Zinn on the greed of Columbus and the altruism of the natives

In a 700 page book, Zinn spends about a half dozen pages on Columbus four voyages, but he manages to pack a lot of bullshit into those pages.

Here we will look at Zinn’s treatment of the native populations of the new world with whom Columbus made contact. While Zinn is careful to use many of Columbus’ own words, the slicing and dicing and recontextualizing paint a picture of naiveté, sincerity, and generosity on the part of the natives, and greed, and thuggishness of the part of Columbus and his men.

Though Zinn doesn’t bother to tell us, Columbus is generally understood to have made first landfall on Watling Island in the Bahamas.

What Zinn does do is use selective word choice and deceptive editing to convey the avarice of Columbus and his men and the contrasting altruism and communism of the Arawak people who inhabited the Caribbean islands Columbus visited.

Zinn (Page 1):

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

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.

But, as Zinn tells it, such traits “did not stand out” to Columbus, because he was in a “frenzy for money” (Zinn, Page 2):

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?

You see? The natives tried to come out and greet Columbus and share all they had with him, but it wasn’t enough for Columbus. So, he immediately began taking the natives hostage and demanding gold from them.

Or did he?

In Columbus’ version of events, Columbus went ashore and made an effort to ingratiate himself to the locals, THEN the natives swam out and gave a bunch of trinkets to Columbus and his men.

Here are Columbus’ own words, from his logs (Cohen, Page 55):

Two hours after midnight land appeared, some two leagues away. This was Friday, on which they reached a small island of the Lucayos, called in the Indian language Guana-hani. Immediately some naked people appeared and the Admiral went ashore in the armed boat… What follows are the Admiral’s actual words in his account of his first voyage and the discovery of these Indies:

In order to win their friendship, since I knew they were a people to be converted and won to our holy faith by love and friendship rather than by force, I gave some of them red caps and glass beads which they hung round their necks, also many other trifles. These things pleased them greatly and they became marvellously friendly to us. They afterwards swam out to the ship’s boats in which we were sitting, bringing us parrots and balls of cotton thread and spears and many other things, which they exchanged with us for such objects as glass beads, hawks and bells. In fact, they very willingly traded everything they had.

Then, Even as some of the natives attempted to run off with stuff from the ship that Columbus and his men had not intended to trade, Columbus kept an open mind and was concerned about making sure any trades his men made did not take unfair advantage of the natives (Cohen, Page 56):

The people are very gentle and anxious to have the things we bring. Thinking that nothing will be given them, however, unless they give something in exchange, and having nothing to give, they take anything they can, jump into the water and swim away. But they will give all that they do possess for anything that is given to them, exchanging things even for bits of broken crockery or broken glass cups. I saw one give sixteen balls of cotton for three Portuguese ceotis, the equivalent of the Castilian blanca and in these balls there was more than an aroba of cotton thread [A trivial amount of copper in exchange for a large amount – about 25 lbs – of cotton.] I should like to forbid this and let no one take any cotton except at my command; then if there were any quantity I would order it all to be taken for your Majesties.

As for Zinn’s assertion that Columbus made landfall then immediately began taking “some of the natives by force,” well that appears to be a fabrication. It is true that various natives traveled around with Columbus while he explored the Caribbean, and that some also journeyed back with him to Spain. However, it is also clear from Columbus’ own writings that he was very sensitive to making and keeping friendly relations with the native population he hoped to eventually convert to Christianity.

Here is Columbus’ account of an interaction they had with one of the natives a short time after two natives on board the Niña suddenly jumped overboard and swam over to a passing canoe before going ashore (Cohen, Page 60):

We took the canoe they had abandoned aboard the caravel Niña; it was approached by another small canoe with a man who had come to barter a ball of cotton. Since he would not board the caravel some sailors jumped down and seized him. Having seen all this from the forecastle where I was standing, I sent for him and gave him a red cap and some green glass beads which I put on his arm and two hawk’s bells which I put in his ears. I told the sailors to give him back his canoe which they had taken on to the ship’s boat, and sent him ashore. I then raised sail for the other large island which I saw to the west and ordered that the second canoe which the Niña was towing astern should be set adrift. Shortly afterwards I saw the man to whom I had given these gifts come ashore. I had not taken the ball of cotton from him, although he wished to give it to me. The people gathered round him and he appeared astonished. It seemed to him that we were good people and that the man who had escaped in the canoe must have wronged us or we should not have carried him off. It was to create this impression that I had him set free and gave him presents. I was anxious that they should think well of us so that they may not be unfriendly when your Majesties send a second expedition here.

That is not the only interaction of that sort between Columbus and the natives. Here he tells of an another almost identical interaction with a native in a canoe, and of his effort to be diplomatic with the natives (Cohen, Page 62):

I found a man alone in a canoe crossing from the one to the other. He was carrying a lump of their bread, about the size of a fist, and a gourd of water and a bit of red earth which had been powdered and then kneaded; also some dried leaves which they must value very highly since they gave me a present of them. He also carried a native basket containing some glass beads and two blancas, by which I knew that he had come from San Salvador to Santa Maria and was now on his way to Fernandina. He came alongside and I let him come aboard as he asked. I had his canoe hauled aboard also and all that he carried kept safe. I ordered that he should be given bread and honey and something to drink. I shall carry him to Fernandina and restore all his possessions to him so that he may give a good account of us. Then when, God willing, your Highnesses send others here, we shall be favourably received and the natives may give us of all they possess.

We get none of this from Zinn. Instead we get the silly caricatures of his propagandized mind – natives almost too generous to be concerned with their own self-interest and at the opposite end, explorers too petty and short sighted to do things in their self-interest.

All this from a book that remains a bestseller decades after its first run, and which is increasingly used in primary, secondary, and university curriculum across the country.

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