Once Upon a Genocide…
A Review of Christopher Columbus in Children’s Literature
Children’s biographies of Christopher Columbus function as primers on racism and colonialism. These books teach youngsters to accept the right of white people to rule over people of color, of powerful nations to dominate weaker nations. And because the Columbus myth is so pervasive — Columbus’s “discovery” is probably the only historical episode with which all my students at Jefferson High School are familiar — this myth inhibits children from developing democratic, multicultural, and non-racist attitudes.
The Columbus myth goes like this: Long ago there lived a great white man. This man was very brave, smart, and determined. He loved adventure. He sailed across the ocean and found many islands with dark skinned people. He took possession of these islands and called the people “Indians.” His name was Christopher Columbus — he discovered America.
Almost without exception this is the portrait of Columbus presented in biographies written for children. They depict the journey to the New World as a “great adventure” led by “probably the greatest sailor of his time.” It’s a story of courage and superhuman tenacity.
But behind this tale of courage, adventure, and “discovery,” is a gruesome reality. For Columbus, land was real estate and it didn’t matter to him that other people were already living there; if he “discovered” it he took it. If he needed guides or translators he kidnapped them. If his men wanted women he captured sex slaves. If the indigenous people resisted he countered with wild dogs, hangings, and mutilations. On his second voyage, desperate to show his royal patrons a return on their investment, Columbus rounded up some fifteen hundred Arawak Indians on the island of Hispaniola and chose five hundred as slaves to be shipped back to Spain and sold. As one of the Spanish colonists wrote, the remaining Indians “rushed in all directions like lunatics, women dropping and abandoning infants in the panic, running for miles without stopping, fleeing across mountains and rivers.”(1) Slavery did not show a profit as almost all the slaves died en route to Spain or soon after their arrival. Thus Columbus decided to concentrate on the search for gold. Nonetheless, he wrote, “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.”(2) As for gold, Columbus ordered every Indian fourteen and over to deliver a regular quota.
Those who failed to perform as commanded were punished by having their hands chopped off. In a mere two years of the Columbus regime nearly a quarter of a million people died. Yes, in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue — but he did much more than that.(3)
It is worth noting that none of this information is based on new research; in fact, some of the most horrifying details of Columbus’s reign in the West Indies come from biographers like Samuel Eliot Morison who are great admirers of the Admiral.(4)
This article follows Columbus as he sails through eight children’s biographies listed in the box on this page, comparing the books’ versions of events with the historical record, then analyzing how these accounts may influence young readers. I especially focus on the authors’ portrayals of Columbus’s relationship to native Americans and the way these accounts justify racism and other social inequalities. I conclude with a brief examination of the pedagogy implicit in these books and a discussion of more appropriate ways to teach Columbus in this quincentennial period.
Portrait of Columbus: The Books vs. the Historical Record
Why did Columbus want to sail west to get to the Indies? The answer offered to children in today’s books seems not to have changed much since I was in fourth grade. I remember my teacher, Mrs. O’Neill, asking our class this question. As usual, I didn’t have a clue, but up went Jimmy Martin’s hand. “Why do men want to go to the moon?” he said triumphantly. Mrs. O’Neill was delighted and told us all how smart Jimmy was because he had answered a question with a question. In other words: just because — because he was curious, because he loved adventure, because he wanted to prove he could do it — just because. And for years I accepted this explanation (and envied Jimmy Martin).
In reality, Columbus wanted to become very rich. It was no easy task convincing Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand to finance this highly questionable journey to the Indies, partly because his terms were pretty outrageous. Columbus demanded ten percent of all the wealth returned to Europe along the new trade route to Asia (where Columbus thought he was headed) — that’s ten percent of the riches brought back by everyone, not just by himself. And he wanted this guaranteed forever, for him, for his children, for their children, in perpetuity. He demanded that he be granted the titles, “Viceroy” and “Admiral of the Ocean Sea.” He was to be governor of all new territories found; the “Admiral” title was hereditary and would give him a share in proceeds from naval booty.
