Thursday, October 28, 2004

28. Unbiased history not pretty

The events of history are often distorted by the perceptions and prejudices of those that write it. Sometimes it is an honest lack of perception; other times the reason is an influenced perspective, perhaps based on bias or personal interest. Either way, the truth is often slanted toward the opinion of the writer. Historian Howard Zinn writes, "The historian's distortion is more than technical, it is ideological; it is released into a world of contending interests, where any chosen emphasis supports some kind of interest, whether economic or racial or national or political."

There is probably no story of history more misrepresented, more glorified, than the one told of Christopher Columbus and the discovery of America. He has been aptly dubbed as "the most successful failure in history." Moreover, his character is one of utter ignominy. Could it be that through America's arrogance, or at least of those that wrote America's history, that a triumphant beginning needed to be created?

Following, in part, is the story as told in Howard Zinn's highly acclaimed, A People's History of the United States.

Knowing that the earth was round, Columbus set sail west in attempt to reach India and Asia- in search of gold and spices. Spain was recently unified and was in search of wealth. Its population was poor, with the top 2 percent owning 95 percent of the land. Spain sought an alternate route to Asia because the Turks had control of the land route, and the Portuguese were traveling south around Africa. Columbus's first mistake was the size of the earth, as it turned out to be some four times larger than he calculated. Had he traveled unimpeded toward Asia, his fate was certain disaster. Columbus was lucky that he sailed into the Americas.

On October 12, 1492, a sailor under the early morning moonlight first sighted land. Zinn notes, "The first person to sight land was supposed to get a yearly pension of 10,000 maravedis for life, but Rodrigo (the sailor) never got it. Columbus claimed he had seen a light the night before. He got the reward."

On the island, Columbus and his crew were greeted by the Arawaks, who were known "for their hospitality, their belief in sharing." Columbus had other ideas, he 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." Of course the "whatever" Columbus was searching for was gold, as his deal with the Spanish royalty was 10 percent of the profits.

In his return to Spain, Columbus met with the Court in Madrid to report on his expedition. He claimed to have reached Asia, which harbored "many wide rivers of which the majority contained gold." He asked the Spanish royalty for another voyage in which he promised "as much gold as they need...and as many slaves as they ask." What King or Queen could refuse a promise like that?

When Columbus returned to Haiti and couldn't fill his ships with his imaginary gold, he opted to fulfill his promise with slaves. Zinn again notes, "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 best 500 specimens to load onto ships." Though two hundred died in route, it did not deter Columbus from proclaiming, "Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold."

However, because so many died in captivity, the pressure was on Columbus to fulfill the other half of his promise- gold. Now, back in Haiti, Arawaks were required to collect a certain amount of gold- for which they received a copper token to wear around their necks. Those found without a copper token had their hands cut off and bled to death. When the Arawaks resisted, they were hung or burned to death, leading to mass suicides to prevent capture by the Spaniards. Zinn writes, "In two years, through murder, mutilation, or suicide, half the 250,000 Indians in Haiti were dead. In essence, Zinn notes, "What Columbus did to the Arawaks of the Bahamas, Cortes did to the Aztecs of Mexico, Pizarro to the Incas of Peru, and the English settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts to the Powhatans and the Pequots."

Not exactly the story I was taught in school.

Unfortunately, much of the world's history is told from the perspectives of the governments, diplomats, and conquerors- the people who write the books and record the history. Often people like the Arawaks don't write books because they are uneducated, oppressed or too busy trying to survive. But we have to ask, what about their history, their side of the story? Because when their story is told, by the likes of Fredrick Douglas or Anne Frank, for example, it is often shocking and appalling. Christopher Columbus was, granted, a quality navigator, however he severely miscalculated his theory, then cheated, thieved and murdered- all in the name of fame and wealth.

America doesn't need this kind of glorious discovery, nor does it need to honor the likes of Christopher Columbus.