(Note from Kilroy–contrary to the title of the book quoted, I have fond memories of my teachers, who worked for little and were themselves enslaved by the edicts of the state board of education–in my case the State of Missouri–which selected the textbooks used in all schools in the state which, as the following points out, were permeated by myths and mis-information typical of the age)
Hero-making, Christopher Columbus
excerpted from the book
Lies My Teacher Told Me
Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong
by James W. Loewen
Touchstone Books, 1995, paper
p18 James Baldwin What passes for identity in America is a series of myths about one’s heroic ancestors.
p18 W E B Du Bois [American] history … paints perfect men and noble nations, but it does not tell the truth.
p20 Teachers have held up Helen Keller, the blind and deaf girl who overcame her physical handicaps, as an inspiration to generations of schoolchildren. Every fifth-grader knows the scene in which Anne Sullivan spells water into young Helen’s hand at the pump. At least a dozen movies and filmstrips have been made on Keller’s life. Each yields its version of the same cliché. A McGraw-Hill educational film concludes: “The gift of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan to the world is to constantly remind us of the wonder of the world around us and how much we owe those who taught us what it means, for there is no person that is unworthy or incapable of being helped, and the greatest service any person can make us is to help another reach true potential.”
To draw such a bland maxim from the life of Helen Keller, historians and filmmakers have disregarded her actual biography and left out the lessons she specifically asked us to learn from it. Keller, who struggled so valiantly to learn to speak, has been made mute by history. The result
… Keller, who was born in 1880, graduated from Radcliffe in 1904 and died in 1968. To ignore the sixty-four years of her adult life or to encapsulate them with the single word humanitarian is to lie by omission.
The truth is that Helen Keller was a radical socialist. She joined the Socialist party of Massachusetts in 1909. She had become a social radical even before she graduated from Radcliffe, and not, she emphasized, because of any teachings available there. After the Russian Revolution, she sang the praises of the new communist nation: “In the East a new star is risen! With pain and anguish the old order has given birth to the new, and behold in the East a man-child is born! Onward, comrades, all together! Onward to the campfires of Russia! Onward to the coming dawn!” ~ Keller hung a red flag over the desk in her study. Gradually she moved to the left of the Socialist party and became a Wobbly, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) the syndicalist union persecuted by Woodrow Wilson.
p22 At the time Keller became a socialist, she was one of the most famous women on the planet. She soon became the most notorious. Her conversion to socialism caused a new storm of publicity-this time outraged. Newspapers that had extolled her courage and intelligence now emphasized her handicap. Columnists charged that she had no independent sensory input and was in thrall to those who fed her information. Typical was the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle> who wrote that Keller’s “mistakes spring out of the manifest limitations of her development.”
Keller recalled having met this editor: “At that time the compliments he paid me were so generous that I blush to remember them. But now that I have come out for socialism he reminds me and the public that I am blind and deaf and especially liable to error. I must have shrunk in intelligence during the years since I met him.” She went on, “Oh, ridiculous Brooklyn Eagle! Socially blind and deaf, it defends an intolerable system, a system that is the cause of much of the physical blindness and deafness which we are trying to prevent.” 8
Keller, who devoted much of her later life to raising funds for the American Foundation for the Blind, never wavered in her belief that our society needed radical change. Having herself fought so hard to speak, she helped found the American Civil Liberties Union to fight for the free speech of others. She sent $100 to the NAACP with a letter of support that appeared in its magazine The Crisis-a radical act for a white person from Alabama in the 1920s. She supported Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist candidate, in each of his campaigns for the presidency. She composed essays on the women’s movement, on politics, on economics. Near the end of her life, she wrote to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, leader of the American Communist party, who was then languishing in jail, a victim of the McCarthy era: “Loving birthday greetings, dear Elizabeth Flynn! May the sense of serving mankind bring strength and peace into your brave heart!”
