Zinn on Columbus and slavery – Rebutted, Part 1

In a previous post, I put together Zinn’s full narrative on Columbus and slavery from Chapter 1 of A People’s History of the United States. Here, I rebut Zinn’s narrative by going through Zinn’s deceits, looking at the bizarre editing and misleading color commentary he uses.

Zinn uses very complicated editing techniques to create an image right away in the readers mind that the defining characteristic of Columbus and his explorations was slavery. Here he appears to directly quote Columbus (Zinn Page 1):

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.

However, the four sentences above – while separated only by ellipses in Zinn’s book – were in fact written sentences, paragraphs, even days apart in Columbus’ log book. Zinn has spliced them together to give the impression that Columbus was writing to his backers, building a case for the enslavement of the natives.

The first five sentences are from a paragraph Columbus starts and ends by emphasizing how he has made an effort to befriend the natives and desires to convert them to Christianity, not endure them. Columbus’ description of their faces and bodies and the unfamiliarity with swords were not part of a persuasive essay on subjugation, but rather part of a descriptive essay for the benefit of readers back in Europe in an era where photographs were relatively rare (Cohen Page 54):

[11 October Thursday 1492] 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. But they seemed to me a people very short of everything. They all go naked as their mothers bore them, including the women, although I saw only one very young girl. ‘All the men I saw were young. I did not see one over the age of thirty. They were very well built with fine bodies and handsome faces. Their hair is coarse, almost like that of a horse’s tail and short; they wear it down over their eyebrows except for a few strands at the back, which they wear long and never cut. They are the colour of the Canary Islanders (neither black nor white). Some of them paint themselves black, others white or any colour they can find. Some paint their faces, some their whole bodies, some only the eyes, some only the nose. They do not carry arms or know them. For when I showed them swords, they took them by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane. Some instead of an iron tip have a fish’s tooth and others have points of different kinds. They are fairly tall on the whole, with fine limbs and good proportions. I saw some who had wound scars on their bodies and I asked them by signs how they got these and they indicated to me that people came from other islands near by who tried to capture them and they defended themselves. I supposed and still suppose that they come from the mainland to capture them for slaves. They should be good servants and very intelligent, for I have observed that they soon repeat anything that is said to them, and I believe that they would easily be made Christians, for they appeared to me to have no religion. God willing, when I make my departure I will bring half a dozen of them back to their Majesties, so that they can learn to speak. I saw no animals of any kind on this island except parrots.’ These are the Admiral’s own words.

In the last sentence Zinn quotes from Columbus above, it appears Columbus is speaking hyperbole about enslaving the entire population of the Caribbean. However, not only is hyperbole not in the style of the day, but from the context of the paragraph in which Columbus wrote that statement, it is clear not only that he was not necessarily advocating for slavery, but that he was referring to a specific group of people he had come across, not the entire Arawak population in the Caribbean (Cohen Page 57):

[14 October Sunday 1492] At dawn I ordered the ship’s boat and the boats of the caravels to be made ready, and coasted the island in a north-easterly direction in order to see the other and eastward part and to look for villages. I saw two or three, whose people all came down to the beach calling to us and offering thanks to God. Some brought us water, others various sorts of food, and others, when they saw that I did not intend to land, jumped into the sea and swam out. We understood them to be asking us if we came from the sky. One old man got into the boat, and all the others, men and women alike, shouted, ‘Come and see the men who have come from the skies; and bring them food and drink.’ Many men and women came, each bringing something and offering thanks to God; they threw themselves on the ground and raised their hands to the sky and then called out to us, asking us to land. But I was afraid to do so, seeing a great reef of rocks which encircled the whole island. Inside there is deep water which would give sufficient anchorage for all the ships in Christendom. But the entrance is very narrow. It is true that there are some shoals within this reef, but the sea is as still as well water. I went to view all this this morning, in order to give an account to your Majesties and to decide where a fort could be built. I saw a piece of land which is much like an island, though it is not one, on which there were six huts. It could be made into an island in two days, though I see no necessity to do so since these people are very unskilled in arms, as your Majesties will discover from seven whom I caused to be taken and brought aboard so that they may learn our language and return. However, should your Highnesses command it all the inhabitants could be taken away to Castile or held as slaves on the island, for with fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we wish. Moreover, near the small island I have described there are groves of the loveliest trees I have seen, all green with leaves like our trees in Castile in April and May, and much water.

Next, Zinn covers several years’ worth of interactions with the natives into a couple of paragraphs, seemingly laser focused on instances of Columbus and his men taking natives prisoner. Zinn’s goal is to give the impression of Columbus not as an explorer but as a slave hunting marauder, who blew through Caribbean, spending only as much time there as necessary to fill his ships with slaves before returning to Europe (Zinn Page 1):

As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force.

