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A People's History of the United States

by Howard Zinn

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What are the five key points Zinn makes about Columbus in A People's History of the United States?

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Five important things Zinn says about Columbus in A People's History of the United States are that Columbus didn't really know what he was doing, that he was not on a humanitarian mission, that he was hostile towards the Indigenous people, that he used religion to justify his brutal treatment of them, and that "progress" has been used to justify his brutal actions.

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There are many important points in Howard Zinn's first chapter on Christopher Columbus, and here are five of them.


Zinn writes that Columbus did not set out to discover the lands that would become known as the Americas. He wanted to sail to Asia. It just so happened...

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that he stumbled upon the America lands. Zinn's point suggests that Columbus might not have been such an "expert sailor." If he had such a talent for navigation, he probably should have been able to complete his original mission: finding gold in Asia.


The above leads to the second point: Columbus's motivation for the expeditions. His aims were not philanthropic. They were materialistic. He wanted gold, honor, and fame.

Columbus was the hostile one

According to Zinn, Columbus wrote that the Indigenous people

are so naïve and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone.

You might consider this important, because it shows that the Indigenous people were not the hostile ones. The Europeans were the belligerent party.


According to Zinn, Columbus wrote, "Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold." Columbus is referring to the Indigenous people that his expedition kidnapped, brought back to Spain, then sold as slaves. The connection between Catholicism and slavery underscores the ways in which religion has historically been used to justify atrocious actions.


Speaking of justifying atrocious actions, the last important point links to how Columbus is remembered. You might want to review the section when Zinn mentions the "distinguished" Columbus biographer Samuel Eliot Morison. Morison notes that Columbus's actions "resulted in complete genocide." Yet Morison still praises Columbus's "indomitable will" and "stubborn persistence." This part is important because it highlights Zinn's belief about the United States's "easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress."

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1. While the Arawaks were "remarkable for their hospitality," Columbus embodied the greed that characterized Europe in the Renaissance. His expedition was motivated by the gold he was sure he would find.

2. He immediately enslaved the natives and forcefully enlisted them in his futile quest for gold. (There was very little in the Caribbean.)

3. Power-hungry, he sent a wildly exaggerated report to the king and queen of Spain about the gold he had found and was then sent on a second expedition with seventeen ships to bring back gold and slaves. However, the majority of the slaves died in captivity. Others were shot when they couldn't produce the rumored gold and tried to run away.

4. Much of what is taught about Columbus in schools, especially to younger grades, is an outright lie. He is painted as a hero, and the genocide he committed is whitewashed out of his story.

5. Even when historians do represent Columbus's actions correctly, they typically do not go far enough to condemn it. Instead, they shift the focus to the establishment of the New World and all the advancements that came after. Zinn admonishes these historians and writes, "The easy acceptance of atrocities as the price to pay for progress is deplorable."

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First, Zinn makes it clear that Columbus and his Spanish backers were motivated primarily by a desire to discover new sources of wealth. This explains their approach to dealing with the native peoples they encountered. As Zinn says, "The information that Columbus wanted most [from the natives] was: 'Where is the gold?'" The second point would be his description of the effects of the policies of Columbus and the Spanish officials that followed him to the Caribbean. They led to the almost total extermination of the native peoples who inhabited the region. The famous account by Bartolome de Las Casas is cited to make this point all the more clear. The final three points are really related to historiography, and the uses of the past, and serve to set up the main thrust of Zinn's overall narrative. First he shows that previous historians of Columbus's actions in the New World such as Samuel Eliot Morison have effaced the unflattering parts, and that this has been deliberate: "the historian's distortion...is ideological; it is released into a world of contending interests, where any chosen emphasis supports...some kind of interest." This leads to his next point, which is that the "quiet acceptance of conquest and murder in the name of progress" has disturbing effects in our own time, making it easier for us to countenance the bad things people do with power today. Finally, Zinn argues that the whitewashing of history and celebration of the actions of men like Columbus is part of a larger historical approach that is told from the "point of view of governments, conquerors, diplomats," and other powerful men. Zinn proposes a different approach, one which he will pursue in A People's History, that focuses on people from the "bottom up." So the aim of his treatment of Columbus is as much to set up his overall narrative approach as to tell an umportant, or unfamiliar story about the man.

Source: Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States (New York: Harper Perennial, 1995) 1-9.

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