Two Valuable Books on Columbus

By Bill Bigelow

Encounter, Jane Yolen (illustrated by David Shannon), Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, San Diego, 1992. $14.95.

Colonialism in the Americas: A Critical Look, Susan Gage (illustrated by Don McNair), Victoria International Development Education Association, 1991. [Available from VIDEA, 407-620 View St., Victoria, B.C., Canada, V8W 1J6, tel.: 604-385-2333. $11, postage and handling included.]


The drought is over. They’ve finally published a “Columbus” book that doesn’t root for Columbus. Encounter,by Jane Yolen, is a well-crafted, poignant tale about the arrival of Columbus, told from the point of view of a Taino boy in the Caribbean.

David Shannon’s illustrations are both beautiful and eerie.

Until Encounter, every commercially-produced children’s book on Columbus celebrated the “discovery” of the “New World.” Each of these, in its own way, encouraged children to embrace the colonizer and ignore the colonized. Yolen’s book is the first story of “discovery” to listen for the voices of the discovered. Thus Encounter represents a turning point, a victory for multiculturalism in this quincentary period.

Here’s a Columbus landing in a typical children’s book:

“Christopher Columbus and his men rowed ashore. He planted a flag in the sand and claimed the island for Spain. He named it San Salvador.

“Christopher Columbus gave the natives of the island red caps and glass bead necklaces.”

And what right did Columbus have to claim and rename another people’s land? Writers needn’t answer this key question because it’s never raised. The traditional Columbus myth presents colonialism as the obvious and acceptable relationship between the white West and the non-white Others, between the “developed” world and the “undeveloped” world, between “Us” and “Them.”

Yolen’s Taino boy — who, unfortunately, she doesn’t name — sees this first encounter differently. Columbus’s men were “strange creatures, men but not men. We did not know them as human beings, for they hid their bodies in colors like parrots. Their feet were hidden, also.”

“And many of them had hair growing like bushes on their chins. Three of them knelt before their chief and pushed sticks into the sand.”

“Then I was even more afraid.”

Or compare the innocent curiosity of the typical children’s book Columbus with Yolen’s Columbus-through-Taino-eyes:

“Some of (the Indians) wore little gold rings in their noses. Columbus’s eyes lit up when he saw the gold. . . He pointed to the gold rings they gave him. Where did the gold come from?” (James de Kay, Meet Christopher Columbus, Random House, 1989.)

Yolen: “So I drew back from the feast, which is not what one should do, and I watched how the sky strangers touched our golden nose rings and our golden armbands but not the flesh of our faces or arms. I watched their chief smile. It was the serpent’s smile — no lips and all teeth.”

Yolen imagines these first meetings from the shore, from the viewpoint of the soon-to-be-conquered. This invitation to children to stand the old Columbus story on its head represents the book’s great achievement.

But despite the importance of Encounter as the first book to value the lives of the colonized, the story is seriously flawed. Ultimately, Yolen blames the Tainos for their decline as a people. The Taino boy, through his dreams and observations, sees the deadly designs of the strangers. However, the adults, intoxicated with the trinkets Columbus and crew have offered, and wanting the Spaniards’ swords and mirrors, pay no attention. Yolen has structured an engaging dramatic tension between a wary child and the elders who refuse to listen to his warnings: “They did not hear because they did not want to listen.” But it’s hardly fair to the elders. Missing from Yolen’s story is the ongoing Taino resistance to Spanish colonialism: Caonabo’s attack on the 39 men Columbus left at La Navidad in January of 1493, the Taino refusal to plant crops for Spaniards, suicide attacks on individual Spanish soldiers, guerilla warfare carried on from mountain bases, etc.

While no one expects a children’s book to be an encyclopedia of popular resistance, Yolen should have indicated that the Tainos did not passively accept their fate. Even the closing monologue is filled with self-blame: “So it was we lost our lands to the strangers from the sky. We gave our souls to their gods. We took their speech into our mouths, forgetting our own.” (Emphasis added).

