Columbus and Western Civilization
by Howard Zinn
George Orwell, who was a very wise man, wrote: "Who controls the past controls the future. And who controls the present controls the past." In other words, those who dominate our society are in a position to write our histories. And if they can do that, they can decide our futures. That is why the telling of the Columbus story is important.
Let me make a confession. I knew very little about Columbus until about 12 years ago, when I began writing my book A People’s History of the United States of America. I had a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University--that is, I had the proper training of a historian, and what I knew about Columbus was pretty much what I had learned in elementary school.
But when I began to write my People’s History, I decided I must learn about Columbus. I had already concluded that I did not want to write just another overview of American history-- I knew my point of view would be different. I was going to write about the United States from the point of view of those people who had been largely neglected in the history books: the indigenous Americans, the black slaves, the women, the working people, whether native or immigrant.
I wanted to tell the story of the nation’s industrial progress from the standpoint, not of Rochefeller and Carnegie and Vanderbilt, but of the people who worked in their mines, their oil fields, who lost their limbs or their lives building the railroads.
I wanted to tell the story of wars, not from the standpoint of generals and presidents, not from the standpoint of those military heroes whose statues you see all over this country, but through the eyes of the GIs, or through the eyes of “the enemy”. Yes, why not look at the Mexican War, that great military triumph of the United States, from the viewpoint of the Mexicans?
And so, how must I tell the story of Columbus? I concluded, I must see him through the eyes of people who were here when he arrived, the people he called “Indians” because he thought he was in Asia.
Well, they left no memoirs, no histories. Their culture was an oral culture, not a written one. Besides, they had been wiped out in a few decades after Columbus’ arrival. So I was compelled to turn to the next best thing: The Spaniards who were on the scene at the time. First, Columbus himself. He had kept a journal.
His journal was revealing. He described the people who greeted him when landed in the Bahamas--they were Arawak Indians, some times called Tainos--and told how they waded out into the sea to greet him and his men, who must have looked and sounded like people from another world, and brought them gifts of various kinds. He described them as peaceable, gentle, and said: “They do not bear arms, and do not know for I showed them a sword--they took it by the edge and cut themselves.”
Throughout his journal, over the next months, Columbus spoke of the native Americans with what seemed like admiring awe: “They are the best people in the world and above all the gentlest--without knowledge of what is evil--nor do they murder or steal...they love their neighbors as themselves and they have the sweetest talk in the world...always laughing.”
And in a letter he wrote to one of his Spanish patrons, Columbus said: “They are very simple and honest and exceedingly liberal with all they have, none of them, in the midst of all this, in his journal, Columbus writes: “They would make fine servants. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
Yes, this was how Columbus saw the Indians--not as hospitable hosts, but “servants,” to “do whatever we want.”
And what did Columbus want? This is not hard to determine. In the first two weeks of journal entries, there is one word that recurs seventy-five times: GOLD.
In the standard accounts of Columbus what is emphasized again and again is his religious feeling, his desire to convert the natives to Christianity, his reverence for the Bible. Yes, he was concerned about God. But more about Gold. Just one additional letter. His was a limited alphabet. Yes, all over the islands of Hispaniola, where he, his brothers, his men, spent most of their time, he erected crosses. But also, all over the island, they built gallows--340 of them by the year 1500. Crosses and gallows--that deadly historic juxtaposition.
In his quest for gold, Columbus, seeing bits of gold among the Indians, concluded there were huge amounts of it. He ordered the natives to find a certain amount of gold within a certain period of time. And if they did not meet their quota, their arms were hacked off. The others were to learn from this and deliver the gold.
Samuel Eliot Morison, the Harvard historian who was Columbus’ admiring biographer, acknowledged this. He wrote: “Whoever thought up this ghastly system, Columbus was responsible for it, as the only means of producing gold for export.... Those who fled to the mountains were hunted with hounds, and those who escaped, starvation and disease took toll, while thousands of poor creatures in desperation took cassava poison to end their miseries.”
Morison continues: “So the policy and acts of Columbus for which he alone was responsible began the depopulation of the terrestrial paradise that was Hispaniola in 1492. Of the original natives, estimated by modern ethnologist at 300,000 in number, one-third were killed off between 1494 and 1496. By 1508, an enumeration showed only 60,000 alive...in 1548 Oviedo (Morison is referring to Fernandex de Oviedo, the official Spanish historian of conquest) doubted whether 500 Indians remained.
