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Columbus, The Indians + Human Progress

January 5, 2016


By Howard Zinn

…excerpt of Chapter 1, from “The People’s History of the United States” (abridged)

The history of any country conceals fierce conflicts of interest between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex.

And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.

My point is not to grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners. Those tears, that anger, cast into the past, deplete our moral energy for the present. And the lines are not always clear. The cry of the poor is not always just, but if you don’t listen to it, you will never know what justice is.

1. Columbus, The Indians, and Human Progress

When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts.

These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like indians on the mainland who were remarkable (european observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality, their belief in sharing.

He later wrote in his log:

They willingly traded everything they owned… They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features… They would make fine servants. with fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want

Like other informed people of his time, Columbus knew the world was round. He had persuaded the king and queen of spain to an expedition to the lands, the wealth, he expected would be on the other side of the Altantic–the indies and asia, gold and spices. Spain was recently unified, one of the new modern nation-states, like France, England, and Portugal. Its population, mostly poor peasants, worked for the nobility, who were 2 percent of the population and owned 95 percent of the land. Like other states of the modern world, Spain sought gold, which was becoming the new mark of wealth, more useful than land because it could buy anything

in return for bringing back gold and spices, they promised Columbus 10 percent of the profits, governorship over new-found lands, and the fame that would go with a new title: Admiral of the ocean sea. He was an expert sailor but he would have never made it to Asia, which was thousands of miles father away than he had calculated, imagining a much smaller world. he would have been doomed by the great expanse of sea. But he was lucky. One-fourth of the way there he came upon an unknown, uncharted land that lay between Europe and Asia–the Americas.

it was early october 1492, and 33 days since he and his crew had left the Canary Islands, off the the coast of Africa. Now they saw branches and sticks floating in the water. They saw flocks of birds. These were signs of land. Then on October 12, a sailor called Rodrigo saw the early morning moon shining on white sands, and cried out. It was an island in the Bahamas. The first man to sight land was supposed to get a yearly pension of 10,000 maravedis for life, but Rodrigo never got it. Columbus claimed he had seen a light the evening before. He got the reward.

So, approaching land, they were met by the Arawak Indians, who swam out to greet them. The Arawaks lived in village communes, had a developed agriculture of corn, yams, cassava. They could spin and weave, but they had no horses or work animals. They had no iron, but they wore tiny gold ornaments in their ears.

This was to have enormous consequences: it led columbus to take some of them aboard his ship as prisoners because he insisted that they guide him to the source of the gold. He then sailed to what is now Cuba, then to Hispaniola (the island which today consists of Haiti and the Dominican Republic). There, bits of visible gold in the rivers, and a gold mask presented to Columbus by a local Indian chief, led to wild visions of gold fields.

On Hispaniola, out of timbers from the Santa Maria, which had run aground, Columbus built a fort, the first European military base in the Western Hemisphere. He called it Navidad (Christmas) and left thirty-nine crew members there, with instructions to find and store the gold. He took more Indian prisoners and put them aboard his two remaining ships. At one part of the island he got into a fight with Indians who refused to trade as many bows and arrows as he and his men wanted. Two were run through with swords and bled to death. Then the Nina and the Pinta set sail for the Azores and Spain. When the weather turned cold, the Indian prisoners began to die.

Because of Columbus’s exaggerated report and promises, his second expedition was given seventeen ships and more than twelve hundred men. The aim was clear: slaves and gold. They went from island to island in the Caribbean, taking Indians as captives. But as word spread of the Europeans’ intent they found more and more empty villages. On Haiti, they found that the sailors left behind at Fort Navidad had been killed in a battle with the Indians, after they had roamed the island in gangs looking for gold, talking women and children as slaves for sex and labor.

Now, from his base on Haiti, Columbus sent expedition after expedition into the interior. They found no gold fields but had to fill up the ships returning to Spain with some kind of dividend. In the year 1495, they went on a great slave raid, rounded up fifteen hundred Arawak men, women, and children, put them in pens guarded by Spaniards and dogs, then picked the five hundred best specimens to load onto ships. Of those five hundred, two hundred died en route. The rest arrived alive in Spain and were put up for sale by the archdeacon of the town.

