Landing of Columbus
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The following is derived from a chapter in a book I am writing, MythAmerica.
This is part one of a two-part article on the 'Columbus Discovered America' myth. Part one deals with the nature of the world and people Columbus intruded on, debunking the Eurocentric myth that Columbus "discovered" a land that was barely populated, undeveloped, and an untamed wilderness despite millions of people already living there for thousands of years.
Soon to follow, part 2 debunks the Columbus-as-hero myth by examining how his genocidal attacks on the indigenous populations of the Caribbean led to the opening of the African slave trade, and how and why all this has been justified over the centuries.
When asked by an anthropologist what the Indians called America before the white man came, an Indian said simply, 'Ours.' Vine Deloria, Jr
Vermont and Maine recently joined the growing list of states and cities that no longer recognize and celebrate Columbus day. The 1992 five hundred-year anniversary celebration of Columbus's voyages to the Americas turned out to be quite a Pandora's box for the "Columbus discovered America" (CDA) myth. Along with the celebrations came a fierce debate about Columbus's legacy, an upsurge of activism around native American rights and a broad movement to de-throne Columbus and replace it by an Indigenous People's or Native American day. That challenge became widespread enough to even motivate an HBO Sopranos episode presenting the native American point of view.
Yet despite all this, as we approach another Columbus Day celebration we can expect to still hear that "Columbus discovered America". But the official story is almost wholly myth. What little that is true is mostly trivia: the date of his first voyage, the names of the 3 ships, and how Columbus "discovered" America by sailing west from Europe in search of a sea route to Asia. Columbus's first voyage landing in the the Bahamas is very much the beginning and end of the story, and so antiseptically described as to prove shocking when the truths of what he did are exposed.
Here's that make-believe world packed into CDA:
Myth # 1. COLUMBUS DISCOVERED AMERICA
It is often said that history is written from the point of view of the conquerors, perhaps never so clearly demonstrated than by the Eurocentric assertion, the foundational myth of American history, that Columbus "discovered America". How can it be said that he "discovered" a land when tens of millions of people were already living there for tens of thousands of years? There was no "America" for Columbus to discover--nor was there a "Europe" yet. There weren't any "Indians" either. There were the Dine (Navajo), Haudenosaunee (Iriquois), Tenocha (Aztecs), and numerous other peoples with varying cultures and languages. They didn't become Indians until Columbus mislabeled them as such in his mistaken belief that he had reached Asia. The populations of this new-to-Europeans land had ways of life in many ways even more diverse than that of Europe at the time, speaking over 2,000 languages.
But it's more than just semantics that Columbus did not "discover" America. Packed into those three words is a world where the Americas were a barely populated, undeveloped and untamed wilderness, where Columbus brought civilization to a primitive people while trying to find a shortcut trade route to Asia, all of which led to the creation of the most exceptional nation in the history of the world, the United States of America. But the only way Columbus could have discovered 1/4th of the globe was if somehow those people did not count, were less-than-human. One Spanish 'scholar' described the indigenous as "creatures of a subhuman nature who were intended by God to be placed under the authority of civilized and virtuous princes or nations, so that they may learn, from the might, wisdom, and law of their conquerors, to practice better morals, worthier customs and a more civilized way of life.'
Another part of the myth is that Columbus proved the world was round, despite the fact that the Greeks knew that 2,000 years before, as well as most educated people in 1492, especially those who worked on the sea--like Columbus.
So while Columbus did not discover America--at the same time let there be no doubt that Columbus's voyages were world changing to the extent that 1492 is considered a dividing line for when "modern" history began, with what came before designated as "Pre-Columbian history".
MYTH #2 : THE AMERICAS WERE BARELY POPULATED
"We are left with the startling realization that Europeans were not coming to a 'virgin wilderness' as some called it, but were invading a land which in some areas was as densely populated as their homelands... Columbus had stumbled upon what was a new world only in the European mind." (Gary Nash, Red White and Black, The Peoples of Early North America.)
But even more central to CDA is the America that Alexis deToqueville described in 1835 as "inhabited only by wandering tribes who had no thought of profiting by the natural riches of the soil... an empty continent, a desert land awaiting its inhabitants.''
In fact, it is an eye-opening revelation for most people to learn that the population of the Americas--North, South, and the Caribbean--was at least as large as the population of Europe at the time of Columbus. For perspective, the entire world population in 1500 was around 500 million people. Among the largest cities in the world was Tenochtitlan, where Mexico City now stands, with a population of 250,000--larger than Paris and London at the time! While a longstanding debate has gone on among demographers and historians in regard to the total population of the Americas, a consensus has emerged of no less than 50 million and as many as 100 million, with an estimated 10-15 million north of the Rio Grande--or roughly the same or even larger than the population of Europe the time.
