SOLOMON: Columbus Day -- A Clash of Myth and History

Columbus Day is a national holiday. But it's also a good time to confront the mythology about the heroic explorer who "discovered" America.Journalism should provide facts and help us to uncover truths. Yet, when it comes to Christopher Columbus, many reporters and pundits hold on dearly to myths. Meanwhile, historians who deal in documentation are often denigrated as "politically correct" revisionists.Columbus had convinced Spain's king and queen to finance his 1492 westward journey to Asia on the grounds that great riches, especially gold, would be found there. The navigator never made it to Asia. Instead, he reached the Americas: the Bahamas, then Cuba and Haiti.In the revealing log that Columbus kept during his voyage, he described how the friendly Arawak Indians first greeted his ships: "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 out of ignorance... They would make fine servants... With 50 men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want."Columbus embarked on a frenzied hunt for imaginary gold fields, using Indian captives: "As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first island which I found, I took some natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts."In exchange for bringing back riches to Spain's monarchs, Columbus had been promised 10 percent of all profits and governorship of the land he seized.After establishing a fort on Haiti called "Navidad" (Christmas), Columbus returned to Spain -- with many Indian prisoners dying aboard ship -- to give a glowing report to the royalty in Madrid about what he'd found in the New World.Columbus' second expedition was granted 17 ships and 1,200 men in pursuit of gold (which was sparse) and potential slaves (who were plentiful). The result was a holocaust against the native population -- as the Spaniards pillaged the Caribbean, island by island.In 1495, Indians were shipped to Spain as slaves, many dying en route. "Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity," Columbus later wrote, "go on sending all the slaves that can be sold."But far more Indians were enslaved in their homelands to harvest gold from bits of dust found in streams. Columbus' men ordered everyone over age 13 in a province of Haiti to bring in a quota of gold; Indians who failed had their hands cut off and were left to bleed to death.The war against the native population included hangings and burnings. Mass suicides followed. Historians estimate that half of the Indians on Haiti -- as many as 125,000 people -- were dead within a few years. Virtually all were dead within two generations.Today, media voices that boom the loudest in defense of Columbus are often the most ignorant. "I don't give a hoot if he gave some Indians a disease that they didn't have immunity against," Rush Limbaugh has crowed. Limbaugh once asserted that "Columbus saved the Indians from themselves."History tells a different story. The most important document of the era is the multivolume "History of the Indies" by Bartolome de las Casas, a Spanish priest involved in the conquest of Cuba. After owning a plantation with Indian slaves, Las Casas had a change of heart and began recording what he'd witnessed.He described a cooperative Indian society in a bountiful land, a generally peaceful culture that occasionally went to war with other tribes. Yet there'd been no subjugation of the kind brought by Columbus.Writing in the early 1500s, Las Casas detailed how Indian people were basically worked to death -- "depopulated" -- with men in gold mines and women in the fields.Las Casas witnessed Spaniards -- driven by "insatiable greed" -- "killing, terrorizing, afflicting, and torturing the native peoples" with "the strangest and most varied new methods of cruelty." The systematic violence was aimed at preventing "Indians from daring to think of themselves as human beings."The Spaniards "thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades," wrote Las Casas. "My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write."This bloody history might make modern readers tremble -- if they had access to it instead of just mythology.It's true that Columbus was a gifted navigator, personally brave and tenacious. But his enterprise -- as historian Howard Zinn documents in "A People's History of the United States" -- was infused with racism and greed.[This column first appeared in October 1995.]

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