Encounter’sSpaniards are not the good guys. But the book neglects to detail the specific policies that led to genocide. The tale jumps quickly from the young Taino narrator’s failure to convince adults of impending danger to the defeated old man he has become, repeating his “warning to all the children and all the people in every land.” But what led to this sad conclusion? The book skips over decades of colonial theft, slavery, brutality — and indigenous resistance. We can almost hear the voice of a Harcourt Brace editor warning Yolen: “You’re not going to tell kids that Columbus ordered the Tainos’ hands cut off? This book is risky enough.”

Despite these problems, publication of Encounter contributes tremendously to our efforts to build a multicultural curriculum that listens to the voices of those who have been silenced for too long. It’s an important tool that, with teachers’ and parents’ help, can encourage children to critique the consequences of social inequality. After studying Encounter, students will more easily recognize the traditional discovery stories for what they are: propaganda of the winners, of the colonialists. And children may be better equipped to listen for the silent voices in other stories, in their textbooks and in the news.

Let’s hope Encounter is not the last of its kind, but the first.

Colonialism in the Americas: A Critical Look

The Smithsonian Institution’s “Seeds of Change” book and exhibit want us to pay attention to how the “Columbian Exchange” affected our world today. Thanks to the forces unleashed by Columbus, the Irish now eat potatoes, the Italians pour tomato sauce on their spaghetti, Russians drink vodka, U.S. cowboys ride horses and Caribbean islanders dance to the rhythms of Africa.

But other seeds of change Columbus and the colonizers planted remain unexamined by the Smithsonian approach — seeds of racism, poverty, social inequality and resistance. This deeper legacy is the subject of an outstanding, hands-on, student-friendly booklet written by Susan Gage and produced in Canada by the Victoria International Development Education Association.

“Think about it” questions are scattered throughout the illustrated booklet. Unlike the “How many ships did Columbus sail on?” regurgitation questions of U.S. textbooks, Colonialism in the Americas probes important issues: “The European colonialists practised ethnocide— the attempt to stamp out the culture of the people they conquered. What made them do this, do you think?” And later: “Why is it that the Europeans tried to make the native people dress and act as much as possible like Europeans?… Do you think this world-wide sweep of western ideas will be good or bad for the world in the long run? Why?” Clearly Gage also eschews the traditional textbook lingo that hides bias in seemingly neutral, passionless prose.

Questions consistently draw students’ attention to how today’s world was shaped by the patterns of colonialism introduced

500 years ago. One of the “seven pillars of colonialism” listed is “Hatching Hierarchies:” “The whole world system in the colonies depended on a small number of rich colonists at the top, and large masses of poor native people and African slaves on the bottom. The rich dined lavishly on silver platters, while the poor were lucky to get anything at all! Think about it: How would this ‘elite’ affect development later on?”

Gage recognizes that “Columbus” is a crucial Native American issue, but in a broader social context than is often acknowledged. Ultimately, “Columbus” is about colonialism, about the carving up of the world by European powers and how the early unjust structures of wealth and power infect societies today. It’s precisely the focus that U.S. teachers should adopt — both as antidote to the traditional Columbus-as-heroic-discoverer myth as well as to the newer encounter/exchange myth of the museum folks.

Some of the history featured in Colonialism in theAmericasis particular to the Canadian experience. However, given the U.S.-centric focus of curricula in this country, it certainly won’t hurt students — and teachers — to think about some historical similarities and differences with our neighbor to the north.

A 9-page “hands on” activity guide closes out the 52-page booklet. Lesson suggestions urge students to create a collage “which draws together images of colonialism and its effects in the Americas,” to analyze the logo of the 500 Years of Indian Resistance conference in Ecuador, and to forecast the future of colonialism.

In places, more detail or guidance would be welcome. At times, the history is a bit garbled — for example, population figures for indigenous people in the Caribbean and the Bahamas at Columbus’s arrival are inconsistent; and, contrary to the booklet’s assertion, the Columbus-initiated slave shipments to Spain were not profitable. But minor problems don’t mar VIDEA’s accomplishment. Colonialism in the Americas is lively, readable and astute.

Bill Bigelow does teacher training with the Rethinking Columbus Project.