As one educator has put it, "The vehemence with which scholars, and at times the larger public, have debated these figures is not just because it is very difficult to determine population size. It is also because the debate over the population is part of the debate over whether the arrival of Columbus and the millions of Europeans who followed him was a great advance in the history of civilization... or an unparalleled catastrophe that virtually exterminated a large and flourishing native population (as some Americans and Europeans argued during the more somber commemorations of the 500th anniversary in 1992)." (Mr. History, Educator Pages.com.)
MYTH #3 COLUMBUS BROUGHT CIVILIZATION TO A PRIMITIVE PEOPLE
Along with the barely populated myth, deeply embedded in CDA is the image of a primitive undeveloped way of life, a belief that "The rare occupants of these continents were nothing but stone-age uncivilized pagan savages... what they had built up was worthless compared to what Europeans had built back in the 'Old World'." (Stannard, American Holocaust.)
Or, as President Trump put it, "people have forgotten that our ancestors tamed [my emphasis] a continent."
But the myriad ways of life of the peoples of North and South America and the Caribbean compared at its heights equally to the most developed European environments, and by some standards surpassed that. For instance:
Bernaz Diaz del Castillo, a soldier with conquistador Cortes on his march into Tenochtitlan:
"Some of the soldiers among us had been in many parts of the world, in Constantinople, and all over Italy, and in Rome... so large a marketplace and so full of people, and so well regulated and arranged, they had never beheld before... some 'even asked whether the things we saw were not a dream'." (Carroll and Noble, The Free and the Unfree A New History of the United States.)
* Nash on the Pueblos: "In its technological solution to the water problem, its artistic efforts, its agricultural practices, and its village life, Pueblo society on the eve of Spanish arrival was not radically different from peasant communities in most of the Euro-Asian world."
*Kirkpatrick Sales in the Conquest of Paradise quotes David Watt's West Indies on Taino agricultural development as: "Highly productive, surpassing in yields anything known to Europe at the time, with labor requiring... hardly more than two or three hours a week and in continuous year long harvest."
As Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz in her An Indigenous People's History of the United States summarizes :
"In the founding myth of the U.S. the colonists acquired a vast expanse of land from a scattering of benighted peoples who were hardly using it... the historical record is clear, however, that European colonists shoved aside a large network of small and large nations whose government, commerce, arts and sciences, agriculture, technologies, theologies, philosophies, and institutions were intricately developed, nations that maintained sophisticated relations with one another and with the environments that supported them... Native peoples had created town sites, farms, monumental earth works, and networks of roads, and they had devised a wide variety of governments, some as complex as any in the world... They conducted trade along roads that crisscrossed the landmasses and waterways of the American continents. Before the arrival of the Europeans, North America was... a continent of nations and federations of nations. Many have noted that had North America been a wilderness, undeveloped, without roads, uncultivated,... the European colonists could not have survived. They appropriated what had already been created by indigenous civilizations... They stole already cultivated farmland... All of the myths about American Indians emerge out of larger narratives that construct the U.S. as a place of exceptional righteousness, democracy, and divine guidance (manifest destiny) or what has been called 'American exceptionalism'."
These Eurocentric notions of cultural supremacy and indigenous primitivism are part of the scaffolding justifying the near genocide of the indigenous.
MYTH #4 : OTHERS HAD DISCOVERED THE AMERICAS BEFORE COLUMBUS
This as a myth for the same reasons that CDA is a myth. There is no doubt others had reached the Americas before Columbus, such as the officially recognized Viking settlements hundreds of years before on the upper northeast coast of North America. Further, a strong case for an African presence hundreds of years before Columbus is most prominently put forward by anthropologist Ivan Van Sertima in They Came Before Columbus.
Menzies and Hudson's Who Discovered America also make a strong case for a huge Chinese fleet reaching the Americas in 1421 and even hundreds of years earlier. And there's evidence with varying degrees of support that the Japanese, Phoenicians, Romans, Polynesians, and others had reached the Americas long before Columbus.
But to claim any of them "discovered" America as if there was not a continuous indigenous human presence for tens of thousands of years still perpetuates the same white-supremacist ethno & Euro-centrism of CDA. New evidence regularly emerges, such as cave art in Brazil, pushing the date back for human habitation to at least 30,000 years if not longer.
And the Bering Strait hypothesis, once the accepted narrative that the first humans migrated to the Americas from Asia through a land bridge created by the freezing over of the Bering straits between what is now Alaska and Russia some 13-14,000 years ago, with people then migrating south and east over thousands of years, is now increasingly under challenge as the sole and even main source of the migrations. Columbus did not reach a "new world"; indeed it was one old world meeting another old world, much to the detriment of the other.
To be continued.
Keith Brooks is a long-time political activist, retired NYC high school teacher who has also taught at Richmond College and Alternate U. He has been published on and in the History News Network, Orinoco tribune, Black Agenda Report, the Nation, Labor research Review, the Baltimore Sun, Newsday, Amsterdam News and other progressive and mainstream venues.