excerpted from the book
Lies My Teacher Told Me
Everything Your American
History Textbook Got Wrong
by James W. Loewen
Touchstone Books, 1995, paper
What passes for identity in America is a series of myths about
one's heroic ancestors.
W E B Du Bois
[American] history ... paints perfect men and noble nations, but
it does not tell the truth.
Teachers have held up Helen Keller, the blind and deaf girl who
overcame her physical handicaps, as an inspiration to generations
of schoolchildren. Every fifth-grader knows the scene in which
Anne Sullivan spells water into young Helen's hand at the pump.
At least a dozen movies and filmstrips have been made on Keller's
life. Each yields its version of the same cliché. A McGraw-Hill
educational film concludes: "The gift of Helen Keller and
Anne Sullivan to the world is to constantly remind us of the wonder
of the world around us and how much we owe those who taught us
what it means, for there is no person that is unworthy or incapable
of being helped, and the greatest service any person can make
us is to help another reach true potential."
To draw such a bland maxim from the life
of Helen Keller, historians and filmmakers have disregarded her
actual biography and left out the lessons she specifically asked
us to learn from it. Keller, who struggled so valiantly to learn
to speak, has been made mute by history. The result
... Keller, who was born in 1880, graduated
from Radcliffe in 1904 and died in 1968. To ignore the sixty-four
years of her adult life or to encapsulate them with the single
word humanitarian is to lie by omission.
The truth is that Helen Keller was a radical
socialist. She joined the Socialist party of Massachusetts in
1909. She had become a social radical even before she graduated
from Radcliffe, and not, she emphasized, because of any teachings
available there. After the Russian Revolution, she sang the praises
of the new communist nation: "In the East a new star is risen!
With pain and anguish the old order has given birth to the new,
and behold in the East a man-child is born! Onward, comrades,
all together! Onward to the campfires of Russia! Onward to the
coming dawn!" ~ Keller hung a red flag over the desk in her
study. Gradually she moved to the left of the Socialist party
and became a Wobbly, a member of the Industrial Workers of the
World (IWW) the syndicalist union persecuted by Woodrow Wilson.
At the time Keller became a socialist, she was one of the most
famous women on the planet. She soon became the most notorious.
Her conversion to socialism caused a new storm of publicity-this
time outraged. Newspapers that had extolled her courage and intelligence
now emphasized her handicap. Columnists charged that she had no
independent sensory input and was in thrall to those who fed her
information. Typical was the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle>
who wrote that Keller's "mistakes spring out of the manifest
limitations of her development."
Keller recalled having met this editor:
"At that time the compliments he paid me were so generous
that I blush to remember them. But now that I have come out for
socialism he reminds me and the public that I am blind and deaf
and especially liable to error. I must have shrunk in intelligence
during the years since I met him." She went on, "Oh,
ridiculous Brooklyn Eagle! Socially blind and deaf, it defends
an intolerable system, a system that is the cause of much of the
physical blindness and deafness which we are trying to prevent."
Keller, who devoted much of her later
life to raising funds for the American Foundation for the Blind,
never wavered in her belief that our society needed radical change.
Having herself fought so hard to speak, she helped found the American
Civil Liberties Union to fight for the free speech of others.
She sent $100 to the NAACP with a letter of support that appeared
in its magazine The Crisis-a radical act for a white person from
Alabama in the 1920s. She supported Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist
candidate, in each of his campaigns for the presidency. She composed
essays on the women's movement, on politics, on economics. Near
the end of her life, she wrote to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, leader
of the American Communist party, who was then languishing in jail,
a victim of the McCarthy era: "Loving birthday greetings,
dear Elizabeth Flynn! May the sense of serving mankind bring strength
and peace into your brave heart!"
One may not agree with Helen Keller's
positions. Her praise of the USSR now seems naive, embarrassing,
to some even treasonous. But she was a radical-a fact few Americans
know, because our schooling and our mass media left it out.
Under [President Woodrow] Wilson, the United States intervened
in Latin America more often than at any other time in our history.
