10 October 2015

Columbus: Bold Explorer or Genocidal Asshat?

(In which I suspend snark and translation tales to address marked asshattery. Fine, there's still snark. I wrote this in 2007. I'm surprised every year by requests for it, so ... the debut at the new digs.)

In fourteen-hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

Remember that? That little rhyme is probably why 1492 is the one date we actually remember from school. I bet you can name all three ships too: the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María. In third grade, I made miniature versions out of construction paper. I used Popsicle sticks for the masts. It was fun.

Too bad they don't teach you the rest of the story in school.

In fourteen-hundred and ninety-three, Columbus stole all he could see.

What are we really celebrating on Columbus Day? Ask any school kid, and little Johnny's likely to recite, "Columbus discovered America." Except he didn't. He didn't "discover" it, and it wasn't present-day "America". The man thought he had found India by the backdoor. Like some 15th-century Rick Steve tour. He and his crew murdered, raped, and enslaved the people who were already there. Christopher Columbus never even set foot on what we in the United States call "America".

Nevertheless, he has a holiday and a place in every textbook in this country. Textbooks that don't teach us what really happened. At best, you get a watered-down, whitewashed [ahem], quick mention. Like this:

Much controversy exists over Columbus' expeditions and whether or not one can "discover" an already-inhabited land. The natives of the Bahamas and other islands on his journey were peaceful and friendly. Yet many of them were later enslaved by the Spanish. Also, it is known that the Vikings explored the North American coast 500 years before Columbus.

Nevertheless, Columbus' expedition was unique and important in that it resulted in the first intertwining of Europe with the Americas, resulting in the first permanent European colonies in the New World.

Wow, they actually mentioned enslavement, and the land already being inhabited (and therefore, already discovered, asshat). But we quickly move on past that unpleasantness, right on to the "Nevertheless..." bit. After all, his murderous asshattery did lead to the first permanent European colonies in the New World, and that's what's really important.

Because nothing is real until the Europeans say it is, y'all. If you don't believe me, just pick up any US textbook.

History is written by the victors.
~Winston Churchill

You got that right, Winston.

the lowdown
In my daughters' History of the Americas class, the instructors taught from Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States: 1492 to the Present. If you haven't read it, click it, order it. I'm serious - please get this book. Anyway, they were fortunate. Howard Zinn is not usually found in high school history classrooms. My eldest's instructor also held a mock trial for Columbus, in which my daughter was prosecuting attorney. The kids in the "regular" classes don't get this perspective. They get the regular textbooks. Which could, if I were in the habit of digressing, bring me back to the subject of who is and isn't represented in the IB honors classes, and the system of advantage in our institutions. But I won't digress.

Zinn doesn't gloss over what happened. He presents a very different version of history, using primary sources (What a concept!) that we're going to look at today, such as the journals of Columbus and others who were there. This description of the Taino -- renamed "Indians" behind the faulty navigation -- was penned by the invader himself:

... they 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 . . .

. . . 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 would make fine servants . . . With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.

~Christopher Columbus, personal journal

Ah, colonizer thinking at its best. Didn't even cross his mind to respect the people already on the land. Shoot, it didn't cross his mind to even see them as people. Because it wasn't really about exploration, it was about ownership. It was about taking whatever the fuck you want, even if someone else was there first. You want gold? Take it. Take it in the name of your Almighty God, because that makes everything all right. Those people already living here? Take them, too. Hell, make them get the gold for you. Less work. If they don't cooperate, kill them. Or cut their hands off.

That'll learn 'em.

Columbus got gold fever when he saw some of the Taino wearing small gold earrings. He brought 500 natives back to Spain as slaves. Well, 200 didn't make it, actually, but no matter; he managed to convince the Spanish royalty that there was gold in them thar hills, and was funded for a second voyage. This time with 17 ships and over 1,200 men to colonize their find.

Hey, if there's gold to be had, go after it -- you can't expect uncivilized brown folks to manage a valuable commodity like gold. Or oil. (But that's another story.) It's time for some conquering and subjugation, by gawd. Problem was, there really wasn't that much gold to be found.

So they instituted a quota. Zinn writes:

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.

Taino who didn't meet the gold quota lost their hands.
So if your 14-year-old son couldn't collect his quota of gold because it basically wasn't there to collect, some guy who had just shown up on your land one day would cut off your son's hands. Maybe leave them dangling from his arms. For a laugh. Make you watch.

Think about that.

