OCTOBER 10, 1999

This summer, when I had lots of time, I read a huge book, A People’s History of the United States, 1492—Present by Howard Zinn, and went on my own voyage of discovery. Now I should explain that I went to Newton High School with Zinn’s children, Myla and Jeff.. Myla and I were friends and I had the good fortune of visiting their home once and meeting Professor Zinn. At the time he was teaching history at Boston University. Some time before, he had taught at Spelman College, an outstanding black girls’ school in Atlanta, Georgia, where he had been an advisor to a student group during the Civil Rights Movement. Howard Zinn is a marvelous, warm man, a committed social activist, and a clear, intelligent writer.

The underlying premise of the book is that we are largely ignorant of our own history, particularly from the viewpoint of the ordinary working people, racial minorities, the poor and other people of little power. We therefore cannot make informed moral judgments about our present political, economic and social systems. Our ignorance is not totally our fault. It’s the fault of what we’ve been taught in school as children, of what’s presented to us in the media, and of the generally accepted myths of our culture. It’s often been said that history is written by the winners. We must be careful and critical when looking at accepted history.

Take Columbus and the discovery of America for instance. Ask any American sixth grader who Christopher Columbus was and she’ll tell you right off that he was the brave adventurer who sailed from Spain on three ships and discovered America in 1492. If she’s bright and a good student, she’ll also tell you that he was really looking for India – since he was convinced the world was round – and wanted to discover a new trade route to the gold, spices and other riches of the East. She’ll know, of course, the names of the ships, the name of the Spanish queen and king who paid for the expedition, and maybe where the ships first landed, on one of the Bahaman islands. If she’s Italian, she’ll be sure to mention Columbus’ nationality with a note of pride. What was glossed over in her education… or not addressed at all… is what happened after Columbus got to the island of Hispaniola (later to become Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and to Cuba… and what happened to the native peoples he encountered in the New World.

Most children and adults think of Columbus as noble and heroic, a lover of adventure, a genius of a navigator, a leader. He was also a man possessed of strong religious fervor, the bringer of Christianity… as well as the superior European civilization to the poor, ignorant savages of the Caribbean. When present-day Native Americans challenge these images, we are generally confused and perhaps resentful that a traditional national holiday is denigrated… and instead called a day of mourning. Some of us think that this is just a part of the "political correctness" game. What’s the outrage about? Didn’t most of the Indians on the Caribbean islands… and later on the mainland… die out because of unfortunate encounters with strange European diseases like smallpox? This is what I thought before I read Zinn’s history.

The first chapter of the book is called "Columbus, the Indians, and Human Progress." In it he describes Columbus’ first encounter with the Arawak Indians. "Arawak men and women, 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. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, [and] speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. [Columbus] later wrote of this in his log:

‘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… They would make fine servants… With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.’"

Explorers to the New World – then and in the years to come – often noted with surprise how hospitable and generous the native people were when they first encountered Europeans. These traits stood out in contrast to the culture of Renaissance Europe and the frenzied pursuit for gold and other riches. Bartolome de las Casas as a young adventurer was an eyewitness to much of what went on during this period of early conquest in the New World. Zinn described Las Casas as "the chief source—and on many matters, the only source—of information about what happened on the islands after Columbus came…" Las Casas when he first arrived participated in the conquest of Cuba. "For a time he owned a plantation on which Indian slaves worked, but he gave that up and by 1515 saw the light 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."

Las Casas described various aspects of Indian life and culture. He wrote that they prized "bird feathers of various colors, beads made of fishbones, and green and white stones with which they adorn their ears and lips, but they put no value on gold and other precious things." He continued: "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 [Columbus], 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."

Las Casas wrote that when he 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…" Modern historians dispute this number of three million, setting it more realistically at one million. But this, of course, makes no great moral difference; the crime of genocide is just as great.

After finishing Zinn’s book, I continued my voyage of discovery. I looked up sources on Columbus in the library and discovered Bill Bigelow. Bigelow is a high school social studies teacher in Oregon and the coordinator of the Rethinking Columbus Project of the Network of Educators on the Americas. In 1992, he wrote an article provocatively titled "Once upon a Genocide: Christopher Columbus in Children’s Literature," which appeared in the quarterly journal Social Justice. The article told more of the gruesome reality behind the myths.

