Discovering Columbus: Re-reading the Past

By Bill Bigelow

Most of my students have trouble with the idea that a book—especially a textbook— can lie. When I tell them that I want them to argue with, not just read, the printed word they’re not sure what I mean. That’s why I start my U.S. history class by stealing a student’s purse.

As the year opens, my students may not know when the Civil War was fought, what. James Madison or Frederick Douglass did or where the Underground Railroad went, but they do know that a brave fellow named Christopher Columbus discovered America. Okay, the Vikings may have actually discovered America, but students know it was Columbus who mapped it and did something with the place. Indeed, this bit of historical lore may be the only knowledge class members share in common.

What .students don’t know is that year after year their textbooks have, by omission or otherwise, been lying to them on a grand scale. Some students learned that Columbus sailed on three ships and that his sailors worried whether they would ever see land again. Others know from readings and teachers that when the Admiral landed he was greeted by naked, reddish skinned people whom he called Indians. And still others may know Columbus gave these people iittle. trinkets and returned to Spain with a few of the Indians to show King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

All this is true. What is also true is that Columbus took hundreds of Indians as slaves and sent them back to Spain where most of them were sold and subsequently died. What is also true is that in his quest for gold Columbus had the hands cut off any Indian who did not return with his or her three month quota. And what is also true is that on one island alone, Hispaniola, an entire race of people were wiped off the face of the earth in a mere forty years of Spanish administration.

So I begin class by stealing a student’s purse. I announce to the class that the purse is mine, obviously, because look who has it. Most students are fair-minded. They saw me take the purse off the desk so they protest: “That’s not yours, it’s Nikki’s. You took it. We saw you.” I brush these objecdons aside and reiterate that it is, too, mine and to prove it I’ll show all the things I have inside.

I unzip the bag and remove a brush or a comb, maybe a pdir of dark glasses. A tube, or whatever it’s called, of lipstick works best: “This is my lipsdck,” I say. “There, that proves it is my purse.” They don’t buy it and, in fact, are mildly outraged that I -would pry into someone’s possessions with such utter disregard for her privacy. (I’ve alerted the student to the demonstration before the class, but no one else knows that.)

It’s time to move on: “Okay, if it’s Nikki’s purse, how do you know? Why are you d l so positive it’s not my purse?” Different answers: We saw you take it; that’s her lipstick, we know you don’t wear lipstick; there is stuff in there with her naijie To get the point, I even offer to help in tiieir effort to prove Nikki’s possession: “If we had a test on the contents of the purse who would do better, Nikki or me?” “Whose labor earned the money that bought the thing’s in the purse, mine or Nikki’s?” Obvious questions, obvious answers.

I make one last try to keep Nikki’s purse: “What if I said I discovered this purse, then would it be mine?” A litfle laughter is my reward, but I don’t get any takers; they still think the purse is rightfully Nikki’s.

“So,” I ask, “Why do we say that Columbus discovered America?” Now they begin to see what I’ve been leading up to. I ask a series of ihetorical questions which implicitly make the link between Nikki’s purse and the Indians’ land: Were there people on the land before Columbus arrived? Who had been on the land longer, Columbus or the Indians? Who knew the land better? Who had put their labor into making the land produce? The students see where I’m going—it would be hard not to. “And yet,” I continue, “What is the first thing that Columbus (Ud when he arrived in the New World?” Right: he took possession of it. After all, he had discovered the place.

Was It Discovery?

We talk about phrases other than “discovery” that textl^ks could use to describe what Columbus did. Students start with the phrases they used to describe what I did to Nikki’s purse: He stole it; he took it; he ripped it off. And others: He invaded it; he conquered it

I want students to see that the word “discovery” is loaded. The word itself carries with it a perspective, a bias; it takes sides. “Discovery” is the phrase of the supposed discoverers. It’s the conquerors, the invaders, masking their theft. And when the word gets repeated in textbooks those textbooks become, in the phrase of one historian, “the propaganda of the winners.”

