Monday, October 13, 2014

What You Didn't Know About Christopher Columbus

Today is Columbus Day, but one wonders how much actual history Americans know. If it's only what's been fed to them in standard high school textbooks it's probably not much - according to James Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me - Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.  No surprise Loewen commences his historical analysis with the chapter, 1493 - The True Importance of Christopher Columbus.

He begins by reciting a synopsis of the usual pabulum fed to students almost as a formula: Born in Genoa, Italy, of humble parents, grew up to become an experienced seafarer, had already sailed as far as Ireland and Africa which convinced him the world was round but wanted to go further. And there were the fabled riches of the East - spices, silk and gold- which provided a compelling incentive. Oh, and he beseeched Queen Isabella of Spain to underwrite his modest expedition comprised of "three pitifully small ships", the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. The voyage was difficult, and the crew almost mutinied and "without his daring American history would have been very different"....blah, blah, and blah.

As Loewen observes (p. 30):

"Unfortunately, almost everything in the traditional account is either wrong or unverifiable. The authors of history books have taken us on a trip of their own, away from the facts of history and into the realm of myth"

Myth? Well, yes! In many ways analogous to how too many of us in the current history epoch have been force fed the myth of the Warren Commission Report - and only a relatively few have done the research that challenges and exposes it as politically contrived myth.

In the case of Columbus' alleged original voyage, Loewen correctly notes that his "discovery" was not the first but the last, of the Americas. He writes (ibid.):

"It was epoch making because of the way Europe responded. Columbus' importance is therefore primarily attributable to changing conditions in Europe, not to his having reached a 'new' continent."

What exactly were these changing conditions? Some of us have become aware of them by exploring replicas of ancient texts, such as Hartmann Schedel's, Chronicles of the World (1493), also known as the Nuremberg Chronicle. Basically, on distilling the real history one arrives at three major imperatives for Columbus' voyage: 1) Military dominance over rival states  - the development and testing of newer weapons and modes of warfare,  2) Social technology innovations that enabled the mercantile sectors to manage far flung enterprises, and 3) the amassing of resource wealth and the theological or ideological domination of other ("lesser") peoples.

Taking (1) first, Loewen notes:

"Around 1400, European rulers began to commission ever bigger guns and learned to mount them on ships. Europe's incessant wars gave rise to this arms race."

How did Columbus' voyage fit in? The first people he encountered were Arawaks (p. 52) and Columbus attempted to render them servile while grabbing as much of their natural wealth as he could (he used slaves to help amass the resources). This included their women, who after one of Columbus' expeditions (in 1493) saw him offering Arawak females to his lieutenants to rape. Loewen describes this as a "particularly repellant aspect of the slave trade".

Finally, the Arawaks (for whom many relics and implements can still be seen today in the Barbados Museum) could take no more and fought back, but "their sticks and stones were no more effective against the armed and clothed Spanish, than earthlings' rifles were against Martian death rays in 'The War of the Worlds'".

Further (ibid.):

"The attempts at resistance gave Columbus an excuse to make war. On March 24, 1495, he set out to conquer the Arawaks. Bartolome de las Casas described the force used to put down the Arawaks: 'Since the admiral perceived that daily the people were taking up arms, ridiculous weapons in reality...he hastened to proceed to the country and disperse and subdue, by force of arms, the people of the entire island.  For this he chose 200 foot soldiers and 20 cavalry with many crossbows, and small cannon, lances and swords. And an additional terrible weapon.....20 hunting dogs, who were turned loose and immediately tore the Indians apart."

The bloody, murderous rampage set the stage - the template if you will - for other European conquests of other lands, the seizure of their resources and the slaughter of their peoples.  This included the American seizure of native Americans' lands and their subjugation via the Indian wars of the late 1800s.

Motive (3) almost invariably entered because before the native peoples were subjugated they were forced to convert to whatever the European doctrine or religion was - thus Catholicism and imperialism in the case of the Arawaks and Indians of South America (by the Spanish) and Protestantism in the case of the Hawaiians by the Americans.

Meanwhile, the mercantile motive (3) was ramped up especially after Columbus and his expeditions began hauling back all the loot they'd seized. So no surprise one beheld the rise of bureaucracy, double entry bookkeeping and mechanical printing. In respect to the first, Loewen points out P. 33):

"Bureaucracy, which today has negative connotations, was actually a practical innovation that allowed rulers and merchants to manage far flung enterprises efficiently. So did double entry bookkeeping, based on the decimal system, which Europeans picked up from Arab traders."

These mercantile developments allowed the conquering European nations to keep track of their amassed stolen wealth, how large percentages could be used to refine and improve their armaments and enable attacks on other empires (e.g. the Dutch, Spanish, English were at each other's throats for many decades and a number of Caribbean islands still bear the marks  and residual implements of their battles - including Barbados. There, massive cannon mounted onto parapets on the west coast near St. James continue pointing to the open sea - awaiting the next attack from the Spanish or Dutch - which will never arrive)

What have American history textbooks to say concerning all the above? Not much! Loewen at the time of his writing,  examined twelve textbooks (e.g. American Adventures, The American Way, The American Pageant) and found a composite story that pretty well resembles a repetitive kind of programming (many use the same phrases over and over) - singing all the positive notes and none of the negative.  As he writes:

"Overall, the level of scholarship is discouragingly low, perhaps because their authors are more at home with American history than European history. They provide no real causal explanations for the age of European conquest. Instead they argue for Europe's greatness in transparently psychological terms - 'people grew more curious'. such arguments make sociologist smile: we know that no one measured the curiosity level in Spain in 1492 or can with authority compare it to the curiosity level of Norway in 1005."

Worse are the omissions, such as the development of arms and military technology leading to exploration and further domination of less advanced native peoples. Or, how the exploitation of resources and the accompaniment of diseases (such as smallpox)  helped the Europeans "conquer the Americas and later the islands of the Pacific". Indeed, Loewen, in his excavation of truths-facts in the 12 books could only come up with one text with a single paragraph on the latter factors:

"Except for one paragraph in The American Pageant, not one of the 12 textbooks mentions either of these factors as contributing to world dominance."

Sadly, most Americans today who acknowledge Columbus Day, and especially students - will be unaware of any of the history left on the cutting room floor by textbook authors determined to paint a PR-propaganda view. Which is sad, because this strategy only contributes to the disdain for history shared by so many.

Those who wish to learn of many other textbook  historical travesties, and especially omissions, need to read Loewen's book and realize how little they really know!

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