As for Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, curiosity, adventure, and “exploration” were the last things on the minds of the Spanish monarchs. They wanted the tremendous profits that could be secured by finding a western passage to the Indies. The land route to the east had been closed off by the Turks since the fall of Constantinople in 1452, and the Portuguese were steadily finding their way around Africa. A costly war against the Moors and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain had drained the royal treasury. Ferdinand and Isabella were much less interested in discovering new lands than they were in securing the revenues from trade with the Indies.
The books acknowledge — and even endorse — Columbus’s demands and readily admit that securing “gold and spices” was an objective of the Enterprise. “Of course [Columbus] wanted a lot! What was wrong with that?” James de Kay’s Meet Christopher Columbus tells second graders. But this quest for wealth as a motive for Columbus’s expedition is downplayed in favor of adventure. “Exploration” meant going to “strange cities” where “many wonderful things“ could be seen [de Kay]. Travel was exciting: Columbus “felt the heady call of the open sea. ‘I love the taste of salt spray in my face,’ he told a friend, ‘and the feel of a deck rising and falling under my feet…’” [Monchieri] Columbus spends time in Lisbon, “a great center for discovery and exploration.” [Osborne]
According to these eight biographies, the major reason Columbus wants to sail west is because of his deep faith in God. “He believed that it was only important to do what God wanted him to do — and he believed that God wanted him to discover a new route to the Indies. Another amazing thing about Columbus was his unswerving religious faith.” [Osborne] Columbus thought “that the Lord had chosen him to sail west across the sea to find the riches of the East for himself and to carry the Christian faith to the heathens. His name was Christopher.
Had not the Lord chosen his name-saint, Saint Christopher, to carry the Christ Child across the dark water of a river?” [D’Aulaire]
Using a term like “heathens” to denote the indigenous peoples of America without offering the slightest criticism is a problem shared by most of the books I reviewed.
Children’s mis-education in international affairs begins with the factors each book emphasizes to explain Columbus’s Enterprise.
Religion, curiosity, adventure — all those motives are given preference in Columbus biographies over the quest for wealth and power for the Spanish empire. Each of these motives, of course, pales before — and would have been irrelevant without — the economic needs of the Crown. In burying these more fundamental material forces, the Columbus books encourage students to misunderstand the roots of today’s foreign policy exploits. Thus students are more likely to accept platitudes — “We’re involved in Latin America for freedom and democracy” — than to look for less altruistic explanations. Ultimately, life and death decisions turn on our understanding of the roots of foreign policy. As my student, Bobby, said in class one day: “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.”(5)
The Kind and Noble Columbus
None of the biographies I evaluated — all in print and widely available — disputes outright any of the ugly facts about Columbus and the Spanish conquest of the Caribbean. And yet the sad irony is that every one of them encourages children to root for Columbus. “It was lucky that Christopher Columbus was born where he was or he might never have gone to sea.” [Fritz] “There once was a boy who loved the salty sea.” [D’Aulaire] Some of the books, particularly those for younger readers, refer to Columbus affectionately, using his first name. Unlike the people he will later exterminate, Columbus is treated as a real human being, one with thoughts and feelings. “When Christopher Columbus was a child, he always wanted to be like Saint Christopher. He wanted to sail to faraway places and spread the word of Christianity.” [Osborne] By contrast, the books have nothing to say about what the Indians may have wanted. Gleiter and Thompson’s Christopher Columbus is structured as a conversation between Columbus and his son, Fernando. The Admiral of the Ocean Sea is good and kind. In illustrations he has perfect teeth and a strong chin. The series title of Robert Young’s Christopher Columbus and His Voyage to the New World succinctly sums up the stance of every biographer: “Let’s Celebrate.”
