Teaching Columbus

by Robert Pondiscio
October 11th, 2010

Brave explorer or genocidal maniac?  Will the real Christopher Columbus stand up?  And what should we tell our students about the man and his legacy?

Columbus Day is a “ complex and conflicting event” for Mr. D, a New York City social studies teacher.   The explorer was the only Italian he saw in most social studies textbooks growing up.   Compared to pop culture icons like Don Corleone and Tony Soprano, Columbus “was proof that Italians need not be criminals to succeed on this continent. Yet the decades of historical revision about him cannot be ignored,” he writes.

“In academia, Columbus-bashing is a cottage industry: you’re not even considered a credible historian if you don’t rough up old Chris at least a little bit.   Like an incoming tide, the knocking of Columbus involved numerous waves and relentless advances….Even the stone-cold fact of Columbus’ first voyage has been downgraded from a “discovery” to an “encounter”, as if Chris and the Taino were matched up on eHarmony using their ridiculously long questionnaire.   

So, Mr. D asks: Is there enough good to salvage Columbus’ holiday from total irrelevance?

Whether you admire or abhor the man, this much is true: Columbus’ first voyage was a world-changing event.  A barrier that seemed impossible was now breached; in fact multiple times, by Columbus himself.  Two worlds once isolated now formed a new and transformative connection, for good or ill.  The development of two continents, and subsequently the world at large, could have taken a far different course had the voyage not succeeded.

Teachers should make sure Columbus gets his day in the sun—warts and all, Mr D concludes.  “Please, no more crappy wall decorations with three pathetic sailboats and what looks like Buster Brown in a funny robe saying hi to what appears to be Sitting Bull and the Hekawi tribe from F Troop,” he writes.Give your students the real deal about the voyage, the dangers, and the historical significance of reaching the Americas.”


  1. What about with the really little kids?

    Comment by MG — October 11, 2010 @ 12:35 pm

  2. If you look at “What Your First Grader Needs to Know” (Core Knowledge series), it’s pretty subtle. First, kids learn about the existing North American civilizations, including the Maya, Aztec and Inca. Columbus’ voyage is a “bold and daring” trip; but it also decribes how “it was a new world for Columbus and other Europeans.” However for “many other American peoples, it was home!” It also details how Columbus “wasn’t interested in finding any new continents” but was more concerned with spreading Christianty “and even more, they wanted to find valuable stuff like gold and spices.”

    The text continues:

    “When Columbus landed on the island he put up a Spanish flag and claimed the land for Spain….Did the land belong to Spain? No. The Taino people already lived there. And not too far away in parts of Central America and South America, there were already great civilizations (although Columbus never saw them), such as those of the Aztec and Inca peoples.

    “But Europeans like Columbus didn’t think much about the people already living in the lands they found. Back then the Europeans thought that everything was “finders keepers.” When Columbus arrived in the New World, he thought, “I’ve found it. I am sailing for the King and Queen of Spain. So I claim this land for Spain.” Do you think the Native Americans would have agreed with this? Why not?”

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — October 11, 2010 @ 1:03 pm

  3. An interesting thought experiment to use with older students: having stumbled across the Western Hemisphere, what should the European explorers and their respective governments have done? should they have stayed? if so, how should their behavior have been different? should they have declined to create settlements? what was it practical for them to do? how could they all have been brought into agreement? was there a way for the opinions and needs of the existing inhabitants to be respected, short of the European nations deciding to go home and make no attempt to settle in the New World? how were the actions taken by the settlers different from the ways in which the various indigenous tribes treated each other? how were they the same? In short, given that contact was made, what was possible? were any of the possibilities fair to the original inhabitants?

    Comment by pinetree — October 11, 2010 @ 1:57 pm

  4. [...] Teaching Columbus « The Core Knowledge Blog. [...]

