Author’s Note: In the year 1992, the celebration of Columbus Day was different from previous ones in two ways. First, this was the quincentennial, 500 years after Columbus’ landing in this hemisphere. Second, it was a celebration challenged all over the country by people—many of them native Americans but also others—who had “discovered” a Columbus not worth celebrating, and who were rethinking the traditional glorification of “Western civilization.” I gave this talk at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in October 1991. It was published the following year by the Open Magazine Pamphlet Series with the title “Christopher Columbus & the Myth of Human Progress.”
George Orwell, who was a very wise man, wrote: “Who controls the past controls the future. And who controls the present controls the past.” In other words, those who dominate our society are in a position to write our histories. And if they can do that, they can decide our futures. That is why the telling of the Columbus story is important.
Let me make a confession. I knew very little about Columbus until about twelve years ago, when I began writing my book A People’s History of the United States. I had a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University—that is, I had the proper training of a historian, and what I knew about Columbus was pretty much what I had learned in elementary school.
But when I began to write my People’s History, I decided I must learn about Columbus. I had already concluded that I did not want to write just another overview of American history—I knew my point of view would be different. I was going to write about the United States from the point of view of those people who had been largely neglected in the history books: the indigenous Americans, the black slaves, the women, the working people, whether native or immigrant.
I wanted to tell the story of the nation’s industrial progress from the standpoint, not of Rockefeller and Carnegie and Vanderbilt, but of the people who worked in their mines, their oil fields, who lost their limbs or their lives building the railroads.
I wanted to tell the story of wars, not from the standpoint of generals and presidents, not from the standpoint of those military heroes whose statues you see all over this country, but through the eyes of the G.I.s, or through the eyes of “the enemy.” Yes, why not look at the Mexican War, that great military triumph of the United States, from the viewpoint of the Mexicans?
And so, how must I tell the story of Columbus? I concluded, I must see him through the eyes of the people who were here when he arrived, the people he called “Indians” because he thought he was in Asia.
Well, they left no memoirs, no histories. Their culture was an oral culture, not a written one. Besides, they had been wiped out in a few decades after Columbus’ arrival. So I was compelled to turn to the next best thing: the Spaniards who were on the scene at the time. First, Columbus himself. He had kept a journal.
His journal was revealing. He described the people who greeted him when he landed in the Bahamas—they were Arawak Indians, sometimes called Tainos—and told how they waded out into the sea to greet him and his men, who must have looked and sounded like people from another world, and brought them gifts of various kinds. He described them as peaceable, gentle, and said: “They do not bear arms, and do not know them for I showed them a sword—they took it by the edge and cut themselves.”