The books cheer Columbus on towards the Indies. Each step on the road to “discovery” is told from his point of view. When Columbus is delayed, this is the “most unhappy part of his great adventure.” [de Kay] One could be excused for thinking that torturing Indians or taking hundreds of slaves might be a bit more “unhappy,” but point of view is everything and these books give the Indians no standing. Every successful step towards realizing the Enterprise is rewarded with exclamation marks: “Yes, [the Queen] would help Columbus!” [Osborne] “After all these years, Columbus would get his ships!” [de Kay]
Columbus’s devout Christianity is a theme in all the books — and is never questioned. The most insistent of these, and the worst of the lot in almost every respect, is Sean J. Dolan’s Christopher Columbus: The Intrepid Mariner. Already by the second page of Dolan’s reverent volume we’re reading about Columbus’s attachment to his leather-bound Bible. Dolan is constantly dipping us into the Admiral’s thoughts. Usually his Columbus is engaged in some deep and pious thinking: “[He] believed that the awe-inspiring beauty that surrounded him could only be the handi-work of the one true God, and he felt secure in his Lord and Savior’s protection. If only my crewmen shared my belief, Columbus thought.” And this is only on the third page — Dolan’s narrative goes on like this for a hundred and fourteen more. The reader is practically strangled by Columbus’s halo. He calms the sailors on his first voyage by speaking to them of Jesus: “‘Seek and ye shall find, the Bible tells us. I am at peace with my god, and He assures me that my mission will succeed. I entreat you to share my confidence.” But in case this isn’t convincing enough, Columbus promises his men futures of nobility, huge estates and jewels.
Jean Fritz’s Where do you think you’re going, Christopher Columbus? is the only book which takes a somewhat skeptical tone about religion as a motive for Columbus and his sponsors. Fritz tells her readers that Queen Isabella “was such an enthusiastic Christian that she insisted everyone in Spain be a Christian too… Indeed, she was so religious that if she even found Christians who were not sincere Christians, she had them burned at the stake. (Choir boys sang during the burning so Isabella wouldn’t have to hear the screams.)”
This is pretty strong stuff, but the implied critique would likely be lost on the book’s targeted readers, upper elementary students.
The close association between Jesus, God and Columbus in all the books, with the possible exception of Jean Fritz’s, functions to discourage children from criticizing any of Columbus’s actions. “Columbus marveled at how God had arranged everything for the best,” the D’Aulaires write. Well, if God arranged everything, who are we, the insignificant readers, to question? Even if there were not these constant biblical references, nothing in the books would encourage children to question the conduct and objectives of the Enterprise. But Christianity serves to shield Columbus even more completely.
Moreover, no book even hints that the Indians believed in their own God or gods who also watched over and cared about them. The Columbus expedition may be the first encounter between two peoples — Us and Them — where children will learn that “God is on our side.”
Evils? Blame the Workers
Columbus’s journey across the Atlantic is not an easy one, according to most of the books, because his crew is such a wretched bunch. The sailors are stupid, superstitious, cowardly, and sometimes scheming.
Columbus, on the other hand, is brave, wise and godly. These characterizations, repeated frequently in many of the books, function later in the stories to protect the Columbus myth from becoming tarnished; anything bad that happens, like murder and slavery, can always be blamed on the men. Columbus, the leader, is pure of heart; the rabble embodies everything wicked and selfish.
The books anticipate and may even reflect some of the Reagan era rethinking of the Vietnam debacle: the war was a noble crusade but was lost by undisciplined and drugged-out soldiers. (These negative portrayals are less pronounced in Monchieri’s Christopher Columbus.
The book depicts seamen as pliant and ignorant, but at least concedes that “almost all proved to be good sailors.”)
Taken together, the books’ portrayals serve as a kind of anti-working class pro-boss polemic. “Soon [Columbus] rose above his shipmates, for he was clever and capable and could make others carry out his orders.”[D’Aulaire] Evidently, ordinary seamen are not “clever and capable,” and thus are good merely for carrying out the instructions of others. “Soon [Columbus] forgot that he was only the son of a humble weaver,” the D’Aulaires write, as if a background as a worker were something to be ashamed of, a history which needs to be forgotten. The books encourage children to identify with Columbus’s hardships, even though his men worked and slept in horrible conditions while the future Admiral slept under a canopy bed in his private cabin. The lives of those who labored for Columbus are either ignored or held in contempt.
The Indigenous Peoples as Non-humans
At the core of the Columbus myth — and repeated by all eight books — is the notion that Columbus “discovered” America.
Indeed, it’s almost as if the same writer were churning out one ever so slightly different version after another.
James T. de Kay describes the scene in Meet Christopher Columbus:
“The sailors rowed Columbus to the shore. He stepped on the beach. He got on his knees and said a prayer of thanks.