    Pingback by Teaching Columbus « The Core Knowledge Blog « Parents 4 democratic Schools — October 11, 2010 @ 5:47 pm

  5. Anthony, I respectively disagree. Columbus has been mistakenly denegrated due to the unforseeable consequences of his actions. He did not set out to “conquer” native peoples. He did not set out to subjugate an entire hemisphere. What he did do was look for alternative trade routes to the Far East that had been shut off due to the fall of the Byzantine Empire and the subsequent cut-off of trade routes by the Ottoman Empire. That his vision had long lasting consequences is undeniable.

    That he had the courage and persistence to try something new (go west around the globe to Asia in an attempt to better Portugal) should be embraced. His innovation should be celebrated by all. That his innovation was detrimental to native populations was not Columbus’ fault but a circumstance of history (better technology has always trumpted native populations: Guns, Germs and Steel did a fabulous exposition on this) that has played time after time and not specific to his particular actions.

    There has never been, in history, an innovation (that ultimately benefited the majority of mankind) that has not resulted in the detriment of some population of mankind. Does this mean that all innovation should be suppressed due to the challenges that innovation provides?

    Columbus should be hailed as an example of innovation. As an example of the best of mankind. And as an example of how dreams and aspirations can be realized. And how one man’s vision can ultimately matter in the course of human events.

    You are too kind to the Columbus demonizers. None of us represent a “perfect” human, without fault or guilt. To hold Columbus to this mistaken premise is to deny the best of humanity and to deny the progress that our predacessors have sacrificed so much for so that we could live in a better place than they did.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — October 12, 2010 @ 1:32 am

  6. Erin,

    I think It’s my turn to have to “respectfully disagree” on this and ask you to do a broader review of history before making these statements. We all know that Columbus did not actually land in America and was NOT by a long shot the first person to reach the US.

    But beyond that, to say that he and his men “accidentally” slaughtered Taino men, women, and children is insulting! One does not need “Columbus demonizers”. If you look at primary sources alone you see accounts of Columbus and his men engaging in slavery, slaughter, torture, rape, forced prostitution, etc all written by witnesses!

    To hear someone suggest that destroying an entire people so that the “innovation” of Western culture could dominate the world is like breaking a few eggs to make an omelet, is heartbreaking. It is also making the assumption that a world based on Western culture and dominance is the best and perhaps inevitable path the world could take. Try to imagine if tomorrow another country like China were to take over America, destroy everything we hold dear, slaughter, rape, and enslave our citizens and then write in their history books that this was all justified because China’s culture is so superior anyway. How would you feel about that? Would you celebrate the day China “discovered” the United States or complain about China-demonizers?

    I do agree with you that “Columbus’s vision had long lasting consequences” and because of that he should *certainly* be studied as a pivotal figure in history, but not celebrated. One can convincingly argue that “Columbus’s vision” was the basis for the chattel slavery that followed for hundreds of years and I for one could have done without that “advancement”. I mean, really, imagine how different the world would be if we hadn’t endured that cancer on human history.

    I think Italians and Italian-Americans have made amazing contributions to America and the world and deserve to be far more recognized than they are. But Christopher Columbus is the wrong person to pin that pride on. We *should* celebrate nobel physicist, Emilo Segre, inventor Giuseppe Mario Bellanca, or Ella Grasso one of the first female Governors…but not Columbus.

    I ask you in the interest of genuine exchange to read the Columbus chapter on “Lies My Teacher Told Me” by Howard Zinn and/or look at the historical documents discussed in the 500 Nation’s Documentary series on this (two links to excerpts on Youtube below) or the PBS documentary “We Still Remain”and tell me honestly if your feelings about this don’t change. If they don’t, I would love to hear how you can justify Columbus’s actions, because it would help me get perspective on something I can’t understand. But if they do, please help get this information out to others.

    500 Nations-Clash of Cultures, Part 1

    500 Nations-Clash of Cultures, Part 2

    Thank you!

    Comment by Concerned Educator — October 12, 2010 @ 12:08 pm

  7. And neither Erin, Anthony, nor Concerned has addressed my query: how can we throw light on what happened during and after contact, by imagining different scenarios that might have played out?

