What are Zinn's points of argument in Chapter 1 of A People's History of the United States?

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The first chapter of A People's History of the United States is mostly an account of Christopher Columbus's encounter with Native Americans in the Caribbean. Essentially, Zinn is interested in turning the traditional narrative of this encounter, one which emphasizes the heroism of Columbus, on its head. Quoting heavily from Bartolome de las Casas's work A Brief Account of the Devastation of the Indies, he describes Columbus's motives as essentially driven by a desire for wealth. Because the explorer was willing to employ brutal methods to extract wealth from the Indians, who are portrayed as peaceful and docile, the results were tragic. Zinn quotes Las Casas to underscore the point:

Endless testimonies...prove the mild and pacific temperament of the natives...But our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle, and destroy...[Columbus] was so anxious to please the King that he committed irreparable crimes against the Indians...

The larger point that Zinn is interested in making is that historians have, he claims, largely ignored the suffering of the natives because they have focused on "governments, conquerors, diplomats, leaders." Zinn's approach is to look at a series of events through the eyes of Indians, slaves, women, factory workers and others who have, he argues, been ignored in the American collective memory as well as by traditional historians like Samuel Eliot Morison (though not by many recent historians, a point Zinn does not always emphasize.) In so doing, he not only explicitly advocates for the oppressed in today's world, but problematizes the narrative of progress that he views as part of Western mythology.

Source: Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States (New York: Harper Perennial, 1995)3-11.


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