Columbus named the island San Salvador. He said it now belonged to Ferdinand and Isabella.
He tried to talk to the people on San Salvador. But they could not understand him.”
Of course he couldn’t understand them, either. But the inability to understand is attributed to the Indians alone. Is it these Indians’ implied ignorance that allows heavily armed men to come onto their land and claim it in the name of a kingdom thousands of miles away? In Christopher Columbus and His Voyage to the New World, Robert Young avoids even raising the question as he fails to inform his young readers of the people on these islands.
Young’s Columbus found “lands” but no people; in illustrations we see only palm trees and empty beaches.
Why don’t any of the books ask students to think about the assumptions that under-pinned this land grab? Naively, I kept waiting for some book to insert just a trace of doubt: “Why do you think Columbus felt he could claim land for Spain when there were already people living there?” or “Columbus doesn’t write in his journal why he felt entitled to steal other people’s property. What do you think?”
This scene of Columbus’s first encounter with the Indians — read in school by virtually every child — is a powerful metaphor about relations between different countries and races — a lesson not just about the world five hundred years ago, but about the world today. Clothed, armed, Christian, white men from a more technologically “advanced” nation arrive in a land peopled by darker skinned, naked, unarmed, non-Christians — and take over. Because no book indicates which characteristic of either group necessitates or excuses this kind of bullying, students are left alone to puzzle it out. Might makes right. Whites should rule over people who aren’t white.
Christians should control non-Christians. “Advanced” nations should dominate “backward” nations. Each and every answer a student might glean from the books’ text and images invariably justifies colonialism and racism: it’s ok for one people to determine the fate of another people; it’s ok for white people to control people of color.
In Columbus’s New World “adventures,” the lives of the Indians are a kind of “Muzak” — insignificant background noise. The indigenous people appear as a presence in most of the books I reviewed, but their lives count for nothing. Only one book, Where do you think you’re going, Christopher Columbus?, tries to imagine what the Indians might have been thinking about the arrival of the Spaniards. Still, the point here seems more to gently poke
fun at Columbus and crew than to seriously consider the Indians’ point of view: “…if the Spaniards were surprised to see naked natives, the natives were even more surprised to see dressed Spaniards. All that cloth over their bodies! What were they trying to hide? Tails, perhaps?” Jean Fritz’s interior monologue for the Indians makes fun of the explorers but in the process trivializes the Indians’ concerns; indigenous people appear silly and superstitious.
Not a single Columbus biography ever asks children: “What might the Indians have thought about the actions of Columbus and his men?” According to Mary Pope Osborne, Columbus “thought [the Indians] could easily be brought under control and that they had no religion of their own. He wrote that they would make ‘good Christians and good servants.’” But Osborne doesn’t prompt students to wonder what the Indians would have thought about Columbus’s plans. She is content merely to repeat the Admiral’s racism without comment or critique. In these biographies, Indians don’t think, feel or speak.
The silent Indians in Columbus stories have a contemporary consequence. The message to children is that white people in developed societies have consciousness and voice, but Third World people are thoughtless and voiceless objects. The text and images rehearse students in a way of looking at the world that begins from the assumption: they are not like us. A corollary is that we are more competent than they in determining the conditions of their lives: their social and economic systems, their political alliances and so on. Intervention in Vietnam, subversion of the government headed by Salvador Allende in Chile, the invasions of Grenada and Panama, the
attempted overthrow by proxy of the Nicaraguan and Angolan governments: our right to decide what’s best for them is basic to the conduct of this nation’s foreign policy. The Columbus myth, as most children’s first exposure to “foreign policy,” helps condition young people to accept the unequal distribution of power in the world.
Theft, Slavery and Murder Justified
Columbus’s genocidal policies towards the Indians were initiated during his second journey to the New World (which until his death he would maintain was not new at all, but a part of Asia.) The three books aimed at children in early elementary grades, Gleiter and Thompson’s Christopher Columbus, de Kay’s Meet Christopher Columbus and Young’s Christopher Columbus and His Voyage to the New World conveniently stop the story after his first journey — as mentioned, Young’s book ignores the Indians’ existence entirely. Thus the authors escape having to confront slavery and mass murder. One can imagine the violins playing towards the conclusion of de Kay’s story:
“The king and queen looked at the gold and the Indians [with whom Columbus had returned]. They listened in wonder to Columbus’s stories of adventure. Then they all went to church to pray and sing. Tears of joy filled Columbus’s eyes.
