Zinn on Columbus and slavery – Rebutted, Part 2

[See Part 1 here.]

START OF VOYAGE 2

Zinn Page 3:

Because of Columbus’s exaggerated report and promises, his second expedition was given seventeen ships and more than twelve hundred men. The aim was clear: slaves and gold. They went from island to island in the Caribbean, taking Indians as captives. But as word spread of the Europeans’ intent they found more and more empty villages. On Haiti, they found that the sailors left behind at Fort Navidad had been killed in a battle with the Indians, after they had roamed the island in gangs looking for gold, taking women and children as slaves for sex and labor.

Zinn misleads the reader when he writes that “gold and slaves” were the only focuses of Columbus’ second voyage. Columbus was an explorer. Exploration was his focus. But these voyages had to be paid for somehow. So slavery was eventually turned to as an option when the new world turned out to be so lacking in gold and spices. To say that Columbus’ plans to enslave people was the reason for so many empty villages is about as close to an out and out lie as we will find in Zinn’s work. Columbus came across all sorts of different natives both on his first and second voyages. The natives were sometimes eager to greet the strange visitors and at other time fled in fear. The reaction of the natives to the arrival of Columbus usually had more to do with the natives own preconceived notions about strangers in general than with any specific knowledge they had about Columbus, especially since they usually didn’t have any specific knowledge about Columbus. It is true the For Navidad was deserted, but it is lost to history what exactly instigated the feud between the Europeans and the natives which ended in the death of the Europeans at the fort. What is clear is that if the Europeans were the instigators, they did so against the wishes of Columbus.

WHAT EXACTLY WAS COLUMBUS MISSION ON THE SECOND VOYAGE?

According to Columbus’ son and biographer Hernando Colon (Cohen Page 179):

This second expedition was designed to relieve the men who had remained there, to settle more colonists and to conquer the island together with all the others that had been discovered and those that they hoped remained to be discovered.

Not exactly “slaves and gold.”

NOW WHAT OF THIS CLAIM THAT ALL THE NATIVES STARTED FLEEING BECAUSE THEY KNEW COLUMBUS WAS THERE TO TAKE THEM AS SLAVES AND ALL COLUMBUS FOUND WAS ABANDONED VILLAGES?

First, natives fleeing from strangers most often had nothing to do with Columbus’ established behavior, since they fled even upon first seeing and having never before heard of Columbus and his men. Here are a list – FROM THE FIRST VOYAGE – of instances of Columbus coming across natives and the natives fleeing. Remember, this is before the slave raids of the second voyage.

Cohen Page 70:

After eating a meal I went ashore, but there was no village only one house in which I found nobody. I think they had all run away from fright, for all their things were there. I wouldn’t allow anything to be touched but went with the captains and men to examine the island.

Cohen Page 71:

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.

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:

its banks were thickly peopled. But on seeing the ships the local inhabitants fled to the mountains.

Cohen page 78:

When the Christians thought it was time to return to the ships many Indians wished to accompany them. But they would allow only the king with one of his sons and a servant to come, and the Admiral received them with great honour.

Cohen page 83:

As the Admiral was going upstream in his boats he saw a canoe drawn up on shore under the trees beside the harbour and concealed by the branches. It was hollowed out of a single trunk and as large as a twelve-oared fusta* In some houses near by they found in two baskets hanging from a post a honeycomb and the head of a dead man and later in another house they found the same. Our men concluded that the head belonged to the builder of the house, but they did not find anyone from whom they could gain any information, for as soon as they saw the Christians the people fled from their houses and made for the other side of the harbour. The Spaniards afterwards found another canoe about seventy foot long capable of taking 150 men and also hollowed out of a single trunk.

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.

ON SECOND VOYAGE THE NATIVES CONTINUE TO SOMETIMES ACT SCARED

This pattern did not change at the outset of the second voyage. In fact, the first people that Columbus came across on the second voyage were the cannibal, slave trading Caribs on the island of Guadalupe. These people seem to project their own behavior onto the European strangers, fleeing before ever interacting with them (Cohen Page 132):

The caravel went ahead and, on reaching the land, sighted some houses. The captain went ashore in the boat and visited the houses, whose inhabitants fled as soon as they saw him.

Cohen Page 133:

On the seashore there were some small villages, and at the sight of our sails all the people fled.

Cohen Page 138:

Some of those in the boat landed and made their way to a village, whose inhabitants had all gone into hiding. The landing party took some women and boys, most of whom were the people’s captives, for like the inhabitants of the other islands these people were Caribs, as we learnt from the women whom we took with us.

