- What does Howard Zinn tell us about the celebrations of the 400-year-anniversary (Quatricentennial) of Columbus‘ arrival in America in 1892? What – according to Howard Zinn – has changed in the meantime?
- Chauncy Depew, speaking at the celebrations of the Quatricentennial in 1892, told his audience what he detested about the “spirit of historical inquiry.” What did Mr. Depew detest about the “spirit of historical inquiry” and why did he detest it so much?
- What are the facts about Columbus that are – according to Howard Zinn – generally accepted by all historians, by critical historians as well as admirers of Columbus?
- What does Howard Zinn criticize about the entries on Columbus and Las Casas in the Columbia Encylopedia?
- According to Howard Zinn, why is it important for historians to make clear what facts they are emphasizing in their particular telling the history of Columbus or any other person or period in history?
- Some historians have made the point, that it is „unhistorical“ to judge Columbus using our modern values because after all, Columbus lived around 1500. What does Howard Zinn say about this issue?
- Howard Zinn says that the important point is not to judge Columbus, because Columbus doesn’t ask us for a „letter of recommendation“ and because it is „too late for that.“ Why is it then, that we should be critical of Columbus and what he did? And why do many people feel uncomfortable with such critiques of Columbus?
Columbus – discovery and conquest
Arawak men and women from the island Guanahani, 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. It was October, 12th 1492, thirty-three days since he and his crew had left the Canary Islands, off the Atlantic coast of Africa, when Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. Columbus later wrote of this in his log:
The Arawaks of the island Guanahani, one of the Bahamas 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.
Source: 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…
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:
Source: They [the natives] will make fine servants…. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want. […]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? He had persuaded the king and queen of Spain to finance an expedition to the lands, the wealth, he expected would be on the other side of the Atlantic – the Indies and Asia, gold and spices. For, like other informed people of his time, he knew the world was round and he could sail west in order to get to the Far East.
Spain was recently unified, one of the new modern nation-states, like France, England, and Portugal. Its population, mostly poor peasants, worked for the nobility, who were 2 percent of the population and owned 95 percent of the land. Spain had tied itself to the Catholic Church, expelled all the Jews, driven out the Moors. Like other states of the modern world, Spain sought gold, which was becoming the new mark of wealth, more useful than land because it could buy anything.
There was gold in Asia, it was thought, and certainly silks and spices. Now that the Turks had conquered Constantinople and the eastern Mediterranean, and controlled the land routes to Asia, a sea route was needed. Portuguese sailors were working their way around the southern tip of Africa. Spain decided to gamble on a long sail across an unknown ocean.
Columbus‘ first voyage
In return for bringing back gold and spices, king Ferdinand of Spain promised Columbus 10 percent of the profits, governorship over new-found lands, and the fame that would go with a new title: Admiral of the Ocean Sea. He was a merchant’s clerk from the Italian city of Genoa, the son of a skilled weaver, and expert sailor. He set out with three sailing ships, the largest of which was the Santa Maria, perhaps 100 feet long, and thirty-nine crew members.
Columbus would never have made it to Asia, which was thousands of miles farther away than he had calculated, imagining a smaller world. He would have been doomed by that great expanse of sea. But he was lucky. One-fourth of the way there he came upon an unknown, uncharted land that lay between Europe and Asia – the Americas. It was early October 1492, and thirty-three days since he and his crew had left the Canary Islands, off the Atlantic coast of Africa. The first man to sight land was supposed to get a yearly pension of 10,000 maravedis for life. But the sailor called Rodrigo, who on October 12th had seen the early morning moon shining on white sands of an island in the Bahamas, the Caribbean sea, never got it. Columbus claimed he had seen a light the evening before. He got the reward.
So, approaching land, they were met by the Arawak Indians, who swam out to greet them. The Arawaks lived in village communes, had a developed agriculture of corn, yams, cassava. They could spin and weave, but they had no horses or work animals. They had no iron, but they wore tiny gold ornaments in their ears.
This was to have enormous consequences: it led Columbus to take some of them aboard ship as prisoners because he insisted that they guide him to the source of the gold. He then sailed to what is now Cuba, then to Hispaniola (the island which today consists of Haiti and the Dominican Republic). There, bits of visible gold in the rivers, and a gold mask presented to Columbus by a local Indian chief, led to wild visions of gold fields.