    Comment by pinetree — October 12, 2010 @ 6:28 pm

  8. Anthony, Complexity of historical interpretation is highly dependant upon the age of the student. CK has done an excellent job of gradually introducing increasingly complex ideas in history. And as students mature into high school, I would hope that the complexity of Columbus, the complexity of Native American populations and the dynamics of their interactions be studied with great enthusiasm.

    But for a 1st grader being introduced to the subject, focusing the discussion on the negative side of Columbus is detrimental to the essential message that the discovery of the New World by Columbus for Spain represented a profound historical turning point.

    And what would be the problem with starting the historical discussion by learning how challenging an ocean voyage was in the year 1492, and how difficult it had been for Columbus to convice Spain to fund his journey? Why is that we can not celebrate his accomplishments while still acknowledging that he had his faults?

    In addition to omitting the gory details of the treatment of native populations by colonizing Europeans (of which Columbus was but one of many), I would also hope that in those early grades the more torrid descriptions of Native Americans culture (human sacrifice) would also not be discussed because these are concepts that are not easily understood by young children immersed in 21st century American culture. The context of these very different cultures (15th century European and Native American) can be quite difficult to grasp and these negative, gritty value judgments should perhaps be saved for a time when students have enough context and maturity to put those details into an accurate historical perspective.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — October 12, 2010 @ 9:51 pm

  9. Valerie Strauss has a very good summary on things one should know about Columbus. The comments under there are interesting as well…


    Comment by andrei radulescu-banu — October 13, 2010 @ 12:21 am

  10. My apologies to James Loewen, who wrote Lies My Teacher Told Me, I did mis-speak on that point.

    I love the complexities of history and have no problem teaching them. That’s why I think the story of Columbus should be widely known and studied.

    Pinetree, I think your proposal of having students imagine other scenarios is a great one and I love the questions you came up with! You could even research some of the other ppl to land in the America’s before Columbus and draw comparisons of how those interactions went and why. As long as you ask students to justify their “conjecture” with actual evidence I don’t think that’s a no-no at all and actually makes history a lot more vivid and interesting for young people. In fact much of our what we know about history is based on educated people’s educated guesses of what happened based on the evidence they found. Just make sure to include the conversation about values of the day–and make them show evidence of those values (letters, publications, other laws of that time etc.) Also note, however, that even for the time Columbus’s tactics were considered harsh and were later used as examples of Spanish cruelty in propaganda against them.

    So, *study* Columbus, yes. Talk about the difficulty of seatravel and the European politics of geography and trade, sure. But I don’t think it’s appropriate to *celebrate* him and hold him up as a hero for helping destroy a population.

    There are plenty of people in the world who have been bold and innovative but who we don’t celebrate because the destructive ends they put those talents to far outway their merits. Hitler, for instance, was a great orator and a captivating leader. Many of his military officials were pioneers in terms of military strategy. Nazi scientists conducted “daring” new experiments. But most people understand that it would be offensive to have a day celebrating any of these people because the aims of their actions were so horrific. (And please don’t get stuck on the Nazism part,I use it not to be cliche, but because its one of the few historical events where there seems to be consensus that it was wrong. Obviously there are huge and important distinctions between Columbus and Hitler, but they did both preside over the murder, rape, and enslavement of people based on race/culture/religion). And I do hope Anthony is using the term “harsh governor” loosely since I’m fairly sure the Taino did not agree to be “governed”.

    This is not simply a technicality. Take even the simplest myth about Columbus that he “discovered” America. It makes it sound like no one else in the world knew the Americas existed and suggests that those who had a functioning society in this continent at that time (or who landed on the continent earlier) somehow didn’t count as part of human history. If we’re going for accuracy and complexity, why not claim that Columbus was one of the main people to introduce much of the Western European world to the Americas?

