At the end of the 15th century, in a place later known as the Bahamas, Arawak men and women emerged from their villages to watch as Christopher Columbus and his sailors came ashore. Columbus later wrote that the Arawak were primitive, beautiful, and hospitable, and that they would make “fine servants.” Columbus had come to the New World in search of gold and spices. He’d been sent by the rulers of Spain—a newly unified nation-state—and promised a share of the riches. He had intended to sail to Asia; he was lucky that he found North America in the middle of his voyage, since, otherwise, he and his crew would have starved. In the New World, Columbus immediately built a fortress, kidnapped Arawaks, and ordered his crew to search for gold—however, they didn’t find any.
Every American schoolchild knows the story of how “Christopher Columbus” discovered America. Zinn tells this story from the perspective of the Arawak, noting how Columbus, from his first days in the Bahamas, aimed to subjugate the Arawak. The tone and structure of this opening passage suggests that this book will study familiar historical events from an unfamiliar perspective: the perspective of “the people,” not of heroes. Indeed, Zinn doesn’t see Columbus as a hero at all—Columbus was greedy, ruthless, and arguably navigationally incompetent.
On his second voyage to the New World, Columbus again failed to find gold. Instead, he kidnapped more Indians, many of whom died on the voyage back to Europe. In Haiti, he enslaved entire tribes, ordering them to search for gold or be killed. In just two years, Columbus killed nearly half the population of Haiti. One of the few prominent European critics of Columbus’s tyrannical regime was Bartolomé de las Casas, a young priest who owned a plantation in Cuba. Las Casas argued that the native peoples of the New World were polite and mostly peaceful, and that Columbus had destroyed the natives’ way of life forever. Las Casas further claimed that settlers in the New World tortured the natives, putting them to work in horrific mines. “Thus,” Zinn concludes, “began the history, five hundred years ago, of the European invasion of the Indian settlements in the Americas.”
There was nothing noble or enlightened about Columbus’s expeditions to the New World. His goal was simple: steal as much gold and wealth as possible in order to appease his employers in Spain. Some historians have argued that Columbus should be interpreted as a “product of his time” (in other words, that his genocidal acts were normal behavior at the time). However, Zinn brings up de las Casas, suggesting that, even in the 1490s, some Europeans regarded Columbus as a murderer and a thief. Columbus set a precedent for conquest and cruelty that continues, as we’ll see, throughout American history.
Today, Americans celebrate Columbus’s exploration on Columbus Day, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he was a genocidal killer. Most school textbooks paint Columbus as a hero, and either ignore his genocidal crimes altogether or mention them very briefly. By definition, all historians have to make calculations about what parts of history to emphasize and what parts to ignore. However, Zinn argues, if historians ignore or underplay Columbus’s genocidal crimes—and the other human rights abuses in American history—they implicitly justify Columbus’s deeds. As a result, ordinary people may come to accept violence as basic parts of history, and, perhaps, of the present, too. This kind of passivity is “deadly.”
Zinn isn’t just writing a history book—he’s responding to the many history textbooks that have presented history from the perspective of conquerors, colonizers, and tyrants. He creates a clear imperative for his project, suggesting that he has a moral duty to tell a version of history that holds people like Columbus accountable for their genocidal crimes. Otherwise, he (and other historians) would be implicitly accepting murder and violence. The crux of Zinn’s argument is that historians aren’t just passive collectors of information about the past—they have the power to inspire people to overcome their “passivity” and change the world.
Too many historians treat American history as a list of heroic, larger-than-life people: Columbus, the Founding Fathers, the presidents, etc. The implication of such an interpretation of history is that “great men” are responsible for changing the world. Furthermore, many historians treat history as if all Americans—people of all ages, races, classes, and religions—have the same interests and priorities because they are American. Zinn strongly disagrees. America is not one community: throughout history, different Americans have been on different sides of the fight. Zinn quotes the writer Albert Camus: in world of “victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners.”
Another major problem that Zinn sees in average history textbooks is the premise that all Americans are alike and that they’re united in their common freedom and independence. Zinn argues, instead, that Americans have always been divided—specifically, that they’re always been divided between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless. (However, one major criticism of Zinn’s ideas is that Zinn himself is too general in his definition of “the powerless.”)
