The article titled “Columbus, the Indians, and Human Progress” by Howard Zinn is an excerpt from his book “People’s History of the United States”. The article highlights the exploitation of the natives by the European settlers in the Bahama Islands during the time of Columbus and by the colonial settlers in North America.
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Focusing on two major issues – the difference between the native civilizations and the Western civilization in the context of sharing; and the depopulation of the natives in Bahama due to Spanish exploitation and natives in North America as a result of colonization – the article upholds the theme that history is generally the past told from the point of view of the conquerors, and it ignores the views of the conquered who have often been victims of violence, hunger, and exploitation.
One of the major issues pointed by Howard Zinn in this article is that while native Arawaks and the native Indians in North America were very kind, generous, and sharing, the people from the Western Civilization were materialistic and eager to exploit and abuse. This is first illustrated in the case of Columbus, who was well received by native Arawaks in the Bahama Islands, who brought him and his sailors food, water, and gifts.
Instead of reciprocating the generosity and respect, Columbus chose to exploit their innocence and trust by invading them, capturing them as slaves, and making them toil under difficult conditions for gold. He was unable to believe the generosity with which the native Indians shared their goods. His reaction was to write to the royal powers in Spain to give him ships and resources to bring home “as much gold as they need… and as many slaves as they ask.”
He even gave a religious tint to his plundering by saying that God was rewarding him for following His way. The Spanish settlers in the Caribbean were so haughty that they often killed the Arawaks for fun.. These events have been recorded by Columbus. Arawaks were thus similar to the Indians in mainland America, who have been noted for their hospitality and belief in sharing. Western Civilization, in contrast to the peaceful generous nature of the Arawaks and Indians, was dominated by fanaticism, materialism, and royal power.
Another issue highlighted by the author is that the accounts of Bartolome de las Casas show that Spanish occupation in the Bahamas and the English invasion of North Mexico followed similar patterns in the depopulation of the native tribes. Bartolome de las Casas was a vehement critic of Spanish cruelty and he says Spaniards rode on the back of the Indians, were carried on hammocks, shaded by Indians carrying large leaves, and fanned by goose wings, The miners worked under harsh conditions sin the gold mines and they wives toiled the soil. This lead to a serious decline in population and Las Casas says that between 1494 to 1508 over three million people perished from war, slavery, and the mines.
Zinn then relates the story of how the Pilgrims who came to New England seized land inhabited by Indian native tribes, in the name of “civil law”. The colonial occupation of North America involved the massacre of Indians, deceptive practices, and brutality and it also leads to a serious decline in the number of Native Americans who died of new diseases brought by the settlers and due to abuse. The Puritans quoted the scriptures to justify their occupation.
Zinn concludes despite the reality of the above facts, children in the United States are taught history from the viewpoint of the conquerors. They learn of Columbus as a hero and his exploits as adventures without bloodshed. Zinn rues the fact that the glory of Columbus, the Founding Fathers, the United States, and its Constitution has come at a great cost to humanity. He explains that the invasions and occupations and the cruelty that came along with it are the outcome of a basic human need – the need for space – in the Europeans.
The article makes one question the history books and the glory of Western Civilization. The quotations from Columbus and Las Casas add authenticity to the arguments of Howard Zinn. The comparisons between the invasion of the Caribbean islands and the invasion of North America are apt and well elicited through historical facts.
Zinn, Howard (2003). Columbus, the Indians, and Human Progress. Excerpt from “People’s History of the United States”. Harper Collins Publication.