    This story actually shapes the world view we are subtly or not so subtly giving our nation’s children so its important that we be thoughtful about it. It suggests who counts and who doesn’t, what progress looks like, and who’s country this really is. That’s why I would argue that we shouldn’t wait until high-school to start introducing accuracy. We don’t have to describe torture and slavery in detail but younger students can understand simple concept like: “They hurt the Taino very badly and some of them even died. They took things that weren’t theirs. They made them work for no money.” Check out this link for a lesson for k-3rd graders that introduces different sides while remaining age appropriate.


    Also, I agree that the depiction I gave in my last entry was not true of every interaction between Native peoples and European colonizers, both people’s history are varied and diverse. But I never claimed that my depiction was about everyone. I was speaking specifically about Columbus, since that’s specifically who this holiday is holding up to celebrate. If we were celebrating one of the Europeans who came to “The New World” and worked collaboratively with people there I wouldn’t have a problem with it. So the question is do you beleive that what I described was an accurate picture of what happened between Columbus and the people he encountered? And if so, is that the kind of person you want our children to be celebrating and emulating?

    And to Anthony again, if Zinn and Loewen have “extreme liberal stances” and documentaries by award winning writers and directors featuring historians and professor from around the country don’t count as reliable sources, please tell me who you suggest I cite since I didn’t actually see *any* references in your posting. I would love to hear an enumeration of the visionary leadership and innovation Columbus showed that was so great it justified the destruction and enslavement of a population. If you’re willing to consider what I’m putting out, I would be happy to check out your sources and decide where I stand as a result.

    All this said, I genuinely appreciate all those engaging with me even (or especially) when we disagree. I think if more of us had these conversations, there would be more truth in history and not less. Sorry for the “longwindedness”, but I guess that’s what happens when we get into complexity :)

    Comment by Concerned Educator — October 13, 2010 @ 9:54 am

  11. Oh, and last note to Anthony. Where, might I ask, do you live? Because where I am, I have *never* seen educators mentioning the darker side of Columbus and you wrote that that’s all you ever see. All of the schools I have been in (including my own as a child) have taught what is in %100 of the history textbooks I’ve seen: that Columbus was a hero and a patriot. This week I instructed some children in an after-school program I work with to ask their teachers who Columbus was and what he did. To a one they all came back with descriptions of him being an explorer who “discovered America”. So, I’m wondering if there is possibly a sharp geographical difference in terms of how this is being treated in schools.

    Comment by Concerned Educator — October 13, 2010 @ 10:04 am

  12. Anthony, your points are well taken. I should have been more careful to explain that the point of my thought experiment was not to import/impose our moral values on 15th Century Italians and Spaniards. Actually, the point would more be to help students realize that once contact was made, powerful forces were unleashed that were not under any one person’s or nation’s control. And that this would be a good way to introduce discussion of those forces. Although I agree that history should not focus on exploring things that did not happen, it is not a crime against the discipline to occasionally entertain alternative scenarios.

    Comment by pinetree — October 13, 2010 @ 10:51 am

  13. Concerned Educator, The lesson that you linked above is a horrific example of the misuse of historical anecdotes to exploit young children’s inexperience and lack of contextual knowledge. Any teacher who uses these techniques (by having such young children imagine being a victim to a random raid by an unknown aggressor) should be ashamed of himself/herself.

    From the lesson of the Untold Story: “My people ran for their lives. Those who were caught were hung or burned to death. Many others killed themselves.” How is suicide and torture an appropriate topic for Kindergarteners?

    There was nothing in that lesson about Columbus. Why he sailed west. Why he thought that he had landed in the Indies or any other topic that is relevant towards the historical events that were precipitated by the Columbus voyage.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — October 13, 2010 @ 12:28 pm

  14. In direct contrast to the imaginary first encounter between the Taino and Columbus as depicted in the lesson that Concerned Educator cited, perhaps a primary source may be enlightening.