They had no iron, but they wore tiny gold ornaments in their ears. This was to have enormous consequences: it led Columbus to take some of them aboard ship as prisoners because he insisted that they guide him to the source of the gold… On Hispaniola… He took more Indian prisoners and put them aboard his two remaining ships. At one part of the island he got into a fight with Indians who refused to trade as many bows and arrows as he and his men wanted. Two were run through with swords and bled to death. Then the Nina and the Pinta set sail for the Azores and Spain. When the weather turned cold, the Indian prisoners began to die.

Columbus was a man of his times no doubt. The use of force to get people to comply was not unique to Columbus (it is not even unique today, we still spank our kids and arrest you if you don’t pay your taxes). However, throughout his logs we see Columbus making a conscious effort to build diplomatic relations with the natives – to seek out and pay homage to the native chiefs and to build positive relations with the natives that they may be more willing to trade and more receptive to conversion to Christianity. The few natives Columbus took back after his first voyage were not slaves. They were brought to learn Spanish, and eventually return to their homes.

Here is Columbus’ log regarding the taking of prisoners on first arriving in the Carribean (Cohen Page 55):

“I believe that they would easily be made Christians, for they appeared to me to have no religion. God willing, when I make my departure I will bring half a dozen of them back to their Majesties, so that they can learn to speak. “

Here is his recount of that event written while en route back to Europe (Cohen Page 118):


As soon as I came to the Indies, at the first island I discovered I seized some natives, intending them to inquire and inform me about things in these parts. These men soon understood us, and we them, cither by speech or signs and they were very useful to us. I still have them with me and despite all the conversation they have had with me they are still of the opinion that I come from the sky and have been the first to proclaim this wherever I have gone. Then others have gone running from house to house and to the neighbouring villages shouting: ‘Come, come and see the people from the sky,’ so, once they were reassured about us, all have come, men and women alike, and not one, old or young, has remained behind. All have brought us something to eat and drink which they have given with a great show of love. In all the islands they have very many canoes like oared fustas.

The following are various quotes of instances in which Columbus interact with the natives without enslaving them. I shouldn’t have to do this, but Zinn’s lies of omission are so great as to demand it. In his log, Columbus recounts numerous instances of diplomacy and goodwill towards the natives.

Cohen Page 54:

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.

Cohen Page 56:

They came to the ship in boats which are made from tree-trunks,… I watched carefully to discover whether they had gold and saw that some of them carried a small piece hanging from a hole pierced in the nose. I was able to understand from their signs that to the south, either inland or along the coast, there was a king who had large vessels made of it and possessed a great deal. I tried hard to make them go there but saw in the end that they had no intention of doing so… Now when night fell they all went ashore in their boats.

Cohen Page 61:

A large canoe happening to lie alongside the Niña, a little before midnight one of the men from San Salvador who was in the caravel jumped overboard and went off in it. A few minutes later another threw himself overboard also and swam after the canoe, which went so fast that no boat could overtake it, for it had a considerable start. So they came to land and left the canoe. Several members of my crew went ashore after them and they ran off like frightened hens. 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. All I gave him was worth less than four maravedis.

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.

Cohen Page 63:

[TUESDAY, 16 OCTOBER]… canoes swarmed round the ship all that night. They brought us water and something of all they had. I ordered presents to be given to all of them, that is to say, strings of ten or a dozen small glass beads and… when they came aboard I had them given molasses to eat… And afterwards at nine in the morning I sent a ship’s boat ashore for water and they most gladly showed our men where it could be found and themselves carried the full casks back to the boat. They were delighted to give us pleasure.

Cohen Page 66:

They met one man who wore in his nose a piece of gold about half the size of a castellano on which they saw letters. I was angry with them because they had not bargained for it and given as much as they were asked, so that we could examine it and see where the coin came from. They answered that they did not dare to bargain for it.

Cohen Page 70:

As soon as the inhabitants saw us they ran away, leaving their houses. They hid their clothing and all that they had in the undergrowth. I allowed nothing to be taken, not even to the value of a pin. Afterwards a few of the men approached us and one of them came quite close. I gave him hawk’s bells and some small glass beads, and he was very pleased and happy. In order to foster this friendship and ask for something from them, I asked them for water, and after I had returned to the ship they came down to the beach with their gourds full and gave it to us with delight.