According to James Loewen in Lies My Teacher Told Me, the Spaniards forced the Taino to work in mines. The ecosystem was affected, and the people suffered from malnutrition on top of the beatings, rapes, and disciplinary amputations. Diseases ran rampant, immunities were low or nonexistent. The Spaniards forced the people to carry them from place to place. Because who wants to waste energy on walking when you've got hands to cut off and people to string up? Those who survived all that were driven to suicide, abortion, even killing their own newborn infants in order to spare them from life in those conditions.

Pre-Columbian population estimates vary, but run as high as 8 million.
-- By 1496, the estimate is about 3 million.
-- By 1516, about 12,000.
-- By 1542, fewer than 200 were left.
-- By 1555, they had been essentially exterminated.

Yeah, that's called genocide. Mass murder at the hands of the bold explorer. But that's not all:

Because the Indians had 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.

~James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me

Whoa, what? Did you all catch that? Because this is important: after Dad and pals decimate the Native populations, Junior heads to Africa to replenish the labor force. The African slave trade. Because they killed off the Native slaves. Way to carry on the family legacy, Junior. Genocide and slavery.

This is what we're celebrating, people. 

A Dominican priest's eyewitness account -- not an opinion, an actual eyewitness account:

Their reason for killing and destroying such an infinite number of souls is that the Christians have an ultimate aim, which is to acquire gold, and to swell themselves with riches in a very brief time and thus rise to a high estate disproportionate to their merits.

It should be kept in mind that their insatiable greed and ambition, the greatest ever seen in the world, is the cause of their villainies. And also, those lands are so rich and felicitous, the native peoples so meek and patient, so easy to subject, that our Spaniards have no more consideration for them than beasts.

And I say this from my own knowledge of the acts I witnessed. But I should not say "than beasts" for, thanks be to God, they have treated beasts with some respect; I should say instead like excrement on the public squares.

~Bartolomé de las Casas, Dominican priest and settler, personal journal

Damn. That's some greed, right there, folks. That's a serious entitlement complex. And, I'm thinking, it's not too far off from some things going on today, 500 years later.

The Spaniards, in a clever act of rationalization, would read a proclamation -- in Spanish, of course -- informing the Taino that the land and everything on it now belonged to the invaders to do with what they would. If the people chose not to cooperate after hearing the proclamation, well, that's their own fault, isn't it?

More from the Dominican priest -- again, dude was there. He saw this shit (emphasis mine):

They attacked the towns and spared neither the children nor the aged nor pregnant women nor women in childbed, not only stabbing them and dismembering them, but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughter house.

They laid bets as to who, with one stroke of the sword, could split a man in two or could cut off his head or spill out his entrails with a single stroke of the pike.

They took infants from their mothers' breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them headfirst against the crags or snatched them by the arms and threw them into the rivers, roaring with laughter and saying as the babies fell into the water, 'Boil there, you offspring of the devil!' Other infants they put to the sword along with their mothers and anyone else who happened to be nearby.

They made some low wide gallows on which the hanged victim's feet almost touched the ground, stringing up their victims in lots of thirteen, in memory of Our Redeemer and His twelve Apostles, then set burning wood at their feet and thus burned them alive.

To others they attached straw or wrapped their whole bodies in straw and set them afire. With still others, all those they wanted to capture alive, they cut off their hands and hung them round the victim's neck, saying, 'Go now, carry the message,' ...

They would cut an Indian's hands and leave them dangling by a shred of skin and they would send him on saying, 'Go now, spread the news to your chiefs.'

They usually dealt with the chieftains and nobles in the following way: they made a rid of rods which they placed on forked sticks, then lashed the victims to the grid and lighted a smoldering fire underneath, so that little by little, as those captives screamed in despair and torment, their souls would leave them...

~Bartolomé de las Casas, Dominican priest and settler, personal journal

Yeah, that's the real story. That's the unpleasantness that our history books left out.

So if you skimmed over that part, go back and read it.

It's one paragraph, people. One minute.

That's what is still being left out of your kids' history books now, and what your kids probably did not learn about last week. On Columbus Day. But hey, maybe they made a paper ship with Popsicle sticks, or a sailing hat. They might have learned about Old World foods and New World foods, or talked about what it might have been like to be on a ship for 69 days.


So ...

That's what happened. And now we have this holiday. Why?  Why, with all this information -- from the actual journals of Columbus and others who were there, no less -- are we still teaching our children that this racist murderer is some great icon of exploration and innovation? Why do we still have a federal holiday, giving the man and his actions the tacit approval of our government?

Well, for one thing, our government still holds him up as an example for us all in the pursuit of our great goals. Read between the lines and weep:

Christopher Columbus not only opened the door to a New World, but also set an example for us all by showing what monumental feats can be accomplished through perseverance and faith.

