Monday, October 10, 2005

In Celebration of Mass Genocide?

I know that this is no longer a radical or unusual thing to say but: Why do I not have work today? Why does my daily organizer say Columbus Day? Why are we still celebrating today as a holiday?

I suppose an argument could be made as to why today can be celebrated, we are here and Columbus is the person who sparked European interest to go West. Regardless of whether it should be celebrated or not, the devastating affect that Columbus, the conquistadors, and the multitude of early settlers had on the natives and the land should not go unmentioned and should receive at least equal reflection.

A few things: It is queer to name Columbus the discoverer of the New World when he himself died thinking he had reached Asia, and had no idea that he in fact had reached a land mass relatively unknown in Europe. Columbus has even less to do with the discovery of what today is the USA, since he only ever set foot on the islands of the Caribbean. I believe Ponce de Leon was the first of the conquistadors to "discoverer" North America- he landed on Florida in 1513.

The following are excerpts from the first chapter of Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States", it's a great book and it reads like a novel. Columbus' contribution to the world:

"...They found no gold fields, but had to fill up the ships returning to Spain with some kind of dividend. In the year 1495 (this was during Columbus' second voyage), 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..."

"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 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."

"...Among the Arawaks, mass suicides began, with cassava poison. Infants were killed to save them from the Spaniards. In two years, through murder, mutilation, or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead."

And that was just the total Columbus and his men are believed to have been responsible for the death of up to 3 million (some say 8) Natives and the complete genocide of the Arawaks. The Arawaks were a people who swam out to meet the Santa Maria, showering its captain and crew with gifts, but to their great demise one of those gifts was made of gold.

Howard Zinn concludes his chapter:

"Was all this bloodshed and deceit...a necessity for the human race to progress from savagery to civilization?...Perhaps an argument can be made- as it was made by Stalin when he killed peasants for industrial progress in the Soviet Union, as it was made by Churchill explaining the bombings of Dresden and Hamburg, and Truman explaining Hiroshima. But how can the judgment be made if the benefits and losses cannot be balanced because the losses are either unmentioned or mention quickly?

That quick disposal might be acceptable ("Unfortunate, yes, but it had to be done") to the middle and upper classes of the conquering and "advanced" countries. But is it acceptable to the poor of Asia, Africa, Latin America, or to the prisoners in Soviet labor camps, or the blacks in urban ghettos, or the Indians on reservations- to the victims of that progress which benefits a privileged minority in the world?...And even the privileged minority- must it not reconsider, with that practicality which even privilege cannot abolish, the value of its privileges, when they become threatened by the anger of the sacrificed, whether in organized rebellion, unorganized riot, or simply those brutal individual acts of desperation labeled crimes by law and the state?

If there
are necessary sacrifices to be made for human progress, is it not essential to hold to the principle that those to be sacrificed must make the decision themselves?..."

"Beyond all that, how certain are we that what was destroyed was inferior? Who were these people who came out on the beach and swam to bring presents to Columbus and his crew..."

"...Before the arrival of the European explorers, they were using irrigation canals, dams, were doing ceramics, weaving baskets, making cloth out of cotton."

"...The concept of private ownership of land and homes was foreign to the Iroquois (a nation of five separate tribes who lived in present day New York)...'No poorhouses are needed among them, because they are neither mendicants nor paupers....Their kindness, humanity and courtesy not only makes them liberal with what they have, but causes them to posses hardly anything except in common.

Women were important and respected in Iroquois society. Families were matrilinear...When a woman wanted a divorce, she set her husband's things outside the door."

"...The senior women in the village named the men who represented the clans at village and tribal councils. They also named the forty-nine chiefs who were the ruling council for the Five Nation confederacy of the Iroquois. The women attended the clan meetings, stood behind the circle of men who spoke and voted, and removed the men from office if they strayed too far from the wishes of the women."

"Children in Iroquois society, while taught the cultural heritage of their people and solidarity with the tribe, were also taught to be independent, not to submit to overbearing authority. They were taught equality in status and the sharing of possessions. "

"So Columbus and his successors were not coming into an empty wilderness, but into a world which in some places was as densely populated as Europe itself, where the culture was complex, where human relations were more egalitarian than in Europe, and where the relations among men, women, children and nature were more beautifully worked out than perhaps any place in the world."

"...They paid careful attention to the development of personality, intensity of will, independence and flexibility, passion and potency, to their partnership with one another and with nature. "


That was a little longer than I intended, but I really love this book, and it sums up a lot of the most interesting works I read in college. I really believe in everything that I copied down here and the telling of these stories is why I think I want to teach history.

So, as you "celebrate" (read: sit on your couch watching TV instead of at your desk in front of a computer screen) today keep in mind what the real celebration is about. Never forget to question all that you have been taught. Just because this type of history isn't as buried as it used to be, doesn't mean that we should stop talking about it. I know it sounds risky or corney, but try mentioning the truth about today to someone else...word of mouth can be very powerful.

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