Columbus, the Indians, and Human Progress by Howard Zinn

Christopher Columbus Glazed Tile Painting - 9

Image by Anthony Catalano via Flickr

by Howard Zinn
Featured Writer
Dandelion Salad
October 12, 2009

An excerpt from A People’s History of the United States.

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, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. He 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.”

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. These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.

Columbus wrote:

“As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts.”

The information that Columbus wanted most was: Where is the gold?

****

The Indians, Columbus reported, “are so naive and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone….” He concluded his report by asking for a little help from their Majesties, and in return he would bring them from his next voyage “as much gold as they need . . . and as many slaves as they ask.” He was full of religious talk: “Thus the eternal God, our Lord, gives victory to those who follow His way over apparent impossibilities.”

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, taking 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, who reported that, although the slaves were “naked as the day they were born,” they showed “no more embarrassment than animals.” Columbus later wrote: “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.”

But too many of the slaves died in captivity. And so Columbus, desperate to pay back dividends to those who had invested, had to make good his promise to fill the ships with gold. In the province of Cicao on Haiti, where he 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.

Trying to put together an army of resistance, the Arawaks faced Spaniards who had armor, muskets, swords, horses. When the Spaniards took prisoners they hanged them or burned them to death. Among the Arawaks, mass suicides 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 Bartolome de las Casas, who, as a young priest, participated in the conquest of Cuba. For a time he owned a plantation on which Indian slaves worked, but he gave that up and became a vehement critic of Spanish cruelty.

*****

In Book Two of his History of the Indies, Las Casas (who at first urged replacing Indians by black slaves, thinking they were stronger and would survive, but later relented when he saw the effects on blacks) tells about the treatment of the Indians by the Spaniards. It is a unique account and deserves to be quoted at length:

“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, 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 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” or were carried on hammocks by Indians running in relays. “In this case they also had Indians carry large leaves to shade them from the sun and others to fan them with goose wings.”

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.” Las Casas 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, Las Casas reports. “they suffered and died in the mines and other labors in desperate silence, knowing not a soul in the world to whom they could tun for help.” He describes their work in the mines:

“… mountains are stripped from top to bottom and bottom to top a thousand times; they dig, split rocks, move stones, and carry dirt on their backs to wash it in the rivers, while those who wash gold stay in the water all the time with their backs bent so constantly it breaks them; and when water invades the mines, the most arduous task of all is to dry the mines by scooping up pansful of water and throwing it up outside….

After each six or eight months’ work in the mines, which was the time required of each crew to dig enough gold for melting, up to a third of the men died. While the men were sent many miles away to the mines, the wives remained to work the soil, forced into the excruciating job of digging and making thousands of hills for cassava plants.

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….”

When he arrived on Hispaniola in 1508, Las Casas says,

“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….”

Thus began the history, five hundred years ago, of the European invasion of the Indian settlements in the Americas. That beginning, when you read Las Casas-even if his figures are exaggerations (were there 3 million Indians to begin with, as he says, or less than a million, as some historians have calculated, or 8 million as others now believe?) is conquest, slavery, death. 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.

*****

The treatment of heroes (Columbus) and their victims (the Arawaks) the quiet acceptance of conquest and murder in the name of progress-is only one aspect of a certain approach to history, in which the past is told from the point of view of governments, conquerors, diplomats, leaders. It is as if they, like Columbus, deserve universal acceptance, as if they-the Founding Fathers, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, Kennedy, the leading members of Congress, the famous Justices of the Supreme Court-represent the nation as a whole. The pretense is that there really is such a thing as “the United States,” subject to occasional conflicts and quarrels, but fundamentally a community of people with common interests. It is as if there really is a “national interest” represented in the Constitution, in territorial expansion, in the laws passed by Congress, the decisions of the courts, the development of capitalism, the culture of education and the mass media.

“History is the memory of states,” wrote Henry Kissinger in his first book, A World Restored, in which he proceeded to tell the history of nineteenth-century Europe from the viewpoint of the leaders of Austria and England, ignoring the millions who suffered from those states men’s policies. From his standpoint, the “peace” that Europe had before the French Revolution was “restored” by the diplomacy of a few national leaders.

