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.

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

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

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

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

Then, on October 12, a sailor called Rodrigo saw the early morning moon shining on white sands, and cried out. It was an island in the Bahamas, the Caribbean sea. The first man to sight land was supposed to get a yearly pension of 10,000 maravedis for life, but Rodrigo never got it. Columbus claimed he had seen a light the evening before. He got the reward.

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

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

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

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