But Columbus could not obtain enough gold to send home to impress the King and Queen and his Spanish financiers, so he decided to send back to Spain another kind of loot: slaves. They rounded up about 1200 natives, selected 500, and these were sent, jammed together, on the voyage across the Atlantic. Two hundred died on the way, of cold, of sickness.
In Columbus’ journal, an entry of September 1498 reads: “From here one might send, in the name of Holy Trinity, as many slaves as could be sold...”
What the Spaniards did to the Indians is told in horrifying detail by Bartolome de las Casas, whose writing give the most thorough account of the Spanish-Indian encounter. Las Casas was a Dominican priest who came to the New World a few years after Columbus, spent forty years on Hispaniola and nearby islands, and became the leading advocate in Spain for the rights of the natives. Las Casas, in his book The Devastation of the Indies, writes of Arawaks: “...of all the infinite universe of humanity, these people are the most guileless, the most devoid of wickedness and duplicity...yet into this sheepfold...there came some Spaniards who immediately behaved like ravening beasts.... Their reason for killing and destroying... is that Christian’s have an ultimate aim which is to acquire gold...”
The cruelties multiplied. Las Casas saw soldier stabbing Indians for sport, dashing babies’ heads on rocks. And when the Indians resisted, the Spaniards hunted them down, equipped for killings with horses, armor plate, lances, pikes, rifles, crossbows, and vicious dogs. Indians who took things belonging to Spaniards--they were not accustomed to the concept of private ownership and gave freely of their own possessions--were beheaded, or burned at the stake.
Las Casas’ testimony was corroborated by other eyewitnesses. A group of Dominican friars, addressing the Spanish monarchy in 1519, hoping for the Spanish government to intercede, told about unspeakable atrocities, children thrown to dogs to be devoured, new-born babies born to women prisoners flung into the jungle to die.
Forced labor in the mines and on the land led to much sickness and death. Many children died because their mothers, overworked and starved, had no milk for them. Las Casas, in Cuba, estimated that 7000 children died in three months.
The greatest toll was taken by sickness, because the Europeans brought with them disease against which the native had no immunity: typhoid, typhus, diphtheria, smallpox.
As in any military conquest, women came in for especially brutal treatment. One Italian nobleman named Cuneo recorder an early sexual encounter. The “Admiral” he refers to is Columbus, who, as part of his agreement with Spanish monarchy, insisted he be made an Admiral. Cueno wrote:
“...I captured a very beautiful Carib women, whom the said Lord Admiral gave to me and with whom...I conceived desire to take pleasure. I wanted to put my desire into execution but she did not want it and treated me with her finger nails in such manner that I wished I had never begun. But seeing that, I took a rope and thrashed her well.... Finally we came to an agreement.”
There is other evidence which adds up to a picture of widespread rape of native women. Samuel Eliot Morison: “In the Bahamas, Cuba and Hispaniola they found young beautiful women, who everywhere were naked, in most places accessible, and presumably complaisant.” Who presumes this? Morison, and so many others.
Morison saw the conquest as so many writers after him have done, as one of the great romantic adventures of world history. He seemed to get carries away by what appeared to him a masculine conquest. He wrote:
“Never again may mortal men hope to recapture the amazement, the wonder, the delight of those October days in 1492, when the new world gracefully yielded her virginity to the conquering Castilians.”
The language of Cueno (“we came to an agreement”), and of Morison (“gracefully yield”) written almost five hundred years apart, surely suggests how persistent through modern history has been the mythology that rationalizes sexual brutality but seeing it as “complaisant.”
So, I read Columbus’ journal, I read Las Casas. I also read Hans Koning’s pioneering work of our time--Columbus: His Enterprise, which, at the time I wrote my People’s History was the only contemporary account I could find which departed from the standard treatment.
When my book appeared, I began to get letters from all over the country about it. Here was a book of 600 pages, starting with Columbus, about one subject: Columbus. I could have interpreted this to mean, that since this was the very beginning of the book, that’s all these people had read. But no, it seemed that the Columbus story was simply the part of my book that readers found most startling. Because ever American, from elementary school on, learns the Columbus story, and learns it the same way: “In Fourteen Hundred and Ninety Two, Columbus Sailed the Ocean Blue.