    From Columbus’ letter to the King and Queen of Spain”

    “…As soon as I reached that sea, I seized by force several Indians on the first island, in order that they might learn from us, and in like manner tell us about those things in these lands of which they themselves had knowledge; and the plan succeeded, for in a short time we understood them and they us, sometimes by gestures and signs, sometimes by words; and it was a great advantage to us. They are coming with me now, yet always believing that I descended from heaven, although they have been living with us for a long time, and are living with us to-day. And these men were the first who announced it wherever we landed, continually proclaiming to the others in a loud voice, “Come, come, and you will see the celestial people.” Whereupon both women and men, both young men and old men, laying aside the fear caused a little before, visited us eagerly, filling the road with a great crowd, some bringing food, and some drink, with great love and extraordinary goodwill. …And so I did not see any monstrosity, nor did I have knowledge of them any where, excepting a certain island named Charis, which is the second in passing from Hispana to India. This island is inhabited by a certain people who are considered very warlike by their neighbors. These eat human flesh. The said people have many kinds of row-boats, in which they cross over to all the other Indian islands, and seize and carry away everything that they can.”

    Comment by Erin Johnson — October 13, 2010 @ 3:11 pm

  15. There’s a false premise at the root of this discussion.

    “The explorer was the only Italian he saw in most social studies textbooks growing up.”

    That’s almost impossible to believe. What about Leonardo Da Vinci? Michaelangelo? What about all those popes?

    Or, what about Romulus and Remus? All those Roman figures?

    This CANNOT be about the dearth of Italiens in Social Studies text books, because if anything they are OVER represented. Nor can this be about Italian-Americans because Columbis was NOT Italien-American.

    So, if we acknowledge that there is no such need to play up Columbus himself — either as an Italien or as an Italian-American — then what are we left with? A large group of players who did far worse things than Columbus himself. Yes, he played a key role, but he was just one of many major players. It doesn’t need to be about that man, or any particular man. It should be about the events, the causes, the ramifications, what they reveal about how Europeans viewed the world and a million much more interesting, important and valuable lessons than stuff about this one man — or nearly any one man.

    Comment by ceolaf — October 13, 2010 @ 3:33 pm

  16. It has been said by Voltaire that “history is nothing but a pack of tricks that we play upon the dead.” Others have added – on the living, too!

    But it does not have to be this way, if criticism of a historic character is made in terms that could have been understood by that person, within their cultural frame. That requires understanding the epoch, the opinion currents, and the cultural debates of the time. In the case of Cristobal Colon and his immediate successors, this means separating the intentions of the explorers, the conquistadors, the colonists, and the Franciscan and Dominican friars tagging along with them – taking note of the debates and the disagreements between them.

    We should not overlook that some preachers specifically went to the West Indies to understand the natives, to mingle with them, to learn their customs, their language, and their diet. These are the unsung heroes of the time. They were deeply dismayed to find that the soldiers and some of the clergy were abusing the natives, and were treating them like slaves. Among these preachers are Bartholome de las Casas and the Dominican Fray Antonio de Montesinos. The latter spoke up in a famous sermon in 1511, in Hispaniola, with the support of other 12 Dominicans of the island, and in the presence of all the officialities, which enraged the governor Diego Colon, the explorer’s son, as well as other settlers:

    “Tell me by what right of justice do you hold these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude? On what authority have you waged such detestable wars against these people who dealt quietly and peacefully on their own lands? Wars in which you have destroyed such an infinite number of them by homicides and slaughters never heard of before. Why do you keep them so oppressed and exhausted, without giving them enough to eat or curing them of the sicknesses they incur from the excessive labor you give them, and they die, or rather you kill them, in order to extract and acquire gold every day.”

    Diego Colon, as it turns out, and the other colony officials reacted immediately and demanded a retraction from Montesions; but the next Sunday, Montesinos reiterated the charge, and the members of the congregation left the Church in a fury. The conflict escalated all the way to the king, who appointed a commission to study the issue. The commission ended up recommending, in 1512, that Indians should be considered free citizens, but while they should be provided with adequate wages, clothes and food, they should be “ordered” to work.