One may not agree with Helen Keller’s positions. Her praise of the USSR now seems naive, embarrassing, to some even treasonous. But she was a radical-a fact few Americans know, because our schooling and our mass media left it out.
p23 Under [President Woodrow] Wilson, the United States intervened in Latin America more often than at any other time in our history. We landed troops in Mexico in 1914, Haiti in 1915, the Dominican Republic in 1916, Mexico again in 1916 (and nine more times before the end of Wilson’s presidency), Cuba in 1917, and Panama in 1918. Throughout his administration Wilson maintained forces in Nicaragua, using them to determine Nicaragua’s president and to force passage of a treaty preferential to the United States.
In 1917 Woodrow Wilson took on a major power when he started sending secret monetary aid to the “White” side of the Russian civil war. In the summer of 1918 he authorized a naval blockade of the Soviet Union and sent expeditionary forces to Murmansk, Archangel, and Vladivostok to help overthrow the Russian Revolution. With the blessing of Britain and France, and in a joint command with Japanese soldiers, American forces penetrated westward from Vladivostok to Lake Baikal, supporting Czech and White Russian forces that had declared an anticommunist government headquartered at Omsk. After briefly maintaining front lines as far west as the Volga, the White Russian forces disintegrated by the end of 1919, and our troops finally left Vladivostok on April 1, 1920.~’
Few Americans who were not alive at the time know anything about our “unknown war with Russia,” to quote the title of Robert Maddox’s book on this fiasco. Not one of the twelve American history textbooks in my sample even mentions it. Russian history textbooks, on the other hand, give the episode considerable coverage. According to Maddox: “The immediate effect of the intervention was to prolong a bloody civil war, thereby costing thousands of additional lives and wreaking enormous destruction on an already battered society. And there were longer-range implications. Bolshevik leaders had clear proof . . . that the Western powers meant to destroy the Soviet government if given the chance.”
This aggression fueled the suspicions that motivated the Soviets during the Cold War, and until its breakup the Soviet Union continued to claim damages for the invasion.
Wilson’s invasions of Latin America are better known than his Russian adventure. Textbooks do cover some of them, and it is fascinating to watch textbook authors attempt to justify these episodes. Any accurate portrayal of the invasions could not possibly show Wilson or the United States in a favorable light. With hindsight we know that Wilson’s interventions in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Nicaragua set the stage for the dictators Batista, Trujillo, the Duvaliers, and the Somozas, whose legacies still reverberate. Even in the 1910s, most of the invasions were unpopular in this country and provoked a torrent of j criticism abroad.
p25 After U.S. marines invaded [Haiti] country in 1915, they forced the Haitian legislature to select our preferred candidate as president. When Haiti refused to declare war on Germany after the United States did, we dissolved the Haitian legislature. Then the United States supervised a pseudo-referendum to approve a new Haitian constitution, less democratic than the constitution it replaced; the referendum passed by a hilarious 98,225 to 768. As Piero Gleijesus has noted, “It is not that Wilson failed in his earnest efforts to bring democracy to these little countries. He never tried. He intervened to impose hegemony, not democracy.” The United States also attacked Haiti’s proud tradition of individual ownership of small tracts of land, which dated back to the Haitian Revolution, in favor of the establishment of large plantations. American troops forced peasants in shackles to work on road construction crews. In 1919 Haitian citizens rose up and resisted U.S. occupation troops in a guerrilla war that cost more than 3,000 lives, most of them Haitian. Students who read Triumph of the American Nation learn this about Wilson’s intervention in Haiti: “Neither the treaty nor the continued presence of American troops restored order completely. During the next four or five years, nearly 2,000 Haitians were killed in riots and other outbreaks of violence.” This passive construction veils the circumstances about which George Barnett, a U.S. marine general, complained to his commander in Haiti: “Practically indiscriminate killing of natives has gone on for some time.” Barnett termed this violent episode “the most startling thing of its kind that has ever taken place in the Marine Corps.”