On Haiti, where Columbus and his men imagined huge gold fields to exist, they ordered all persons fourteen years or older to collect a certain quantity of gold every three months. When they brought it, they were given copper tokens to hang around their necks. Indians found without a copper token had their hands cut off and bled to death. The Indians had been given an impossible task. The only gold around was bits of dust garnered from the streams. So they fled, were hunted down with dogs, and were killed.

When the Spaniards took prisoners they hanged them or burned them to death. Among the Arawaks, mass suicide began, with cassava poison. Infants were killed to save them from the Spaniards. In two years, through murder, mutilation, or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead.

When it became clear that there was no gold left, the Indians were taken as slave labor on huge estates, known later as encomiendas. They were worked at a ferocious pace, and died by the thousands. By the year 1515, there were perhaps fifty thousand Indians left. By 1550, there were five hundred. A report of the year 1650 shows none of the original Arawaks or their descendants left on the island.

The chief source–and, on many matters the only source–of information about what happened on the islands after Columbus came is Bartolomé de las Casas, who, as a young priest, participated in the conquest of Cuba. For a time owned a plantation on which Indian slaves worked, but he gave that up and became a vehement critic of Spanish cruelty. Las Casas transcribed Columbus’s journal and, in his fifties, began a multivolume History of the Indies. In it, he describes the Indians.

Women in Indian society were treated so well as to startle the Spaniards. Las Casas describes sex relations:

Marriage laws are non existent: men and women alike choose their mates and leave them as they please, without offense, jealousy or anger. They multiply in great abundance; pregnant women work to the last minute and give birth almost painlessly; up the next day, they bathe in the river and are as clean and healthy as before giving birth…

…They prize 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. They lack all manner of commerce, neither buying nor selling, and rely exclusively on their natural environment for maintenance. They are extremely generous with their possessions and by the same token covet the possessions of their friends and expect the same degree of liberality…

In Book Two of the History of the indies, Las Casas tells about the treatment of the indians by the spaniards. it is a unique account and deserves to be quoted at length:

Las Casas tells how the Spaniards “grew more conceited every day” and after a while refused to walk any distance. They “rode the backs of Indians if they were in a hurry”. Total control led to total cruelty.

The Spaniards “thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades.” A story tells how “two of these so-called Christians met two Indian boys one day, each carrying a parrot; they took the parrots and for fun beheaded the boys.

The Indians attempts to defend themselves failed. And when they ran off into the hills they were found and killed. So it was reported “they suffered and died in the mines and other labors in desperate silence, knowing not a soul in the world to whom they could turn for help.

Thus husbands and wives were together only once every eight or ten months and when they met they were so exhausted and depressed on both sides… they ceased to procreate. As for the newly born, they died early because their mothers, overworked and famished, had no milk to nurse them, and for this reason, while I was in Cuba, 7000 children died in three months.
Some mothers even drowned their babies from sheer desperation… In this way, husbands died in the mines, wives died at work, and children died from lack of milk… and in a short time this land which was so great, so powerful and fertile… was depopulated… My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write…

Thus began the history, five hundred years ago, of the European invasion of the Indian settlements in the Americas. When we read the history books given to children in the United States, it all starts with heroic adventure- there is no bloodshed- and Columbus Day is a celebration.


Samuel Eliot Morison, The Harvard historian, was the most distinguished writer on Columbus, the author of a multi-volume biography, tells about the enslavement and the killing:

The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide.

That is on one page, buried halfway into the telling of a grand romance. He does not omit the story of mass murder; he does something else–he mentions the truth quickly and goes on to other things more important to him.

To state the facts and then bury them in a mass of other information is to say to the reader with a certain infectious calm: yes, mass murder took place, but it’s not that important.

The easy acceptance of atrocities is a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress– that is still with us. 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 lack of moral proportion and sense, 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.


What Columbus did to the Arawaks of the Bahamas, Cortes did to the Aztecs of Mexico, Pizarro to the Incas of Peru, and the Enlgish settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts to the Powhatans and the Pequots.