    The case of Bartolomé de las Casas is also most interesting. He had been a colonist, being awarded an encomienda, but eventually had gotten so taken aback by the abuses he was seeing that he had decided to give up his forced laborers and his encomienda, preaching to other colonists to do the same. He wrote not only about the history of the exploration and conquest of the West Indies, but also about the treatment of the natives. He decried Cristobal Colon’s sending of natives back to Spain into slavery, as a way to pay for his expedition.

    Las Casas authored “A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies”, where he states that the worst abuses started “…since the decease of the most Serene Queen Isabella, about the year 1504, for before that time very few of the Provinces situated in that Island were oppressed or spoiled with unjust Wars, or violated with general devastation as after they were…”. According to Wiki, the book written by Las Casas is “largely responsible for the passage of the new Spanish colonial laws known as the New Laws of 1542, which abolished native slavery for the first time in European colonial history”.


    There is the Valladolid debate (1550–1551) in Spain, where Bartolomé de las Casas argued with fellow Dominican de Sepúlveda that the natives were free men and should be treated as such – see for example


    Here is a longer quote from “Blood and soil”, p. 75, by Ben Kiernan, available on Google books:

    “The major intellectual apologist for Spain’s conquests, the Cordoba rhetorician Juan Gines de Sepulveda (1490-1573), argued that the Indians were barbarians because unlike the Romans they had failed to preserve “any monument to their history”. Sixteenth-century European accounts of supposed Indian cannibalistic rituals resemble Livy’s portrayal of the Bacchanalia and compared Carribean Indians with Homer’s Laestrygones, who ate Ulysses’ men.

    “Sepulveda deployed Aristotelian concepts of superiority and “natural slavery” to argue that the Spanish offensives against Indians were just wars. The thousands of natives “who scattered in flight like women before Spaniards so few” were inferior even to those other cannibals, the Scythian barbarians of Rome’s ancient frontiers. Only the more courageous Mexicans, “the most human” of the Indians, bore comparison even to the Scythians, traditional enemies of the church. Sepulveda added that “the Romans justly subjugated other nations of the world”, just as, for their sins, “the Amorites and Perrizites and other inhabitants of the Promised Land were exterminated by the Children of Israel”. Yet Sepulveda also condemned the Jews, whose “extermination God desired because of their crimes and idolatry”. A just war, Sepulveda argued, can be undertaken “to punish evil-doers” like “the many wars waged by Greeks and Romans for this reason, with much approval from the people, whose consensus must be considered a law of nature”. Sepulveda concluded of the Indians: “And if they refuse our rule, they may be compelled by the force of arms to accept it. Such a war would be just according to natural law. Such a war would be far more just than even the war that the Romans waged against all nations of the world in order to force them to submit to their rule.”

    “Sepulveda’s nemesis, Bartolome de las Casas (1484-1566), the major proponent of the view that Spanish treatment of the Indians was unjust, cited further examples from antiquity, in his case not to justify but rather to denounce the Spanish practices they had prefigured. He called Aristotle “a pagan now burning in hell”. Choosing a local precedent calculated to impress his audience, Las Casas highlighted Rome’s mistreatment of Spaniards following its victory over Carthage. Thus, “after the Romans had defeated Spain, they bought a great number of slaves to send to the mines (in all likelihood many, if not all, were Spaniards) and they were an incredible source of wealth, although at the cost of anguish and calamities suffered from excessive work and only the strongest could survive the labor and the blows: otehrwise death was a more desirable state, as Diodorus says.” Terming gold as “the cause of death”, Las Casas added with irony that similar calamities “now occur whenever the Spaniards send Indians to mines”.”


