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A People's History of the United States

by Howard Zinn

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Key points Howard Zinn makes about Columbus in A People's History of the United States

Summary:

Howard Zinn emphasizes that Columbus's arrival in the Americas led to the exploitation and brutal treatment of indigenous peoples. Zinn challenges the heroic narrative of Columbus, highlighting his role in initiating the transatlantic slave trade and the widespread violence against native populations. He argues that these actions were driven by a relentless pursuit of wealth and power.

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What are the 5 key points Howard Zinn makes about Columbus in A People's History of the United States?

There are many different points that Zinn makes in his analysis of Columbus's entry to the "New World."  The first point comes in the opening of the chapter. Zinn makes the point that Columbus's primary motivation in exploration was for conquest and power.  Zinn demonstrates this through Columbus's own writings:

They ... brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks' bells. They willingly traded everything they owned... . They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features.... They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane... . They would make fine servants.... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.

The description that Columbus gives regarding the Arawak reception to the Europeans reflects how Columbus recognized the opportunity for power.  This helps to illuminate Zinn's connecting point which is that Columbus should not be regarded as heroic.  He should be seen as wielding power.  Consider the language that is used in describing his interactions with indigenous people:  "ignorance," "servants," and "subjugate."  Such language reflects Zinn's point that Columbus should not be seen as heroic, but rather as a conqueror who enforced his will on other- wise peaceful and tolerant indigenous societies.  Such an idea is enhanced with further evidence of Columbus's writings that speaks of needing to "take them [indigenous people] by force."

Another point that is essential to Zinn's analysis of Columbus is the material forces that drives human action.  Zinn removes the myth of Columbus sailing "the ocean blue" because of intrinsic good.  Rather, Zinn points out that Columbus had one question that drove he and his efforts:  "Where is the gold?"  Zinn takes a socio- economic analysis towards Columbus's efforts.  Such a viewpoint is evident throughout his historical narrative.  Zinn's point is that the America "of the people, for the people, and by the people" was really for the rich and those who sought wealth. Zinn's point here is that the nation emerged as one from whence the drive for material riches supplanted all other concerns. 

After Zinn makes his point about the slaughter and genocide that should be connected with Columbus, Zinn broadens his analysis.  He questions why American History is so embedded in lionizing Columbus as a mythological figure. For Zinn, the answer is a reflection of power in the telling of history.  Zinn makes the point that the telling of American History is an exercise in political power.  He uses the traditional "textbook" view of Columbus as evidence of this:

He [Columbus] had his faults and his defects, but they were largely the defects of the qualities that made him great-his indomitable will, his superb faith in God and in his own mission as the Christ-bearer to lands beyond the seas, his stubborn persistence despite neglect, poverty and discouragement. But there was no flaw, no dark side to the most outstanding and essential of all his qualities-his seamanship.

Zinn's point here is to suggest that the traditional narrative of American History "buries the truth" in order to accentuate another reality, a vision that it wants its citizens, in particular its children, to openly embrace.  Zinn's point is that the traditional historical narrative in America does not deny facts.  Rather, it envelops them in political agendas.  This provides the impetus as to why Zinn engages in the scholarship that he does.  In the final point, Zinn suggests that his own study of history is not one that seeks to embrace this traditional narrative.  Zinn wishes to counter Kissinger's view of history as "the memory of states."  Rather, Zinn's point in telling history in the manner he does is to suggest that "we should not accept the histories of nations as our own."  Rather, it should be told from the point of view of those who have power and wield it against those who do not.  For Zinn, this becomes the point of history: "to not be on the side of the executioners."  His analysis of Columbus is conducted with this mentality at its forefront.

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

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

Asia

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 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.

Gold

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.

Religion

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.

Progress

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

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

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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