We landed troops in Mexico in 1914, Haiti in 1915, the Dominican
Republic in 1916, Mexico again in 1916 (and nine more times before
the end of Wilson's presidency), Cuba in 1917, and Panama in 1918.
Throughout his administration Wilson maintained forces in Nicaragua,
using them to determine Nicaragua's president and to force passage
of a treaty preferential to the United States.
In 1917 Woodrow Wilson took on a major
power when he started sending secret monetary aid to the "White"
side of the Russian civil war. In the summer of 1918 he authorized
a naval blockade of the Soviet Union and sent expeditionary forces
to Murmansk, Archangel, and Vladivostok to help overthrow the
Russian Revolution. With the blessing of Britain and France, and
in a joint command with Japanese soldiers, American forces penetrated
westward from Vladivostok to Lake Baikal, supporting Czech and
White Russian forces that had declared an anticommunist government
headquartered at Omsk. After briefly maintaining front lines as
far west as the Volga, the White Russian forces disintegrated
by the end of 1919, and our troops finally left Vladivostok on
April 1, 1920.~'
Few Americans who were not alive at the
time know anything about our "unknown war with Russia,"
to quote the title of Robert Maddox's book on this fiasco. Not
one of the twelve American history textbooks in my sample even
mentions it. Russian history textbooks, on the other hand, give
the episode considerable coverage. According to Maddox: "The
immediate effect of the intervention was to prolong a bloody civil
war, thereby costing thousands of additional lives and wreaking
enormous destruction on an already battered society. And there
were longer-range implications. Bolshevik leaders had clear proof
. . . that the Western powers meant to destroy the Soviet government
if given the chance."
This aggression fueled the suspicions
that motivated the Soviets during the Cold War, and until its
breakup the Soviet Union continued to claim damages for the invasion.
Wilson's invasions of Latin America are
better known than his Russian adventure. Textbooks do cover some
of them, and it is fascinating to watch textbook authors attempt
to justify these episodes. Any accurate portrayal of the invasions
could not possibly show Wilson or the United States in a favorable
light. With hindsight we know that Wilson's interventions in Cuba,
the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Nicaragua set the stage for
the dictators Batista, Trujillo, the Duvaliers, and the Somozas,
whose legacies still reverberate. Even in the 1910s, most of the
invasions were unpopular in this country and provoked a torrent
of j criticism abroad.
After U.S. marines invaded [Haiti] country in 1915, they forced
the Haitian legislature to select our preferred candidate as president.
When Haiti refused to declare war on Germany after the United
States did, we dissolved the Haitian legislature. Then the United
States supervised a pseudo-referendum to approve a new Haitian
constitution, less democratic than the constitution it replaced;
the referendum passed by a hilarious 98,225 to 768. As Piero Gleijesus
has noted, "It is not that Wilson failed in his earnest efforts
to bring democracy to these little countries. He never tried.
He intervened to impose hegemony, not democracy." The United
States also attacked Haiti's proud tradition of individual ownership
of small tracts of land, which dated back to the Haitian Revolution,
in favor of the establishment of large plantations. American troops
forced peasants in shackles to work on road construction crews.
In 1919 Haitian citizens rose up and resisted U.S. occupation
troops in a guerrilla war that cost more than 3,000 lives, most
of them Haitian. Students who read Triumph of the American Nation
learn this about Wilson's intervention in Haiti: "Neither
the treaty nor the continued presence of American troops restored
order completely. During the next four or five years, nearly 2,000
Haitians were killed in riots and other outbreaks of violence."
This passive construction veils the circumstances about which
George Barnett, a U.S. marine general, complained to his commander
in Haiti: "Practically indiscriminate killing of natives
has gone on for some time." Barnett termed this violent episode
"the most startling thing of its kind that has ever taken
place in the Marine Corps."