On Hispaniola, out of timbers from the Santa Maria, which had run aground, Columbus built a fort, the first European military base in the Western Hemisphere. He called it Navidad (Christmas) and left thirty-nine crewmembers there, with instructions to find and store the gold. He took more Indian prisoners and put them aboard his two remaining ships. At one part of the island he got into a fight with Indians who refused to trade as m any bows and arrows as he and his men wanted. Two were run through with swords and bled to death. Then the Nina and the Pinta set sail for the Azores and Spain. When the weather turned cold, the Indian prisoners began to die. Columbus’s report to the Court in Madrid was extravagant. He insisted he had reached Asia (it was Cuba) and an island off the coast of China (Hispaniola). His descriptions were part fact, part fiction:
Source: Hispaniola is a miracle. Mountains and hills, plains and pastures, are both fertile and beautiful … the harbors are unbelievably good and there are many wide rivers of which the majority contain gold. . . There are many spices, and great mines of gold and other metals… The Indians 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.
[Asking for a little help from your Majesties] in return I bring you from my next voyage as much gold as you need … and as many slaves as you ask. 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, then picked five hundred of them 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. 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.
The suffering of the native Americans
The chief source – and, on many matters the only source – of information about what happened on the islands after Columbus came is Bartolomé de las Casas, who, as a young priest, participated in the conquest of Cuba in 1513. For a time he owned a plantation on which Indian slaves worked, but he gave that up and became a vehement critic of Spanish cruelty. Las Casas transcribed Columbus’s journal and, in his fifties, began a multivolume History of the Indies. In it, he describes the Indians. They are agile, he says, and can swim long distances, especially the women. They are not completely peaceful, because they do battle from time to time with other tribes, but their casualties seem small, and they fight when they are individually moved to do so because of some grievance, not on the orders of captains or kings. Women in Indian society were treated so well as to startle the Spaniards. Las Casas describes Indian societies:
Cover of Bartolomé de las Casas‘ „Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies“ from 1552
Source: Marriage laws are non-existent men and women alike choose their mates and leave them as they please, without offense, jealousy or anger. They multiply in great abundance; pregnant women work to the last minute and give birth almost painlessly; up the next day, they bathe in the river and are as clean and healthy as before giving birth. If they tire of their men, they give themselves abortions with herbs that force stillbirths, covering their shameful parts with leaves or cotton cloth; although on the whole, Indian men and women look upon total nakedness with as much casualness as we look upon a man’s head or at his hands.
The Indians have no religion, at least no temples. They live in large communal bell-shaped buildings, housing up to 600 people at one time … made of very strong wood and roofed with palm leaves…. They put no value on gold and other precious things. They lack all manner of commerce, neither buying nor selling, and rely exclusively on their natural environment for maintenance. They are extremely generous with their possessions and by the same token covet the possessions of their friends and expect the same degree of liberality.
Las Casas at first urged replacing Indians by black slaves, thinking they were stronger and would survive, but later relented when he saw the effects on blacks. In Book Two of his History of the Indies, Las Casas tells about the relationship between Indians and Europeans:
Source: Endless testimonies […] prove the mild and pacific temperament of the natives…. But our work was to 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….
The Spaniards grew more conceited every day and after a while refused to walk any distance. They were carried on hammocks by Indians. In this case they also had Indians carry large leaves to shade them from the sun and others to fan them with goose wings.
The Spaniards thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades. Two of these so-called Christians met two Indian boys one day, each carrying a parrot; they took the parrots and for fun beheaded the boys.
The Indians‘ attempts to defend themselves failed. And when they ran off into the hills they were found and killed.
Indian men were forced to work in the gold mines. After six or eight months‘ work in the mines, which was the time required of each crew to dig enough gold for melting, up to a third of the men died. Las Casas describes the working conditions in the mines:
Source: The Indians suffered and died in the mines and other labors in desperate silence, knowing not a soul in the world to whom they could turn for help. […] mountains are stripped from top to bottom and bottom to top a thousand times; they dig, split rocks, move stones, and carry dirt on their backs to wash it in the rivers, while those who wash gold stay in the water all the time with their backs bent so constantly it breaks them; and when water invades the mines, the most arduous task of all is to dry the mines by scooping up pansful of water and throwing it up outside….