During the first two decades of this century, the United States effectively made colonies of Nicaragua, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and several other countries. Wilson’s reaction to the Russian Revolution solidified the alignment of the United States with Europe’s colonial powers. His was the first administration to be obsessed with the specter of communism, abroad and at home. Wilson was blunt about it. In Billings, Montana, stumping the West to seek support for the League of Nations, he warned, “There are apostles of Lenin in our own midst. I can not imagine what it means to be an apostle of Lenin. It means to be an apostle of the night, of chaos, of disorder.” Even after the White Russian alternative collapsed, Wilson refused to extend diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union. He participated in barring Russia from the peace negotiations after World War I and helped oust Bela Kun, the communist leader who had risen to power in Hungary. Wilson’s sentiment for self-determination and democracy never had a chance against his three bedrock “ism”s: colonialism, racism, and anticommunism. A young Ho Chi Minh appealed to Woodrow Wilson at Versailles for self-determination for Vietnam, but Ho had all three strikes against him. Wilson refused to listen, and France retained control of Indochina. It seems that Wilson regarded self-determination as all right for, say, Belgium, but not for the likes of Latin America or Southeast Asia.
At home, Wilson’s racial policies disgraced the office he held. His Republican predecessors had routinely appointed blacks to important offices, including those of port collector for New Orleans and the District of Columbia and register of the treasury. Presidents sometimes appointed African Americans as postmasters, particularly in southern towns with large black populations. African Americans took part in the Republican Party’s national conventions and enjoyed some access to the White House. Woodrow Wilson, for whom many African Americans voted in 1912, changed all that. A southerner, Wilson n had been president of Princeton, the only major northern university that refused to admit blacks. He was an outspoken white supremacist-his wife was even worse-and told “darky” stories in cabinet meetings. His administration submitted a legislative program intended to curtail the civil rights of African Americans, but Congress would not pass it. Unfazed, Wilson used his power as chief executive to segregate the federal government. He appointed southern whites to offices traditionally reserved for blacks. Wilson personally vetoed a clause on racial equality in the Covenant of the League of Nations. The one occasion on which Wilson met with African American leaders in the White House ended in a fiasco as the president virtually threw the visitors out of his office. Wilson’s legacy was extensive: he effectively closed the Democratic Party to African Americans for another two decades, and parts of the federal government remained segregated into the 1950s and beyond. In 1916 the Colored Advisory Committee of the Republican National Committee issued a statement on Wilson that, though partisan, was accurate: “No sooner had the Democratic Administration come into power than Mr. Wilson and his advisors entered upon a policy to eliminate all colored citizens from representation in the Federal Government.”
p28 Omitting or absolving Wilson’s racism goes beyond concealing a character blemish. It is overtly racist. No black person could ever consider Woodrow Wilson a hero. Textbooks that present him as a hero are written from a white perspective. The cover-up denies all students the chance to learn something important about the interrelationship between the leader and the led. White Americans engaged in a new burst of racial violence during and immediately after Wilson’s presidency. The tone set by the administration was one cause. Another was the release of America’s first epic motion picture.
The filmmaker David W. Griffith quoted Wilson’s two-volume history of the United States, now notorious for its racist view of Reconstruction, in his infamous masterpiece The Clansman, a paean to the Ku Klux Klan for its role in putting down “black-dominated” Republican state governments during Reconstruction. Griffith based the movie on a book by Wilson’s former classmate, Thomas Dixon, whose obsession with race was “unrivaled until Mein Kampf” At a private White House showing, Wilson saw the movie, now retitled Birth of a Nation, and returned Griffith’s compliment: “It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so true.” Griffith would go on to use this quotation in successfully defending his film against NAACP charges that it was racially inflammatory.
This landmark of American cinema was not only the best technical production of its time but also probably the most racist major movie of all time. Dixon intended “to revolutionize northern sentiment by a presentation of history that would transform every man in my audience into a good Democrat! . . . And make no mistake about it-we are doing just that. Dixon did not overstate by much. Spurred by Birth of a Nation, William Simmons of Georgia reestablished the Ku Klux Klan. The racism seeping down from the White House encouraged this Klan, distinguishing it from its Reconstruction predecessor, which President Grant had succeeded in virtually eliminating in one state (South Carolina) and discouraging nationally for a time. The new KKK quickly became a national phenomenon. It grew to dominate the Democratic Party in many southern states, as well as in Indiana, Oklahoma, and Oregon. During Wilson’s second term, a wave of antiblack race riots swept the country. Whites Iynched blacks as far north as Duluth.