All his dreams had come true. He was rich. He was famous. And he had found a way to the Indies.”
This is Donald Trump before the fall; a fairy tale for eight year old millionaire wanna-be’s. Because none of the three books says a word about the fate of the Indians, the Columbus myth can take root in young minds without being complicated or stained by the violence to come.
Yes, Columbus returned to a hero’s welcome in Spain after his first trip. He also came back telling all kinds of lies about gold mines and spices and unlimited amounts of wealth to be had for the taking. The admiral needed royal backing for a second trip, and so it was important to convince his sponsors that the islands to which he would return contained more than parrots and naked heathens.
During this second voyage, in February of 1495, Columbus launched the slave raids against the Arawak Indians of Hispaniola. Four of the eight books I reviewed — the ones aimed at older children — admit that Columbus took Indians as slaves.
[Monchieri, Fritz, Osborne, and Dolan] Their critique, however, is muted as no account tells children what slavery actually entailed for its victims. One of the books, Monchieri’s Christopher Columbus, says that taking slaves was “a great failing of Columbus… He saw nothing wrong with enslaving the American Indians and making them work for Spanish masters… Missionaries protested against this policy, but they were not listened to.” End of discussion.
Mary Pope Osborne in Christopher Columbus: Admiral of the Ocean Sea, writes that “this terrible treatment of the Indians was Columbus’s real downfall” — she merely says slavery was terrible without showing any of the terror. In fact Osborne is unable to offer even this minimal critique of the admiral without at the same time justifying his actions: “Since Columbus felt despair and disappointment about not finding gold in the Indies, he decided to be like the African explorers and try to sell these Indians as slaves.”[Osborne] Neither book ever describes the character of slave life — or slave death.
The other two biographies simply offer Columbus’s own justifications for taking slaves: “African explorers were always sending Africans back to Spanish slave markets, Columbus told himself. Besides, the natives were all heathens. It wasn’t as if he were selling Christians into slavery.” [Fritz] Note how ineffective this facetious tone is when the author presents no direct critique. “Because the Indians were not Christians, Columbus believed that they could be enslaved and converted without the Spanish feeling any guilt.”[Dolan] Dolan later blames it all on the men: “Given the attitude of the men at large, however, [Columbus] had little choice but to give his approval to the slaving sorties.” This is an absurd claim. As quoted earlier, in Columbus’s own journal he invoked the blessing of the Holy Trinity to continue the slave trade — so long as it remained profitable.
Ultimately, all four of these biographies offer children only Columbus’s pitiful rationalizations for slavery. Imagine, if you will, Nazi war crimes described in this way — nothing about the suffering of the victims, tepid criticism of the perpetrators, the crimes explained through the rationalizations of Hitler and his generals. How long would these books last in our schools?
From the beginning, locating gold was Columbus’s primary objective. In one passage, not included in any of the children’s books, Columbus wrote: “Gold is a wonderful thing! Whoever owns it is lord of all he wants. With gold it is even possible to open for souls the way to paradise.”(6) Two of the eight authors, Fritz and Dolan, do describe in some detail Columbus’s system for attempting to extract gold from the Indians. Dolan writes that Columbus instituted “a system of forced tribute: each Indian was to provide a certain amount of gold each year. Penalties for failure to comply with this rule included flogging, enslavement, or death.” Nothing here about cutting people’s hands off, which is what Columbus did, but still it’s pretty explicit.
Fritz writes simply that Indians who didn’t deliver enough gold “were punished.” She concludes that “between 1494 and 1496 one-third of the native population of Hispaniola was killed, sold, or scared away.”