To prepare students to examine critically the textbooks of their past, we begin with some alternative, and rather un-sentimental, explorations of Columbus’s “enterprise,” as he called it The Admiral to-be was not sailing for mere adventure and to prove the world was round, as my fourth grade teacher had informed her class, but to secure the tremendous profits that were to be made by reaching the Indies. From the beginning, Columbus’s quest was wealth, both for Spain and for himself personally. He demanded a 10% cut of everything shipped to Spain via the western route—and not just for himself but for all his heirs in perpetuity. And he insisted he be pronounced governor of any new land he found, a title which carried with it dictatorial powers.

Mostly I want the class to think about the human beings Columbus was to “discover”—and then destroy. I read to students from a letter Columbus wrote to Lord Raphael Sanchez, treasurer of Aragon and one of his patrons, dated March 14, 1493, following his return from the first voyage. He reports being enonoously impressed by the indigenous people:

As they see that they are safe and have laid aside all fear, they are very simple and honest and exceedingly liberal with all they have; none of them refusing anything he may possess when he is asked for it, but, on the contrary, inviting us to ask them. They exhibit great love toward all others in preference to themselves. They also give objects of great value for trifles, and content themselves with very little or nothing in return…I did not find, as some of us had expected, any cannibals among them, but, on the contrary, men of great deference and kindness. (1)

But on an ominous note, Columbus writes in his log, “…should your Majesties command it, all the inhabitants could be taken away to Castile [Spain], or made slaves on the island. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.” (2)

I ask students if they remember from elementary school days what it was Columbus brought back with him from his travels in the New World. Together students recall that he brought back parrots, plants, some gold, and a few of the people Columbus had taken to calling “Indians.” This was Columbus’s first expedition and it is also where most school textbook accounts of Columbus end—conveniently. Because the enterprise of Columbus was not to bring back exotic knickknacks, but riches, preferably gold. What about his second voyage? I read to them a passage from Hans Koning’s fine book, Columbus: His Enterprise: 

We are now in February 1495. Time was short for sending back a good ‘dividend’ on the supply ships getting ready for the return to Spain. Columbus therefore turned to a massive slave raid as a means for filling up these ships.- The brothers [Columbus and his brothers, Bartolome and Diego] rounded up fifteen hundred Arawaks—men, women, and children— and imprisoned them in pens in Isabela, guarded by men, and dogs. The ships had room for no more than five hundred, and thus only the best specimens were loaded aboard. The Admiral then told the Spaniards they could help themselves from the remainder to as many slaves as they wanted. Those whom no one chose were simply kicked out of their pens. Such had been the terror of these prisoners that ((in the description by Michese de Cuneo, one of the colonists) ‘they rushed in all directions like lunatics, women dropping and abandoning infants in the rush, running for miles without stopping, fleeing across mountains and rivers.

Of the five hundred slaves, three hundred arrived alive in Spain, where they were put up for sale in Seville by Don Juan de Fonseca, the archdeacon of the town. ‘As naked as the day they were born,’ the report of this excellent churchman says, ‘but

with no more embarrassment than animals…’

The slave trade immediately turned out to be ‘unprofitable, for the slaves mostly died.’ Columbus decided to concentrate on gold, although he writes, ‘Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.’ (emph. In Konig) (3)

Certainly Columbus’s fame should not be limited to the discovery of America: he also deserves credit for initiating the transatlantic slave trade, albeit in the opposite direction than we’re used to thinking of it.

Looking THrough Different Eyes

Students and 1 role play a scene trom Columbus’s second voyage. Slavery is not producing the profits Columbus is seeking. He still believes there is gold in them thar hills and the Indians are selfishly holding out on him. Students play Columbus. I play the Indians: “Chris, we don’t have any gold, honest. Can we go back to living our lives now, and you can go back to wherever you came from?” I call on several students to respond to the Indians’ plea. Columbus thinks the Indians are lying. How can he get his gold?

Student responses range from sympathetic to ruthless: Okay, we’ll go home; please bring us your gold; we’ll lock you up in prison if you .don’t bring us your gold; we’ll torture you if you don’t fork it over, etc. After I’ve pleaded for awhile and the students-as-Columbus,have threatened, I read aloud another passage from Koning’s book describing the system Columbus arrived at for extracting gold from the Indians:

Every man and woman, every boy or girl of fourteen or older, in the province of Cibao (of the imaginary gold fields) had to collect gold for the Spaniards. As their measure, the Spaniards used…hawks’ bells…Every three months, every Indian had to bring to one of the forts a hawks’ bell filled with gold dust. The’ chiefs had to bring in about ten times that amount. In the other provinces of Hispaniola, twenty five pounds of spun cotton took the place of gold.

