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October 17, 2017



Columbus vs indigenous people

The United States celebrated Columbus Day on October 9 (the second   Monday         of this month). Heaping eulogies on the Italian explorer, US President Donald Trump said, “On Columbus Day, we honour the skilled navigator and man of faith, whose courageous feat brought together continents and has inspired countless others to pursue their dreams and convictions      – even in the face of extreme doubt and tremendous adversity.”

Unlike his predecessor, Barack Obama, Trump omitted the dark chapter of American history that began with the arrival of this “skilled navigator”. Obama, the first black president of the US, had – like Trump – also issued a stream of praise for Columbus but had not shied away from admitting the suffering inflicted on the area’s natives by the navigator. Obama had noted,        “As we mark this rich history, we must also acknowledge the pain and suffering reflected in the stories of Native Americans who had long resided on this land prior to the arrival of European newcomers”, which included “violence, deprivation, and disease.”

The hubris that is exhibited by Trump did not go unnoticed and many criticised his omission of the natives’ sufferings. To many modern historians, Columbus was not a messiah or an altruistic person – as has been portrayed by the ruling elite of the sole superpower. Historians claim that his contract with the monarchs, called ‘The Capitulations of Santa Fe’, named Columbus the admiral, viceroy and governor of any land he discovered. It also stated that Columbus could keep 10 percent of any “merchandise, whether pearls, precious stones, gold, silver, spices and other objects” that he “acquired” within the new territory. His agreement with Spain clearly suggests his intentions were far from selfless.

A number of academics believe Columbus was mythologised after the American Revolution. According to Edward Burmila, an assistant professor at Bradley University, “The American Revolution created the Columbus most of us over the age of 30 learned in grade school. Prior to the late 18th century, he was a historical footnote with no connection to the 13 colonies.”

To substantiate his claim, Burmila asserts that the only detailed history of Columbus and his voyages widely available in colonial libraries was written by a Scotsman, James Robertson, in 1777. The professor is of the view that the author took a racist, ethnocentric tone, depicting Columbus as an explorer of noble intent bringing civilisation to the ‘savages’. “Importantly, Robertson also historicized Columbus as a man stifled by the rigid ways of the Old World and yearning to set his own course,” Burmila added.

The professor notes that historians and cultural critics persuasively asserted that glorification is unbefitting a man who wrote, “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold,” as he rounded up 1,500 Arawak inhabitants of the Lesser Antilles to sell them in Spain. Citing the 16th-century Spanish historian and social reformer, Bartolome de Las Casas, Burmila said, “In his 1561 account based on accounts from Columbus’s crew, the Spanish historian depicted Columbus as a man for whom casual killing was a leisure activity.

Progressive intellectual Stephen Lendman calls Columbus a serial killer. In a recent article for Global Research, he notes, “The arrival of Columbus in what’s now the Bahamas and Hispaniola was followed by the mass slaughter of around 100 million native people – the most horrific genocide in human history, continuing for 500 years, before and after what’s now America became a nation. Columbus sought gold, other riches and slaves for Spain. A second voyage followed the first. Native people were slaughtered throughout the Caribbean.”

In modern times, it was the research work of leftist historian Howard Zinn that provides more insight into the noble ideals of Christopher Columbus. Zinn’s book, ‘A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present’, demolished the sanctity accorded to the great American hero. Zinn quotes a letter written by Columbus in which the Italian explorer recounted his encounter with the natives.

Columbus wrote: “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.”

Zinn’s book sold more than two million copies; and it was perhaps the research work like this that must have gone some way in countering the distorted American history that sanctifies plunderers, looters and mass murderers. Today, at least 55 American cities and four states have replaced Columbus Day with the Day of Indigenous People. Several universities have also stopped celebrating this day. Many more cities are planning to halt such celebrations.

Another claim related to Columbus is at the centre of a heated debate. Many believe that describing Columbus as the explorer of America is the biggest historical distortion of modern times. A number of historians assert that the hero of modern America never set foot on American shores. In fact, October 12 marks the day of his arrival to the Bahamas. It is true that he managed to reach the coasts of what today are Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic as well as explore the central and south American coasts, but he never unfurled a Spanish flag in North America. It is also an incorrect historical claim that Columbus set out to prove that the world was round. In fact by 1492, most of the educated Europeans already believed the earth was round.

Does it matter if Americans replace Columbus Day with the Day of Indigenous People? The answer is in the affirmative. It is the pervasive state of denial regarding this issue that has prevented the arrogant American ruling elite from introspection and soul-searching. This is something that has also promoted American exceptionalism because such a course is always taken in the larger interest of mankind.

An admission of guilt and a sincere apology would go some way in mitigating the agony of American natives whose annihilation led to the foundation of modern America. This apology should not just be verbal but instead warrants drastic changes in the subject called American History, especially at the school level, in the US.


The writer is a Karachi-basedfreelance journalist.

Email: egalitarianism444@