Columbus Was Not A Nice Guy
In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue….
If you grew up anywhere in the US in the last hundred years, chances are good that you learned this little jingle, and can probably call up a few other words associated with Christopher Columbus. Explorer. Voyage. New World. The Niña, the Pinta, the Santa Maria. The narrative usually runs something like “Christopher Columbus, the brave explorer, set out against popular opinion to do what no man had done before – discover a water route to the Far East (the “Indies”) by going West around the globe.” Sometimes we throw in a bit about people believing that the earth was flat (wrong – Europeans knew the earth was spherical since at least the 7th century), and we have a little chuckle at the fact that Columbus thought he’d landed in the Indies, which was why he called the natives “Indians,” a misnomer that continues to this day. Mostly, Columbus is revered for persevering against many obstacles to follow his dreams. His mythology is the American way.
Except that it’s exactly that. Mythology. Here’s what’s true: He came from modest, though not impoverished background. He was a genius sailor – it seems no one disputes his navigational abilities. He did indeed make the first lasting, meaningful exchange with the peoples of the Americas. (Not the first – the Vikings and many Africans had already “discovered” the continents in our hemisphere – but surely the first encounter with vast consequences for us). And because of this, he became great in his lifetime. His expedition certainly required much perseverance and courage.
Here are some things that are also true: Columbus was looking to get rich and join the Spanish royalty, and maybe gain some glory for defeating heathens and spreading Catholicism (his sailing was concurrent with the Spanish Inquisition). You may or may not see this as a fault, but his motives are pretty clear from his own journals. “Discovery and exploration” were certainly in there, but they were hardly the main motivators for his journey. (It was not “to go where no man has gone before” so much as “to go quickly where others have toiled slowly, the better to get rich and famous.”) Also, his very first inclination upon meeting the Taino natives of Hispaniola was to assess their usefulness as slaves. For which purpose he imprisoned a couple hundred and shipped them back to Europe. Of those that remained, he insisted that they bring him gold, because he thought he’d landed in China, which was known in Europe to possess much gold. When they explained that they didn’t have any, he believed they were holding out on him, and he cut off the hands of anyone who couldn’t pay their quarterly tribute in shiny metal. Columbus’s belief that there was gold did not make the existence of gold any more of a reality, and so the Taino were forced into tortured labor and treated most cruelly.
If this is your first time hearing of this, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news. I was shocked and appalled when someone first told me, and I thought maybe he was exaggerating or getting his history from somewhere unreliable. Sadly, no. Though one of the links above is from Wikipedia, the scholarship is fairly clear on a lot of the basic facts, even if the interpretations are sometimes in conflict. So why are we still teaching Columbus Day with no nod to the truth, or AT LEAST with the acknowledgement that there might be controversy? That if you’re of Taino heritage, the story of Columbus might not be one of glory and riches?
So What To Do?
How to approach these atrocities in the classroom? Especially since Columbus Day is covered very early in elementary school? One way is to turn Columbus Day into Indigenous Peoples’ Day. To be sure, we can still teach about Columbus – his contributions to modern history are huge, if mixed. But we try to spend (at least) equal time learning about the people who were already living here when he arrived.
The best way to learn about indigenous peoples is from the people themselves. To that end, you can find out which of the First Nations were/are local to you by checking this very excellent map.
Then, head over to Buffy Sainte-Marie’s very excellent, very thorough online index of websites by, for, and about American Indians, here.
Actually, check out the rest of Ms. Sainte-Marie’s website also, cradleboard.org – she has developed some excellent curriculum, some of it free, some of it offered to subscribers.
Of course, with Columbus Day right around the corner, if this is your first venture into content outside the “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” variety, you won’t have much time for detailed research. A nice gentle place to start might be Emma Carlson Berne’s book Did Christopher Columbus Really Discover America? This is the first picture book I’ve seen that spends quite a bit of time on the lives of the Taino as well as that of Columbus, thus establishing that there were real people with a real culture who were impacted by Columbus’s arrival. And while it does acknowledge his atrocities in the last portion, it spends a bulk of space discussing his childhood and journey to the Americas, so is still friendly for young ears. If you have really little ones, you could spend some time learning about both parties involved in the meeting of the worlds, and maybe leave the gory bits for older grades.
UPDATE: I’ve been informed on my facebook page that Jane Yolen wrote a wonderful picture book on the subject called Encounter, from the perspective of a young Taino. I haven’t read it yet, but maybe for next year…..
To add some arts integration:
- Have students build dioramas (who doesn’t love a diorama?) of both Taino (they did NOT live in tipis, despite the illustrations in the book – look here and here) and Italian dwellings of the time (the book provides a little detail to how Columbus probably grew up). For added critical thinking, have children build a diorama of their own neighborhood, and do some compare/contrast activities.
- Have the children act out what they think an encounter between these two peoples might have looked like, or should have looked like.
- If acting seems too daunting, have them write letters as a person in the encounter. Note that there are no written records of what the Tainos thought of the Spaniards, only what the Spaniards thought of the Tainos. Ask the students to immerse themselves in the scenario by including setting details, and telling what their day was like before it was interrupted with this momentous encounter. If Taino, was he looking forward to a ball game? If a sailor, was he tired and thirsty from the long voyage?
- Discuss the traditional song “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” and have students re-write the lyrics to offer a more balanced retelling. A good model is this one by Nancy Schimmel.
If you want other, more detailed sources of information, either to use in class or for your own research, try:
This well-organized Library of Congress online exhibit: http://www.ibiblio.org/expo/1492.exhibit/Intro.html
The Smithosonian’s National Museum of the American Indian http://www.nmai.si.edu/ (if you teach in NYC, you can visit the museum in person down by the South Street Seaport, they have great programs for classroom field trips).
The book Rethinking Columbus, which has resources, lesson plans, and essays from Native Americans grappling with these issues today. This book was crucial to my own development in this area.
For information on how Taino heritage has been passed on, even though there are no more “pure” Taino people left today, check out this Smithsonian article.
Other great sources that specifically address teaching this subject:
This educationworld article.
This article from socialstudies.org about critical thinking in young students.
This complete packet put together by the Colorado Indian Education Association for the 1992 Columbian Quincentenary.
So where are you with the whole Columbus Day thing? How do you handle it in your classroom? What have I missed?