The passive voice in Fritz’s version — “was killed, sold, or scared away” — functions to protect the perpetrators: exactly who caused these deaths? More significantly, however, what is lacking in these accounts is a recognition of the Indians’ humanity. The books’ descriptions are clinical and factual, like those of a coroner. What kind of suffering must these people have gone through? How did it feel to have their civilization completely destroyed in the space of just a few years? What of the children who watched their parents butchered by the Spanish gold-seekers? These books show no passion or outrage — at Columbus, at the social and economic system he represented, or at textbooks for hiding this inhumanity for so many years. This devastation happened to human beings — several hundred thousand of them, maybe more. Why don’t the writers of these books get angry? Jean Fritz is so ho-hum that she can end her story with a tribute to Columbus: Certainly he “had performed brave deeds, but not even he could appreciate the extent of his achievement.”
I find the most “honest” books about Columbus’s Enterprise — those that admit slavery and other crimes — also the most distressing. They lay out the facts, describe the deaths, and then it’s on to the next paragraph with no look back. These books model for children a callousness towards human suffering — or is it simply a callousness towards the suffering of people of color? Apparently students are supposed to value bravery, cunning, and perseverance over a people’s right to life and self determination. The stories prepare young people to watch without outrage the abstract nightly news accounts — a quick segment about an army massacre in El Salvador followed by a commercial for Chrysler Le Baron.
Contempt for Native Resistance
Given that Columbus biographies scarcely consider Indians as human beings, it’s not surprising that native resistance to the Spaniards’ atrocities is either barely acknowledged or treated with hostility.
Gleiter and Thompson’s Christopher Columbus, notes that in future trips Columbus “fought with the natives.” In a sentence, Lino Monchieri writes, “The Indians became rebellious because [Columbus] compelled them to hand over their gold.” At least here the author credits the Indians with what might be a legitimate cause for revolt, though she offers no further details. Mary Pope Osborne buries the cause of resistance in non-explanatory, bland, victimless prose: “But the settlers had run into trouble with the Indians, and there had been a lot of fighting.”
Some writers choose to portray Indian resistance not as self-defense, but as originating from the indigenous people’s inherently violent nature. In Meet Christopher Columbus, “unfriendly Indians” surprise the innocent Spaniards: “Suddenly more than 50 Indians jumped out from behind the trees. They had bows and arrows. They attacked the men. The men fought back. One Indian was hit by an arrow. Another was badly cut.” Thus, Indian resistance to the Spaniards’ invasion and land grab is not termed “freedom fighting,” but instead is considered “unfriendly.” Ironically, this story portrays the violence of the Spaniards as self-defense.
The books which bother to differentiate between groups of Indians single out the Caribs for special contempt. Caribs are presented as cannibals, even though no historical evidence exists to corroborate such a claim.(7) The Caribs lived on islands “so wild and steep, it seemed as if the waterfalls came tumbling out of the clouds. The Indians who lived there were wild too. They were cannibals who ate their enemies.”[D’Aulaire] In Dolan’s Christopher Columbus: The Intrepid Mariner, Columbus sends an armed contingent to “explore” the island that today is St. Croix. Because Caribs attack the Spaniards, Dolan considers this resistance sufficient to label the Caribs as ferocious. In fact, according to the account of Dr. Diego Alvarez Chanca, an eyewitness, the Indians only attacked when the Spaniards trapped them in a cove.(8) In today’s parlance, the Caribs were the “radicals” and “extremists” — in other words, they tenaciously defended their land and freedom. (A steep cliff on the northern tip of the island of Grenada is still today called Leapers’ Hill where, as legend has it, about fifty Carib Indians jumped to their deaths rather than surrender to French invaders in 1654.)
Just as the Columbus myth conditions young people to accept unequal colonial relations between the predominately white, Christian, technologically more complex, better armed culture, and the “non-white,” “un-developed” culture, so too are young people conditioned to reject the right of the oppressed to rebel. We have a right to own their land, and they should not protest — at least not violently. Those who do resist will be slapped with a pejorative descriptor — cannibal, savage, communist, militant, radical, hard-liner, extremist — and subdued. Black South Africans’ fight against apartheid, the Palestinians’ intifada, Honduran peasants organizing for land redistribution, the United Farm Workers’ quest for union recognition: Columbus biographers’ blindness to or contempt for native resistance implicitly discourages students from paying serious attention to these and other contemporary movements for social justice. Obviously, this twisted history leaves children similarly ill-prepared to recognize and respect current Indian struggles for land and fishing rights. Biographer Sean Dolan even labels Columbus’s own men as “notorious troublemakers” when they resist his dictates. Apparently for Dolan, challenging authority is crime enough for sailors’ imprisonment and subsequent executions by hanging, as he offers no further justification.