But for factory workers in England, farmers in France, colored people in Asia and Africa, women and children everywhere except in the upper classes, it was a world of conquest, violence, hunger, exploitation-a world not restored but disintegrated.

*****

When the Pilgrims came to New England they too were coming not to vacant land but to territory inhabited by tribes of Indians. The governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, created the excuse to take Indian land by declaring the area legally a “vacuum.” The Indians, he said, had not “subdued” the land, and therefore had only a “natural” right to it, but not a “civil right.” A “natural right” did not have legal standing.

The Puritans also 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 Indian population of 10 million that lived north of Mexico when Columbus came would ultimately be reduced to less than a million. Huge numbers of Indians would die from diseases introduced by the whites. A Dutch traveler in New Netherland wrote in 1656 that “the Indians . . . affirm, that before the arrival of the Christians, and before the smallpox broke out amongst them, they were ten times as numerous as they now are, and that their population had been melted down by this disease, whereof nine-tenths of them have died.” When the English first settled Martha’s Vineyard in 1642, the Wampanoags there numbered perhaps three thousand. There were no wars on that island, but by 1764, only 313 Indians were left there. Similarly, Block Island Indians numbered perhaps 1,200 to 1,500 in 1662, and by 1774 were reduced to fifty-one.

Behind the English invasion of North America, behind their massacre of Indians, their deception, their brutality, was that special powerful drive born in civilizations based on private property. It was a morally ambiguous drive; the need for space, for land, was a real human need. But in conditions of scarcity, in a barbarous epoch of history ruled by competition, this human need was transformed into the murder of whole peoples.

***

Updated: Oct. 9, 2017

ch 01) Columbus, The Indians, and Human Progress

andi burridge on Oct 7, 2016

More videos: A People’s History of American Empire by Howard Zinn

from the archives:

Howard Zinn: The Interpretation of History (1997; must-see)

Put Away The Flags by Howard Zinn

Untold Truths About the American Revolution by Howard Zinn (2009)

Howard Zinn: Myths of the Good Wars (Three Holy Wars) (must-see)

Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz: Pre-Colonial Socialism and the Effects of Genocide

The Intimately Oppressed by Howard Zinn (ch. 6)

see also:

It ain’t Arawak Day

55 thoughts on “Columbus, the Indians, and Human Progress by Howard Zinn

  1. Pingback: Happy Thanksgiving with Blood and Tears by Michael Parenti | Dandelion Salad

  2. Pingback: Abby Martin: Native American Genocide | Dandelion Salad

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  4. Reblogged this on Dolphin and commented:
    Happy Columbus Day. Not.
    I can’t imagine Jesus doing to these people what the Spaniards did and it sickens me that Christianity was used as an excuse to murder, rape and take from them.

  5. I’ll never forget the first chapter of Howard Zinn’s masterpiece about the Arawaks and how they were treated by Columbus and the Spaniards. So much for “Christian” kindness!

    If anything, CC and Spaniards initiated the biggest Holocaust in human history across two continents called “the New World.”

    As many of you have said already, what we were taught in school about that “visionary explorer” was nothing more than a fabricated fairy tale justifying, the “white man’s burden” in order to conquer and subdue the “savage heathens” for “God” and “Christ,” by any means necessary.

    When the Dutch ruled New York, (New Amsterdam), they paid the “settlers” (invaders?) a bounty for every Indian killed.After paying out so much money, they wondered why the native population wasn’t “reduced” they then required “proof” before paying the bounty.

    The proof was to “bring back the scalps” of the dead Indians whose hair was different than those of Dutch people.

    Many great comments on this thread by all, and thanks for the links.

    Weavergrace – good website!

    Between the insatiable greed of the capitalist system and human callousness and selfishness, Mother Earth will be destroyed, in spite of the “snail’s paced” awareness of the pending ecological disorder permeating the globe and the strong possibility of a nuclear war.

    “Do unto others as you would others do unto you.”