    Comment by andrei radulescu-banu — October 13, 2010 @ 6:00 pm

  17. I have yet to hear anyone here deny that Columbus presided over the rape, slaughter, torture, and enslavement of an entire society of people during the act of taking their land, so I’m not sure what the “imaginary” part of what I described was. Also, I don’t see how Columbus’s letter negates any of what I suggested. Are you suggesting that because he “seized by force several Indians” when he arrived and they communicated with each other and the Native people treated them with “extraordinary good will” that the other attrocities didn’t happen?

    I have also not heard any one cite something that makes me think this that the actions were somehow excusable. The cultural relativism piece is relevant, but can also be overstated. As Andrei pointed out above, there were critics of Columbus’s actions during the era in which he lived. These critics existed within the same moral universe as he did.

    And, as I have said from the beginning, my issue is not with the study of Columbus, it’s with presenting him as a hero. Please tell me what he contributed that was so worthwhile that it redeems him to the point that we should have one of only ten federal holidays named after him?

    I look forward to checking out the references people have been posting.

    Comment by Concerned Educator — October 13, 2010 @ 10:06 pm

  18. Concerned Educator, My comments and citation of Columbus’ version of the initial encounter were to contrast the historical record with the lesson plan that you had cited for as appropriate for young children.

    Your question, “I have yet to hear anyone here deny that Columbus presided over the rape, slaughter, torture, and enslavement of an entire society of people during the act of taking their land, so I’m not sure what the “imaginary” part of what I described was.” is the moral equivalent of asking “when did you stop beating your wife”. In history, you need to provide evidence to support your claim, preferably using a primary source. What primary source are you referencing and if valid, would you think that this topic is appropriate for Kindergarteners to study?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — October 13, 2010 @ 11:47 pm

  19. Ah! Except Las Casas and Montesinos spoke up about abuses that started happening later after Christopher Columbus had been relieved of his governorship. Las Casas himself evolved during time in how he viewed the treatment of the native population.

    Perhaps someone that knows this story better should weigh in, but here is some more coarse information that I was able to find out. Queen Isabella of Spain, after sponsoring the first trip of Columbus, had taken an interest in the well being of the native population. When some Indians were brought back to Spain against their will by Columbus, she had them freed and returned. The third Governor of the Indies, Nicolás de Ovando y Cáceres, was a protege of the queen; here is where things become murky, as he turned out to be one of the most cruel leaders. It was the next governor, Diego Columbus, the explorer’s son, who was in charge when Antonio de Montesinos spoke up during his 1511 sermons.

    In what regards how school history textbooks have treated Columbus over the years, the attitude towards the explorer has changed, reflecting the priorities of the time, as documented by Kyle Ward’s very nice book “History in the making”, at p. 26.


    Noah Webster, in the 1780s, sees Columbus as an example for perseverance against great odds. A later textbook in the 1830s romanticizes the exploits of Columbus – perhaps in view of the fact that America itself was being colonized and explored. The 1880s curiously see any reference to the Native Americans disappear completely from the story. A 1946 textbook sees Columbus as a great explorer, and his proclamation to take ownership of the land and the people was perfectly acceptable, except that he did it for “their Highnesses … no one offering any contradiction”.

    Comment by andrei radulescu-banu — October 14, 2010 @ 12:44 am

  20. Also, another interesting tidbit in this story is that the “Brief Relation of the Destruction of the Indies” of Bartolomé de las Casas was published by the the U.S. government during the Spanish-American War to pump up public support for annexing Spain’s island possessions.


    Comment by andrei radulescu-banu — October 14, 2010 @ 12:54 am

  21. Erin,
    To your “when did you stop beating your wife” comment, I give the following examples. In addition to the quotes from Columbus’s letters where he talked about how easy it was to subdue the Native people in the article that started this blog,I would add these:

    “In the name of the Holy Trinity, we can send from here all the slaves and brazil-wood which could be sold…Although they die now, they will not always die. The Negros and Canary Islanders died at first” –Christopher Columbus, letter to Ferdinand and Isabella

    “The soldiers mowed down dozens [of Arawak people] with
    point blank volleys, loosed the dogs to rip open limbs and bellies, chased fleeing Indians into the bush to skewer them on sword and pike, and ‘with God’s aid soon gained a complete victory, killing many Indians and capturing others who were also killed” –Ferdinand Columbus, Columbus’s son in the biography he wrote of his father.

