Having grown up in Mississippi, I am no stranger to a revisionist portrayal of our nation’s history. Following the Reconstruction era, white southerners rewrote the history of the Civil War and indoctrinated generations of white students with the false narrative of an unjustified federal government takeover of the South. This ploy proved successful, contributing to the rise of the KKK and the glorification of the Confederate battle flag and Confederate monuments. The parallels are striking between the white South’s revisionist history of the Civil War and Howard Zinn’s first chapter of “A People’s History of the United States,” titled “Columbus, the Indians, and Human Progress.”
Zinn’s depiction of Columbus’ discovery of the Americas offers an insight into the bleak reality of this chapter of American history. One story that stuck out to me was Columbus’ treatment of the Arawaks. In his journey to find gold, Columbus came across the Arawak people, whom he treated as commodities that could fill the void of gold. Zinn described the genocide of the Arawak people: “In two years, through murder, mutilation, or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead” (Zinn 348). The Arawaks who were not murdered outright were worked to death: “By the year 1515, there were perhaps fifty thousand Indians left. By 1550, there were five hundred. A report of the year 1650 shows none of the original Arawkas or their descendants left on the island” (Zinn 348).
Samuel Eliot Morison, a Harvard historian and author of Christopher Columbus, Mariner (1954), buried the numerous accounts of enslavement and murder such as this one under a glorification of Columbus’ journey and discovery of America. Morison’s book is not the exception, though. Prior to Howard Zinn’s textbook, stories like these were often neglected. This neglect did not occur because of a lack of evidence suggesting a different narrative, though.
Bartolomé de las Casas, a priest who became a “vehement critic of Spanish cruelty” wrote many reports of the conquistador’s mistreatment of the Indian people (Zinn 348). Las Casas described the “Endless testimonies … [that] prove the mild and pacific temperament of the natives … But our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy; small wonder, then, if they tried to kill one of us now and then … The admiral, it is true, was blind as those who came after him and he was so anxious to please the King that he committed irreparable crimes against the Indians” (Zinn 364-382).
Howard Zinn’s PHUS paints a picture of entitlement and superiority, and an indifference to human life. While this picture is frightening and largely untold, it is indicative of what the future of America would hold: oppression of many, enforced by the leadership of a few, endorsed by a white, male populace resistant to change.
*Citation numbers reference Kindle location for E-Book, not physical page number