History is not, as we have been brought up to believe, a boring collection of dates and events to be memorised. The authors of Telling the Truth About History record several bitterly contested accounts of history. One of them concerns the discoverer of America, Christopher Columbus. In 1992, the 500th year celebrations of the discovery of America were spoilt by Native American protests against Columbus; a ruthless and greedy mass murderer, according to their accounts. The discovery of the Americas was a watershed event in European history, as it provided access to virtually limitless resources, and was critical in the dramatic progress of the Western civilisation. Thus, Western historians have every reason to celebrate Columbus.
However, a closer look at the conquest of Americas is a story of unimaginable brutality. These events, detailed in A Peoples History of the United States, bring tears to those sensitive to human suffering. Howard Zinn has done a tremendous service in rewriting American history from the point of view of the people, which leads to a perspective on events dramatically opposed to the picture one would get by reading standard texts which glorify the victors and ignore the vanquished. What concerns us here is not so much the barbaric acts, but the fact that highly respected and knowledgeable historians have deliberately suppressed or de-emphasised these facts, to create images of heroism out of acts of savagery.
Upon arrival in the new world, Columbus and his sailors were greeted by the Arawaks who brought them food, water and gifts. 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… .” More importantly, “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.” This is precisely what the Spaniards proceeded to do.
Bartolome de las Casas was a young priest who participated in the conquest of Cuba but eventually became a vehement critic of Spanish cruelty. He writes that the Spaniards thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades. The entire population was enslaved. Men worked the mines, while wives worked the soil. Heavily over-worked, depressed and exhausted, Indians “ceased to procreate … husbands died in the mines, wives died at work, and children died from lack of milk … 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.” Las Casas provides the gruesome details of the genocide of eight million Indians.
These facts came as a shock in 1992 to a public taught to hero-worship Columbus. Harvard historian Morison dismisses the genocide in one sentence in his multi-volume biography: “The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide.” Morison sums up his evaluation by saying that the outstanding qualities of Columbus more than make up for his minor defects.
Why does it matter whether we celebrate Columbus, or count him among mass-murderers like Genghis Khan and Stalin? The stories we tell about our past are of crucial importance in shaping our future. Celebrating Columbus and ignoring genocide as a minor issue play an important role in enabling the killings of millions of civilians in Vietnam, Iraq, Dresden, and many other places. We realise Hitler is only reviled because he lost the battle. There are no objective ways to resolve contested historical evaluations of achievements and failures. Nonetheless, these evaluations shape our values and guide our actions.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 24th, 2015.
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