    And yes, Las Casas wrote after Columbus was governor, but it was about the encomienda system Columbus set up. Pedro de Cordoba writes about this system in 1517 saying:

    “As a result of the sufferings and hard labor they endured, the Indians choose and have chosen suicide. Occasionally a hundred have committed mass suicide. The women, exhausted by labor, have shunned conception and childbirth.”

    Sex trade:
    “A hundred castellanoes are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand”–Letter from Columbus, 1500.

    Columbuses brother Bartholomew did a census of the Indian population at the first trip in 1496, not counting children or people who had fled. It was 1,100,000 (though some say it could have been up to 8,000,000). By the time of Las Casas in 1542, he tells us there were 200 left.

    So, I’m open to hearing from anyone who still believes that Columbus did not commit atrocities, but I would love to see their evidence as well.

    And I agree, Anthony, that the “noble Indian” myth is problematic. It is partially an overcompensation for the horrible way Native people have been depicted throughout much of American history, but I find it just as dehumanizing. In fact, I think portraying the Native people as passive victims is very disempowering. People should know that the Arawak and Taino Columbus met did fight back and try to organize though they were massively outgunned.

    And as to whether or not this is appropriate for young children, I maintain that by the time they reach school age children know what it means to be mistreated. This is not a revelation for them. So do we detail murders, slavery, and the sex trade, NO! Of course not! But I think it is fine to say to young children that Native people were hurt badly and many died because of it. Or that they were forced to work very hard without pay. There are gruesome parts of traveling across the ocean in those days, too, but we still tell that story with those parts edited or simplified.

    I would also put forward that if people don’t think children are ready for the story of Christopher Columbus, then don’t tell the story of Christopher Columbus. If people don’t like imaginative exercises in history, than let’s not have children imagine what it would be like to take such a long trip across the ocean and “have to be so brave in the face of the unknown”. But please don’t give them half the facts now and then treat the rest as a footnote when they get older.

    Because the decimation of a population is not a footnote and to treat it that way is inaccurate, insensitive, and misses the larger picture. I hear a lot of people wanting to put things “in context” when it comes to moral relativism, but if we really want to show the greater context, we should talk about the effects and not just the causes of Columbus’s actions. Columbus’s trip had huge implications for the world and its not just a question of asking which results were good and which were bad…but *for whom* and *in what ways* were they good or bad. Who benefited and who suffered? And how does that effect power dynamics that still exist today?

    There was a line that I was disturbed to see in the article that started off this thread, in particular because the author seemed to be fairly aware of the atrocities involved in Columbus’s interactions with Native people. He wrote:

    “Finally, to all those who view October 12 as a day of genocide, sadness and horror: I know. You don’t have to repeat it.”

    Imagine saying that about any other act of genocide, sadness, or horror. Like “Look I know about the Holocaust already, stop harping on it.”, or “Hey, there were good things and bad things about what happened in Darfur.”, Or “Bin Laden was a villain to us, but in the cultural context of his surroundings, some say he was as a hero.”

    My point here is not to demonize anyone on this post. As I mentioned earlier I love that people have taken the time to have this discussion. But I do think that perspective matters. And the perspective we give our young people matters most. So we should think about what we hold up as exemplary, what we smooth over, and what we relegate to a footnote.

    So, no, I will not “stop repeating it”. I repeat it, lest we forget.

    Comment by Concerned Educator — October 20, 2010 @ 11:07 am

  22. [...] to end with a comment by a HS social studies teacher named Anthony Guzzaldo, which I came across on an education blog: “If we only recognize the achievements of those heroes of history without flaws, who would [...]

    Pingback by Columbus and the Indians | A View from the Right — October 13, 2013 @ 11:45 pm

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