While the men were sent many miles away to the mines, the wives remained to work the soil, forced into the job of digging and making thousands of hills for cassava plants. Thus husbands and wives were together only once every eight months and when they met they were so exhausted and depressed and finally they ceased to procreate. Las Casas writes in his book:
Source: As for the newly born, they died early because their mothers, overworked and famished, had no milk to nurse them, and for this reason, while I was in Cuba, 7000 children died in three months. Some mothers even drowned their babies from sheer desperation…. in this way, husbands died in the mines, wives died at work, and children died from lack of milk . .. and in a short time this land which was so great, so powerful and fertile … was depopulated. … My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write.
Las Casas estimates the numbers of Indians who perished:
Source: When I arrived on Hispaniola in 1508, there were 60,000 people living on this island, including the Indians; so that from 1494 to 1508, over three million people had perished from war, slavery, and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this? I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it….“
Thus began the history, more than five centuries ago, of the European invasion of the Indian settlements in the Americas. That beginning, when you read Las Casas – even if his figures are exaggerations (were there 3 million Indians to begin with, as he says, or less than a million, as some historians have calculated?) – is conquest, slavery and death.
Cortez and Pizarro – The conquest continues
What Columbus did to the Arawaks of the Bahamas, Cortes did to the Aztecs of Mexico, Pizarro to the Incas of Peru, and the English settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts to the Powhatans and the Pequots.
The Aztec civilization of Mexico came out of the heritage of Mayan, Zapotec, and Toltec cultures. It built enormous constructions from stone tools and human labor, developed a writing system and a priesthood. It also engaged in (let us not overlook this) the ritual killing of thousands of people as sacrifices to the gods. The cruelty of the Aztecs, however, did not erase a certain innocence, and when a Spanish armada appeared at Vera Cruz, and a bearded white man came ashore, with strange beasts (horses), clad in iron, it was thought that he was the legendary Aztec man-god who had died three hundred years before, with the promise to return-the mysterious Quetzalcoatl. And so they welcomed him, with munificent hospitality.
That was Hernando Cortes, come from Spain with an expedition financed by merchants and landowners and blessed by the deputies of God, with one obsessive goal: to find gold. In the mind of Montezuma, the king of the Aztecs, there must have been a certain doubt about whether Cortes was indeed Quetzalcoatl, because he sent a hundred runners to Cortes, bearing enormous treasures, gold and silver wrought into objects of fantastic beauty, but at the same time begging him to go back. The painter Albrecht Dürer a few years later described what he saw from that expedition – a sun of gold, a moon of silver, worth a fortune.
|Bartolomé de las Casas depicted as Savior of the Indians in a later painting by Felix Parra
Cortes then began his march of death from town to town, using deception, turning Aztec against Aztec, killing with the kind of deliberateness that accompanies a strategy – to paralyze the will of the population by a sudden frightful deed. And so, in Cholulu, he invited the headmen of the Cholula nation to the square. And when they came, with thousands of unarmed retainers, Cortes’s small army of Spaniards, posted around the square with cannon, armed with crossbows, mounted on horses, massacred them, down to the last man. Then they looted the city and moved on. When their cavalcade of murder was over they were in Mexico City, Montezuma was dead, and the Aztec civilization, shattered, was in the hands of the Spaniards. All this is told in the Spaniards‘ own accounts.
In Peru, that other Spanish conquistador Pizarro, used the same tactics, and for the same reasons – the frenzy in the early capitalist states of Europe for gold, for slaves, for products of the soil, to pay the bondholders and stockholders of the expeditions, to finance the state bureaucracies and standing armies rising in Western Europe, to spur the growth of the new money economy rising out of feudalism, to participate in what later was called „the primitive accumulation of capital.“ These were the violent beginnings of an intricate system of technology, business, politics, and culture that would dominate the world for the next five centuries.
Quelle 8 Amerigo Vespucci landing on the South American coast in 1497. Before him, lying on a hammock, is „America“. Behind her some cannibals are roasting human remains. Engraving by Théodore Galle (1589)
 Spanish currency Cassava, also known as manioc, is extensively cultivated as an annual crop in tropical regions. It is the third-largest source of food carbohydrates in the tropics.