Copper tokens were manufactured, and when an Indian had brought his or her tribute to an armed post, he or she received such a token, stamped with the month, to be hung around the neck. With that they were safe for another three months while collecting more gold.

Whoever was caught without a token was killed by having his or her hands cut off. There are old Spanish prints…that show this being done: the Indians stumble away, staring with surprise at their arm stumps pulsing out blood.

There were no gold fields, and thus, once the Indians had handed in whatever they still had in gold ornaments, their only hope was to work all day in the streams, washing out gold dust from the pebbles. It was an impossible task, but those Indians who tried to flee into the mountains were systematically hunted down with dogs and killed, to set an example for the others to keep trying…

Thus it was at this time that the mass suicides began: the Arawaks killed themselves with cassava poison.

During those two years of the administration of the brothers Columbus, an estimated one half of the entire population of Hispaniola was killed or killed themselves. The estimates run from one hundred and twenty-five thousand to one-half million. (4)

It’s important students not be shielded from the horror of what “discovery” meant to its victims. The fuller they understand the consequences of Columbus’s invasion of America the better they’ll be equipped to critically re-examine the innocent stories their textbooks have offered through the years. The goal is not to titillate or stun, but to force the question: Why wasn’t I told this before?

Re-examining Elementary Truths

The students’ assignment is to find a textbook, preferably one they used in elementary school, but any textbook will suffice, and write a critique of the book’s treatment of Columbus and the Indians. I distribute the following handout to students and review the questions aloud. I don’t want them to merely answer the questions one by one, but to consider them as guidelines in completing their critiques:

  • How factually accurate was the account?
  • What was omitted—left out—that in your judgment would be important for a full understanding of Columbus? (For example, his treatment of the Indians; slave taking; his method of getting gold; the overall effect on the Indians.)
  • What motives does the book give to Columbus? Compare those with his real motives.
  • Who does the book get you to root for, and how do they accomplish that? (for example, are the books horrified at the treatment of Indians or thrilled that Columbus makes it to the New World?)
  • What function do pictures in the books play? What do they communicate about Columbus and his “enterpri^”?
  • In your opinion, why does the book portray the Columbus/Indian encounter the way it does?
  • Can you think of any groups in our society who might have an interest in people having an inaccurate view of history?

I tell students that this last question is tough but crucial. Is the continual distortion of Columbus simply an accident, repeated innocently over and over, or are there groups in our society who could benefit from everyone having a false or limited understanding of the past? Whether

or not students are able to answer the question effectively, it is still important they struggle with it before our group discussion of their critiques.

The subtext of the assignment is to teach students that text material, indeed all written material, is to be read skeptically. I want students to explore the politics of print, that perspectives on history and social reality underlie the written word and that to read is both to comprehend what is written, but also to question why it is written. My intention is not to encourage an ‘I-don’t-believe-anything’ cynicism (5), but rather to equip students to bring a writer’s assumptions and values to the surface so students can decide what is useful and what is hot in any particular work.

For practice, we look at some excerpts from a textbook that belonged to my brother in the fourth grade in California, The Story of American Freedom, published by Macmillan in 1964. Students and I read aloud and analyze several paragraphs. The arrival of Columbus and crew is especially revealing—^and obnoxious. As is true in every book on the “discovery” I’ve ever encountered, the reader watches events from the Spaniard’s point of view. We are told how Columbus and his men “fell upon their knees and gave thanks to God,” a passage included in virtually all elementary school accounts of Columbus. “He then took possession of it [the island] in the name of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain.” (6) No question is raised of what right Columbus had to assume control over a land which was obviously already occupied by people. The account is so adoring, so respectful of the Admiral, that students can’t help but sense the book is offering approval for what is,  quite simply, an act of naked imperialism.