How many of you have heard of Tigard, Oregon? Well, I didn’t until, about seven years ago, I began receiving, every semester, a bunch of letters, twenty or thirty, from students at one high school in Tigard, Oregon. It seems that their teacher was having them (knowing high schools, I almost said “forcing them”) read my People’s History. He was photocopying a number of the chapters and giving them to the students. And then he had them write letters to me, with comments and questions. Roughly half of them thanked me for giving them data which they had never seen before. The others were angry, or wondered how I got such information, and how I had arrived at such outrageous conclusions.
One high school student named Bethany wrote: “Out of all the articles that I’ve read of yours I found ‘Columbus, The Indians, and Human Progress’ the most shocking.” Another student named Brian, seventeen years old, wrote: “An example of the confusion I feel after reading your article concerns Columbus coming to America.... According to you, it seems he came for women, slaves, and gold. You’ve said you have gained a lot of this information from Columbus’ own journal. I am wondering if there is such a journal, and if so, why isn’t it part of our history. Why isn’t any of what you say in my history book, or in history books people have access to each day.”
I pondered this letter, It could be interpreted to mean that the writer was indignant that no other history books had told him what I did. Or, as more likely, he was saying: “I don’t believe a word of what you wrote! You made this up!”
I am not surprised at such reactions. It tells something about the claims of pluralism and diversity in American culture, the pride in our “free society,” that generation after generation has learned exactly the same set of facts about Columbus, and finished their education with the same glaring omissions.
A school teacher in Portland, Oregon named Bill Bigelow has undertaken a crusade to change the way the Columbus story is taught all over America. He tells of how he sometimes starts a new class. He goes over to a girls in the front row, and takes her purse. She says: “You took my purse!” Bigelow responds: “No, I discovered it.”
Bill Bigelow did a study of recent children’s books on Columbus. He found them remarkably alike in their repetition of the traditional point of view. A typical fifth grade biography of Columbus begins: “There once was a boy who loved the salty sea.” Well! I can imagine a children’s biography of Attila the Hun beginning with the sentence “There once was a boy who loved horses.”
Another children’s book in Bigelow’s study, this time for second graders: “The King and queen looked at the gold and the Indians. They listened in wonder to Columbus’ stories of adventure. Then they all went to church to pray and sing. Tears of joy filled Columbus’ eyes.”
I once spoke about Columbus to a workshop of school teachers, and one of them suggested that school children were to young to hear of the horrors recounted by Las Casas and others. Other disagreed, said children’s stories include plenty of violence, but the perpetrators are witches and monsters and “bad people,” not national heroes who have holidays named after them.
Some of the teachers made suggestions on how the truth could be told in a way that would not frighten children unnecessarily, but that would avoid the falsification of history taking place.
The arguments about children “not being ready to heard the truth does not account for the fact that in American society, when the children grow up, they still are not told the truth. As I said earlier, right up through graduate school I was not presented with the information that would counter the myths told to me in the early grades. And it is clear that my experience is typical, judging from the shocked reactions to my book that I have from readers of all ages.
If you look in an adult book, the Columbus Encyclopedia (my edition was put together in 1950, but all the relevant information was available then, including Morison’s biography), there is a long entry on Columbus (about 1,000 words) but you find no mention of the atrocities committed by him and his men.
In the 1986 edition of the Columbia History of the World, there are several mentions of Columbus, but nothing about what he did to the natives. Several pages are devoted to “Spain and Portugal in America,” in which the treatment of the native population is presented as a matter of controversy, among the theologians at the time, and among historians today. You can get the flavor of this “balanced approach,” containing a nugget of reality, by following passage from that History.
“The determination of the Crown and the Church to Christianize the Indians, the need for labor to exploit the new lands, and the attempts of some Spaniards to protect the Indians, resulted in a very remarkable complex of customs, laws, and institutions which even today leads historians to contradictory conclusions about Spanish rule in America.... Academic disputes flourish on this debatable and in a sense insoluble question, but there is no doubt that cruelty, overwork and disease resulted in an appalling depopulation. There were, according to recent estimates, about 25 million Indians in Mexico in 1519, slightly more than 1 million in 1605.”