I expected each book to end with at least some reflection on the meaning of Columbus’s voyages. None did. In fact, only one book, Meet Christopher Columbus, even suggests that today’s world has anything to do with Columbus: Thanks to the Admiral, “Thousands of people crossed the ocean to America. This ‘new world’ became new countries: the United States, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, and many others.” An illustration below these words depicts a modern ocean liner. But nothing here about the character of that new world.
It’s much simpler for the authors to ignore both short and long term consequences of Columbus’s Enterprise. Instead of explicitly linking the nature of Columbus’s Spain to 20th century America, each book can function as a kind of secular Book of Genesis: In the beginning there was Columbus — he was good and so are we.
This way, the decency of today’s society is implicitly confirmed without resort to any open discussion or documentation.
This is a grave silence. In addition to the genocide of native peoples in the Caribbean, the most immediate effect of Columbus’s voyages was the initiation of the Atlantic slave trade between Africa and America.
The Spanish monarchs issued the first laws governing this slave trade as early as 1501 and by 1510 hundreds of slaves were transported to America for sale.(9) As historian Basil Davidson writes, “Throughout the years that followed it was to be the searing brand of this trade that it would consider its victims, not as servants or domestic slaves who deserved respect in spite of their servile condition, but as chattel slaves, commodities that could and should be sold at whim or will.”(10)
This was the new world Columbus did not so much discover as helped to invent. In the emerging commercial ethos of his society, human beings were commodities whose worth was measured largely in monetary terms. The natural environment was likewise cherished not for its beauty but for the wealth that could be extracted. Columbus’s Enterprise and the plunder that ensued contributed mightily to the growth of the nascent mercantile capitalism of Europe. His lasting contribution was to augment a social order that values the world in commercial terms: How much is it worth?
Why are Columbus biographies characterized by such bias and omission? I doubt any writers, publishers or teachers consciously set out to poison the minds of the young. The Columbus story teaches important values, some would argue. Here was a young man who, despite tremendous adversity, maintained and finally achieved his objectives. Fear and narrow-mindedness kept others from that which he finally accomplished.
But in the Columbus biographies, these decent values intermingle with biases against working class people, people of color, and Third World nations. The blindness of writers and educators to these characteristics is simply an indication of how pervasive these biases are in the broader society. The seeds of imperialism, exploitation and racism were planted with Columbus’s first trans-Atlantic Enterprise — and these seeds have taken root. Without doubt, ours is a very different world than 15th and 16th century Spanish America, but there is a lingering inheritance: the tendency for powerful groups to value profit over humanity, racial and cultural differences used to justify exploitation and inequality, vast disparities in living conditions for different social classes, economically and militarily strong nations attempting to control the fates of weaker nations. Hence, life amidst injustice in today’s United States inures many of us to the injustice of 500 years earlier. Characteristics that appear to someone as natural and inevitable in the 20th century will likely appear as natural and inevitable in descriptions of the world five centuries ago.
The Pedagogy of Columbus Biographies
As I’ve indicated throughout this review, the Columbus stories encourage a passive relationship between reader and text. The books never pose choices or dilemmas for children to think through. Did Columbus have a right to claim Indian land in the name of the Spanish crown? Were those Indians who resisted violently justified in doing so? Why does the United States commemorate a Columbus Day instead of a Genocide Day? Each biography is structured as a lecture, not as a dialogue of problem posing. The narratives require readers merely to listen, not to think: “Just sit back — we’ll tell you all you need to know about Columbus and the discovery of America,” the books seem to suggest. The text is everything, the reader nothing. Not only are young readers conditioned to accept social hierarchy — colonialism and racism — they are also rehearsed in an authoritarian mode of learning.