Zinn will try to tell American history from the perspective of persecuted people—the people whose stories have often been ignored and whose lives have often been very difficult. His goal isn’t simply to mourn for “victims” or denounce “executioners.” Zinn freely admits that often victims turn on one another and behave cruelly themselves. However, his book will be skeptical of government and its attempts to control ordinary people by appealing to the concept of a “national interest.” Zinn also acknowledges that a history of the U.S., told from the perspective of persecuted peoples, can be very pessimistic. However, he wants to give a sense of the “brief flashes” of history during which ordinary people banded together and sometimes emerged victorious. That, in short, is his “approach to the history of the United States.”
Zinn acknowledges upfront that his history of the United States isn’t free from his own personal biases. Zinn sees it as the duty of the historian not simply to relay what happened, but to remedy the marginalization that persecuted people have experienced, both in history and in history books. Many prominent historians—including those who share Zinn’s sense of moral responsibility—have questioned whether Zinn is too quick to idealize the persecuted and demonize the powerful. Even though he admits that the persecuted can be cruel to one another, Zinn will focus, by and large, on the commonalities and alliances between the persecuted, rather than their differences.
Columbus’s conquest of the Arawaks was soon followed by other explorers’ conquests of other Indian tribes. The Spanish explorer Hernando Cortés conquered the Aztec civilization of Mexico, massacring hundreds of thousands of people, including women and children. In Peru, another Spanish explorer, Francisco Pizarro, used similar tactics to conquer the Inca civilization. Using the gold that explorers stole, European nation-states were able to finance a new form of society: in other words, the conquest of the New World paved the way for the growth of the industrialized world.
The growth of the Western industrialized world was intimately tied to the persecution of indigenous peoples in the New World—and, for that matter, to people in other undeveloped parts of the world, especially Africa, Asia, and South America. Columbus’s successors seem not to have expressed any guilt about murdering and torturing innocent people: their desire for wealth impelled them to continue conquering.
17th-century English settlers colonized Virginia, warring with Indian tribes. English soldiers attacked Indian settlements, killing women and children. In response, Indians massacred English men, women, and children. In response, the English decided to wipe out the Indians altogether. The words of Chief Powhatan, who led his people against the English in the early 1600s, still resonate: “Why do you take by force what you may have quietly by love?”
Instead of the usual, idealized vision of North American colonization offered in history textbooks, Zinn offers some harsh realities about brutality of the colonization. Significantly, he includes quotes from Native Americans, rather than from the familiar European heroes found in high school textbooks. The implicit answer to Chief Powhatan’s question is that the English colonizers’ greed and desire for property led them to use violence to take what wasn’t theirs.
The Pilgrims came to New England later in the 17th century, led by governor John Winthrop. Although there were Indians throughout the New England area Winthrop claimed that the land was a “vacuum,” and that the Pilgrims had a right to the land. Winthrop further argued that the few Indians who did live in New England had no legal right to the land, because they hadn’t developed it agriculturally. The Pilgrims lived in an uneasy truce with the Indians, but they seemed to be waiting for an excuse to fight. In 1636, New Englanders declared war on the Pequot Indians for attacking a white trader and “Indian-kidnapper.” The New Englanders killed the Pequot, using tactics pioneered by Hernando Cortés: deliberately attacking noncombatants to create terror.
In this passage, Zinn establishes the “war paradigm” that American society would use for the next four hundred years: provoke the enemy into a minor skirmish, treat the skirmish as an excuse to fight, and then defeat the enemy using superior technology. Thus, Winthrop’s Pilgrim colony—contrary to its reputation for peace and piety—brutally attacked the Pequot tribe, using terrorist methods.
Forty years after the Pequot War, New Englanders fought against the Wampanoags, who were supposedly threatening the safety of New Englanders in the Massachusetts Bay. Some historians have argued that most New Englanders didn’t support a war with the Wampanoag, and that only the elite supported it. In 1676, the New Englanders won, having slaughtered some three thousand Indians. By the next century, the total Indian population in North America had fallen from around ten million to less than a million. Many Indians died from diseases spread by European settlers, such as smallpox. Why did the English settlers slaughter the Indians? While there are many explanations, Zinn argues that “that special powerful drive born in civilizations based on private property” motivated the settlers. The New Englanders were willing to kill anyone who obstructed their sovereign right to property and land.