During the first two decades of this century,
the United States effectively made colonies of Nicaragua, Cuba,
the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and several other countries. Wilson's
reaction to the Russian Revolution solidified the alignment of
the United States with Europe's colonial powers. His was the first
administration to be obsessed with the specter of communism, abroad
and at home. Wilson was blunt about it. In Billings, Montana,
stumping the West to seek support for the League of Nations, he
warned, "There are apostles of Lenin in our own midst. I
can not imagine what it means to be an apostle of Lenin. It means
to be an apostle of the night, of chaos, of disorder." Even
after the White Russian alternative collapsed, Wilson refused
to extend diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union. He participated
in barring Russia from the peace negotiations after World War
I and helped oust Bela Kun, the communist leader who had risen
to power in Hungary. Wilson's sentiment for self-determination
and democracy never had a chance against his three bedrock "ism"s:
colonialism, racism, and anticommunism. A young Ho Chi Minh appealed
to Woodrow Wilson at Versailles for self-determination for Vietnam,
but Ho had all three strikes against him. Wilson refused to listen,
and France retained control of Indochina. It seems that Wilson
regarded self-determination as all right for, say, Belgium, but
not for the likes of Latin America or Southeast Asia.
At home, Wilson's racial policies disgraced
the office he held. His Republican predecessors had routinely
appointed blacks to important offices, including those of port
collector for New Orleans and the District of Columbia and register
of the treasury. Presidents sometimes appointed African Americans
as postmasters, particularly in southern towns with large black
populations. African Americans took part in the Republican Party's
national conventions and enjoyed some access to the White House.
Woodrow Wilson, for whom many African Americans voted in 1912,
changed all that. A southerner, Wilson n had been president of
Princeton, the only major northern university that refused to
admit blacks. He was an outspoken white supremacist-his wife was
even worse-and told "darky" stories in cabinet meetings.
His administration submitted a legislative program intended to
curtail the civil rights of African Americans, but Congress would
not pass it. Unfazed, Wilson used his power as chief executive
to segregate the federal government. He appointed southern whites
to offices traditionally reserved for blacks. Wilson personally
vetoed a clause on racial equality in the Covenant of the League
of Nations. The one occasion on which Wilson met with African
American leaders in the White House ended in a fiasco as the president
virtually threw the visitors out of his office. Wilson's legacy
was extensive: he effectively closed the Democratic Party to African
Americans for another two decades, and parts of the federal government
remained segregated into the 1950s and beyond. In 1916 the Colored
Advisory Committee of the Republican National Committee issued
a statement on Wilson that, though partisan, was accurate: "No
sooner had the Democratic Administration come into power than
Mr. Wilson and his advisors entered upon a policy to eliminate
all colored citizens from representation in the Federal Government."
Omitting or absolving Wilson's racism goes beyond concealing a
character blemish. It is overtly racist. No black person could
ever consider Woodrow Wilson a hero. Textbooks that present him
as a hero are written from a white perspective. The cover-up denies
all students the chance to learn something important about the
interrelationship between the leader and the led. White Americans
engaged in a new burst of racial violence during and immediately
after Wilson's presidency. The tone set by the administration
was one cause. Another was the release of America's first epic
The filmmaker David W. Griffith quoted
Wilson's two-volume history of the United States, now notorious
for its racist view of Reconstruction, in his infamous masterpiece
The Clansman, a paean to the Ku Klux Klan for its role in putting
down "black-dominated" Republican state governments
during Reconstruction. Griffith based the movie on a book by Wilson's
former classmate, Thomas Dixon, whose obsession with race was
"unrivaled until Mein Kampf" At a private White House
showing, Wilson saw the movie, now retitled Birth of a Nation,
and returned Griffith's compliment: "It is like writing history
with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so true."
Griffith would go on to use this quotation in successfully defending
his film against NAACP charges that it was racially inflammatory.
This landmark of American cinema was not
only the best technical production of its time but also probably
the most racist major movie of all time. Dixon intended "to
revolutionize northern sentiment by a presentation of history
that would transform every man in my audience into a good Democrat!