Despite this scholarly language---”contradictory conclusions...academic disputed...insoluble question”---there is no real dispute about the facts of enslavement, forced labor, rape, murder, the taking of hostages, the ravages of disease carried from Europe, and the wiping out of huge numbers of native people. The only dispute is over how much emphasis is to be placed on these facts, and how they carry over into the issue of our time.
For instance, Samuel Eliot Morison does spend some time detailing the treatment of the natives by Columbus and his men, and uses the word “genocide” to describe the overall effect of the “discovery.” But he buries this in a midst of long, admiring treatment of Columbus, and sums up his view in the concluding paragraphs of his popular book Christopher Columbus, Mariner, as follows:
“He had hid faults and his defects, but they were largely the defects of the qualities that made him great-- his indomitable will, his superb faith in God and in 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.”
Yes, his seamanship!
Let me make myself clear. I am not interested in either denouncing or exalting Columbus. It is too late for that. We are not writing a letter of recommendation for him to decide his qualification for undertaking another voyage to another part of the universe. To me, the Columbus story is important for what it tells us about ourselves, about our time, about the decisions we make for our country, for the next century.
Why this great controversy today about Columbus and the celebration of the quincentennial? Why the indignation of native Americans and others about the glorification of that conqueror? Why the heated defense of Columbus by others? The intensity of the debate can only be because it is not about 1492, it is about 1992.
We can get a clue to this if we look back a hundred years to 1892, the year of the quadricentennial. There were great celebrations in Chicago and New York. In New York there were five days of parades, fireworks, military marches, naval pageants, a million visitors to the city, a memorial statue unveiled at a corner of Central Park, now to be known as Columbus Circle. A celebratory meeting took place at Carnegie Hall, addressed by Chauncey DePew.
You might not know the name of Chauncey DePew, unless you recently looked at Gustavus Myers’ classic work, A History of the Great American Fortune. In that book, Chauncey DePew is described as the front man for Cornelius Vanderbilt and his New York Central railroad. DePew traveled to Albany, the capital of New York State, which satchels of money and free railroad passes for members of the New York Sate Legislature, and came away with subsidies and land grants for the New York Central.
DePew saw the Columbus festivities as a celebration of wealth and prosperity--you might say “marks the wealth and the civilization of a great people...it marks the things that belong to their comfort and their ease, their pleasure and their luxuries...and their power.”
We might know that at that time he said this, there was much suffering among the working poor of America, huddled in the city slums, their children sick and undernourished. The plight of people who worked on the land--which at this time was a considerable part of the population--was desperate, leading to the anger of the Farmers’ Alliances and the rise of the People’s (Populist) Party. And the following year, 1893 was a year of economic crisis and widespread misery.
DePew must have sensed, as he stood on the platform at Carnegie Hall, some murmurings of discontent at the smugness that accompanied that spirit of historical inquiry which doubts everything; that modern spirit which destroys all the illusions and all the heroes which have been the inspirations of patriotism through all the centuries.
So, to celebrate Columbus was to be patriotic. To doubt was to be unpatriotic. And what did “patriotism” mean to DePew? It meant the glorification of expansion and conquest--which Columbus represented and which America represented. It was just six years after his speech that the United States, expelling Spain from Cuba, began its own long occupation (sporadically military, continuously political and economic) of Cuba, took Puerto Rico and Hawaii, and began its bloody war against the Filipinos to take over their country.
That “patriotism” which was tied to the celebration of Columbus and the celebration of conquest, was reinforced in the Second World War by the emergence of the United States as the superpower, all the old European empires now in decline. At that time, Henry Luce, the powerful president-maker and multimillionaire, owner of Time, Life, and Fortune (not just the publication, but the things!) wrote that the twentieth century was turning into “American Century,” in which the United States would have its way in the world.
George Bush, accepting the presidential nomination in 1988, said: “This has been called the American Century because in it we were the dominant force of good in the world.... Now we are on the verge of a new century, and what country’s name will it bear? I say it will be another American Century.”
