To read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States would be to believe the native tribes of the Caribbean islands in the 15th century never made war, never prepared for war, hadn’t even conceived of war. They didn’t make weapons, of any sort for any purpose. And Zinn’s primary sources would seem to agree. Columbus wrote of the native Arawaks in his log, “They do not bear arms, and do not know them.” To read Zinn is to believe the natives must have caught fish by singing to the sea until the bonito flopped up on to the beach. The natives didn’t even fist fight. All disagreements were settled by an intense arm wrestling match.
By contrast, Columbus and his men knew only force. Since the explorers did not know the native language, they relied solely on violence and obvious threat of violence to exploit and abuse the native population. So foreign to the natives were such brutes that they couldn’t even conjure the will to resist.
Like listening to the edited 911 call of George Zimmerman, Zinn feeds us a montage of Columbus’ quotes, all specially selected and arranged to portray the man, his crew, and the entire civilization on whose behalf he sailed as the worst sort of savage brutes:
“[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…’ [Later Columbus] 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.”
As you may have guessed, the truth is more complicated. Columbus and his men were a tough bunch, in a tough era, but they were also in the new world with a primary mission of spreading the word of God, so brutalizing all the natives would have been counterproductive. Additionally, believing himself to be in Asia, Columbus must have also believed he could potentially find himself facing a very powerful, very sophisticated civilization, so agitating towards armed conflict would not have been in the interest of self preservation. Even short of that, being in a foreign land, self-interest would dictate at least a measure of accommodation and ingratiation to the local people. None of that is to say might did not make right in 1492. It did. As much for the native people of the new world as for the explorers from the old.
Zinn gives the impression of the islands Columbus explored as being of a single homogeneous people. But, in fact, Columbus came in to contact with at least two distinct groups, the Arawaks and the Caribs.
Columbus met the Arawaks first, and had much success in diplomacy and trade with those people. While certainly no pushovers, they were the less warlike people of the two Columbus met, and they projected their values onto Columbus when they first met – they assumed Columbus would be friendly, and open to trade, etc.
The Caribs on the other hand were a warlike people if their ever was one. Regularly attacking, raiding, and marauding the Arawaks, taking the women as wives and taking the castrated men as slaves. These were people who Columbus got into violent altercations with most frequently. Just as the Arawaks projected their values onto Columbus and were taken advantage of, so the Caribs projected their values onto Columbus and found out very quickly what happens when you fight against a technologically superior enemy.
Zinn tells us the natives “do not bear arms, and do not know them.” Columbus on the other hands, seems only to know violence, looting and taking prisoners from his first moments in the Caribbean, all part of his lust for gold (Zinn, Page 1):
[Columbus writes:] 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… 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.
They [the natives] 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.
[At 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.
It’s true the native people of the Caribbean did not have iron when Columbus landed there in 1492. But Zinn’s clever word choice clearly implies a people who don’t make the weapons of war because they don’t make war.
But, as Columbus found out rather quickly, the various groups went to war against each other to take each other as slaves (Cohen, Page 55):
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.
Of the islands he visited during his first days in the Caribbean, Columbus writes (Cohen, Page 58):
All are populated and make war with one another, although the people are very simple and do not look savage.
Whatever Columbus was doing and ultimately did do in the new world, he was not introducing violence to a beatnik commune. Historically, in Columbus’ day, societies disliked war for only two reasons – either they were Christians, or war was being made against them by a stronger power.
The Arawaks of the Caribbean were not Christians.
But, the Caribs who Columbus met later, were neither Christians nor under siege from a stronger power.
Zinn writes (Page 2):
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.