The book keeps us close to God and church throughout its narrative. Upon returning from the New World, Columbus shows off his parrots and Indians (again no question of the propriety of the unequal relationship between “natives” and the colonizers), and immediately following the show, “the king and queen lead the way to a near-by church. There a song of praise and thanksgiving is sung.” (7) Intended or not, the function of linking church and Columbus is to remove him and his actions still further from question and critique. My job, on the other hand, is to encourage students to pry beneath every phrase and illustration; to begin to train readers who can both understand the word and challenge it

Students’ Conclusions

I give students a week before I ask them to bring in their written critiques. In small groups students share their papers with one another. I ask them to take notes towards what my co-teacher, Linda Christensen, and I call the “collective text”: What themes seem to recur in the papers and what important differences emerge?

Here are some excerpts from papers written this year by students in the Literature and U.S. History course that Linda and I co-teach:

Maryanne wrote:

“In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue.’’ He ran into a land mass claiming it in the name of Spain. The next day Columbus went ashore. ‘Indians,’’ almost naked, greeted Columbus who found them a simple folk who “invite you to share anything they possess.” Columbus observed that “fifty Spaniards could subjugate this entire people.” Then we are told, “By 1548 the Indians were almost all wiped out.”—^from a passage in The Impact of Our Past.

That story is about as complete as Swiss cheese. Columbus and the Spaniards killed off the “Indians,” they didn’t mystically disappear or die of diphtheria.

Trey wrote his critique as a letter to Allyn and Bacon, publishers of The American Spirit.

…I’ll just pick one topic to keep it simple. How about Columbus. No, you didn’t lie, but saying, “Though they had a keen interest in the peoples of the Caribbean, Colurrdjus and his crews were never able to live peacefully among them,” makes it seem as if Columbus did no wrong. The reason for not being able to live peacefully is that he and his crew took slaves, and killed thousands of Indians for not bringing enough gold…^

If I were to only know the information given in this book, I would have such a sheltered viewpoint that many of my friends would think I was stupid. Later in life people could capitalize on my ignorance by comparing Columbus’s voyage with something similar, but in our time. I wouldn’t believe the ugly truths brought up by the opposition because it is Just like Columbus, and he did no harm. I’ve known that since the eighth grade.

After students have read and discussed their papers in small groups, we ask them to reflect on the papers as a whole and write about our collective text: What did they discover about textbook treatments of Columbus? Hete are some excerpts: Matthew wrote:

As people read their evaluations the same situations in these textbooks came out. Things were conveniently left out so that you sided with Columbus’s quest to ‘boldly go where no man has gone before’.. None of the harsh violent reality is confronted in these so-called true accounts.

Gina tried to account for why the books were so consistently rosy:

It seemed to me as if the publishers had just printed up some ‘glory story’ that was supposed to make us feel more patriotic about our country. In our group, we talked about the possibility of the government trying to protect young students from such violence. We soon decided that that was probably one of the farthest things from their minds. They want us to look at our country as great, and powerful, and forever right. They want us to believe Columbus was a real hero. We’re being fed lies. We don’t question the facts, we just absorb information that is handed to us because we trust the role models they are handing out.

Rebecca’s collective text reflected the general tone of disillusion with the official story of textbooks:

Of course, the writers of the books probably think it’s harmless enough— what does it matter who discovered America, really, and besides it makes them feel good about America. But the thought that I have been lied to all my life about this, and who knows what else, really makes me angry.

Why We Do This

The reflections on the collective text became the basis for a class discussion of these and other issues. Again and again, students blasted their textbooks for consistently making choices which left readers with inadequate, and ultimately untruthful, understandings. And while we didn’t press to arrive at definitive explanations for the omissions and distortions, we did seek to underscore the contemporary abuses of historical ignorance. If the books wax romantic about Columbus planting the flag on island beaches and taking possession of land occupied by naked redskinned Indians, what do young readers learn from this about today’s world? That might—or wealth—makes right? That it’s justified to take people’s land if you are more “civilized” or have a “better” religion? Whatever the answers, the textbooks condition students to accept some form of inequality; nowhere do the books suggest that the Indians were, or even should have been, sovereign peoples with a right to control their own lands. And, if Columbus’s motives for exploration are mystified or ignored, then students are less apt to look beyond today’s pious explanations for U.S. involvement in, say. Central America or the Middle East. As Bobby, approaching his registration day for the military draft, pointed out in class: “If people thought they were going off to war to fight for profits, maybe they wouldn’t fight as well, or maybe they wouldn’t go.” 