What arrogance! That the twenty-first century, when we should be getting away from the murderous jingoism of the century, should already be anticipated as an American century, or as any one nation’s century. Bush must think of himself as a new Columbus, “discovering” and planting his nation’s flag on new world, because he called for a U.S. colony on the moon early in the next century. And forecast a mission to Mars in the year 2019.
The “patriotism” that Chauncey DePew invoked in celebrating Columbus was profoundly tied to the notion of inferiority of the conquered peoples. Columbus’ attacks on the Indians were justified by the status as sub-humans. The taking of Texas and much of Mexico by the United States just before the civil War was done with the same racist rationale. Sam Houston, the first governor of Texas, proclaimed: “The Anglo-Saxon race must pervade the whole southern extremity of the whole southern extremity of this vast continent. The Mexicans are no better than the Indians and I see no reasons why we should not take their land.”
At the start of the twentieth century, the violence of the new American expansionism into the Caribbean and the Pacific was accepted because we were dealing with lesser beings.
In the year 1990, Chauncey DePew, now a U.S. Senator, spoke again in Carnegie Hall, this time to support Theodore Roosevelt’s candidacy for vice-president. Celebrating the conquest of the Philippines as a beginning of the American penetration of China and more, he proclaimed: “The guns of Dewery in Manila Bay were heard across Asia and Africa, they echoed through the palace at Peking and brought to the Oriental mind a new potent force among western nations. We, in common with the countries of Europe, are striving to enter the limitless markets of the east.... These people respect nothing but power. I believe the Philippines will be enormous markets and sources of wealth.”
Theodore Roosevelt, who appears endlessly on lists of our “great presidents,” and whose face is one of the four colossal sculptures of American presidents (along with Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln) carved into Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, was “a crime against white civilization.” In his book The strenuous Live, Roosevelt wrote:
“Of course our whole national history has been one of expansion...that the barbarians recede or are conquered...is due solely to the power of the mighty civilized races which have not lost the fighting instinct.”
An army officer in the Philippines put it even more bluntly: “There is no use mincing words... We exterminated the American Indians and I guess most of us are proud of it...and we must have no scruples about extermination this other race standing in the way of progress and enlightenment, if it is necessary...”
The official historian of the Indies in the early sixteenth century, Fernandes de Oviedo, did not deny what was done to natives by the conquistadors. He described “innumerable cruel deaths as countless as the stars.” But this was acceptable, because “to use gunpowder against pagans is to offer incense to the Lord.”
(One is reminded of President McKinley’s decision to send the army and navy to take the Philippines, saying it was the duty of the United States to “Christianize and civilize” the Filipinos.)
Against las Casas’ please for mercy to the Indians, the theologian Juan Gines de Sepulveda declared: “How can we doubt that these people, so uncivilized, so barbaric, so contaminated with so many sins and obscenities, have been justly conquered.”
Sepulveda in the year 1531 visited his former college in Spain and was outraged by seeing the students there protesting Spain’s war against Turkey. The students were saying: “All war...is contrast to the Catholic religion.”
This led him to write philosophical defense of the Spanish treatment of the Indians. He quoted Aristotle, who wrote in his Politics that some people were “slaves by nature,” who “would be hunted down like wild beasts in order to bring them to the correct way of life.”
Las Casas responded: “Let us send Aristotle packing, for we have in our favor the command of Christ: Thou shalt love they neighbor as thyself.”
The dehumanization of the “enemy” has been a necessary accompaniment to wars conquest. It is easier to explain atrocities if they are committed against infidels, or people of an inferior race. Slavery and racial segregation in the United States, and European imperialism in Asia and Africa, were justified in this way.
The bombings in Vietnamese villages by the United States, the search and destroy missions, the My Lau massacre, were all made palatable to their perpetrators by the idea that the victims were not human. They were “gooks” or “Communists,” and deserved what they received.
In the Gulf War, the dehumanization of the Iraqis consisted of not recognizing their existence. We were not bombing women, children, not bombing and shelling ordinary Iraqi young men in the act of flight and surrender. We were acting against a Hitler-like monster, Saddam Hussein, although the people we were killing were the Iraqi victims of this monster. When General Colin Powell asked about Iraqi causalities he said that was “really not a matter I am terribly interested in.”
