Who Is the Columbus of Today?

Common Courage Press -
Political Literacy Course, October 12, 1999


We were going to take Monday off, wanting a break and to eschew the predictable theme of Columbus in history. Indeed, Columbus's genocidal acts are well understood today, thanks to the relentless work of progressive historians, activists and Native peoples. But with this wide understanding of the events of five hundred years ago, do we risk a complacent smugness that such events could not recur? Obviously they cannot occur again; there is no new continent of people to conquer. Yet the account of Columbus in Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States" reveals forces at work during Columbus's expeditions that are very much in play today. After receiving a gift of a gold mask by a local Indian chief and seeing gold earrings, Columbus had wild visions of gold fields, visions which filled the hearts of investors financing his second voyage with seventeen ships and more than twelve hundred men. As Zinn writes,

The aim was clear: slaves and gold. They went from island to island taking Indians as captives. From his base on Haiti, Columbus sent expedition after expedition into the interior. They found no gold fields, but had to fill up the ships returning to Spain with some kind of dividend. In the year 1495, 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 five hundred specimens to load onto ships. Two hundred died en route; many of the slaves died in captivity. And so Columbus, desperate to pay back dividends to those who had invested, had to make good on 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 found without a token had their hands cut off and bled to death.

In two years, through murder, mutilation, or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead.

Rolling the camera of history forward five hundred years, we see a different world, where native people around the globe are clinging to survival, in some places only just. Yet the slaughter continues, most recently in East Timor. Following a vote for independence at the end of August, under the thin guise of paramilitary groups that General Wiranto falsely claimed were out of his control, the U.S.-backed Indonesian military killed thousands of East Timorese. By destroying much of the tiny country's infrastructure, the military has created huge food shortages, condemning many more to death by starvation unless we intervene.

The reason behind the violence is easy to discern: by exacting a huge toll, Indonesia serves a terrible warning to others -- in provinces such as Aceh and elsewhere -- that moves toward independence from Indonesia will incur a terrible cost. No alternative to Indonesian domination under the shadow of the world's only remaining super power can be permitted.

The reasons appear different from the motivations of Columbus: despite the oil reserves in the Timor gap, rather than the short term goal of extracting resources, Indonesia -- armed by the U.S. -- is after maintaining control of the region. But dig a little deeper and it becomes clear what's at stake: maintaining a labor system where children make shoes for the likes of Nike, and keeping control over oil reserves which could instead be used to create a wealthy Timorese society.

Columbus tried to create a system of slavery; Wiranto is trying to maintain one. But despite these differences, both were desperate to satisfy investors. Where once the investors lived in Europe, now they are based in the U.S..

Common Courage Press