Hernando Cortes came from Spain with an expedition financed by merchants and landowners with one obsessive goal: to find gold.

Cortes then began his march of death from town to town, using deception, turning Aztec against Aztec, killing with the kind of deliberateness that accompanies a strategy–to paralyze the will of the population by a sudden frightful deed.

And so, in Cholulu, he invited the headmen of the Cholula nation to the square. And when they came, with thousands of unarmed retainers, Cortes’s small army of Spaniards, posted around the square with cannon, armed with crossbows, mounted on horses, massacred them, down to the last man. Then they looted the city and moved on. When their cavalcade of murder was over they were in Mexico City, Montezuma was dead, and the Aztec civilization, shattered, was in the hands of the Spaniards.
All this is told in the Spaniards’ own accounts.

In Peru, that other Spanish conquistador Pizarro, used the same tactics, and for the same reasons–the frenzy in the early capitalist states of Europe for gold, for slaves, for products of the soil, to pay the bondholders and stockholders of the expeditions, to finance the monarchical bureaucracies rising in Western Europe, and to spur the growth of the new money economy rising out of feudalism.

These were the violent beginnings of an intricate system of technology, business, politics, and culture that would dominate the world for the next five centuries.


In the North American English colonies, the pattern was set early, as Colombus had set it in the islands of the Bahamas.

Jamestown itself was set up inside the territory of an Indian confederacy, led by the chief, Powhatan. Powhatan watched the English settle on his people’s land, but did not attack, maintaining a posture of coolness. When the English were going through their “starving time” in the winter of 1610, some of them ran off to join the Indians, where they would at least be fed. When the summer came, the governor of the colony sent a messenger to ask Powhatan to return the runaways, whereupon Powhatan, according to the English account, replied with “noe other than prowde and disdaynefull Answers.” Some soldiers were therefore sent out “to take Revendge.” They fell upon an Indian settlement, killed fifteen or sixteen Indians, burned the houses, cut down the corn growing around the village, took the queen of the tribe and her children into boats, then ended up throwing the children overboard “and shoteinge owtt their Braynes in the water.” The queen was later taken off and stabbed to death.

Twelve years later, the Indians, alarmed as the English settlements kept growing in numbers, apparently decided to try to wipe them out for good. They went on a rampage and massacred 347 men, women, and children. From then on it was total war.

Not able to enslave the Indians, and not able to live with them, the English decided to exterminate them.

When the Pilgrims came to New England they too were coming not to vacant land but to territory inhabited by tribes of Indians.

The Puritans appealed to the Bible, Psalms 2:8: “Ask of me, and I shall give thee, the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.” And to justify their use of force to take the land, they cited Romans 13:2: ” Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.”

The Puritans lived in uneasy truce with the Pequot Indian, who occupied what is now southern Connecticut and Rhode Island. The murder of a white trader, Indian-kidnaper, and troublemaker became an excuse to make war on the Pequots in 1636.

A punitive expedition left Boston to attack the Narrangansett Indians on Block Island, who were lumped with the Pequots.

The English landed and killed some Indians, but the rest hid in the thick forests of the island and the English went from one deserted village to the next, destroying crops. Then they sailed back to the mainland and raided Pequot villages along the cost, destroying crops again.

One of the officers of that expedition, in his account, gives some insight into the Pequots they encountered: “The Indians spying of us came running in multitudes along the water side, crying, What cheer, Englishmen, what cheer, what do you come for? They not thinking we intended war, went on cheerfully….”
So, the war with the Pequots began. . .

Was all this bloodshed and deceit-from Columbus to Cortes, Pizarro, the Puritans-a necessity for the human race to progress?

What did people in Spain get out of all that death and brutality visited on the Indians of the Americas? As Hans Koning sums it up in his book Columbus: His Enterprise:

For all the gold and silver stolen and shipped to Spain did not make the Spanish people richer. It gave their kings an edge in the balance of power for a time, a chance to hire more mercenary soldiers for their wars. They ended up losing those wars anyway, and all that was left was a deadly inflation, a starving population, the rich richer, the poor poorer, and a ruined peasant class.