p29 Wilson displayed little regard for the rights of anyone whose opinions differed from his own. But textbooks take pains to insulate him from wrongdoing. “Congress,” not Wilson, is credited with having passed the Espionage Act of June 1917 and the Sedition Act of the following year, probably the most serious attacks on the civil liberties of Americans since the short-lived Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. In fact, Wilson tried to strengthen the Espionage Act with a provision giving broad censorship powers directly to the president. Moreover, with Wilson’s approval, his postmaster general used his new censorship powers to suppress all mail that was socialist, anti-British, pro-Irish, or that in any other way might, in his view, have threatened the war effort. Robert Goldstein served ten years in prison for producing The Spirit of ’76, a film about the Revolutionary War that depicted the British, who were now our allies, unfavorably. Textbook authors suggest that wartime pressures excuse Wilson’s suppression of civil liberties, but in 1920, when World War I was long over, Wilson vetoed a bill that would have abolished the Espionage and Sedition acts. Textbook authors blame the anticommunist and anti-labor union witch hunts of Wilson’s second term on his illness and on an attorney general run amok. No evidence supports this view. Indeed, Attorney General Palmer asked Wilson in his last days as president to pardon Eugene V. Debs, who was serving time for a speech attributing World War I to economic interests and denouncing the Espionage Act as undemocratic. The president replied, “Never!” and Debs languished in prison until Warren Harding pardoned him. The American Way adopts perhaps the most innovative approach to absolving Wilson of wrongdoing: Way simply moves the “red scare” to the 1920s, after Wilson had left office!
Because heroification prevents textbooks from showing Wilson’s shortcomings, textbooks are hard pressed to explain the results of the 1920 election. James Cox, the Democratic candidate who was Wilson’s would-be successor, was crushed by the nonentity Warren G. Harding, who never even campaigned. In the biggest landslide in the history of American presidential politics, Harding got almost 64 percent of the major-party votes. The people were “tired,” textbooks suggest, and just wanted a “return to normalcy.” The possibility that the electorate knew what it was doing in rejecting Wilson never occurs to our authors. It occurred to Helen Keller, however. She called Wilson “the greatest individual disappointment the world has ever known!”
p38 Bartolome de las Casas What we committed in the Indies stands out among the most unpardonable offenses ever committed against God and mankind and this trade [in Indian slaves] as one of the most unjust, evil, and cruel among them.
p60 Christopher Columbus introduced two phenomena that revolutionized race relations and transformed the modern world: the taking of land, wealth, and labor from indigenous peoples, 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 in the Caribbean, 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.”
On his first voyage, Columbus kidnapped some ten to twenty-five Indians and took them back with him to Spain. Only seven or eight of the Indians 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, 1,200 to 1,500 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 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 in the 1990s.
When Columbus and his men returned to Haiti in 1493, they demanded food, gold, spun cotton-whatever the Indians 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 Indians 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.” 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.’ “
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 1,500 Arawaks, then selected the 500 best specimens (of whom 200 would die en route to Spain). Another 500 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.” 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.”
In the words of Hans Koning, “There now began a reign of terror in Hispaniola.” Spaniards hunted 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, 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.” With a fresh token, an Indian 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.
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 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.
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.
The tribute and encomienda systems caused incredible depopulation. On Haiti the colonists made the Indians mine gold for them, raise Spanish food, and even carry them everywhere they went. The Indians 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 Indian 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 Indians played a role, although smallpox, usually the big killer, did not appear on the island until after 1516. Some of the Indians tried fleeing to Cuba, but the Spanish soon followed them there. Estimates of Haiti’s pre-Columbian population range as high as 8,000,000 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 1,100,000. The Spanish did not count children under fourteen and could not count Arawaks who had escaped into the mountains. Kirkpatrick Sale estimates that a more accurate total would probably be in the neighborhood of 3,000,000. “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 200 Indians were alive in 1542. By 1555, they were all gone.
