Media Beat, Oct. 04, 1995
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon
Goodbye Columbus Day: Time to End the Myth
In a few weeks, many of us will slip on costumes and fantasy identities for Halloween. When Christmas nears, we'll perpetrate a fiction on our kids about Santa Claus.
But this week, as the nation marks Columbus Day, maybe it's a good time to confront the mythology about the heroic explorer who ''discovered'' America.
Journalism should help reveal facts and truths. Yet when it comes to Christopher Columbus, many mainstream pundits hold on dearly to myth.
Columbus set sail in 1492 after convincing Spain's monarchy that gold and other riches were to be found in Asia. He ended up instead in the Americas: the Bahamas, then Cuba and Haiti.
In the revealing log that Columbus kept during his voyage, he described how the friendly Arawak Indians first greeted his ships: ''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 would make fine servants.
With 50 men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.''
Columbus then embarked on a frenzied hunt for imaginary gold fields, using Indian captives: ''As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first island which I found, I took some natives by force'' as guides to ''whatever there is in these parts.''
After establishing a fort in what is now Haiti, Columbus returned to Spain -- with many Indian prisoners dying aboard ship -- to give a glowing report to the royalty in Madrid about what he'd found in the New World.
Columbus described the Indians as ''so naive and so free with their possessions'' that ''when you ask for something they have, they never say no.'' His report ended with a plea for more support from the Spanish king and queen so he could return from his next voyage to the Indies with ''as much gold as they need... and as many slaves as they ask.''
Columbus' second expedition was granted 17 ships and 1,200 men in pursuit of gold (which was sparse) and potential slaves (who were plentiful). The result was a holocaust against the native population.
In 1495, Indians were shipped to Spain as slaves, many dying en route. ''Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity,'' Columbus later wrote, ''go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.''
But far more Indians were enslaved in their homelands to harvest gold from bits of dust found in streams. Columbus' men ordered everyone over age 13 in a province of Haiti to bring in a quota of gold; Indians who failed had their hands cut off and were left to bleed to death.
The war against the native population was so vicious -- including hangings, burnings and then mass suicides -- that historians estimate half of the Indians on Haiti (as many as 125,000 people) were dead within a few years.
Today, media voices that boom the loudest in defense of Columbus are often the most ignorant. Rush Limbaugh, for example, once asserted that ''Columbus saved the Indians from themselves.''
History tells a different story. The most important document of the era is the multivolume ''History of the Indies'' by Bartolome de las Casas -- a Spanish priest involved in the conquest of Cuba, who owned a plantation employing Indian slaves. But Las Casas had a change of heart and began recording what he had witnessed.
He described a cooperative Indian society in a bountiful land, a generally peaceful culture that occasionally went to war with other tribes. Yet there'd been no subjugation of the kind brought by Columbus. Writing in the early 1500s, Las Casas detailed how a whole people was basically worked to death: men in gold mines, women in the fields.
Las Casas witnessed Spaniards -- driven by ''insatiable greed'' -- ''torturing the native peoples'' with ''the strangest and most varied new methods of cruelty.''
The Spaniards ''thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades,'' wrote Las Casas. ''My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write.''
This bloody history might make modern readers tremble -- if they had access to it instead of just today's mythology.
It's true that Columbus was a gifted navigator, personally brave and tenacious. But his enterprise -- as historian Howard Zinn documents in ''A People's History of the United States'' -- was infused with racism and greed.
Holiday fantasies about jolly old Saint Nick may be harmless. But urging Americans to blithely celebrate Columbus every year is a denial of our past -- and an affront to our multicultural present.