Beyond all that, how certain are we that what was destroyed was inferior? Who were these people who came out on the beach and swam to bring presents to Columbus and his crew, who watched Cortes and Pizarro ride through their countryside, who peered out of the forests at the first white settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts?

Widely dispersed over the great land mass of the Americas, they numbered approximately 75 million people by the time Columbus came

They perfected the art of agriculture, and figured out how to grow maize (corn), which cannot grow by itself and must be planted, cultivated, fertilized, harvested, husked, shelled. They ingeniously developed a variety of other vegetables and fruits, as well as peanuts and chocolate and tobacco and rubber.

On their own, the Indians were engaged in the great agricultural revolution that other peoples in Asia, Europe, Africa were going through about the same time.

While many of the tribes remained nomadic hunters and food gatherers in wandering, egalitarian communes, others began to live in more settled communities where there was more food, larger populations, more divisions of labor among men and women, more surplus to feed chiefs and priests, more leisure time for artistic and social work, for building houses.

In the villages of the Iroquois, land was owned in common and worked in common. Hunting was done together, and the catch was divided among the members of the village. Houses were considered common property and were shared by several families. The concept of private ownership of land and homes was foreign to the Iroquois. A French Jesuit priest who encountered them in the 1650s wrote: “No poorhouses are needed among them, because they are neither mendicants nor paupers.. . . Their kindness, humanity and courtesy not only makes them liberal with what they have, but causes them to possess hardly anything except in common.”

Women were important and respected in Iroquois society. The senior women in the village named the men who represented the clans at village and tribal councils. They also named the forty-nine chiefs who were the ruling council for the Five Nation confederacy of the Iroquois. The women attended clan meetings, stood behind the circle of men who spoke and voted, and removed the men from office if they strayed too far from the wishes of the women.

As Gary B. Nash notes in his fascinating study of early America, Red, White, and Black: “Thus power was shared between the sexes and the European idea of male dominancy and female subordination in all things was conspicuously absent in Iroquois society.”

Children in Iroquois society, while taught the cultural heritage of their people and solidarity with the tribe, were also taught to be independent, not to submit to overbearing authority. They were taught equality in status and the sharing of possessions. The Iroquois did not use harsh punishment on children; they did not insist on early weaning or early toilet training, but gradually allowed the child to learn self-care.

All of this was in sharp contrast to European values as brought over by the first colonists, a society of rich and poor, controlled by priests, by governors, by male heads of families. For example, the pastor of the Pilgrim colony, John Robinson, thus advised his parishioners how to deal with their children: “And surely there is in all children … a stubbornness, and stoutness of mind arising from natural pride, which must, in the first place, be broken and beaten down; that so the foundation of their education being laid in humility and tractableness, other virtues may, in their time, be built thereon.”

Gary Nash describes 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. Though priding themselves on the autonomous individual, the Iroquois maintained a strict sense of right and wrong…. He who stole another’s food or acted invalourously in war was “shamed” by his people and ostracized from their company until he had atoned for his actions and demonstrated to their satisfaction that he had morally purified himself."

Not only the Iroquois but other Indian tribes behaved the same way. In 1635, Maryland Indians responded to the governor’s demand that if any of them killed an Englishman, the guilty one should be delivered up for punishment according to English law. The Indians said:

"It is the manner amongst us Indians, that if any such accident happen, wee doe redeeme the life of a man that is so slaine, with a 100 armes length of Beades and since that you are heere strangers, and come into our Countrey, you should rather conform yourselves to the Customes of our Countrey, than impose yours upon us…."

So, Columbus and his successors were not coming into an empty wilderness, but into a world which in some places was as densely populated as Europe itself, where the culture was complex, where human relations were more egalitarian than in Europe, and where the relations among men, women, children, and nature were more beautifully worked out than perhaps any place in the world.

it is enough to make us question, for that time and ours, the excuse of progress in the annihilation of races, and the telling of history from the standpoint of the conquerors and leaders of Western civilization.

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