~George H.W. Bush, 1989 speech

In 1492, Christopher Columbus set sail on a journey that changed the course of history. On Columbus Day, we celebrate this voyage of discovery and honor an Italian explorer who shaped the destiny of the New World.

Christopher Columbus' bold journey across the Atlantic opened new frontiers of exploration and demonstrated the power of perseverance. His journeys inspired other risk-takers and dreamers to test the bounds of their imagination and gave them the courage to accomplish great feats, whether crossing the world's oceans or walking on the moon.

Today, a new generation of innovators and pioneers continues to uphold the finest values of our country discipline, ingenuity, and unity in the pursuit of great goals.

~George W. Bush, October 8, 2007

Our Nation is built on the efforts of men and women who possess both the vision to see beyond what is and the desire to pursue what might be. Today, the same passion for discovery that drove Columbus is leading bold visionaries to explore the frontiers of space, find new energy sources, and solve our most difficult medical challenges.

~George W. Bush, October 9, 2006

Did you catch that bit about finding new energy sources? Wake up, people! How much has really changed? Yesterday's gold is today's oil. Our government, still today, holds Columbus up as an example of the "monumental feats" that can be "accomplished through perseverance and faith."

And to the victors belong the spoils.

Here's the thing:

As long as Columbus is officially held up as a bold explorer, forcible domination of groups who have something we want -- gold, oil, land -- continues to be seen as the norm. Invasion and colonization of groups deemed to be "less civilized" than we are continues to be seen as natural.

If Columbus were to be officially recognized as a mass murderer, if the holiday were no longer sanctioned by our government, then we'd have to examine history through a different lens. We'd have to examine ourselves, as individuals, and as a country.

We'd have to ask ourselves the question:  If forcible invasion and domination was wrong then ... how do we justify it now?

History is indeed written by the victors. And it's perpetuated by those who benefit from that victory.

Carlos Latuff, artist

I wrote this in 2007. Since then, the city of Seattle voted to observe Indigenous People's Day instead, thanks to a lot of hard work by tribal communities and allies. Other cities have passed similar legislation. Alaska, Oregon, Hawaii, and South Dakota do not recognize Columbus Day. South Dakota, ahead of the curve, has celebrated Native American Day since 1990. Fewer than half of the 50 states still give a day off work for Columbus Day. 

Here in Costa Rica, they celebrate el Día del Encuentro de las Culturas, which is something like "the meeting of the cultures". Right. That was some meeting. Or you could interpret it as "clash of the cultures". Other Latin American countries celebrate Día de la Raza. People here are pretty clear on what old Cristóbal Colón was all about.

I was disappointed to see the annual presidential proclamation confirming Columbus Day for 2015, but heartened (a bit) to see that President Obama did at least talk about the effects on the Native population and the importance of tribal sovereignty. It's something. I guess. I'd hoped he'd step all the way up, though. At least he said "exploration" instead of "discovery". Baby steps. But damn, that baby is taking hella long to walk. 

I hope to update this post one day with a federal proclamation recognizing Indigenous People's Day. 

For more real info about Christopher Columbus and other assclowns, ditch the textbooks and pick these up. This post is just the tip of the iceberg. Columbus is just one piece of a history that has been, in large part, mistaught.



  1. ::CLAP::CLAP::CLAP:: back at you!

    "Their reason for killing and destroying such an infinite number of souls is that the Christians have an ultimate aim, which is to acquire gold, and to swell themselves with riches in a very brief time and thus rise to a high estate disproportionate to their merits."

    Just replace "gold" with "oil," and it brings to mind some so-called "christians" that are in office now, and their Blackwater assasins killing women.....

  2. E: Exactly! That's exactly what I was getting at. History repeats itself...

  3. I realize this is all very serious and important and I dutifully read through the entire post, but I'm sorry. Every time you called Columbus and "asshat" I just laughed and laughed. "Asshat". That is such a good word.

  4. Seems odd doesn't it,that we should acknowledge one white guy that got lost,or even another Nordic type that traversed the Atlantic 500 years prior,when in fact,the aboriginal folk simply walked in and settled down to the business of peaceful co-existence.
    I'm thinkin' we should be celebrating Homo-Erectus day,..but that hardly looks good marked in red on our calendars does it?

  5. Man, you should've heard the shit they were saying at the official ceremony in DC. It was WORSE than the regular history books. They had this little girl get up and read this little white supremacist essay that her mom probably wrote for her, and the words "great navigator" and "discoverer" were used as synonyms for Columbus. I almost puked my guts out on the spot.