The American people were led to accept the violence of the war in Iraq because the Iraqis were made invisible--because the United States only used “smart bombs.” The major media ignored the enormous death toll in Iraq, ignored the report of the Harvard medical team that visited Iraq shortly after the war and found that tens of thousands of Iraqi children were dying because of the bombing of the water supply and the resultant epidemic of disease.
The celebrations of Columbus are declared to be celebrations not just of his maritime exploits but of “progress,” of his arrival in the Bahamas as the beginning of that much-praised five hundred years of “Western civilization.” But those concepts need to be re-examined. When Gandhi was once asked what he though about Western civilization, he replied: “It’s a good idea.”
The point is not to deny the benefits of “progress” and “civilization”--advances in technology, knowledge, science, health, education, and standards of living. But there is a question to be asked: progress yes, but at what human cost?
Is progress simply to be measured in the statistics of industrial and technological change, without regard to the consequences of that “progress” for human beings? Would we accept a Russian justification of Stalin’s rule, including enormous toll in human suffering, on the ground that he made Russian a great industrial power?
I recall that in my high school classes in American history when we came to the period after the Civil War, roughly the years between that War and World War I, it was looked on as the Gilded Age, the period of the great Industrial Revolution, when the United States became an economic giant. I remember how thrilled we were to learn of the dramatic growth of the steel and oil industries, of the building of the great fortunes, of the criss-crossing of the country by the railroads.
We were not told of the human cost of this great industrial progress: how the huge production of cotton came from the labor of black slaves; how the textile industry was built up by the labor of young girls who went into the mills at twelve and died at twenty-five; how the railroads were constructed by Irish and Chinese immigrants who were literally worked to death, in the heat of summer and cold of winter; how working people, immigrants and native born, had to go out on strike and win the eight-hour day; how the children of the working-class, in the slums of the city, had to drink polluted water, and how they died early of malnutrition and disease. All this in the name of “progress.”
And yes, there are huge benefits from industrialization, science, technology, medicine. But so far, in these five hundred years of Western civilization, of Western domination of the rest of the world, most of those benefits have gone to a small part of the human race. For billions of people in the Third World, they still face starvation, homelessness, disease, the early deaths of their children.
Did the Columbus expedition mark the transition from savagery to civilization? What of the Indian civilizations which had been build up over thousands of years before Columbus came? Las Casas and others marveled at the spirit of sharing and generosity which marked the Indians societies, the communal building in which they lived , their aesthetic sensibilities, the egalitarianism among men and women.
The British colonist in North America were startled at the democracy of the Iroquois--the tribes who occupied much of New York and Pennsylvania. The American historian Gary Nash described Iroquois culture: “No laws and ordinances, sheriffs and constables, judges and juries, or courts or jails--the apparatus of authority in European societies--were to be found in the northeast woodlands prior to European arrival. Yet boundaries of acceptable behavior were firmly set. Through priding themselves on the autonomous individual, the Iroquois maintained a strict sense of right and wrong...”
In the course of westward expansion, the new nation, the United States, stole the Indians’ land, killed them when they resisted, destroyed their sources of food and shelter, pushed them into smaller and smaller sections of the country, went about the systematic destruction of Indian society. At the time of the Black Hawk War in the 1830s--one of hundreds of wars waged against the Indians of North America--Lewis Cas, the governor of the Michigan territory, referred to his taking of millions of acres from the Indians as “the progress of civilization.” He said: “A barbarous people cannot live in contact with a civilized community.”
We get the sense of how “barbarous” these Indians were when, in the 1880s, Congress prepared legislation to break up the communal lands in which Indians still lived, into small private possessions, what today some people would call admiringly, “privatization.” Senator Henry Dawes , author of this legislation, “visited the Cherokee Nation, and described what he found: “...there was not a family in the whole nation that had not a home of it’s own. There was not a pauper in the nation, and the nation did not owe a dollar...it built its own schools and its hospitals. Yet they defect of the system was apparent. They have got as far as they can go, because they own their land in common...there is not enterprise to make you home any better than that of your neighbors. There is no selfishness, which is at the bottom of civilization.”