. . . And make no mistake about it-we are doing just that. Dixon
did not overstate by much. Spurred by Birth of a Nation, William
Simmons of Georgia reestablished the Ku Klux Klan. The racism
seeping down from the White House encouraged this Klan, distinguishing
it from its Reconstruction predecessor, which President Grant
had succeeded in virtually eliminating in one state (South Carolina)
and discouraging nationally for a time. The new KKK quickly became
a national phenomenon. It grew to dominate the Democratic Party
in many southern states, as well as in Indiana, Oklahoma, and
Oregon. During Wilson's second term, a wave of antiblack race
riots swept the country. Whites Iynched blacks as far north as
Wilson displayed little regard for the rights of anyone whose
opinions differed from his own. But textbooks take pains to insulate
him from wrongdoing. "Congress," not Wilson, is credited
with having passed the Espionage Act of June 1917 and the Sedition
Act of the following year, probably the most serious attacks on
the civil liberties of Americans since the short-lived Alien and
Sedition Acts of 1798. In fact, Wilson tried to strengthen the
Espionage Act with a provision giving broad censorship powers
directly to the president. Moreover, with Wilson's approval, his
postmaster general used his new censorship powers to suppress
all mail that was socialist, anti-British, pro-Irish, or that
in any other way might, in his view, have threatened the war effort.
Robert Goldstein served ten years in prison for producing The
Spirit of '76, a film about the Revolutionary War that depicted
the British, who were now our allies, unfavorably. Textbook authors
suggest that wartime pressures excuse Wilson's suppression of
civil liberties, but in 1920, when World War I was long over,
Wilson vetoed a bill that would have abolished the Espionage and
Sedition acts. Textbook authors blame the anticommunist and anti-labor
union witch hunts of Wilson's second term on his illness and on
an attorney general run amok. No evidence supports this view.
Indeed, Attorney General Palmer asked Wilson in his last days
as president to pardon Eugene V. Debs, who was serving time for
a speech attributing World War I to economic interests and denouncing
the Espionage Act as undemocratic. The president replied, "Never!"
and Debs languished in prison until Warren Harding pardoned him.
The American Way adopts perhaps the most innovative approach to
absolving Wilson of wrongdoing: Way simply moves the "red
scare" to the 1920s, after Wilson had left office!
Because heroification prevents textbooks
from showing Wilson's shortcomings, textbooks are hard pressed
to explain the results of the 1920 election. James Cox, the Democratic
candidate who was Wilson's would-be successor, was crushed by
the nonentity Warren G. Harding, who never even campaigned. In
the biggest landslide in the history of American presidential
politics, Harding got almost 64 percent of the major-party votes.
The people were "tired," textbooks suggest, and just
wanted a "return to normalcy." The possibility that
the electorate knew what it was doing in rejecting Wilson never
occurs to our authors. It occurred to Helen Keller, however. She
called Wilson "the greatest individual disappointment the
world has ever known!"
Bartolome de las Casas
What we committed in the Indies stands out among the most unpardonable
offenses ever committed against God and mankind and this trade
[in Indian slaves] as one of the most unjust, evil, and cruel
Christopher Columbus introduced two phenomena that revolutionized
race relations and transformed the modern world: the taking of
land, wealth, and labor from indigenous peoples, leading to their
near extermination, and the transatlantic slave trade, which created
a racial underclass.
Columbus's initial impression of the Arawaks,
who inhabited most of the islands in the Caribbean, was quite
favorable. He wrote in his journal on October 13, 1492: "At
daybreak great multitudes of men came to the shore, all young
and of fine shapes, and very handsome. Their hair was not curly
but loose and coarse like horse-hair. All have foreheads much
broader than any people I had hitherto seen. Their eyes are large
and very beautiful. They are not black, but the color of the inhabitants
of the Canaries." (This reference to the Canaries was ominous,
for Spain was then in the process of exterminating the aboriginal
people of those islands.) Columbus went on to describe the Arawaks'
canoes, "some large enough to contain 40 or 45 men."