Instead of treating “European settlers” as one, monolithic group, Zinn conveys the gap between the desires of the wealthy and the desires of the poor. In New England, the wealthiest citizens wanted a war on the Wampanoag, since they stood to gain significant property and land. Indeed, Zinn posits that the desire for more property motivated the early colonists in New England to resort to violence to conquer more territory. While Zinn doesn’t expound on his point, it’s interesting to note that the Pilgrims in New England (especially the wealthiest of them) believed that God had brought them to the New World, and they may also have believed that God gave them the further right to claim land for themselves.
Again and again, it’s been argued that the murder of the Indians was necessary for the greater good of civilization. The problem with such an explanation, at the most basic level, is that the proverbial “greater good” is never good for everyone: it’s usually just beneficial to a handful of privileged people. By this way of thinking, the only acceptable kind of “necessary sacrifice for human progress” would be one made by the victims themselves. A further irony of European nations’ conquest of the New World is that, in almost all cases, the people of these nations didn’t become any wealthier: rulers became more powerful while the poorest people continued to starve.
European colonists—and the historians who’ve deified them in textbooks—have offered the same explanation for colonial brutality: the ends justified the means. But of course, this excuse ignores the basic greed and acquisitiveness of the European colonists: what was “good” for Europe was lethal for the Native Americans. Furthermore, most Europeans didn’t benefit in the slightest from the colonization of the New World—all the wealth flowed to the top of the social hierarchy.
Why, Zinn asks, are we so sure that the Indian culture that the Europeans destroyed was inferior to European culture? (Christopher Columbus called the people of the New World “Indians” because he made a colossal error and miscalculated the size of the globe. Zinn will, with some reluctance, call them Indians, too.) The Indians traveled to North America by foot, tens of thousands of years ago. They had ingenious agricultural and navigational techniques, and, thousands of years before Christ, they developed irrigation canals, ceramics, and weaving. Many Indian tribes were egalitarian, with minor differences between the rich and poor. European explorers reported that the Indians were incredibly kind, gentle, and generous. There is also evidence that there was less structural sexism in Indian tribes than in European societies: women tended crops, managed village affairs, and had a decisive say in matters of war. In all, Indian cultures of the New World were remarkably different from European culture: “a society of rich and poor, controlled by priests, by governors, by males heads of families.”
This passage is a good example of Zinn’s approach to historical bias. Zinn idealizes Indian society, suggesting that it was an enlightened utopia, in which people were treated more or less equally. Zinn celebrates Native American science and technology, and suggests that women weren’t discriminated against in Native American tribes. In short, history textbooks are too quick to assume that European explorers conquered the Native Americans because they were inherently better (more technologically advanced, more “civilized,” etc.). Indeed, the clearest advantage that the Europeans seem to have had over the Native Americans was their propensity for violence and cruelty. Also, notice that throughout his book Zinn refers to Native Americans as Indians: while he does seem to recognize that “Indians” is an inaccurate and, in some ways, offensive term, he seems to have decided to use the term because, at the time when he was writing, it was the most common, accessible term for his readers. (For the purposes of this LitChart, in our analysis we’ll use the term “Native Americans,” because it is less potentially offensive, more geographically accurate, and more commonly used in the 2010s than it was in the 1980s.)
The Indians were, arguably, culturally superior to the Europeans who conquered them over the course of the next five hundred years. Some thinkers have argued that, had the Europeans assimilated with the Indians instead of wiping them out, America would be a peaceful, egalitarian place. Such a view may be a little “romantic,” Zinn admits—however, all the evidence points to the fact that the Indians really were peaceful, kind, and egalitarian. Thus, we must question the assumption that the Europeans were morally justified in conquering the Indians.
Zinn admits that he might be idealizing the Native Americans—i.e., assuming the best of them, in spite of the lack of a complete historical record about their societies. However, Zinn suggests that some idealization of the Native Americans is justified, not just because of the little we do know about pre-Columbian Native Americans, but because most history textbooks ignore Native American culture altogether. Zinn’s descriptions of the Native Americans aren’t just intended to convey information: they are meant to “balances out” the depictions found in other history books.