That selfishness at the bottom of “civilization” is connected with what drove Columbus on, and what is much-praised today, as American political leaders and the media speak about how the West will do great favor to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe by introducing “the profit motive”
Granted, there may be certain ways in which the incentive of profit may be helpful in economic development, but that incentive, in the history of the “free market” in the West, has had horrendous consequences. It led, throughout the centuries of “Western Civilization,” to a ruthless imperialism.
In Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, written in the 1890s, after some time spent in the Upper Congo of Africa, he describes the work done by black men in chains on behalf of white men who were interested only in ivory. He writes: “The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it... To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe.”
The uncontrolled drive for profit has led to enormous human suffering, exploitation, slavery, cruelty in the workplace, dangerous working conditions, child labor, the destruction of land and forests, the poisoning of the air we breath, the water we drink, the food we eat.
In his 1933 autobiography, Chief Luther Standing Bear wrote: “True the white man brought great change. But the varied fruits of his civilization, though highly colored and inviting, are sickening and deadening. And if it be the part of civilization to maim, rob, and thwart, then what is progress? I am going to venture that the man who sat on the ground in his tipi meditating on life and its meaning, accepting the kinship of all creatures, and acknowledging unity with the universe of things, was infusing into his being the true essence of civilization.”
The present threats to the environment have caused a reconsideration among scientists and other scholars of the value of “progress” as it has been so far defined. In December in 1991, there was a two-day conference at MIT, in which fifty scientists and historians discussed the idea of progress in Western thought. Here is part of the report on that conference in the Boston Globe.
“In a world where resources are being squandered and the environment poisoned, participants in a MIT conference said yesterday, it is time for people to start thinking in terms of sustainability and stability rather than growth and progress... Verbal fireworks and heated exchanges that sometimes grew into shouting matched punctuated the discussions among scholars of economics, religion, medicine, history and the sciences.”
One of the participants, historian Leo Marx, said the working toward a more harmonious coexistence with nature is itself is itself a kind of progress, but different than the traditional one in which people try to overpower nature.
So, to look back at Columbus in a critical way is to raise all these question about progress, civilization, our relations with one another, our relationship to the natural world.
You probably have heard--as I have, quite often--that it is wrong for us to treat Columbus story the way we do. What they say is: “You are taking Columbus out of context, looking at him with the eyes of the twentieth century. You must not superimpose the values of our time on events that took place 500 years ago. That is ahistorical.”
I find this argument strange. Does it mean that cruelty, exploitation, greed, enslavement, violence against helpless people, are values peculiar to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries? And that we in the twentieth century, are beyond that? Are there not certain human values which are common to the age of Columbus and to our own? Proof of this is that both in his time and in ours there were enslavers and exploiters; in both his time and ours there were those who protested against this, on behalf of human rights.
It is encouraging that, in this year of the quincentennial, there is a wave of protest, unprecedented in all the years of celebration of Columbus, all over the United States, and throughout the Americas. Much of this protest is being led by Indians, who are organizing conferences and meetings, who are engaging in acts of civil disobedience, who are trying to educated the American public about what really happened five hundred years ago, and what it tells us about the issues of our time.
There is a new generation of teachers in out schools, and many of them are insisting that the Columbus story be told from the point of view of view of the native Americans. In the fall of 1990 I was telephoned from Los Angeles by a talk-show host who wanted to discuss Columbus. Also on the line was a high school student in that city, named Blake Lindsey, who had insisted on addressing the Los Angeles City council to oppose the traditional Columbus Day celebrations. She told them of the genocide committed by the Spaniards against the Arawak Indians. The city council did not respond.
Someone called in on that talk show, introducing herself as a women who had emigrated from Haiti. She said: “That girl is right--we have no Indians left--in our last uprising against government the people knocked down the statue of Columbus and now it is in the basement of the city hall in Por-au-Prince.” The caller finished by saying: “Why don’t we build statues for the aborigines?”
Despite the textbooks still in use, more teachers are questioning, more students are questioning. Bill Begelow reports on the reactions of his students after he introduces them to reading material which contradicts the traditional histories. One student wrote: “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.... That story is about as complete as Swiss cheese.”
Another wrote a critique of her American history textbook to the publisher, Allyn and Bacon, pointing to many important omissions in that text. She said: “I’ll just pick one topic to keep it simple. How about Columbus?”