By implication, I’ve tried in this review essay to suggest the outlines of a more truthful history of Columbus and the “discovery” of America. First, the indigenous peoples of America must be accorded the status of full human beings with inalienable rights to self determination. The tale of “discovery” would need to be told from their perspective as well as from the Europeans. Although there is little documentation of how the Indians interpreted the Spaniards’ arrival and conquest, readers could be encouraged to think about these events from the native point of view. What the Indians may have thought as they were “pacified” by dogs and swords and forced into searching out impossible amounts of gold should be juxtaposed with the thoughts of the conquerors. Columbus’s interior monologue should not be the only set of thoughts represented in the story. A more accurate tale of Columbus would not simply probe his personal history but would also analyze the character of the social and economic system he represented. And children might be asked to think about how today’s world was shaped by the chain of events begun in 1492. Above all, young readers must be invited to think and critique, not simply required to sit passively and absorb others’ historical interpretations. Such a book is waiting to be written.
Thus, until we create humane and truthful materials, teachers may decide to boycott the entire Columbus canon. The problem is that the distortions and inadequacies characterizing this literature are also found throughout other children’s books. A better solution is to equip our students to read critically these and other stories — inviting children to become detectives, interrogating their biographies, novels and textbooks for bias. In fact, because the Columbus books are so bad, they make perfect classroom resources to learn how to read for social as well as for literal meaning. After students have been introduced to a critical history of Columbus, they could probe materials for accuracy. Do the books lie outright? What is omitted from the accounts that would be necessary for a more complete understanding of Columbus and his encounters with native cultures (What do the books say about slavery, for example)? What motives do the writers suggest Columbus had, and how do those compare with the actual objectives of the admiral and the Spanish monarchs? Whom does the book prompt readers to “root” for, and how is this accomplished? What role do illustrations play in shaping readers’ understandings of Columbus’s Enterprise? Why do the books tell the story as they do? Who in our society benefits and who is hurt from these presentations?(11)
Teachers could assign children to write their own Columbus biographies — and some of these could be told from Indians points of view. Or youngsters might take issues from their own lives suggested by the European invasion of America — fighting, fairness, stealing, racism — and write stories drawn from these themes. One of my students at Jefferson High School in Portland, Nicole Smith-Leary, wrote and illustrated a book about a young boy named Chris, who moves to a new neighborhood and “discovers” a clubhouse built by three other boys. Nicole took her story, which ends more happily than the one after which it’s patterned, and read it in several elementary school classrooms.
Encouraging students to ask critical questions in their reading directly challenges the passivity promoted by the Columbus biographers. Instead of merely absorbing the authors’ words, children can begin to argue with them. Significantly, to invite students to question the injustices embedded in text material is implicitly to invite them to question the injustices embedded in the society itself. Isn’t it about time we used the Columbus myth to allow students to begin discovering the truth?
- Spanish colonist, Michele de Cuneo, quoted in Hans Koning, Columbus: His Enterprise, Monthly Review Press, New York, 1976, p. 84.
- Quoted in Koning, p. 85.
- See Bartolome de las Casa (Andree Collard, trans. and ed.), History of the Indies, Harper and Row, New York, 1971; Benjamin Keen (trans. and ed.), The Life of the Admiral Christopher Columbus By His Son Ferdinand, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ, 1959; Koning, Columbus His Enterprise; Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus; Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, Harper and Row, New York, 1980; and Milton Meltzer, Columbus and the World Around Him, Franklin Watts, New York, 1990.
- Samuel Eliot Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus, Little, Brown, Boston, 1942, pp. 487- 488.
- For a longer discussion of ways to teach critically the Columbus story and how students respond, see Wiliam Bigelow, “Discovering Columbus: Rereading the Past,” Language Arts, Vol. 66 no. 6, October 1989, pp. 635-643.
- Christopher Columbus in a letter to Isabella and Ferdinand, 1503, cited in Bruce Johansen and Roberto Maestas, Wasi’chu: The Continuing Indian Wars, Monthly Review Press, New York, 1979, p. 16.
- Jan Carew, Fulcrums of Change: The Origins of Racism in the Americas and Other Essays, Africa World Press, Trenton, NY, 1988, p. 41.
- See Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus, pp. 416-417.
- Basil Davidson, The African Slave Trade: Precolonial History 1450-1850, Little, Brown, Boston, 1961, pp.45-46.
- Davidson, p. 46.
- Bigelow, “Discovering Columbus: Rereading the Past,” p. 639.