To quote Bigelow: "For Columbus, land was real estate and it didn’t matter to him that other people were already living there; if he ‘discovered’ it, he took it. If he needed guides or translators, he kidnaped them. … If the indigenous people resisted, he countered with vicious dogs, hangings, and mutilations. On his second voyage, desperate to show his royal patrons a return on their investment, Columbus rounded up some 1,500 Taino Indians on the island of Hispaniola and choose 500 as slaves to be shipped back to Spain and sold. … Slavery did not show a profit as almost all the slaves died en route to Spain or soon after their arrival. Thus, Columbus decided to concentrate on the search for gold. Nonetheless, he wrote, ‘Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.’ As for gold, Columbus ordered every Taino 14 years and over to deliver a regular quota. Those who failed were punished by having their hands chopped off. [They died, of course, from the blood loss.] In merely two years of the Columbus regime possibly a quarter of a million people died. Yes, in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue—but he did much more than that."

Bigelow notes "that none of this information is based on new or controversial research; in fact some of the most horrifying details of Columbus’ reign in the Indies come from biographers like Samuel Eliot Morison, who are great admirers of the admiral." Zinn describes Morison as the Harvard historian who was the most distinguished writer on Columbus. In his popular book Christopher Columbus, Mariner, Morison tells about the enslavement and the killing: "The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide." A pretty strong statement, but it is buried within a large volume and not much is made of it. In the book’s last paragraph, Morison sums up his view of Columbus: "He had his 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 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."

Generally in the children’s history books, Columbus’ motives were described as religious and the love of adventure. God, it seems, wanted him to discover a new route to India, to spread Christianity and to save souls. It’s also acknowledged he wanted riches, but no one mentions the hard bargain he drove with Ferdinand and Isabella: to get 10 percent of all the profits derived from trade resulting from his voyage, the title "Admiral of the Ocean Sea" and governorship over new-found lands.

When Columbus returned to Madrid after the first voyage, he gave a wildly extravagant report to the Court of Spain. "He insisted he had reached Asia (it was Cuba) and an island off the coast of China (Hispaniola)." And he exaggerated the natural resources found there, claiming: ‘There are many spices and great mines of gold and other metals…’ He concluded his report by asking for more help from their Majesties, promising to bring them from his next voyage ‘as much gold as they need… and as many slaves as they ask.’ "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." (Bigelow)

Nothing is made of Columbus’ attitude that the native people of the New World were less than fully human. Like God’s commandments to the Hebrews about to enter the land of Canaan in this morning’s second reading, the indigenous peoples were to be conquered. If they resisted conversion or any of the demands of the conquerors, they were to be destroyed. In his log, Columbus mentions several facts—that the Indians weren’t Christians, that they were dark-skinned, nearly naked, had poor weapons and no iron, and didn’t value what he valued, namely gold! Obviously, they were "other" to him and his men.

It was during Columbus’ second journey to the Americas that his genocidal policies toward the Indians were initiated. Bigelow found that books aimed at younger elementary school children conveniently stopped the story after his first journey. One book failed to mention the Indians at all. "Thus, the authors escape having to confront slavery and mass murder… Because none of the … books says a word about the fate of the Indians, the Columbus myth can take root in young minds without being complicated or stained by the violence to come."

In books for older children, there are references to the violence, but details are skimpy and the story is told in a passive voice. In one book, the Indians who didn’t deliver enough gold "were punished." Another example: "Between 1494 and 1496, one-third of the native population of Hispaniola was killed, sold, or scared away." No fingers are pointed, no blame ascribed, no moral outrage expressed.

