the other way across the Atlantic, from Africa. This trade also began on Haiti, initiated by Columbus's son in 1505. Predictably, Haiti then became the site of the first large-scale slave revolt, when blacks and American Indians banded together in 1519. The uprising lasted more than a decade and was finally brought to an end by the Spanish in the 1530s.73
Columbus's voyages caused almost as much change in Europe as in the Americas. Crops, animals, ideas, and diseases began to cross the oceans regularly. Perhaps the most far-reaching impact of Columbus's findings was on European Christianity. In 1492 all of Europe was in the grip of the Catholic Church. As the Encyclopedia Larousse puts it, before America, "Europe was virtually incapable of self-criticism." 80 After America, Europe's religious uniformity was ruptured. For how were these new peoples to be explained? They were not mentioned in the Bible. American Indians simply did not fit within orthodox Christianity's explanation of the moral universe. Moreover, unlike the Muslims, who might be written off as "damned infidels," American Indians had not rejected Christianity, they had just never encountered it. Were they doomed to hell? Even the animals of America posed a religious challenge. According to the Bible, at the dawn of creation all animals lived in the Garden of Eden. Later, two of each species entered Noah's ark and ended up on Mt. Ararat. Since Eden and Mt. Ararat were both in the Middle East, where could these new American species have come from? Such questions shook orthodox Catholicism and contributed to the Protestant Reformation, which began in I5I7.81
Politically, nations like the Arawaks—without monarchs, without much hierarchy—stunned Europeans. In 1516 Thomas Mores Utopia, probably based on an account of the Incan empire in Peru, challenged European social organization by suggesting a radically different and superior alternative. Other social philosophers seized upon American Indians as living examples of Europe's primordial past, which is what John Locke meant by the phrase "In the beginning all the world was America." Depending upon their political persuasion, some Europeans glorified American Indian nations as examples of simpler, better societies from which European civilization had devolved, while others maligned them as primitive and underdeveloped. In either case, from Montaigne, Montesquieu, and Rousseau down to Marx and Engels, European philosophers' concepts of the good society were transformed by ideas from America.82
America fascinated the masses as well as the elite. In The Tempest, Shakespeare noted this universal curiosity: "They will not give a doit to relieve a lambe beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian." 83 Europe's fascination with the Americas was directly responsible, in fact, for a rise in European self-consciousness. From the beginning America was perceived as an "opposite" to Europe in ways that even Africa never had been. In a sense, there was no 'Europe" before 1492. People were simply Tuscan, French, and the like. Now Europeans began to see similarities among themselves, at least as contrasted with Native Americans. For that matter, there were no "white" people in Europe before 1492. With the transatlantic slave trade, first Indian, then African, Europeans increasingly saw "white" as a race and race as an important human characteristic.84
Columbus's own writings reflect this increasing racism. When Columbus was selling Queen Isabella on the wonders of the Americas he told her that the Indians were "well built" and "of quick intelligence." "They have very good customs," he wrote, "and the king maintains a very marvelous state, of a style so orderly that it is a pleasure to see it, and they have good memories and they wish to see everything and ask what it is and for what it is used." Later, when Columbus was justifying his wars and his enslavement of the Natives, they became "cruel" and "stupid," "a people warlike and numerous, whose customs and religion are very different from ours."
