Monday, October 8, 2007

Columbus Day - Our Own National Amnesia

Eighty-three protesters were arrested Saturday in a Columbus day parade protest including activist Russell Means of the American Indian Movement. Denver's parade, which was started in 1907, has a troubled history of arrests and confrontations between Columbus supporters and detractors. Protesters have called him a slave trader who touched off centuries of genocide and oppression against native people. Supporters say he was a brave explorer who opened a new world and that the parade is an American holiday to be celebrated.

Colorado is the first state to make Columbus Day a holiday. It is also incidentally, in colonial times was the most populous state with the most Indian tribes in North America. But, they were driven out, murdered, raped and destroyed and no Indian Tribe exists within the state borders of Colorado.

Howard Zinn when he set out to write his masterpiece, the People's History of the United States said: And so, how must I tell the story of Columbus? I concluded, I must see him through the eyes of people who were here when he arrived, the people he called “Indians” because he thought he was in Asia.

He said the indigenous people left no journals, no memoirs, no living history whatsoever, they were an oral people, so he decided to research the next best thing, those who conquered and this led him to Columbus' journals.

He begins: His journal was revealing. He described the people who greeted him when landed in the Bahamas--they were Arawak Indians, some times called Tainos--and told how they waded out into the sea to greet him and his men, who must have looked and sounded like people from another world, and brought them gifts of various kinds. He described them as peaceable, gentle, and said: “They do not bear arms, and do not know for I showed them a sword--they took it by the edge and cut themselves.”

Throughout the journal, Columbus spoke of them of the native people of awe: “They are the best people in the world and above all the gentlest--without knowledge of what is evil--nor do they murder or steal...they love their neighbors as themselves and they have the sweetest talk in the world...always laughing." And in a letter Columbus wrote to his friends in Spain: They are very simple and honest and exceedingly liberal with all they have...“they would make fine servants. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

Zinn says this is what Columbus saw of the people he encountered as servants, to do whatever he wanted [with them]. He was a conqueror. And what did Columbus want, Zinn asks? This is not hard to determine. In the first two weeks of journal entries, there is one word that recurs seventy-five times: GOLD. In his quest for gold, Columbus, seeing bits of gold among the Indians, concluded there were huge amounts of it. He ordered the natives to find a certain amount of gold within a certain period of time. And if they did not meet their quota, their arms were hacked off. The others were to learn from this and deliver the gold.

Samuel Eliot Morison, the Harvard historian who was Columbus’ admiring biographer, acknowledged this. He wrote: “Whoever thought up this ghastly system, Columbus was responsible for it, as the only means of producing gold for export.... Those who fled to the mountains were hunted with hounds, and those who escaped, starvation and disease took toll, while thousands of poor creatures in desperation took cassava poison to end their miseries.”

Morison continues: “So the policy and acts of Columbus for which he alone was responsible began the depopulation of the terrestrial paradise that was Hispaniola in 1492. Of the original natives, estimated by modern ethnologist at 300,000 in number, one-third were killed off between 1494 and 1496. By 1508, an enumeration showed only 60,000 1548 Oviedo (Morison is referring to Fernandex de Oviedo, the official Spanish historian of conquest) doubted whether 500 Indians remained.

A Spaniard Bartolome De La Casas confirms these accounts. De La Casas was a Dominican Priest who came to the new world shortly after Columbus: in his book The Devastation of the Indies, writes of Arawaks: “...of all the infinite universe of humanity, these people are the most guileless, the most devoid of wickedness and duplicity...yet into this sheepfold...there came some Spaniards who immediately behaved like ravening beasts.... Their reason for killing and destroying... is that Christian’s have an ultimate aim which is to acquire gold...”

There are more grueling, specific accounts to read and write about. There is no need. It is not subversive to think Columbus was a warmonger. But, yet it is subversive to talk about it. We all go through the motions on Columbus day, some of us at work, some camping and at the beach, some just a day at home, regardless the same charade every year. Why? Why do we not talk about this uniquely European figure that butchered, murdered and virtually destroyed an entire race of people? Why do I have to listen to Happy Columbus Day? Or cringe when people just tell me to lighten up.

I no more want to celebrate Columbus day as I want to celebrate the slave trade. Yet, we must sit here and do it every year. It makes me ashamed to be an American. Why can we not change the meaning of the day and call it Indigenous People's Day? We will celebrate all the destruction the new world brought upon countless native people, not to mention making the slave trade thrive for four centuries. We have a lot to answer for. Ignoring it does not make it disappear.


Anonymous said...

gee, i wonder why i didn't learn any of that in school. i didn't realize they had that in his journals.

john f. said...

that makes me realize how much i need to read Zinn's book and also how truly intentionally ignorant the predominantly italian-american town next to mine is, which has a seven-foot tall monument to Columbus next to the police station that memorializes him as if he were a saint.