There are two major points I’d like to make here. The first is that I’m not telling this story to condemn Columbus in absentia. As Zinn wrote, "It is too late for that; it would be a useless scholarly exercise in morality." One purpose of telling this story is to counteract the easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress. As Zinn so powerfully put it, "One reason these atrocities are still with us is that we have learned to bury them in a mass of other facts… We have learned to give them exactly the same proportion of attention that teachers and writers often give them in the most respectable of classrooms and textbooks. This learned sense of moral proportion, coming from the apparent objectivity of the scholar, is accepted more easily than when it comes from politicians at press conferences. It is therefore more deadly." There are serious consequences of this approach to history in which the past is told from the point of view of the "winners"… of the establishment. This approach leads to passivity in the face of authority. Furthermore, it plants the seeds of a subtle racism and a quiet acceptance of conquest and murder in the name of progress.

The second point I’d like to make is that how we tell these stories to children influences profoundly how they view human beings who are different from them and how they view human rights in general. Most significantly, wrote Bigelow, "these accounts fail to recognize the Indians’ humanity. The books’ descriptions are clinical and factual, like those of a coroner." No questions are asked. No thinking is required of the children when hearing these stories. And no compassion is called forth. Furthermore, the silent Indians in Columbus stories teach children "the message that white people in developed societies have consciousness and voice, but Third World people are thoughtless and voiceless objects."

It would be wonderful if these books asked such questions as "What kind of suffering must these people have gone through?" Or "How did it feel to have their civilizations completely destroyed in the space of just a few years/" Or "Why do you think Columbus felt he could claim land for Spain when there were already people living there?" But these books fail to perform two of the basic tasks of liberal education, namely to stimulate critical thinking and to teach moral lessons and human values. These books fail to show "passion or outrage – at Columbus, at the social and economic system he represented, or at textbooks for hiding this inhumanity for so many years." (Bigelow)

Bigelow found "the most ‘honest’ books about Columbus’ Enterprise – those that admit slavery and other atrocities – also the most distressing." He wrote: "They lay out the facts, describe the deaths, and then it’s on to the next paragraph with no look-back. These books model for children a callousness toward human suffering – or is it simply a callousness toward the suffering of people of color? Apparently, students are supposed to value bravery, cunning, and perseverance over a people’s right to life and self-determination. The stories prepare young people to watch without outrage the abstract nightly news accounts – a quick segment about an army massacre in El Salvador followed by a commercial for Chrysler LeBaron."

In my voyage of rediscovery of Columbus, I found many uncomfortable and disturbing truths about Europe’s first real encounter with the Americas. I learned about the atrocities and genocide perpetuated by Columbus and his followers on the Indians of the Caribbean. I learned how the slave trade in the Western hemisphere began with him. But most disturbing of all, I learned how we as a country have denied our children and ourselves valuable lessons from our early history. These lessons could teach us a healthy skepticism about our society and some of its basic assumptions and foundations – as well as a greater compassion for the victims of social injustices and a genuine respect for their cultures and beliefs.

I ask that you reflect back on the reading from Black Elk, "The Sacred Circle," and its moving spiritual message. This reading reminds us that many Americans, particularly Unitarian Universalists, are seeking to return to the spirituality of Native Americans and their reverence of the circle of life in the natural world. We now know that they neither are nor were "ignorant savages", but are a wise and beautiful people who have much to teach us about the art of living in the world by honoring the Great Spirit that lives in all people and all living things.

Oh, Weaver of the web of existence –
We ask for your forbearance in our ignorance.
We ask that we may, through a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, rediscover the truths about Columbus and ourselves.
We ask for the humility to understand the shameful history of dehumanization that began with Columbus’ voyage to the New World.
We ask that we have the wisdom to teach these lessons to our children.
We ask that the hardness of our hearts be dissolved, that care and compassion flow through us and from us.
We ask for the strength and courage to we apply what we learn from history to creating a more just, compassionate and peaceful world. Amen


Bigelow, William. "Once upon a Genocide: Christopher Columbus in Children’s Literature" in Social Justice 19.2 (Summer 1992): 106-121.

de Las Casas, Bartolome. 1971. History of the Indies, Andree Collard (trans. and ed.). New York: Harper and Row.

Morison, Samuel Eliot. 1955. Christopher Columbus, Mariner. Boston: Little, Brown.

Zinn, Howard. 1995. A People’s History of the United States: 1492—Present, Revised and updated edition. New York: HarperCollins.