2.17 Christopher Columbus: Brave Discoverer or Inhumane Monster?

A Young People's History of the United States is a history book written by Howard Zinn which is used in many schools in the United States including my daughter's public school.  His book starts by talking about Columbus and making him out to be an inhumane monster.  Howard Zinn was a communist who was against capitalism and so portrayed Europe and America and Columbus, the discoverer of America as badly as possible.  At least partly as a result of Dr. Zinn's portrayal Columbus day has been changed to Indigenous People's Day and statues of Columbus have been vandalized

Columbus's son wrote a book that shows us that Columbus was not as bad as Howard Zinn portrayed him to be.  A movie was made about Christopher Columbus in 1949 which closely follows what we know from Columbus's diary and other sources.  I have included 2 short clips from the movie in this web page that give a more accurate portrayal of Columbus than Dr. Zinn does in his book.  Mary Grabar wrote a book called "Debunking Howard Zinn" which shows that a lot of what Dr. Zinn wrote was wrong.

Columbus realized that the world was round and set out to see if he could reach India by sailing West instead of by traveling East.  He had to get 3 ships and a crew.  He tried to convince the Portuguese to fund his trip but couldn't get help from them.  After years of effort he managed to convince the King and Queen of Spain to give him 3 ships.  He set sail with three ships the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria.

The trip took a long time and many of Columbus's crew became more and more worried that they'd never reach land.  In fact they threatened mutiny.  Columbus made a deal with them.  He said give me 3 more days and if we don't see land we'll go back.  On the third day they saw land.

Columbus claimed the land of the Arawaks as belonging to Spain and wrote in his ships log that "I could conquer the whole of them with fifty men, and govern them as I pleased."    Although he had no right to do that Columbus didn't want his men to hurt the natives and he wanted his men to treat them fairly.  In his log entry for October 12, 1492 Columbus wrote, "I warned my men to take nothing from the people without giving something in exchange".

Mary Graber tells us that the historians Morison and Commager wrote that: "Columbus expected to obtain the precious metal [gold] by trade, but... the Spaniards began taking it by force...  The Spaniards, who had come for gold and nothing else, resented their governor's orders to build houses, tend crops and cut wood; the wine and food supplies from Spain gave out; and before long bands of men in armor were roving the fertile interior of Hispaniola, living off the country, and torturing the natives to obtain gold."  In the summer of 1494, while Columbus was off "exploring the southern coasts of Cuba and Hispaniola and discovering Jamaica, the colonists got completely out of hand."  When Columbus tried to impose discipline, the "malcontents seized vessels and returned to Spain to complain of him."

Columbus wrote about these monsters in human form that their behavior "has injured me more than my services have profited me" and that "a number of men have gone to the Indies who did not deserve water in the sight of God".

Columbus was a devout Christian and believed that by converting the Arawak's to Christianity he was saving their souls for eternity and giving them a great gift.  He wrote "I want the natives to develop a friendly attitude toward us because I know that they are a people who can be made free and converted to our Holy Faith more by love than by force." 

Howard Zinn leaves out the sentences that showed that Columbus cared about the Arawaks.  Howard Zinn describes the Indians as wonderful peaceful people without telling us about the cannibal Caribs.  The scars Columbus saw on the Arawaks were the result of being attacked by Caribs who would capture people, take them home alive, and eat them. At the end of the first voyage, Columbus made a treaty with one of the Taino chiefs of Hispaniola island, named Guacanagari. Columbus promised the chief that he would protect him from the Caribs when he returned from Spain.   Columbus was commanded by the queen of Spain to punish anyone, including Spaniards, who would mistreat the Tainos.   Howard Zinn doesn't mention any of this, because he wanted us to think that the Europeans were totally evil capitalists who exploited the totally virtuous Native Americans.

One of Columbus's ships the Santa Maria ran aground so Columbus had to leave behind 39 men who couldn't fit on the return voyage.  When he sailed back to the New World again, he found that the men he had left behind had been massacred by the Indians.  Zinn, without evidence, said they were killed because they had enslaved the Indians. 

Bartolome de Las Casas was a priest who wrote a book called History of the Indies which was very critical of the behavior of the Spaniards, praised Columbus.  Bartolome wrote:  "Many is the time I have wished that God would again inspire me and that I had Cicero's gift of eloquence to extol the indescribable service to God and to the whole world which Christopher Columbus rendered at the cost of such pain and dangers, such skill and expertise, when he so courageously discovered the New World..."  In his history book Bartolome blamed not Columbus but "the men who turned Columbus's "divine exploit" into a hellish performance and his own dream of Christianization into a nightmare".  There is no doubt that greedy and brutal people came after Columbus who enslaved the Indians and forced them to find gold.  However Columbus although asking his men to be kind to the natives did send some back to Spain to be slaves of the King and Queen of England. 