Even if they had heard of Columbus and his men, the slave trade had not started yet, and these were a warring, slave trading people. Most likely they fled because they believed Columbus and his men to be some sort of supernatural beings (Cohen Page 138):

When this boat was about to return to the ships with the captures it had made down the coast below this place, there appeared along the coast a canoe with four men, two women and a boy, and when they saw the fleet they were so amazed that they remained motionless for a full hour about two lombard shots from the ships. The crew of the boat and indeed the whole fleet saw their stupefaction. Soon those in the boats went after them, keeping so close to the shore that these Indians, lost in amazement and wondering what the strange sight might be, failed to see them, until they were almost upon them and consequently could not escape though they tried hard to do so.

Some of Caribs’ slaves actually went to Columbus’ men of their own accord, evidently preferring the strange cloud beings to their Carib slave masters, but we never hear this from Zinn, because it doesn’t fit the narrative (Cohen Page 133):

Certain captains set out in the morning and some returned at dinner-time bringing a boy of about fourteen, who later told us that he was one of these people’s captives. The other captains went in various directions. A few men returned with a boy whom a man had been leading by the hand, but had abandoned at their approach. Only these few were detached to bring him back, the rest remaining behind. These captured some women of the island, and also brought back other women who were prisoners and came of their own accord.

Cohen Page 135:

more than twenty of the women prisoners and some other natives of the island came of their own accord. Some boy prisoners also fled to our men, escaping from the natives of the island who were guarding them.

Another reason some of the islands appeared to be abandoned when Columbus first landed in the Carib islands at the start of his second voyage? The Caribs were off conducting their own slave raids! (Cohen Page 135):

We remained in this harbour for eight days because of the loss of the captain I have spoken of, and landed several times on the island, visiting the dwellings and villages on the coast, where we found great numbers of human bones and skulls hanging in the houses as vessels to hold things. Very few men appeared and the reason was, as we learned from the women, that ten canoes had gone to raid other islands.

We asked the women who were held prisoners on this island what kind of people these were; and they replied that they were Caribs.

The customs of these Carib people are beastly. There are three islands. This one they call Turuqueira; the first that we saw is Ceyre and the third Ayay. The people were all friendly to one another as if of one family. They do not harm each other but all make war against the neighbouring islands. They travel 150 leagues to make raids in their canoes, which are small fustas hewn out of a single tree. Instead of iron weapons they use arrows – for they have no iron. Some of their arrows are tipped with tortoise shell, but others on another island use fish bones which are naturally serrated like very strong saws. For an unarmed people, which they all are, they can kill and do great injury with these weapons, which are not very terrible, however, to men of our nation.

These people raid the other islands and carry off all the women they can take, especially the young and beautiful, whom they keep as servants and concubines. They had carried off so many that in fifty houses we found no males and more than twenty of the captives were girls. These women say that they are treated with a cruelty that seems incredible. The Caribs eat the male children that they have by them, and only bring up the children of their own women; and as for the men they are able to capture, they bring those who are alive home to be slaughtered and eat those who are dead on the spot. They say that human flesh is so good that there is nothing like it in the world; and this must be true, for the human bones we found in their houses were so gnawed that no flesh was left on them except what was too tough to be eaten. In one house the neck of a man was found cooking in a pot. They castrate the boys that they capture and use them as servants until they are men. Then, when they want to make a feast, they kill and eat them, for they say that the flesh of boys and women is not good to eat. Three of these boys fled to us, and all three had been castrated.

In addition to the men who had gone with him, he brought in ten natives, boys and women. But neither this party nor those who had gone in search of them found any men, for they had all fled. But perhaps there were very few men left in the district, because as we learned from the women ten canoes had gone to raid the other islands.

Some other islands had apparently already been depopulated through Carib slave raids (Cohen Page 136):

The women whom we brought with us said that it was uninhabited, because the Caribs had removed the whole population.

Once they moved past the Carib islands, the natives still fled in fear – not at the sight of Columbus’ men, but at the sight of the Caribs, who were, as I have said, well known slave raiders in those parts (Cohen Page 140):

The Caribs have come here on raids and taken many of the people. The natives have no canoes and no knowledge of navigation, but according to the Caribs whom we captured they use bows like their own, and if they manage to capture any of the raiders they eat them in the same way as the Caribs themselves. We stayed in a harbour on this island for two days, and many of our men landed, but we were never able to have speech with the people, for they were terrified of the Caribs and all fled.