It is always useful to think badly about people one has exploited or plans to exploit. Modifying one's opinions to bring them into line with one's actions or planned actions is the most common outcome of the process known as "cognitive dissonance," according to social psychologist Leon Festinger. No one likes to think of himself or herself as a bad person. To treat badly another person whom we consider a reasonable human being creates a tension between act and attitude that demands resolution. We cannot erase what we have done, and to alter our future behavior may not be in our interest. To change our attitude is easier.85
Columbus's conquest of Haiti can be seen as an amazing feat of courage and imagination by the first of many brave empire builders. It can also be understood as a bloody atrocity that left a legacy of genocide and slavery that endures in some degree to this day. Both views of Columbus are valid; indeed, Columbus's importance in history owes precisely to his being both a heroic navigator and a great plunderer. If Columbus were only the former, he would merely rival Leif Eriksson. Columbus's actions exemplify both meanings of the word exploit—a remarkable deed and also a taking advantage of. The worshipful biographical vignettes of Columbus provided by most of our textbooks serve to indoctrinate students into a mindless endorsement of colonialism that is strikingly inappropriate in today's postcolonial era. In the words of the historian Michael Wallace, the Columbus myth "allows us to accept the contemporary division of the world into developed and underdeveloped spheres as natural and given, rather than a historical product issuing from a process that began with Columbus's first voyage." 9I
We understand Columbus and all European explorers and settlers more clearly if we treat 1492 as a meeting of three cultures (Africa was soon involved), rather than a discovery by one, and several of the new books do this. The term New World is itself part of the problem, for people had lived in the Americas for thousands of years. The Americas were new only to Europeans. Discover is another part of the problem, for how can one person discover what another already knows and owns? Textbook authors are struggling with this issue, trying to move beyond colonial history and Eurocentric language. Boorstin and Kelley begin their first chapter with the sentence, "The discovery of America"—by which they mean Columbus's—"was the world's greatest surprise." Five pages later, the authors try to take back the word: "It was only for the people of Europe that America had to be 'discovered.' Millions of Native Americans were already here!" Taking back words is ineffectual, however. Boorstin and Kelley's whole approach is to portray whites discovering non-whites rather than a mutual multicultural encounter. Indeed, they are so Eurocentric that they don't even notice they left out "the people of Africa and Asia" from their sentence of people who had yet to "discover" America.
The point isn't idle. Words are important—they can influence, and in some cases rationalize, policy. In 1823 Chief Justice John Marshall of the U.S. Supreme Court decreed that Cherokees had certain rights to their land in Georgia by dint of their "occupancy" but that whites had superior rights owing to their "discovery." How American Indians managed to occupy Georgia without having previously discovered it Marshall neglected to explain.92
The process of exploration has itself typically been multiracial and multicultural. African pilots helped Prince Henry's ship captains learn their way down the coast of Africa.93 On Christmas Day 1492, Columbus needed help. Santa Maria ran aground off Haiti. Columbus sent for help to the nearest Arawak town, and "all the people of the town" responded, "with very big and many canoes." "They cleared the decks in a very short time," Columbus continued, and the chief "caused all our goods to be placed together near the palace, until some houses that he gave us where all might be put and guarded had been emptied."94 On his final voyage Columbus shipwrecked on Jamaica, and the Arawaks there kept him and his crew of more than a hundred alive for a whole year until Spaniards from Haiti rescued them.
So it has continued. William Erasmus, a Canadian Indian, pointed out, 'Explorers you call great men were helpless. They were like lost children, and it was our people who took care of them."9S Native Americans cured Carder's men of scurvy near Montreal in 1535. They repaired Francis Drake's Golden Hind in California so he could complete his round-the-world voyage in 1579. Lewis and Clark's expedition to the Pacific Northwest was made possible by tribe after tribe of American Indians, with help from two Shoshone guides, Sacagawea and Toby, who served as interpreters. When Admiral Peary discovered the North Pole, the first person there was probably neither the European American Peary nor the African American Matthew Henson, his assistant, but their four Inuit guides, men and women on whom the entire expedition relied.96 Our histories fail to mention such assistance. They portray proud Western conquerors bestriding the world like the Colossus at Rhodes.
So long as our textbooks hide from us the roles that people of color have played in exploration, from at least 6000 BC to the twentieth century, they encourage us to look to Europe and its extensions as the seat of all knowledge and intelligence. So long as they say "discover," they imply that whites are the only people who really matter. So long as they simply celebrate Columbus, rather than teach both sides of his exploit, they encourage us to identify with white Western exploitation rather than study it.