    • Well I so agree with you Frank, it is just unbearable, this unutterable pain of life not lived in a Sacred Manner.

      We deceive and are self-deceived by specious and pious rituals that only serve to induct us into the bewildering halls of ignorance, those grotesque precincts shaped by the shameful perversity of self-adulating priests of manifold profane persuasions.

      Truth resides in the living heart, and is only freely exercised through a purified will.

      To aspire to act from authentic spiritual strength is a great task…if we are to honour this divine Earth, to consecrate our true selves/Selves as agents of conscious Cosmic intention, to devote our alchemical energies to the Great Work ~ immune to the misogynist guilt and “holy” lies that only mire us further in the corrupting obscurity of lunatic sexist conceits, begotten by persuasive bigots and cunning opportunists….

      • Amen, David. How true! You said it well.

        We had the honor of meeting Howard Zinn in person in the early 2000’s. I always thought he was an angelic man, (“by his works shall ye know them”), and seeing him firsthand, cinched it for me.

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  8. Someone commented on my blog and kindly suggested that I visit this post. Thank you everyone here for keeping these stories in the public eye. You are doing important work that makes a difference.

    • Thanks for dropping by and your comment, weavergrace.

      I generally republish this piece every year as I agree with you that this history does need to be kept alive.

      Off topic:

      Very cool that you are a weaver. What a great skill to have for the future. I know a little bit of weaving on an Inkle Loom. Mostly, I knit.

  9. Thank you, had not read this much information, (facts) of the horrors inflicted by Columbus. A real reminder of the brutally violent raping, pillaging and killing everything in his way. The moral message I get from this Excellent History lesson, is that the “Columbus’s” are still at it. The animals are suffering this violence everyday, the Koch Bro’s are expecting the “gold” from their oil pipelines destroying the lands and oceans at an insane rate.http://www.theherald.com.au/story/1848433/the-ocean-is-broken/ If we do not declare a Revolution, we will have allowed these “Columbus Monster’s” to have destroyed us all.

    • Dominique, this Herald report is beyond nightmarish. We all know the 2011 tsunami event was apocalyptic in its consequences, but getting up close and personal in the way Macfadyen describes it is the most dreadful thing.

      Governments always play down disasters, however bad things are they always tell us it ‘s fine; but this is not fine.

      The notion that this mess is best left because it is too costly in terms of energy/environmental risk, is utterly contemptible “academic” sophistry ~ a total abrogation of responsibility! It’s just “fine” according to this lofty calculus, to condone the environmental impacts of one thousand military bases worldwide, all of the damage done by war activity everywhere, and who knows what amount of environmental damage from multiple extraction ecocide and industrial “development,” but it’s too risky to tackle this appalling catastrophe…!!!

      Ever feel like dragging these idiots by the scruff of the neck and dropping them in the ocean along with all the detritus? It’ll all be fine, just pretend it isn’t happening and it’ll go away ~ eventually, like radionuclide half-lives. Don’t worry folks, the TPP will save you.

      Well, these people should hear the news, it isn’t fine and it isn’t going away anywhere. It’s just getting worse & is here to stay. This Fukushima event is the nemesis that will change the world, make no mistake.

      As for the original topic of American indigenous genocide, I commend the 2010 TED talk by Aaron Huey, also part of a compilation “up close and personal”
      https://archive.org/details/AaronHuey_2010X

      there is also a transcript here http://dotsub.com/view/6109ed4e-e397-4066-a603-93d5b6428f03/viewTranscript/eng?timed=true

      The bison were slaughtered, the grasslands destroyed for indigestible wheat that has led to a disastrous trade glut and imminent world food crisis that will be upon us before we can blink too many times, and now hybrid stock as a mere fraction of what constituted the original wild herds of native cattle are crammed in lots and fed poisonous toxic GM “corn” by-product that is totally inedible, unless processed as chemically induced syrup or into 80% fat content hormone saturated burgers.

      We are witnessing the transformation of our Sacred Earth through petrochemical “abundance” into nuclear desolation.

