Sethu Das | May 2010
Children of Christopher Columbus
The ultimate aim of most expeditions and occupations remains the same — destroy other people and replace their indigenous culture with a stock market culture. The 1492 voyage of Christopher Columbus in search of slaves and gold, and the subsequent genocide of Native Americans, is now being continued in Third World countries. Christopher Columbus may be dead, but his children are alive and need to be thrown out from Asia's soil, says Sethu Das.
WHEN I failed to get a copy of 'A People's History of The United States — 1492-Present' in India, I asked a good North American friend of mine if he could buy me one from the United States. He happily agreed and bought the book for me. Surprisingly he did not hand it over to me for several weeks. When I enquired about the delay, he apologised and informed: "During my long flight to India I decided to have a look at the book you wanted me to purchase. I read several chapters and I was ashamed of the history of my own country. I even feared that you would stop talking to me after reading this book on our history."
'A People's History of The United States — 1492-Present' is written by Prof Howard Zinn, a legendary historian and author who passed away in January this year. Some of his books include 'Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal', 'The Future of History' and 'You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train.'
Like citizens of any other country, a good majority of Americans are ignorant about their own history — not because there is a lack of information, but because the citizens are taught to look at their history through the eyes of their rulers and conquerors. Not through the eyes of ordinary people consisting mainly of factory workers or poor immigrant labourers. What makes 'A People's History of The United States' a great contribution to history writing and documentation is the fact that this book is written by someone who is not only a historian, but also an activist keeping the ordinary people's voice in mind. The book is considered an excellent scholarly research with careful analysis of the history of the United States.
Whenever I discuss the book 'A People's History of The United States' with others, there is one particular chapter that unfailingly gets everyone talking and emotional — 'Columbus, The Indians, And Human Progress'. Anyone who reads this chapter invariably takes several hours, even several days to complete the rest of the chapters — repeatedly reading the first chapter and eventually trying hard to ignore the atrocities committed by the white man on the Native Americans. It's the only way to complete the rest of the book. This book helps one to understand the real history of the United States, and the four pillars on which the nation is founded — betrayal, slavery, genocide and occupation.
Americans love heroes. Heroic Icons from war fields and Hollywood influence and drive the population. Christopher Columbus is a hero for the white population. October 12 is celebrated as Columbus Day by Americans and by the Church, by saluting the inhuman deeds of the legendary Spanish explorer who acted on the orders of the Spanish King and Queen.
Columbus, a skilful explorer, set out seeking slaves and gold that would build a future empire. He reached 'Indies' by miscalculating the size of the globe. He wrote: "As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn our language and be able to give me information of whatever there is in these parts." Zinn continues, "Because of Columbus's exaggerated report and promises, his second expedition was granted seventeen ships and more than twelve hundred men. The sole purpose of their historic 'expeditions' was clear — slaves and gold. They went from island to island in the Caribbean, taking Indians as captives. On Haiti, they found that the sailors left behind at Fort Navidad had been killed in a battle with the Indians, after they had roamed the island in gangs looking for gold, taking women and children as slaves for sex and labour."
Tribute to a Genocide: Official postal stamps issued by the US Government to commemorate the first voyage of Christopher Columbus — 1) Seeking Queen Isabella's support; 2) Crossing the Atlantic; 3) Approaching the land; and 4) Coming ashore.
This was the beginning of a genocide that killed millions of Native Americans in 1492. It was an easy task for Columbus and his crew of crusaders to destroy a population that had only cane spears in one hand and parrots in the other. Columbus introduced iron swords in the land. In the 'History of the Indies,' Bartomome de las Casas, a young priest who participated in conquering Cuba and later turned into a critic of Spanish cruelty wrote: "The Spaniards thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and then cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades. Two of these so-called Christians met two Indian boys one day, each carrying a parrot; they took the parrots and for fun beheaded the boys." That was the level of cruelty they practiced on innocent people. "Trying to put together an army of resistance, the Arawaks faced Spaniards who had armor, muskets, swords, horses," Zinn writes: "When the Spaniards took prisoners they hanged them or burned them to death. Among the Arawaks, mass suicides began, with cassava poison. Infants were killed to save them from the Spaniards. In two years, through murder, mutilation or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead." These are places where you will not find a single person of origin or their descendents, as the entire population was wiped off by the legendary explorers of the past.