Finally, he got down to business: "I was very attentive to
them, and strove to learn if they had any gold. Seeing some of
them with little bits of metal hanging at their noses, I gathered
from them by signs that by going southward or steering round the
island in that direction, there would be found a king who possessed
great cups full of gold." At dawn the next day, Columbus
sailed to the other side of the island, probably one of the Bahamas,
and saw two or three villages. He ended his description of them
with these menacing words: "I could conquer the whole of
them with fifty men and govern them as I pleased."
On his first voyage, Columbus kidnapped
some ten to twenty-five Indians and took them back with him to
Spain. Only seven or eight of the Indians arrived alive, but along
with the parrots, gold trinkets, and other exotica, they caused
quite a stir in Seville. Ferdinand and Isabella provided Columbus
with seventeen ships, 1,200 to 1,500 men, cannons, crossbows,
guns, cavalry, and attack dogs for a second voyage.
One way to visualize what happened next
is with the help of the famous science fiction story War of the
Worlds. H. G. Wells intended his tale of earthlings' encounter
with technologically advanced aliens as an allegory. His frightened
British commoners (New Jerseyites in Orson Welles's radio adaptation)
were analogous to the "primitive" peoples of the Canaries
or America, and his terrifying aliens represented the technologically
advanced Europeans. As we identify with the helpless earthlings,
Wells wanted us also to sympathize with the natives on Haiti in
1493, or on Australia in 1788, or in the upper Amazon jungle in
When Columbus and his men returned to
Haiti in 1493, they demanded food, gold, spun cotton-whatever
the Indians had that they wanted, including sex with their women.
To ensure cooperation, Columbus used punishment by example. When
an Indian committed even a minor offense, the Spanish cut off
his ears or nose. Disfigured, the person was sent back to his
village as living evidence of the brutality the Spaniards were
After a while, the Indians had had enough.
At first their resistance was mostly passive. They refused to
plant food for the Spanish to take. They abandoned towns near
the Spanish settlements. Finally, the Arawaks fought back. Their
sticks and stones were no more effective against the armed and
clothed Spanish, however, than the earthlings' rifles against
the aliens' death rays in War of the Worlds.
The attempts at resistance gave Columbus
an excuse to make war. On March 24, 1495, he set out to conquer
the Arawaks. Bartolome de Las Casas described the force Columbus
assembled to put down the rebellion. "Since the Admiral perceived
that daily the people of the land were taking up arms, ridiculous
weapons in reality . . . he hastened to proceed to the country
and disperse and subdue, by force of arms, the people of the entire
island . . . For this he chose 200 foot soldiers and 20 cavalry,
with many crossbows and small cannon, lances, and swords, and
a still more terrible weapon against the Indians, in addition
to the horses: this was 20 hunting dogs, who were turned loose
and immediately tore the Indians apart." Naturally, the Spanish
won. According to Kirkpatrick Sale, who quotes Ferdinand Columbus's
biography of his father: "The soldiers mowed down dozens
with point-blank volleys, loosed the dogs to rip open limbs and
bellies, chased fleeing Indians into the bush to skewer them on
sword and pike, and 'with God's aid soon gained a complete victory,
killing many Indians and capturing others who were also killed.'
Having as yet found no fields of gold,
Columbus had to return some kind of dividend to Spain. In 1495
the Spanish on Haiti initiated a great slave raid. They rounded
up 1,500 Arawaks, then selected the 500 best specimens (of whom
200 would die en route to Spain). Another 500 were chosen as slaves
for the Spaniards staying on the island. The rest were released.
A Spanish eyewitness described the event: "Among them were
many women who had infants at the breast. They, in order the better
to escape us, since they were afraid we would turn to catch them
again, left their infants anywhere on the ground and started to
flee like desperate people; and some fled so far that they were
removed from our settlement of Isabela seven or eight days beyond
mountains and across huge rivers; wherefore from now on scarcely
any will be had." Columbus was excited. "In the name
of the Holy Trinity, we can send from here all the slaves and
brazil-wood which could be sold," he wrote to Ferdinand and
Isabella in 1496. "In Castile, Portugal, Aragon,.. . and
the Canary Islands they need many slaves, and I do not think they
get enough from Guinea." He viewed the Indian death rate
optimistically: "Although they die now, they will not always
die. The Negroes and Canary Islanders died at first."