Thus nasty details like cutting off hands have somewhat greater historical importance than nice touches like “Tierra!” Haiti under the Spanish is one of the primary instances of genocide in all human history. Yet only one of the twelve textbooks, The American Pageant, mentions the extermination. None mentions Columbus’s role in it.
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 Indians to the Caribbean. But other nations rushed to emulate Columbus. In 1501 the Portuguese began to depopulate Labrador, transporting the now extinct Beothuk Indians to Europe and Cape Verde as slaves. After the British established beachheads on the Atlantic coast of North America, they encouraged coastal Indian tribes to capture and sell members of more distant tribes. Charleston, South Carolina, became a major port for exporting 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
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. On Haiti, sex slaves were one more perquisite that the Spaniards enjoyed. Columbus wrote a friend in 1500, “A hundred castellanoes are 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.”
The slave trade destroyed whole 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. 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.” 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 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.
Of the twelve textbooks, only six mention that the Spanish enslaved or exploited the Indians anywhere in the Americas. Of these only four verge on mentioning that Columbus was involved. The United States- A History of the Republic places the following passage about the fate of the Indians under the heading “The Fate of Columbus”: “Some Spaniards who had come to the Americas had begun to enslave and kill the original Americans. Authorities in Spain held Columbus responsible for the atrocities.” Note that A History takes pains to isolate Columbus from the enslavement charge-others were misbehaving. Life and Liberty implies that Columbus might have participated: “Slavery began in the New World almost as soon as Columbus got off the boat.” Only The American Adventure clearly associates Columbus with slavery. American History levels a vague charge: “Columbus was a great sailor and a brave and determined man. But he was not good at politics or business.” That’s it. The other books simply adore him.
As Kirkpatrick Sale poetically sums up, Columbus’s “second voyage marks the first extended encounter of European and Indian societies, the clash of cultures that was to echo down through five centuries.” The seeds of that five-century battle were sown in Haiti between 1493 and 1500. These are not mere details that our textbooks omit. They are facts crucial to understanding American and European history. Capt. John Smith, for example, used Columbus as a role model in proposing a get-tough policy for the Virginia Indians in 1624: “The manner how to suppress them is so often related and approved, I omit it here: And you have twenty examples of the Spaniards how they got the West Indies, and forced the treacherous and rebellious infidels to do all manner of drudgery work and slavery for them, themselves living like soldiers upon the fruits of their labors.” 70 The methods unleashed by Columbus are, in fact, the larger part of his legacy. After all, they worked. The island was so well pacified that Spanish convicts, given a second chance on Haiti, could “go anywhere, take any woman or girl, take anything, and have the Indians carry him on their backs as if they were mules.” In 1499, when Columbus finally found gold on Haiti in significant amounts, Spain became the envy of Europe. After 1500 Portugal, France, Holland, and Britain joined in conquering the Americas. These nations were at least as brutal as Spain. The British, for example, unlike the Spanish, did not colonize by making use of Indian labor but simply forced the Indians out of the way. Many Indians fled British colonies to ,, Spanish territories (Florida, Mexico) in search of more humane treatment.
Columbus’s voyages caused almost as much change in Europe as in the Americas. This is the other half of the vast process historians now call the Columbian exchange. 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 Larousse puts it, before America, “Europe was virtually incapable of self-criticism.” After America, Europe’s religious uniformity was ruptured. For how were these new peoples to be explained? They were not mentioned in the Bible. The 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,” 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 1517.
Politically, nations like the Arawaks-without monarchs, without much hierarchy-stunned Europeans. In 1516 Thomas More’s Utopia, 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 the 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 Indian nations as examples of simpler, better societies, from which European civilization had devolved, while others maligned the Indian societies 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.
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.” 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.
Columbus’s own writings reflect this increasing racism. When Columbus was selling Queen Isabella on the wonders of the Americas, 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 Indians, 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 the 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.
Columbus gives us the first recorded example of cognitive dissonance in the Americas, for although the Indians may have changed from hospitable to angry, they could hardly have evolved from intelligent to stupid so quickly. The change had to be in Columbus.