Another student: “It seemed to me as if the publishers had just printed up some glory story that was supposed to make us feel more patriotic about our country.... They want us to look at our country as great and powerful and forever right.... We’re being fed lies.”
When students discover that in the very fist history they learn--the story of Columbus--they have not been told the whole truth, it leads to a healthy skepticism about all of their historical education. One of Begelow’s students, named Rebecca, wrote: “What does it matter who discovered America, really?... But the thought that I’ve been lied to all my life about this, and who knows what else, really makes me angry.”
This new critical thinking in the schools and in the colleges seems to frighten those who have glorified what is called “Western civilization.” Reagan’s Secretary of Education, William Bennett, in his 1984 “Report on the Humanities in Higher Education,” writes of Western civilization as “our common culture...its highest ideas and aspirations.”
One of the most ferocious defenders of Western civilization is philosopher Allan Bloom, who wrote The Closing of the American Mind in the spirit of panic at what the social movements of the Sixties had done to change the educational atmosphere of American universities. He was frightened by the students demonstrations he saw at Cornell, which he saw as a terrible interference with education.
Bloom’s idea of education was a small group of very smart students, in an elite university, studying Plato and Aristotle, and refusing to be disturbed in their contemplation by the noise outside their windows of students rallying against racism or protesting against the war in Vietnam.
As I read him, I was reminded of some of my colleagues, when I was teaching in a black college in Atlanta, George at a time of the civil rights movement, who shook their heads in disapproval when our students left their classes to sit-in, to be arrested, in protest against racial segregation. These students were neglecting their education, they said. In fact, these students were learning more in a few weeks of participation in social struggle than they could learn in a year of going to class.
What a narrow, stunted understanding of education! It corresponds perfectly to the view of history which insists that Western civilization is the summit of human achievement. As Bloom wrote in his book: “...only in the Western nations, i.e. those influenced by Greek philosophy, is there some willingness to doubt the identification of the good with one’s own way.” Well, if this willingness to doubt the hallmark of Greek philosophy, then Bloom and his fellow idolizers of Western civilization are ignorant of that philosophy.
If Western civilization is considered the high point of human progress, the United States is the best representative of this civilization. Here is Allen Bloom again: “This is the American moment in the world history.... America tells one story: the unbroken, ineluctable progress of freedom and equality. From its first settlers and its political foundings on, there has been no dispute that freedom and equality are the essence of justice for us...”
Yes, tell black people and native Americans and the homeless and those without health insurance, and all the victims abroad of American foreign policy that America “tells one story...freedom and equality.”
Western civilization is complex. It represents many things, some decent, some horrifying. We would have to pause before celebrating it uncritically when we note that David Duke, the Louisiana Ku Klux Klan member and ex-Nazi says that people have got him wrong. “The common strain in my thinking,” he told a reporter, “is my love for Western civilization.”
We who insist on looking critically at the Columbus story, and indeed at everything in our traditional histories, are often accused of insisting on Political Correctness, to the detriment of free speech. I find this odd. It is the guardian of the old stories, the orthodox histories, who refuse to widen the spectrum of ideas, to take in new books, new approaches, new information, new views of history. They, who claim to believe in “free markets” do not believe in a free marketplace of ideas, any more than they believe in a free marketplace of goods and services. In both material goods and in ideas, they want the market dominated by those who have always held power and wealth. They worry that if new ideas enter the marketplace, people may begin to rethink the social arrangements that have given us so much sufferings, so much violence, so much war these last five hundred years of “civilization.”
Of course we had all that before Columbus arrived in this hemisphere, but resources were puny, people were isolated from one another, and the possibilities were narrow. In recent centuries, however, the world has become amazingly small, our possibilities for creating a decent society have enormously magnified, and so the excuses for hunger, ignorance, violence, racism, no longer exist.
In rethinking our history, we are not just looking at the past, but at the present, and trying to look at it from a point of view of those who have been left out of the benefits of so-called civilizations. It is a simple but profoundly important thing we are trying to accomplish, to look at the world from other points of view. We need to do that, as we come into the next century, if we want this coming century to be different, if we want it to be, not an American century, or a Western century, or a white century, or a male century, or any nation’s, any group’s century, but a century for the human race.