The passage in the left-hand column in the box below is one of the many legends that hang about Columbus like barnacles—"myths, all without substance."97 The passage in the right-hand column is part of a contemporaneous account of an Arawak cacique (leader) who had fled from Haiti to Cuba.
The reader will have already guessed that the passage on the left comes from an American history textbook, in this case American Adventures. Since the incident probably never happened, including it in a textbook is hard to defend. One way to understand its inclusion is by examining what it does in the narrative. The incident is melodramatic. It creates a mild air of suspense, even though we can be sure, of course, that everything will turn out all right in the end. Surely the passage encourages identification with Columbus's enterprise, makes Columbus the underdog—riding a mule, shabby of cloak—and thus places us on his side.
T he passage on the right was recorded by Las Casas, who apparently learned it from Arawaks on Cuba. Unlike the mule story, the cacique's story teaches important facts: that the Spanish sought gold, that they killed Indians, that Indians fled and resisted. (Indeed, after futile attempts at armed resistance on Cuba, this cacique fled "into the brambles." Weeks later, when the Spanish captured him, they burned him alive.) Nonetheless, no history textbook includes the cacique's story or anything like it. Doing so might enable us to identify with the Natives' side. By avoiding the names and stories of individual Arawaks and omitting their points of view, authors "otherize" the Indians. Readers need not concern themselves with the Indians' ghastly fate, for American Indians never appear as recognizable human beings. Textbooks themselves, it seems, practice cognitive dissonance.
Excluding the passage on the right, including the passage on the left, excluding the probably true, including the improbable, amounts to colonialist history. This is the Columbus story that has dominated American history books. All around the globe, however, the nations that were "discovered," conquered, "civilized," and colonized by European powers are now independent, at least politically. Europeans and European Americans no longer dictate to them as master to native and therefore need to stop thinking of themselves as superior, morally and technologically. A new and more accurate history of Columbus—provided to students by just one of these textbooks (The Americans)—could assist this transformation.
Of course, this new history must not judge Columbus by standards from our own time. In 1493 the world had not decided, for instance, that slavery was wrong. Some American Indian nations enslaved other Indians. Africans enslaved other Africans. Europeans enslaved other Europeans. To attack Columbus for doing what everyone else did would be unreasonable.
However, some Spaniards of the time—Bartolome de Las Casas, for example—opposed the slavery, land-grabbing, and forced labor that Columbus introduced on Haiti. Las Casas began as an adventurer and became a plantation owner. Then he switched sides, freed his Natives, became a priest, and fought desperately for humane treatment of the Indians. When Columbus and other Europeans argued that American Indians were inferior, Las Casas pointed out that Indians were sentient and rational human beings, just like anyone else. When other historians tried to overlook or defend the Indian slave trade, begun by Columbus, Las Casas denounced it as "among the most unpardonable offenses ever committed against God and mankind." He helped prompt Spain to enact laws against American Indian slavery." Although these laws came too late to help the Arawaks and were often disregarded, they did help some Indians survive. Centuries after his death, Las Casas was still influencing history: Simon Bolivar used Las Casas's writings to justify the revolutions between 1810 and 1830 that liberated Latin America from Spanish domination.
When history textbooks leave out the Arawaks, they offend Native Americans. When they omit the possibility of African and Phoenician precursors to Columbus, they offend African Americans. When they glamorize explorers such as de Soto just because they were white, our histories offend all people of color. When they leave out Las Casas, they omit an interesting idealist with whom we all might identify. When they glorify Columbus, our textbooks prod us toward identifying with the oppressor. When textbook authors omit the causes and process of European world domination, they offer us a history whose purpose must be to keep us unaware of the important questions. Perhaps worst of all, when textbooks paint simplistic portraits of a pious, heroic Columbus, they provide feel-good history that bores everyone.