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Zinn believes that Columbus's voyage to the Americas was one fueled by the idea of wealth and power and upon his arrival other evils such as the idea of slavery, exploitation, and murder penetrated his heart. Armed with Columbus's journals and Bartolome Las Casas's texts Zinn proves the cruelty that possessed Columbus, Zinn quotes Columbus's journal which states "They would make fine servants...With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want." Zinn believes that Columbus's life and actions have been ridiculously romanticized and that America has been celebrating the life of a mass murderer comparable to Hitler and Stalin. He states that historians have been telling the sweet little tale about Columbus sailing the ocean blue in 1492 but have been ignoring the true nature of this supposed Christian man. "He does not omit the story of mass murder..." says Zinn on Morrison ."..on one page, buried halfway into the telling of a grand romance... He mentions the truth (about Columbus committing genocide) quickly and goes on to other things more important to him." In other words, Morison tells the truth but then conceals it, in order to provide a faux placidity that diverts the reader from the horrid reality of Columbus's actions .
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Zinn shows the story or history of Columbus through the eyes of Columbus, Las Casas, and the Indians. In Zinn's view Columbus invaded the Indians land and did what he pleased with them, killing them and treating them like inferior beings that only exist to be subjugated. He stole their treasures, abused their trust and generosity, raped their women, murdered their children, and starved their families. Columbus was the ultimate enemy and his only inspiration was the shimmering splendor of gold. His view on Columbus is biased, surely, probably exaggerating the vulnerability and innocence of the Indians. Zinn's view is most likely embellishing on the tyrannical behavior of the Spaniards; he is not understanding Columbus's frustration at not finding what he swore to the Spanish Queen he would find. An American student's first encounter with Christopher Columbus is one filled with awe and respect. It seems so amazing that Columbus was so brave in going to a land that was possibly unreachable, and so heartwarming that he dined in joy and comradeship with the Indians. When a student is taught about the death of the Indians it seems to be accidental because of disease; the truth of mass murder is left out of the picture. The historians that write books for children in middle school and earlier make the Indians seem like savages that had to be dealt with and the Spaniards like saints professing their faith in God. Zinn chooses to look at Columbus and the past in general through the eyes of the forgotten people, the untouchables and not solely through those of the Europeans. He believes that by looking through the eyes of the victimized and down-trotted one sees the reality of situations and that the truth can not be seen through the prejudiced view of oppressors who endlessly justify their actions. In his book Zinn states his view on historians' perspectives and their choice of what to stress:
My argument cannot be against selection, simplification, or emphasis, which are inevitable for both cartographers and historians. But the map-maker's distortion is a technical necessity for a common purpose shared by all people who need maps. The historian's distortion is more than technical, it is ideological; it is released into a world of contending interests, where any chosen emphasis supports (whether the historian means to or not) some kind of interest, whether economic or political or racial or national or sexual...to emphasize the heroism of Columbus and his successors as navigators and discoverers, and to deemphasize their genocide, is not a technical necessity but an ideological choice. It serves-unwittingly- to justify what was done.
This statement by Zinn is definitely true and truly shows how historians actually have the power to affect people's views on Columbus and history in general and how this is a mass deception that has ensnared most who hear it.
My knowledge of the European conquest of America has been very (I know now) limited. I knew that Columbus was not a saint but I didn't think he was a homicidal maniac either, Zinn's analysis of this event has truly opened my eyes to how skewed most of the information is on Columbus, actually. I completely agree with Zinn and believe that Columbus was not a hero but a killer who happened to make one of the greatest discoveries the world has ever seen, and happened to be a great navigator and captain. Being a killer is not a personality trait but a personality in itself and it should not be treated as minuscule or be excused because of one's accomplishments. Ted Bundy had many accomplishments in the political and social world but his murderous persona overwhelms everything his life could have possibly represented; just because Columbus discovered what would become a great nation his genocide should not be excused. If I were to teach a class on Columbus and his pioneering role in the conquest of America I would definitely use Zinn's article as it provides a fresh and real position on Columbus and the discovery of America. I wouldn't want my students to have just the limited view on these occurrences, as shown in most history books.
1. Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States. New York: The New Press, 1997.