It’s important to note that some students are left troubled by these myth-popping discussions. One student wrote that she was “left not knowing who to believe.” Josh was the most articulate in his skepticism. He had begun to “read” our class from the same critical distance from which we hoped students would approach textbooks:

I still wonder…If we can’t believe what our first grade teachers told us, why should we believe you? If they lied to us, why wouldn’t you? If one book is wrong, why isn’t another? What is your purpose in telling us about how awful Chris was? What interest do you have in telling us the truth? What is it you want from us?

What indeed? It was a wonderfully probing series of questions, and Linda and I responded by reading them (anonymously) to the entire class. We asked students to take a few minutes to write additional questions and comments on the Columbus activities or to try to imagine our response as teachers—what was the point of our lessons?

We hoped students would see that the intent of the unit was to present a whole new way of reading, and ultimately, of experiencing the world. Textbooks fill students with information masquerading as final truth and then ask students to parrot back the information at the end of the chapter “checkups.” The Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, calls it the “banking method”: students are treated as empty vessels waiting for deposits of wisdom from textbooks and teachers. (8) We wanted to assert to students that they shouldn’t necessarily trust the “authorities” but instead needed to be active participants in their own learning, peering between lines for unstated assumptions and unasked questions; Meaning is something they need to create, individually and collectively.

Josh asked what our “interest” was in this kind of education, and it’s a fair, even vital, question. Linda and I see teaching as political action: we want to equip students to build a truly democratic society. As Freire writer, to be an actor for social change one must “read the word and the world.” (9) We hope that if a student is able to maintain a critical distance from the written work then it’s possible to maintain that same distance from one’s society: to stand back, look hard and ask, “Why is it like this, how can I make it better?”

Bill Bigelow teaches at Jefferson High School in Portland, Oregon. This is a revised version of an article which originally appeared in Oregon English, Fall, 1988 and again in Language Arts, October 1989. It is reprinted here with permission of the author.



  1. The Annals of America, Volume 1: 1493-1754, Discovering a New World, Encyclopedia Britannica, Chicago, 1968, pp. 2,4.
  2. Quoted in Hans Konig, Columbus: His Enterprise, Monthly Review Press, New York, 1976, pp. 53-54. As Konig points out, none of the information included in his book is new. It is available in Columbus’s own journals and letters and the writings of the Spanish priest, Bartolome de las Casas. Even Columbus’s adoring biographers admit the Admiral’s outrages. For example, Pulitzer Pnzewonner, Samuel Eliot Monson, acknowledges that Columbus unleashed savage dogs on Indians, kidnapped Indian leaders and encouraged his sailors to rape Indian women. At one point Morison writes, ‘The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide.” (Samuel Eliot Morison, Christopher Columbus, Mariner, New American Library, New York, 1942, p. 99.) But the sharpness of this judgment is buried in Morison’s syrupy admiration for Columbus’s courage and navigational skills.
  3. Konig, pp. 84-85.
  4. Konig, pp. 85-87.
  5. t’s useful to keep in mind the distinction between cynicism and skepticism. As Norman Diamond writes, “In an important respect, the two are not even commensurable. Skepticism says ‘You’ll have to show me, otherwise I’m dubious’; it is open to engagement and persuasion…Cynicism is a removed perspective, a renunciation of any responsibility.” See Norman Diamond, “Against Cynicism in Politics and Culture,” m Monthly Review, Vol. 28, #2, June, 1976, p. 40.
  6. Edna McGuire, The Story of American Freedom, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1964, p. 24.
  7. McGuire, p. 26.
  8. See Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Continuum, New York, 1970. This banking method of education, Freire writes, “…turns [students] into ‘receptacles’ to be ‘filled’ by the teacher… “Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are depositories-and-theteacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize and repeat. This is the ‘banking’ concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits. They do, it is true, have the opportunity to become collectors or cataloguers of the things they store. But in the last analysis, it is men [people] themselves who are filed away through the lack of creativity, transformation, and knowledge in this (at best) misguided system.” p. 58.
  9. Paulo Freire and Donaldo Macedo, Literacy: Reading the Word and the World, Bergin and Garvey, Massachusetts, 1987.