Recently, the Japanese got themselves in a wee bit of trouble by issuing some history textbooks that did not conform to the facts. The books glossed over Japan's brutal invasion of China and the inhumane way it treated the civilian population. China yelled bloody murder and Japan had to back down. It forgot that winners, not losers, write history.
Nowhere is that clearer than in our celebration of Columbus Day, named for the man who neither discovered America nor gave it its name, and whose feat was not just the inevitable result of foresight and courage, but of advancements in navigation and ship building. What Columbus did, others would soon have done anyway.
But if Columbus is to be remembered, then it ought to be not only for accidentally discovering the New World, but also for enslaving and murdering the Arawak Indians he met there. The Arawaks were unfortunate to have lived on the West Indian and Bahamian Islands, one of which, San Salvador, was the landfall sighted on the morning of Oct. 12.
On the island of Hispaniola, which now consists of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Columbus set about enslaving the Arawaks and killing off any who put up the slightest protest. He sent some of them back to Spain as slaves ("Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold," he wrote) and kept the others on the island to dig for the gold that was not there.
The story of Columbus and the Indians is an awful one. By the time Columbus finished with the Indians, there were simply none of them left. In eight years, or by the year 1500, half of the 250,000 Indians on the island had either been murdered by the Spanish under Columbus or had killed themselves out of desperation. Over on Cuba, the Indians were undergoing a similar fate. A young Spanish priest, horrified at what he was seeing, wrote that in three months alone, 7,000 children died. As for Hispaniola, the Indians were gone by 1650.
This is not history as I learned it. Instead, I was taught about a Columbus who was a man ahead of his time. He was brave. He was pious. He thought the world was round while others thought it was flat. He did not mess in slavery and genocide and he was not in the exploration biz for the bucks but so that people would someday gather around his statue, name avenues and cities after him (the District of Columbia, for instance) and hold parades in his honor. Thanks to him, this is one parade the Arawaks will miss.
The other side of Columbus is briefly sketched in Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States." Zinn is a radical historian and he has an interesting (although much-criticized) way of looking at history. He likes to turn over the rock of hero-worship and expose the gunk that lies beneath--to give the "people's" view of history. In the case of Columbus, it is slavery and genocide. Columbus might be a hero to us, but he was nothing but a killer to the Arawaks who, after all, had already "discovered" their island. Even Columbus' admiring biographer, Samuel Eliot Morison, holds him accountable for the extinction of the Arawaks.
Zinn's portrait of Columbus does nothing to diminish Columbus' standing as a mariner or as an explorer. But it is interesting to look at history from another perspective, to see it, say, from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, and to thus question our notions of heroism.
Nations seem to have a fundamental need to clean up their history. In this way, they cast themselves as heroes, make themselves seem better than they really are, and inevitably repeat the mistakes they made before. The Japanese tried it and failed, but there is no doubt they will eventually succeed and then the lessons of their own history will be lost on them. The Soviets do it all the time and so, for that matter, do we. At the moment, for instance, we are revising our history of the Vietnam war, the prerequisite for waging a similar war some time in the future.
Back to Columbus. It is his time of the year and no newspaper column could possibly deprive him of his annual spotlight. But we would be better off as a nation if we extolled him for the good things he did, condemned him for the bad and learned, as he should have, from his mistakes.
Happy Arawak Day.