  6. Oh, and, as a hard-core Disney fan, I'd be the first to agree that ol' Walt is indeed a genocidal asshat. Since we're on the subject of colonization, here's one of their takes on Indians (from "Pocahontas", which is filled ad nauseam with noble savagery):

    What can you expect
    From filthy little heathens?
    Their whole disgusting race is like a curse
    Their skin's a hellish red
    They're only good when dead
    They're vermin, as I said
    And worse

    [English Settlers]
    They're savages! Savages!

    Barely even human

    [English Settlers]
    Savages! Savages!


  7. Enemy: You're welcome! I just told my son it was really important to me that he spend the time to read it -including the quotes I know he'll skim over. THat's the closest I'll get him to actually reading Zinn at this stage-- hello, 14 year old boy.

    Lorraine: Well, he's an ass, and he has a hat. Hello, asshat. Columbass.

    Sling: Yes - it's that whole Eurocentric thing - we don't learn about any indigenous people except in the context of how they were wherever we wanted to be. Oh, and just so you know, I'm all about celebrating any kind of Erectus day in red on my calendar. Hell yeah. In fact, let me just mark that down...

    WM: Your link is coming up next. That's sad ... little kids dont have any choice in what their parents teach them. Like those little KKK kids on Oprah.

  8. You don't want to get me started..

    To quote my 10 year old- "So, how exactly is it discovering someplace if people have been living there since forever? That's just stupid."

    I was always a bit curious about that myself..

  9. That was amazing. Some great references as well. It's such a vast and systemic problem, I'm often at a loss as to the order of what to attack first, in order to dismantle this implicit historical revisionism.

    Though I think that a large part of it is that no one is willing to actually entertain the idea that ours (the majority ethos) is not always THE way. The idea that by its nature, anything else that is not the dominant paradigm, is less than. Responding coherently to that level of ego, is easier said than done.

  10. DL: Yeah, my kids have said similar things. I'm thinking, hello, if kids can see the asshattery in this ... oh, right, kids aren't looking for gold, oil, or land.

    Al: Yes, and the underlying causes are still going strong today. And the "our way" thing, what gets me about that is it's not just that we force our way on others -- it's the automatic assumption that "others" will WANT to assimilate to our way. The European colonizers believed it was good for the native peoples to be "brought up to" their way. Who wouldn't want to be civilized, right? Today it's like white folks assuming that if it were possible, black people would choose to be white, or gay folks would choose to be straight. Barring that, the assumption that "others" want to strive toward being in and like the dominant culture. "We're the successful ones, if you act right and work hard, you too can be like us! We'll let you in, then!" Then there's Iraq -- can it be any more blatant?

    This subject brings out the rant in me.

  11. Ah....late to the party as usual but I do have to say this is the rockingest post I've read on the subject! In addition to Zinn and Loewen, schools should teach Cowbell!

    Thanks for this, I'm passing it along to a few comrades.

  12. I thought of this post when I was visiting Tom and Lorenzo's site recently. They have a regular feature called the Dames and Divas Deathmatch. Visitors vote for who would win a battle to the death. This week it's Susan Hayward vs. Agnes Moorehead. (Agnes in one round.) And I kept thinking of a "Bold Explorer or Genocidal Asshat?" deathmatch! Who will win this fight to the death?! Looks like Genocidal Asshat by a landslide.

    Also, is George bush a genocial asshead?

  13. To Elizabeth-
    "Also, is George bush a genocidal asshead?"

    I knew I like you for a reason.

    Couldn't manage anything bright to add to the conversation earlier because A} The smart people beat me to it. B) Cowbell is a genius and C) I'm really trying to keep my blood pressure down today..

  14. Reading this makes me want to puke.

  15. This is a fabulous post. I read it the same day I learned that Betsey Ross actually didn't sew the first flag and the quilt symbols story with the underground railroad is likely hooey. Hope my son's teachers do a better job than mine did at getting history right.

  16. For the record, George W. Bush is actually NOT an asshead--he's a douche lord. It's in the Congressional Record--look it up!
    I started reading your post (late, of course) and was already getting ready to quote Zinn in my response when you brought him in. I'm reading his book for the first time--amazing and horrible.
    Thanks for setting the record straight!

  17. Pat: Douche Lord. I like it. And yeah, Zinn should be in the curriculum everywhere.

  18. Okay, this is kind of weird, but over half this post's comments were lost, migrating from the old cyber-digs. This post and the frozen shoulder post (sorry for all you poor bastards out there suffering from that) are the two that new readers still regularly find and read after all this time, so I'm going to copy/paste the comments that didn't make it (minus my boring replies) just for this particular post.

    whimsicalnbrainpan said...
    I wish they had used Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States: 1492 to the Present in my history class. Hell, I wish they used it in all history classes.
    15 October, 2007 00:27

    tater said...
    No wonder your kids are so bright. Genetics AND environment. Loved this essay Cowbell! I am going to look this book up on amazon. Wish I would have had it for history as well. Eurocentric thinking has severely damaged the world in the name of progress, and is completely unsustainable. It relies on materialism and subjegation, at the expense of individual life and liberty, the environment, and all other life forms on this planet for that matter. Superiority over interconnectedness, allows exploitation, theft, murder and mayhem, and then glorifies it as noble. Just sickening.