In the words of Hans Koning, "There
now began a reign of terror in Hispaniola." Spaniards hunted
Indians for sport and murdered them for dog food. Columbus, upset
because he could not locate the gold he was certain was on the
island, set up a tribute system. Ferdinand Columbus described
how it worked: "[The Indians] all promised to pay tribute
to the Catholic Sovereigns every three months, as follows: In
the Cibao, where the gold mines were, every person of 14 years
of age or upward was to pay a large hawk's bell of gold dust;
all others were each to pay 25 pounds of cotton. Whenever an Indian
delivered his tribute, he was to receive a brass or copper token
which he must wear about his neck as proof that he had made his
payment. Any Indian found without such a token was to be punished."
With a fresh token, an Indian was safe for three months, much
of which time would be devoted to collecting more gold. Columbus's
son neglected to mention how the Spanish punished those whose
tokens had expired: they cut off their hands.
All of these gruesome facts are available
in primary source material- letters by Columbus and by other members
of his expeditions-and in the work of Las Casas, the first great
historian of the Americas, who relied on primary materials and
helped preserve them. I have quoted a few primary sources in this
chapter. Most textbooks make no use of primary sources. A few
incorporate brief extracts that have been carefully selected or
edited to reveal nothing unseemly about the Great Navigator.
The tribute system eventually broke down
because what it demanded was impossible. To replace it, Columbus
installed the encomienda system, in which he granted or "commended"
entire Indian villages to individual colonists or groups of colonists.
Since it was not called slavery, this forced-labor system escaped
the moral censure that slavery received. Following Columbus's
example, Spain made the encomienda system official policy on Haiti
in 1502; other conquistadors subsequently introduced it to Mexico,
Peru, and Florida.
The tribute and encomienda systems caused
incredible depopulation. On Haiti the colonists made the Indians
mine gold for them, raise Spanish food, and even carry them everywhere
they went. The Indians couldn't stand it. Pedro de Cordoba wrote
in a letter to King Ferdinand in 1517, "As a result of the
sufferings and hard labor they endured, the Indians choose and
have chosen suicide. Occasionally a hundred have committed mass
suicide. The women, exhausted by labor, have shunned conception
and childbirth . . . Many, when pregnant, have taken something
to abort and have aborted. Others after delivery have killed their
children with their own hands, so as not to leave them in such
Beyond acts of individual cruelty, the
Spanish disrupted the Indian ecosystem and culture. Forcing Indians
to work in mines rather than in their gardens led to widespread
malnutrition. The intrusion of rabbits and livestock caused further
ecological disaster. Diseases new to the Indians played a role,
although smallpox, usually the big killer, did not appear on the
island until after 1516. Some of the Indians tried fleeing to
Cuba, but the Spanish soon followed them there. Estimates of Haiti's
pre-Columbian population range as high as 8,000,000 people. When
Christopher Columbus returned to Spain, he left his brother Bartholomew
in charge of the island. Bartholomew took a census of Indian adults
in 1496 and came up with 1,100,000. The Spanish did not count
children under fourteen and could not count Arawaks who had escaped
into the mountains. Kirkpatrick Sale estimates that a more accurate
total would probably be in the neighborhood of 3,000,000. "By
1516," according to Benjamin Keen, "thanks to the sinister
Indian slave trade and labor policies initiated by Columbus, only
some 12,000 remained." Las Casas tells us that fewer than
200 Indians were alive in 1542. By 1555, they were all gone.
Thus nasty details like cutting off hands
have somewhat greater historical importance than nice touches
like "Tierra!" Haiti under the Spanish is one of the
primary instances of genocide in all human history. Yet only one
of the twelve textbooks, The American Pageant, mentions the extermination.
None mentions Columbus's role in it.