One thing that is rather remarkable (though it goes unremarked upon in Zinn’s book) is that as soon as Columbus’ men got away from the Carib islands, the Arawak people were friendly and interactive, not always fleeing into the jungle as the Caribs did (Cohen Page 143):

As we coasted the province of Jamana [a district of Hispaniola], we put ashore one of the Indian captives of the previous voyage, clothed, and with a few small objects which the Admiral had given him. That day a Basque sailor died who had been wounded by the Caribs on the occasion when we surprised them by keeping close to the shore. Since we were near the coast the opportunity was taken of sending a boat ashore to bury him, and two caravels were sent in to escort it. Many Indians came out to meet the boat as it beached, some of whom had gold round their necks or in their ears. They wanted to come out to the ships with the Christians, but the sailors refused to bring them since they had no permission from the Admiral. When they realized that we were not going to row them out, two of them got into a small canoe and went to one of the caravels which had put in towards the shore. They were kindly received and were then conveyed to the Admiral’s ship, where they said through an interpreter that they had been sent by certain king to learn who we were and to beg us to land because they had much gold and would give us some, as well as some food. The Admiral ordered that they should be given a shirt each and a cap and other trifles.

See Part 3 here, which starts with some clarification on WHAT HAPPENED WITH NAVIDAD FORT.

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):

LETTER OF COLUMBUS TO VARIOUS PERSONS DESCRIBING THE RESULTS OF HIS FIRST VOYAGE AND WRITTEN ON THE RETURN JOURNEY

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.

Zinn on Columbus and slavery

According to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, From the moment Columbus set foot in the Americas, he had slavery on his mind (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.

Columbus could not resist taking the natives in chains at every opportunity. He seems almost to have gone from island to island just rounding up the natives (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. Zinn Page 3: 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.

With his ships filled to the brim with fresh slaves – and a few dead ones. Columbus set sail for Spain. En route he prepared his official report for the queen (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.”

You see, because all that was on the mind of both Columbus, and his financiers back in Spain was gold and slaves. And they used Christianity as a justification for enslaving the people of the new world. Yea, that’s the ticket.

As it turned out, Columbus’ letter must have sold the queen very well. With more ships and more men, and approval both from his rulers both in Spain and in Heaven above, Columbus returned to the new world with one thing on his mind – the theft and exploitation of the entire population (Zinn Page 3):

Because of Columbus’s exaggerated report and promises, his second expedition was given seventeen ships and more than twelve hundred men. The aim was clear: slaves and gold. They went from island to island in the Caribbean, taking Indians as captives. But as word spread of the Europeans’ intent they found more and more empty villages. On Haiti, they found that the sailors left behind at Fort Navidad had been killed in a battle with the Indians, after they had roamed the island in gangs looking for gold, taking women and children as slaves for sex and labor.

And so began the five hundred years rape, pillage, and plunder for the new world by those evil white Western European Christians (Zinn Page 4):

Now, from his base on Haiti, Columbus sent expedition after expedition into the interior. They found no gold fields, but had to fill up the ships returning to Spain with some kind of dividend. In the year 1495, they went on a great slave raid, rounded up fifteen hundred Arawak men, women, and children, put them in pens guarded by Spaniards and dogs, then picked the five hundred best specimens to load onto ships. Of those five hundred, two hundred died en route. The rest arrived alive in Spain and were put up for sale by the archdeacon of the town, who reported that, although the slaves were “naked as the day they were born,” they showed “no more embarrassment than animals.” Columbus later wrote: “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.”

Shipping the best slaves back to Europe wasn’t enough. Too many useable slaves were being left behind. And so, with the approval of none of other than God almighty, those evil Spaniards went about enslaving every last native of the new world (Zinn Page 4):

But too many of the slaves died in captivity. And so Columbus, desperate to pay back dividends to those who had invested, had to make good his promise to fill the ships with gold. In the province of Cicao on Haiti, where he and his men imagined huge gold fields to exist, 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. The Indians had been given an impossible task. The only gold around was bits of dust garnered from the streams. So they fled, were hunted down with dogs, and were killed. Trying to put together an army of resistance, the Arawaks faced Spaniards who had armor, muskets, swords, horses. When the Spaniards took prisoners they hanged them or burned them to death.

Forced labor was so traumatic to the natives that death was soon preferred (Zinn Page 5):

Among the Arawaks, mass suicides began, with cassava poison. Infants were killed to save them from the Spaniards.

The forced labor became so brutal, that it too was soon unprofitable and counterproductive. In their blind quest for wealth, the Spaniards had become genocidal maniacs (Zinn Page 4):

In two years, through murder, mutilation, or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead.

The Spaniards lust for wealth quickly gave way to pure blood lust. Within a generation, the Spaniards had completed one of the most ferocious genocides in human history; 200 thousand dead. By the mid-1600s, the complete eradication of an entire people (Zinn Page 5):

When it became clear that there was no gold left, the Indians were taken as slave labor on huge estates, known later as encomiendas. They were worked at a ferocious pace, and died by the thousands. By the year 1515, there were perhaps fifty thousand Indians left. By 1550, there were five hundred. A report of the year 1650 shows none of the original Arawaks or their descendants left on the island.

Zinn on the brutality and violence of Columbus and the pacifism of the natives

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.

Zinn continues:

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.

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.