    Your essay? Awesome, and thank you for the information. This should make for some interesting reading...
    15 October, 2007 03:5

    Red7Eric said...
    Brilliant, Cowbell. Just brilliant. But people believe what they want to believe, don't they? On the one hand, I am amazed at the power of the human brain, to literally bend reality toward our individual wants and wishes. And then (like right now), this ability appals me.

    I got a great education this morning, and will pass this around ...
    15 October, 2007 07:48

    Monica said...
    yeah, i read the howard zinn piece in college. it was rough. i remember in grade school, we learned that people were here already and that columbus didn't actually discover this place but we still got the g-rated version. i think that given the FACTS of history, for us to continue to "honor" some evil shit is disgusting. and there are people who are opposed to mlk day. interesting.
    15 October, 2007 09:17

    evilganome said...
    It really shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. The Spain of Isabella and Ferdinand was not a nice place to be. After the expulsion of the Jews, they went on a crusade to rid the country of suspected Jews and heretics. i.e. Anyone that had something the crown wanted. Hi-ho the Inquisition!

    European history is basically a bucket of blood.
    15 October, 2007 09:54

    Craig D said...
    So are you saying that Walt Disney was a Genocidal Asshat as well?

    Is nothing sacred?

    (Just following up on your comment at Red7eric's crib.)

    Auld Hat said...
    At least when he died, either of gout or syphilis, he had been stripped of all his titles and was considered a joke among his former peers. Well, according to the latest documentary on him anyway. Hi! I'm a huge PBS geek!
    15 October, 2007 12:44

    Allan said...
    Great work! I wish the Vikings hadn't succumbed to Christianity.Things might have been different- more trade, less barbarism...

    Anonymous said...
    Great Post! I'm so proud to be your bitch. :)
    15 October, 2007 14:15

    Enemy of the Republic said...
    Thank you for this. I was actually trying to explain this to my son.
    15 October, 2007 14:56

  19. We could call it Asshat Day. You are amazing...then and now. Thank you....now I have to take 2 Tylenol....sad state of holidays in this country.

    1. Yeah, thinking about what happened really is sickening. Which is exactly why we need to remember it ...

  20. Awesome, just awesome. Awesome getting to read this again, awesome that public awareness around this has increased greatly since you first posted it, and awesome seeing some of the original comments. I love the inclusion of the Bush quotes, because one good asshat deserves another.

    I had really hoped Obama would do more with this in two terms, but I guess like you said, babysteps.

    1. Yes! Isn't it good to actually see some change? My FB feed has been filled with pics from Seattle this year, including from some of the people who were actually instrumental in getting it passed, so that is really, really cool to see.

  21. If we have learned anything in the past ten years, it is that these lovely things about America were never lovely. We have been expansionist and aggressive and mean to other people from the beginning. And we've been aggressive and mean to people in this country, and we've allocated the wealth of this country in a very unjust way. We've never had justice in our courts for the poor people, for black people, for radicals. Now how can we boast that America is a very special place? It's not that special. It really isn't.
    HOWARD ZINN, Voices of a People's History of the United States

    Read more at http://www.notable-quotes.com/z/zinn_howard_iii.html#yUl1CJGvff2yPYBi.99

  22. Wow! THAT was some rock 'n roll history telling. Correcting. Yanking away the curtain. I'm sorry to say that I know more than a handful of people who demonstrate unwavering resilience in the face of history re-told through an objective lens. I don't mean that as a flippy smackdown, but more of an observation with no solution in sight. They have a bigger investment in just. not. disturbing. the. story than in whatever comes with knowing a truer truth. Maybe that's it. Maybe they feel themselves being charged with intellectual laziness and go defensive.

    THAT - all of the above - is my way of saying I'm super grateful you reposted this. We just watched the documentary on Whitey Bulger - not the Johnny Depp flickety flick, but the doc. (I feel asleep, so technically, I STARTED watching it). A difficult, but fascinating thing to consider - that a little bit of power (please. South Boston? Not like it was a continent.) was worth 30 years of extraordinary violence. Savagery. Just a tiny portion of Columbus to put under the microscope.

    Yay for Seattle.


I've got a fever ...