Columbus not only sent the first slaves
across the Atlantic, he probably sent more slaves-about five thousand-than
any other individual. To her credit, Queen Isabella opposed outright
enslavement and returned some Indians to the Caribbean. But other
nations rushed to emulate Columbus. In 1501 the Portuguese began
to depopulate Labrador, transporting the now extinct Beothuk Indians
to Europe and Cape Verde as slaves. After the British established
beachheads on the Atlantic coast of North America, they encouraged
coastal Indian tribes to capture and sell members of more distant
tribes. Charleston, South Carolina, became a major port for exporting
Indian slaves. The Pilgrims and Puritans sold the survivors of
the Pequot War into slavery in Bermuda in 1637. The French shipped
virtually the entire Natchez nation in chains to the West Indies
A particularly repellent aspect of the
slave trade was sexual. As soon as the 1493 expedition got to
the Caribbean, before it even reached Haiti, Columbus was rewarding
his lieutenants with native women to rape. On Haiti, sex slaves
were one more perquisite that the Spaniards enjoyed. Columbus
wrote a friend in 1500, "A hundred castellanoes are as easily
obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and
there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those
from nine to ten are now in demand."
The slave trade destroyed whole Indian
nations. Enslaved Indians died. To replace the dying Haitians,
the Spanish imported tens of thousands more Indians from the Bahamas,
which "are now deserted," in the words of the Spanish
historian Peter Martyr, reporting in 1516. Packed in below deck,
with hatchways closed to prevent their escape, so many slaves
died on the trip that "a ship without a compass, chart, or
guide, but only following the trail of dead Indians who had been
thrown from the ships could find its way from the Bahamas to Hispaniola."
Puerto Rico and Cuba were next.
Because the Indians died, Indian slavery
then led to the massive slave trade the other way across the Atlantic,
from Africa. This trade also began on Haiti, initiated by Columbus's
son in 1505. Predictably, Haiti then became the site of the first
large-scale slave revolt, when blacks and Indians banded together
in 1519. The uprising lasted more than a decade and was finally
brought to an end by the Spanish in the 1530s.
Of the twelve textbooks, only six mention
that the Spanish enslaved or exploited the Indians anywhere in
the Americas. Of these only four verge on mentioning that Columbus
was involved. The United States- A History of the Republic places
the following passage about the fate of the Indians under the
heading "The Fate of Columbus": "Some Spaniards
who had come to the Americas had begun to enslave and kill the
original Americans. Authorities in Spain held Columbus responsible
for the atrocities." Note that A History takes pains to isolate
Columbus from the enslavement charge-others were misbehaving.
Life and Liberty implies that Columbus might have participated:
"Slavery began in the New World almost as soon as Columbus
got off the boat." Only The American Adventure clearly associates
Columbus with slavery. American History levels a vague charge:
"Columbus was a great sailor and a brave and determined man.
But he was not good at politics or business." That's it.
The other books simply adore him.
As Kirkpatrick Sale poetically sums up,
Columbus's "second voyage marks the first extended encounter
of European and Indian societies, the clash of cultures that was
to echo down through five centuries." The seeds of that five-century
battle were sown in Haiti between 1493 and 1500. These are not
mere details that our textbooks omit. They are facts crucial to
understanding American and European history. Capt. John Smith,
for example, used Columbus as a role model in proposing a get-tough
policy for the Virginia Indians in 1624: "The manner how
to suppress them is so often related and approved, I omit it here:
And you have twenty examples of the Spaniards how they got the
West Indies, and forced the treacherous and rebellious infidels
to do all manner of drudgery work and slavery for them, themselves
living like soldiers upon the fruits of their labors." 70
The methods unleashed by Columbus are, in fact, the larger part
of his legacy. After all, they worked. The island was so well
pacified that Spanish convicts, given a second chance on Haiti,
could "go anywhere, take any woman or girl, take anything,
and have the Indians carry him on their backs as if they were
mules." In 1499, when Columbus finally found gold on Haiti
in significant amounts, Spain became the envy of Europe. After
1500 Portugal, France, Holland, and Britain joined in conquering
the Americas. These nations were at least as brutal as Spain.