Cohen Page 75:

The Admiral got into the boat and went ashore, where he found two houses which he believed to belong to fishermen who had fled in terror. In one of these he found a dog that did not bark, and in both houses there were nets of palm fibre and lines and horn fish-hooks and bone harpoons and other fishing tackle, and there were many hearths. He believed that many people lived in each house. He gave orders that nothing should be touched in either, and his order was obeyed.

Cohen page 75:

When he brought the ships close to shore, two boats or canoes came out, but on seeing the sailors entering the boat and rowing about to take soundings for an anchorage, they fled.

Cohen Page 77:

[On Cuba] Here the Indians hid everything they could carry with them, and their timidity prevented the Admiral from learning the nature of the island. Considering that if he were to land with many men the people’s fear would increase, he chose two Christians, one of the Indians whom he had brought from the island of San Salvador and another, a native of Cuba, who had boldly rowed up to the ships in a small canoe. He gave them orders to go into the interior of the island and discover its character, treating any of its inhabitants they might meet on their way with friendship and courtesy.

Cohen page 80:

He gave orders that a native of the island should be taken aboard, since he wished to bring to Castile one inhabitant of each country to give an account of its nature and products. So a dozen persons – men, women and children – were taken in a peaceful way, without noise or trouble. When the time came to sail away with them the husband of one of the women captives, and father of her two children who had been taken aboard with her, came to the ship in a canoe and begged by signs that he should be taken to Castile also, so as not to be separated from his wife and children. The Admiral was highly delighted by this man’s action and ordered that the whole family should be well treated and entertained.

Cohen Page 81:

[some were prisoners apparently] DURING that voyage [from Cuba to Hispaniola] Martin Alonso Pinzón received information from some Indians whom he was carrying as prisoners in his caravel.

Cohen page 84:

Since everyone was very eager to know the nature of this island, while the sailors were fishing on the shore three Christians set out through the woods, where they met a group of Indians, naked like all those they had met before. As soon as these natives saw the Christians approaching them they ran in terror to the thickest of the woods unhindered by any cloaks or skirts. The Christians ran in pursuit hoping to have speech with them but were only able to catch one girl, who had a piece of flat gold hanging from her nose. When they brought her to the ships the Admiral gave her a number of small articles – trinkets and little bells. He then had her put ashore unharmed, sending three Indians whom he had brought from other islands and three Christians to accompany her to her village. Next day he sent nine men ashore well armed, who found nine leagues away a village of more than a thousand houses scattered about a valley. When the inhabitants saw the Christians they all rushed out of the village and fled into the woods. But the Indian interpreter from San Salvador, who was with our men, went after them and shouted words of encouragement, saying much in praise of the Christians and affirming that they had come from the sky. The natives then returned reassured, and in awe and wonder they placed their hands on the heads of our men as a mark of honour and took them off to a feast, giving them everything they asked for without demanding anything in return. They begged them to stay that night in the village.

Cohen page 86:

On Sunday, 16 December, therefore, they beat about between Hispaniola and Tortuga, and found a solitary Indian in a small canoe and were surprised that he had not sunk for the winds and seas were very high. They picked him up in the ship and took him to Hispaniola, where they put him ashore with many presents.

Cohen page 89:

‘When it was late and he wished to return I sent him most ceremoniously ashore in the boat and ordered many lombards to be fired. When he came to the beach he mounted his litter and went off with more than 200 men, and one of his sons was carried on the shoulders of a very important chief. He gave orders that food should be given to all the sailors and to other men from the ships whom he found ashore, and that they should be treated with great kindness.

Cohen page 91:

I had lost my ship on a reef a league and a half offshore. On hearing the news the king wept, showing great sorrow at our disaster… After this, he himself, with his brothers and relations, did everything they could both in the ship and on shore to arrange things for our comfort. And from time to time he sent various of his relatives to implore me not to grieve, for he would give me everything he had… I assure your Highnesses that nowhere in Castile would one receive such great kindness or anything like it. He had all our possessions brought together near his palace and kept them there until some houses had been emptied to receive them. He appointed armed men to guard them and made them watch right through the night.

Cohen page 93:

He then complained about the Caribs, who captured his people and took them away to be eaten, but he was greatly cheered when the Admiral comforted him by showing him our weapons and promising to defend him with them. But he was much disturbed by our cannon, which so frightened all the Indians that they fell down like dead men when they heard them fired.

Cohen page 94:

…leave some Christians behind to trade and gather information about the country and its inhabitants, learning their language and entering into relations with the people.

