Zinn’s take on Columbus’ first sighting of land in the new world

Zinn opens A People’s History of the United States with a re-imagining of Columbus’ voyages to the New World. Zinn’s version of events is one in which Columbus is blinded by a single minded avarice, the sailors are ruthless thugs, the rulers back in Spain are Christian looneys, and all the natives of the new world are virtuous in every sense of the word.

Beginning with the opening paragraph of the book, Zinn begins constructing his narrative, wherein the more power you have, the more evil you are.

In Zinn’s retelling of Columbus’ first landfall, Columbus supposedly robbed a poor sailor out of the fortune he deserved. Here is Zinn (2):

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 Caribbean sea. 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.

But Zinn ignores Columbus’ side of the story. According to Columbus, he saw the light the night before. Zinn leaves out this context. Here is from Columbus’ own papers, as translated by J. Cohen (Page 52): 

The first man to sight land was a sailor called Rodrigo from Triana, who afterwards vainly claimed the reward, which was pocketed by Columbus. The Admiral, however, when on the sterncastle at ten o’clock in the night, had seen a light, though it was so indistinct he would not affirm that it was land. He called Pero Gutierrez, butler of the King’s table, and told him that there seemed to be a light and asked him to look. He did so and saw it. He said the same to Rodrigo Sanchez of Segovia, whom the King and Queen had sent in the fleet as accountant, and he saw nothing because he was not in a position from which anything could be seen. After the Admiral spoke this light was seen once or twice and it was like a wax candle that went up and down. Very few thought that this was a sign of land, but the Admiral was quite certain that they were near land. Accordingly, after the recitation of the Salve in the usual manner by the assembled sailors, the Admiral most seriously urged them to keep a good lookout from the forecastle and to watch carefully for land. He promised to give a silk doublet to the first sailor who should report it. And he would be entitled also to the reward promised by the sovereigns, which was an annual payment of ten thousand maravedis.

Did Columbus cheat Rodrigo out of a fortune? Well, maybe. Maybe even probably. But, we have no real way of knowing, and once Zinn has primed the pump, the plausibility of the narrative no longer matters, because we are indoctrinated to believe that whoever holds more power in the relationship is therefore wrong. Imagine the roles were reversed, many of us would still find ourselves siding with Rodrigo”s version of events: Rodrigo saw a light at 10 p.m., got two people to confirm they saw land, then watched it over the course of the night. Then at 2 a.m. Columbus walks out and says, “hey, there is land, I get the money.” We would find Columbus’ take highly dubious. Because we are so indoctrinated.

In any case, what does that little anecdote have to do with the history of the United States? 500 years covered in just over 700 pages, and Zinn dedicates nearly a page to excoriating the Admiral of the fleet for claiming to see land.