Around the same time another 'explorer' named Vasco de Gama set out on an expedition from Portugal, this time to real India — acting under the orders of the King of Portugal. He landed in Calicut on the Kerala coast on May 20, 1498. He made several voyages to India until his death in 1524 at Cochin on the Christmas eve. Unlike Columbus, Vasco de Gama was in no hurry to discover continents, but establish a sea route to India in order to develop trade and business. Though these were the primary aims, the Portuguese soon got into the poltical games and began expanding their empire by defeating some of the rulers in Southern India.
Throughout our history Vasco de Gama was hailed as an explorer and an expert navigator, but in reality he was just a pirate. Establishing the Pope's dominance and spreading Catholicism in this part of the globe were the real motives of his expedition. It is said that until his arrival, the coasts of South India had never seen the spilling of ordinary people's blood. The 1967 edition of 'A Survey of Kerala History' by A Sreedharamenon states that Gama, who returned to Lisbon in 1499 from Cannanore, received a hero's welcome for his successful exploits in India. The wealth he brought back to Portugal was worth sixty times the amount that was spent on his year long expedition!
Confused about two versions of the same history? Here's a test for you. Go to the nearest or the best bookshop in your town and see if you can get hold of a single book on the present conflict and occupation of Iraq by the US and its allies. You will not find a single book on the military occupation we watched live on our television screens almost every day. You will also not find a single book on the execution of Saddam Hussein, former President of Iraq, again something all of us watched live on TV. Because, according to Zinn, the history of these nations are usually written by those "who are trained in a society in which education and knowledge are put forward as technical problems of excellence and not as tools for contending social classes, races and nations."
1) A painting of Vasco de Gama, the Portuguese Navigator who arrived in Cochin in 1502 AD. 2) Built in 1500 AD, the St Francis Church at Fort Cochin is one of the oldest churches in India. Vasco de Gama who died on the Christmas eve in 1524 AD was buried at this church facing West. Gama's remains were transferred to Lisbon, Portugal in 1538 AD. These photos were taken on May 20, 2010 — 512th Anniversary of Vasco de Gama's landing on Indian soil. (Photos: Sethu Das)
Even as you read this, the military occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, begun in 2003, and the murder of ordinary civilians by the US and its allies, continues. The Iraq Body Count, an organisation that maintains a database of civilian deaths in Iraq has documented 105,111 deaths from the beginning of the American invasion of 2003 to May 6, 2010.
The ultimate aim of most expeditions and occupations remains the same — destroy other people and replace their indigenous culture with a stock market culture. The 1492 voyage of Christopher Columbus in search of slaves and gold and the subsequent genocide of Native Americans are now being continued in third world countries like Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Columbus may be dead, but his children are alive and need to be thrown out from Asia's soil.
Now the question is what can people like you and I do about the on-going atrocities and war crimes — very little! We may not be able to stop the semi-literate US and British soldiers from dropping missiles on civilians from the clear blue sky. We may not be able to travel all the way to Saddam's Iraq to be a human shield. The only thing we could do is to take a decision not to extend our support the American wars on third world countries. We could always decide not to collaborate with the war industry the developed nations run. It is only our 'No' that is going to decide the wars of the future.
Probably one of the most creative protests I have seen during the height of the Iraq War comes from a small restaurant owner in one of the southern states in India. He simply kept a blackboard at the restaurant entrance with a list of nations participating in the war which said: "We do not serve food to citizens from the mentioned countries."
Design in Action: People participate in the mass signature campaign organised by Design & People on March 20, 2004 — International Protest Day. The ten-meter clothe containing thousands of signatures was sent to David Mulford, the US Ambassador to India demanding an end to the military occupation of Iraq by the US and its allies. (Photo: Niranjan Das Sharma)