The British, for example, unlike the Spanish, did not colonize
by making use of Indian labor but simply forced the Indians out
of the way. Many Indians fled British colonies to ,, Spanish territories
(Florida, Mexico) in search of more humane treatment.
Columbus's voyages caused almost as much
change in Europe as in the Americas. This is the other half of
the vast process historians now call the Columbian exchange. Crops,
animals, ideas, and diseases began to cross the oceans regularly.
Perhaps the most far-reaching impact of Columbus's findings was
on European Christianity. In 1492 all of Europe was in the grip
of the Catholic Church. As Larousse puts it, before America, "Europe
was virtually incapable of self-criticism." After America,
Europe's religious uniformity was ruptured. For how were these
new peoples to be explained? They were not mentioned in the Bible.
The Indians simply did not fit within orthodox Christianity's
explanation of the moral universe. Moreover, unlike the Muslims,
who might be written off as "damned infidels," Indians
had not rejected Christianity, they had just never encountered
it. Were they doomed to hell? Even the animals of America posed
a religious challenge. According to the Bible, at the dawn of
creation all animals lived in the Garden of Eden. Later, two of
each species entered Noah's ark and ended up on Mt. Ararat. Since
Eden and Mt. Ararat were both in the Middle East, where could
these new American species have come from? Such questions shook
orthodox Catholicism and contributed to the Protestant Reformation,
which began in 1517.
Politically, nations like the Arawaks-without
monarchs, without much hierarchy-stunned Europeans. In 1516 Thomas
More's Utopia, based on an account of the Incan empire in Peru,
challenged European social organization by suggesting a radically
different and superior alternative. Other social philosophers
seized upon the Indians as living examples of Europe's primordial
past, which is what John Locke meant by the phrase "In the
beginning, all the world was America." Depending upon their
political persuasion, some Europeans glorified Indian nations
as examples of simpler, better societies, from which European
civilization had devolved, while others maligned the Indian societies
as primitive and underdeveloped. In either case, from Montaigne,
Montesquieu, and Rousseau down to Marx and Engels, European philosophers'
concepts of the good society were transformed by ideas from America.
America fascinated the masses as well
as the elite. In The Tempest, Shakespeare noted this universal
curiosity: "They will not give a doit to relieve a lambe
beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian." Europe's
fascination with the Americas was directly responsible, in fact,
for a rise in European self-consciousness. From the beginning
America was perceived as an "opposite" to Europe in
ways that even Africa never had been. In a sense, there was no
"Europe" before 1492. People were simply Tuscan, French,
and the like. Now Europeans began to see similarities among themselves,
at least as contrasted with Native Americans. For that matter,
there were no "white" people in Europe before 1492.
With the transatlantic slave trade, first Indian, then African,
Europeans increasingly saw "white" as a race and race
as an important human characteristic.
Columbus's own writings reflect this increasing
racism. When Columbus was selling Queen Isabella on the wonders
of the Americas, the Indians were "well built" and "of
quick intelligence." "They have very good customs,"
he wrote, "and the king maintains a very marvelous state,
of a style so orderly that it is a pleasure to see it, and they
have good memories and they wish to see everything and ask what
it is and for what it is used." Later, when Columbus was
justifying his wars and his enslavement of the Indians, they became
"cruel" and "stupid," "a people warlike
and numerous, whose customs and religion are very different from
It is always useful to think badly about
people one has exploited or plans to exploit. Modifying one's
opinions to bring them into line with one's actions or planned
actions is the most common outcome of the process known as "cognitive
dissonance," according to the social psychologist Leon Festinger.
No one likes to think of himself or herself as a bad person. To
treat badly another person whom we consider a reasonable human
being creates a tension between act and attitude that demands
resolution. We cannot erase what we have done, and to alter our
future behavior may not be in our interest. To change our attitude
Columbus gives us the first recorded example
of cognitive dissonance in the Americas, for although the Indians
may have changed from hospitable to angry, they could hardly have
evolved from intelligent to stupid so quickly. The change had
to be in Columbus.
My Teacher Told Me