Cohen page 94:

When the Admiral was on the point of departure, he made a treaty with the king regarding the Caribs, of whom he complained so much and was in such real terror. In order that he should be pleased to have the Christians’ company and also to inspire him with fear of our weapons, lombard fired at the side of the Santa Maria, the ball passed right through the ship and fell in the water, and the king was both horrified and amazed. The Admiral also showed him our other weapons, how wounds were made with some and others used for defence, and told him that with such weapons to protect him he need no longer fear the Caribs, because the Christians would kill them all.

Cohen page 97:

[Sunday 13 January 1493] In the Gulf of Samana in Hispaniola the first brush takes place between Indians and Christians.

Cohen page 117:

All the weapons they have are canes cut at seeding time, at the end of which they fix a sharpened stick, but they have not the courage to make use of these, for very often when I have sent two or three men to a village to have conversation with them a great number of them have come out. But as soon as they saw my men all fled immediately, a father not even waiting for his son. And this is not because we have harmed any of them; on the contrary, wherever I have gone and been able to have conversation with them, I have given them some of the various things I had, a cloth and other articles, and received nothing in exchange. But they have still remained incurably timid.

Columbus began writing his final report of his first voyage to deliver to the queen upon his return while En route to Spain. Zinn gives the impression that the potentially lucrative slave trade was a key selling point in his report, when in fact it reads in the original text as more of an afterthought. Zinn then makes it appear that Columbus’ religiosity helped him justify his support for slavery. In fact, slavery always ran at odds with Christianity for Columbus, as conversion of the natives was a principle goal of Queen Isabella, and it was frowned upon to enslave Christians (Zinn Page 3):

Columbus’s report to the Court in Madrid was extravagant…

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.”

This is a misleading compilation of quotes for several reasons. Zinn continues to hammer on the “gold and slaves,” though the full text of Columbus’ words complicates that narrative to say the least (Cohen Page 122):

In conclusion, to speak only of the results of this very hasty voyage, their Highnesses can see that I will give them as much gold as they require,if they will render me some very slight assistance; also I will give them all the spices and cotton they want, and as for mastic,which has so far been found only in Greece and the island of Chios and which the Genoese authorities have sold at their own price, I will bring back as large a cargo as their Highnesses may command. I will also bring them as much aloes as they ask and as many slaves, who will be taken from the idolaters. I believe also that I have found rhubarb and cinnamon and there will be countless other things in addition, which the people I have left there will discover.

Even more problematic is Zinn’s attempt to make it look as if Christianity not only sanctioned the slave trade, but was actively used to justify it. As Cohen writes, it was the prospect of converting people to Christianity, not enslaving in the name of Christianity that helped Columbus sell the trip to the Queen and King of Spain. Cohen calls Columbus’ pitch to the king and queen of Spain “a reasonable trading venture, which he made more attractive to the Catholic sovereigns Ferdinand and Isabela, by offering them the prospect that the inhabitants of the intervening lands, perhaps of China and Japan themselves, might be converted to Christianity on the way” (page 11).

“The royal pair were enthusiasts for the conversion of Jews and Moslems, and Columbus carried on his first voyage a converted Jew with a knowledge of Arabic, who would be able to expound the Christian mysteries to the Chinese, Japanese and Indians, who were presumed to speak Arabic” (Cohen 11).

Here is Columbus describing Spain rationale for approving his voyage (Cohen Page 137):

Your Highnesses decided to send me, Christopher Columbus, to see these parts of India and the princes and peoples of those lands and consider the best means for their conversion. For, by the neglect of the Popes to send instructors, many nations had fallen to idolatry and adopted doctrines of perdition, and your Highnesses as Catholic princes and devoted propagators of the holy Christian faith have always been enemies of the sect of Mahomet and of all idolatries and heresies.

Even later, when the wealth of gold and spices with which Columbus hoped to fund his exploration never turned up, Christianity made the idea of enslaving the natives more – not less – problematic (Cohen Page 17):

“The only wealth of the country lay in its human inhabitants, who could be made to work as slaves either in Spain or at home. The settlers quickly forced them to dig for nonexistent gold, and Columbus advocated almost at the start their export to Spain as labourers. But these ideas offended the religious fervour of the sovereigns. The natives must be converted, and Christians might not be enslaved. Such was their view, and that of the historian Bartolome de las Casas, the bishop of Chiapa and historian of the Indies, who offended all Spanish settlers by his advocacy of native rights and the tales of oppression he gathered from all parts of the sovereigns’ new dominions. Only criminals and prisoners of war might be enslaved, and the settlers deliberately increased the numbers of these by provoking Indian rebellions and placing the cannibal Caribs outside natural law.”

In Part 2 of the very long post, I will look at Zinn’s coverage of Columbus’ second voyage onward.



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