      If we are to survive this epoch, we must stop listening to politicians, spindoctors and experts, and act from the strength of our own, most powerful instincts ~ fortified by the biological facts of planetary life.

  10. When I wrote my comment last year I ought to have said the Spirit of Crazy Horse and, Black Elk’s extraordinary Vision of the Sacred Hoop.

    Just for the record I highly recommend Alfred W Crosby’s (1986) The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900. His accounts of pre-columbian America are truly amazing, documenting the evidence for large populations now almost completely forgotten in areas like Florida, subsequently virtually exterminated by European diseases, their cultural existence has been erased from popular memory.

    What a miracle is progressive education! gee thanks Mr Rockefeller…

  11. Have you read Conquest of Mexico by Bernal Diaz de la Castilla ? He was soldier with Cortez 1519-1521. Aztecs were monstrous cannibals and he describes markets featuring butchered human parts and relates piles of tens of thousands of skulls in various cities.

    • The tribe referenced in the piece were Arawaks not Aztecs. The monolithic conception of the inhabitants of the Americas is a misconception that has plagued any discourse regarding the atrocities committed by the invading European armies.

        • No thanks necessary. The fact that elementary school kids are still being taught that ridiculous “Christopher Columbus” song shows that the concerted effort to confuse the opinions of the public starts rather early. Many get to old age and still use the phrase “discovered America” when referencing that genocidal maniac.
          Btw, got here thru a series of fortuitous clicks and think that you do amazing work. Another beacon of truth is always a good thing..

  12. Pingback: Howard Zinn: Columbus, the Indians, and Human Progress | Dandelion Salad

  13. Mankind’s ignorance is the real author of hell, which is concealed and denied. There never was a moment in recent times more urgent than now, that we so needed the vision of Crazy Horse to resonate through our souls’ imaginative lexicon of cosmic possibilities. So long as we can remember our sacred future, we shall never forget our profane past ~ because it is what we must learn from, our collective experience as a species. It is our history and ours alone, and we must own it and take it to heart, before we can summon the will to transform it.

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    • this wonderful artical&the book”bury my heart at woundedknee” saddens my soul&tells american citizens(if their minds&hearts are open) everything they need to know about this evil nation&we all need to find the courage it’s going to take to stand up to and finnaly put an end to this evil,murderous,corrupt,phoney system we live under before it destroys the entire planet! ho ka hey/it is a good time to live

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  20. When Zinn chose to write about atrocities committed against the Indians there was plenty of material to choose from. Of course, it wasn’t one sided any more than today’s conflicts. However, it seems evident that as long as Europeans were flooding to America the conflicts were inevitable. Also inevitable that the Indians would ultimately lose.

    Zinn was an “open borders” proponent. “If you don’t have a vision, for instance, of a world without national boundaries, you are not in a position to really evaluate very specific things, like should Congress pass this immigration law, or should we pass that immigration law, should we restrict immigration this much or immigration that much. But if you have that vision of the kind of world that you want, then it becomes clear what your attitude has to be towards immigration, which is people should be able to move: there shouldn’t be such a thing as a foreigner, an alien, an immigrant.”

    How would Zinn have advised the Indians regarding the arriving Europeans?

  21. Pingback: Columbus, the Indians, and Human Progress by Howard Zinn (repost) « Dandelion Salad

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  23. There are a few things that can be done. The reservations are in terrible shape for a country so rich. The Lakota people need blankets to survive the cold winters in North and South Dakota, since they no longer have buffalo robes. The government of Brazil can set aside protected areas so the gold miners and Amazonian Indians do not come into conflict. However, as Omar Khayyam wrote ” The moving finger writes and having writ moves on. Nor thy piety nor thy wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all thy tears wash out a single word of it..”

    • Shaine,can right the past by getting active,by the millions upon millions of citizens,who are well aware that nothing has changed in last 300 or so years under this evil system we the people have allowed by our inaction to grow into the monster it is today!!!!time for talk is over,without direct civil action/disobedience,we will follow our native brothers and sisters into a life of pain and hell!!!!!!!

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