This was not Columbus strong arming some poor helpless natives, these were the Caribs, The group that regularly came over to the Arawak tribes to capture them as slaves (from The biography of Columbus written by his son, Hernando Colon; Cohen, Page 97):
ON Sunday, 13 January, at Cabo Enamarado, which is in the Gulf of Samana in Hispaniola, the Admiral sent the boat ashore. On the beach our men met some fierce-looking Indians whose bows and arrows showed that they were prepared for war. These Indians were greatly excited and also alarmed. Nevertheless our men began a parley with them and bought two bows and some arrows. With great difficulty one of the Indians was persuaded to come out to the caravel and speak with the Admiral, to whom he made a speech as fierce as his appearance. These Indians were much fiercer than any we had seen before. Their faces were blackened with charcoal in the manner of all these peoples, whose habit it is to paint themselves either black, white or red in a variety of patterns. They wore their hair very long and caught back in a little net of parrot feathers. When this man stood before the Admiral naked as his mother bore him, as were all the natives of these islands that we had so far discovered, he spoke in the proud language common to all peoples in these regions. The Admiral, believing he was one of the Caribs and that this gulf was the boundary dividing them from the rest of Hispaniola, asked him where the Caribs lived. He pointed eastwards, signifying that they lived on the other islands, on which there were pieces of guanin – that is to say gold of poor quality – as large as the prow of the ship, and that the island of Matinino was entirely populated by women, on whom the Caribs descended at certain seasons of the year; and if these women bore sons they were entrusted to the fathers to bring up. These answers to our questions he gave us by signs and in a few words that were understood by the Indians we had brought from San Salvador. The Admiral ordered that he should be given food and some small presents – glass beads and green and red cloth. He then had him put ashore to obtain gold for us, if the other Indians had any. When the boat beached it was met by fifty-five Indians who were hiding in the trees, all naked, and with long hair tied back like that of women in Castile. Behind their heads they wore tufts of the feathers of parrots and other birds. They were all armed with bows and arrows. When our men leapt ashore the Indian made his fellow-natives put down their bows and arrows and the great clubs they carried instead of swords, for, as I have said, they have no iron of any sort. Once ashore, the Christians began, on the Admiral’s instructions, to buy bows and arrows and But when the Indians had traded them two bows, they not only refused to sell any more but with a show of contempt seemed about to take the Spaniards prisoners; they picked up the bows and arrows they had laid down and also cords with which to tie our men’s hands. But our men were on guard and, though only seven in number, on seeing the Indians dash forward attacked them with great courage, wounding one with a sword thrust in the buttocks and another with an arrow in the chest. Surprised by our men’s coinage and by the wounds dealt by our weapons, the Indians took to flight, leaving most of their bows and arrows on the ground. Certainly many of our men would have been killed if the pilot of the caravel whom the Admiral had put in charge of the boat and those in it had not come to their rescue and saved them. This brush did not displease the Admiral, who was certain that these Indians were some of the Caribs of whom the other natives were so afraid, or were at least their neighbours. They are a bold and courageous people, as can be seen from their looks and weapons and also from their deeds, and the Admiral thought that when the islanders learnt what seven Christians could do against fifty-five very fierce Indians of that region, our men whom he had left in Navidad would be more highly respected and esteemed and no one would dare to annoy them. Later in the day the Indians made bonfires in the fields as a show of bravery, for the boat had returned to see what their mood was, but there was no way of gaining their confidence and so the boat put back.
It’s was not just a few of Columbus’ men making demands of the natives and then robbing and killing them as Zinn’s narrative implies. Columbus met with a group he knew ahead of time to be more aggressive than the Arawaks he had met up to that point. As he expected, the Caribs were abrupt and difficult to work with. None the less, he sent men ashore to meet and trade, he then convinced a chief to come to his ship and gave the man the opportunity to make a big showy tough guy speech. He then gave the guy safe passage back to shore and his men again tried to trade with the Caribs. But the Caribs had set an ambush. Too bad for the Caribs their weapons sucked, and a handful of Columbus’ men beat back the ambush.
What did Columbus do then? Did he return to shore full force and wipe out the Caribs? No. He got over it and went on exploring.