Before Columbus could make the trip across the ocean in search of India he had to convince people with money to provide him with ships and supplies and a crew.  He thought that finding a western route to India would enrich Spain and himself and provide Spain with  troops to help them fight the Muslims and another route to attack the Muslims from.  Twelves years before Columbus set sail for India, the Muslim Turks invaded Columbus's native Italy, where, in the city of Otranto, they ritually beheaded 800 Christians. The Moors were Muslims who were occupying Southern Spain at the beginning of the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella.  The Muslims had conquered Jerusalem and Byzantium from the Christians and were blocking the Eastern passage to India.   The Byzantine scholar Bessarion described the Muslim conquest of Constantinople, a city in Byzantium as follows.  It had been “sacked by the most inhuman barbarians and the most savage enemies of the Christian faith, by the fiercest of wild beasts. ..  Men have been butchered like cattle, women abducted, virgins ravished, and children snatched from the arms of their parents.”  Raymond Ibrahim wrote that "Over the following years, Muslims continued making inroads deep into the Balkans, leaving much death and destruction in their wake, with millions of Slavs enslaved. "

Finding enough gold to pay for the weapons to defeat the Muslims and raising an army to defeat them was very important for Christopher Columbus. 

All this comes out clearly in Columbus's own letters.  In one, he refers to Ferdinand and Isabella as "enemies of the wretched sect of Mohammet" who are "resolve[d] to send me to the regions of the Indies, to see [how the people thereof can help in the war effort]."  In another written to the monarchs after he reached the New World, Columbus offers to raise an army "for the war and conquest of Jerusalem."  According to a historian, Louis Bernard, the reason Ferdinand and Isabella funded his voyage was to launch “a final and definite Crusade against Islam by way of the Indies.”

 The following clip was made by people who studied the history of Columbus.  It shows a reenactment of his discovery of the new world.  In the clip we see that Columbus believed that conquering others and converting them to Christianity and making them subjects of the King and Queen of Spain was the right thing to do.


You can learn more about Columbus by watching the entire movie which is available at Amazon.  History and people are complex.  Columbus accomplished a great voyage of discovery, and he was against Spanish brutality toward native Americans, but he also sent slaves to Spain from America.  King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella did not approve of the slaves being brought to Spain and ordered the slave trade of Indians to Spain stopped.

Joaquin Miller was an American poet who wrote a poem in honor of Columbus that helps us understand the greatness of his achievement.

Behind him lay the gray Azores,
Behind the Gates of Hercules;
Before him not the ghost of shores,
Before him only shoreless seas.
The good mate said: "Now we must pray,
For lo! the very stars are gone.
Brave Admiral, speak, what shall I say?"
"Why, say, 'Sail on! sail on! and on!' "
"My men grow mutinous day by day;
My men grow ghastly wan and weak."
The stout mate thought of home; a spray
Of salt wave washed his swarthy cheek.
"What shall I say, brave Admiral, say,
If we sight naught but seas at dawn?"
"Why, you shall say at break of day,
'Sail on! sail on! and on!' "
They sailed and sailed, as winds might blow,
Until at last the blanched mate said:
"Why, now not even God would know
Should I and all my men fall dead.
These very winds forget their way,
For God from these dead seas is gone.
Now speak, brave Admiral, speak and say"
He said, "Sail on! sail on! and on!"
They sailed. They sailed. Then spake the mate:
"This mad sea shows his teeth tonight.
He curls his lip, he lies in wait,
With lifted teeth, as if to bite!
Brave Admiral, say but one good word:
What shall we do when hope is gone?"
The words leapt like a leaping sword:
"Sail on! sail on! sail on! and on!"
Then pale and worn, he kept his deck,
And peered through darkness. Ah, that night
Of all dark nights! And then a speck
A light! a light! at last a light!
It grew, a starlit flag unfurled!
It grew to be Time's burst of dawn.
He gained a world; he gave that world
Its grandest lesson: "On! sail on!"

If you want to learn more about Columbus the video below is worth watching.  In this video Michael Knowles argues that Columbus was a great man.


Click Here to Take Quiz and Earn Points


Columbus wasn't totally evil the way Howard Zinn portrayed him but what about the way he portrays the English?  Didn't they savagely take away North America from the innocent native Americans? 

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