Every American schoolchild must learn a few facts about Christopher Columbus: he sailed to America in 1492, he had three ships, he was funded by the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, etc. While Columbus is often portrayed as a great hero, the truth about Columbus is, of course, much more complicated.
Christopher Columbus is perhaps the best example of the way that American history textbooks ignore historical figures’ considerable flaws in order to make them seem more heroic to students. Even if Columbus’s legacy is vast, he was certainly not the brave, idealistic hero he’s said to be.
The first big mistake that history textbooks make with regard to Columbus’s life is to ignore the achievements of of previous explorers. Europeans, such as the Vikings, had been traveling to America for centuries before Columbus—the difference is that Columbus arrived at a time when Europe was ideally positioned to take advantage of its new land holdings.
To begin with, it’s wrong that students grow up believing that Columbus “discovered” America, considering that other Europeans—to say nothing of the Native Americans themselves—had traveled to America well before him.
While many textbooks talk about the factors that led Europe to explore the Americas in the 15th century, most misrepresent the facts. They suggest that Columbus sailed for America because Europeans were “bursting with curiosity about the world,” because they needed spices to disguise the taste of bad meat, or because Turkish Muslims had cut off Europe’s access to spice routes. From an historical perspective, such explanations are absurd. There is no way to measure European curiosity in the 1400s; Columbus didn’t sail simply to improve the taste of his food; and there’s no evidence that Muslims discriminated against Christians during trade. The last explanation for Columbus’s voyages might suggest Western racism against Muslims.
Loewen concisely refutes some of the most common explanations for Columbus’s voyages to America. Notice that, in refuting the second explanation listed here, he alludes to Western Islamophobia—another “idea” left out of most discussions of history. Loewen implies that, by teaching children that Columbus sailed to America to bypass the villainous Turks’ attempts to control the spice market, Westerners perpetuate a biased interpretation of Muslims.
What were the cultural and economic factors that led Columbus to explore the Americas in 1492? First, military technology: around 1400, European monarchs commissioned bigger guns and better ships—the tools that they would use to dominate the planet. To this day, Western nations’ foreign policy is, in many ways, designed to preserve their monopoly on military technology. Even in the 21st century, when the Bush administration lobbied to keep nuclear weapons out of Third World countries’ hands, it was using the same basic policy that Spain used in the 15th century: build the best weapons, and prevent other countries from doing the same.
Throughout this chapter, and the entire book, Loewen draws parallels between history and the present day. Here, for instance, he makes an analogy between European foreign policy in the 15th century and American foreign policy under Bush—suggesting that the most powerful nations always climb to the top and then try to “pull up the ladder” behind them. Whether or not one thinks the analogy between the two eras is appropriate, it’s important to recognize that making analogies and connections is a critical part of studying history.
Another key factor motivating Columbus’s voyage was the buildup of social technology, such as bookkeeping and printing. A third factor was the cultural and even religious belief that becoming wealthy and controlling other people was a way of going to Heaven. In his writings, Columbus is very clear about why he wanted to explore to the Americas: he wanted to win glory for himself and be rewarded in Heaven. Oddly, many textbooks downplay explorers’ economic motive, as if a desire for money were somehow “undignified.” Another factor motivating Europe’s world exploration was the proselytizing nature of Christianity: explorers felt it was their duty to spread news of Christ around the world. A fifth reason is that European nations had “practiced” dominating island societies earlier in the century. Finally, a major factor in the Europeans’ successful exploration of the Americas was their immunity to diseases like smallpox and influenza—diseases that claimed huge numbers of Native American lives.
One implication of this passage is that Europeans were, in a word, lucky to be able to explore America in the late 15th century—it was only because the factors discussed in this section happened to occur around the same time that Europeans were able to harness their technology and send people across the Atlantic Ocean. By stressing the importance of coinciding cultural and economic factors, Loewen conveys the idea that Europe’s conquest of America was anything but a historical inevitability—had Native Americans developed immunities to influenza and smallpox, they might have conquered the Europeans instead of the other way around.
Many take it for granted that Western, European countries are the most powerful in the world, but they rarely ask themselves why. The truth is that Europe came to rule the Americas for very specific reasons: the buildup of military technology, immunity to disease, careful organization, and religious justification for conquest.
By ignoring the precise historical factors that led their culture to dominate the world, Westerners are in danger of believing that their supremacy over the rest of the world was inevitable or even predestined. Loewen wants to make it clear that Europe’s conquest of America was a product of geographic chance as much as anything else.
Another common textbook bias is the implicit belief that modern technology is a European invention. Thus, textbooks describe European explorers as being the first to round the Cape of Good Hope, when in fact, Phoenician explorers, using impressive maritime technology, did the same thing centuries before. This omission is particularly striking in light of the fact that Phoenicians’ expeditions directly inspired 15th century Europeans, including Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal, who organized many important expeditions to the Americas. Instead of treating technology as the product of complex cultural diffusion, most textbooks characterize it as a European invention.
Though no textbook would ever come out and say that Europeans invented technology, textbooks do something much more insidious—they subtly imply as much via the information they present and emphasize. Thus, textbooks ignore the achievements of the Phoenicians and the other non-Western civilizations that influenced European technological development.
Even though there’s been considerable historical evidence in recent years that other nations had “discovered” America before Columbus, textbooks emphasize the importance of Columbus and marginalize other explorers. Textbooks either omit mentions of the Vikings’ expeditions to Newfoundland and Labrador, or argue that these expeditions were inconsequential. Even if such an interpretation were correct, it’s important that textbooks acknowledge that Columbus wasn’t the first European to sail to America—doing so paints a less “glorified” picture of European history. There is also noteworthy evidence that African explorers sailed to the Americas centuries before Columbus—and yet no history textbooks entertain such a possibility. If textbooks were at least to acknowledge this possibility, they could help to dispel the racist myth that Europeans are superior to all other civilizations.
Textbooks usually present Columbus as a heroic, “one of a kind” explorer, when, in fact, there were plenty of other explorers like him in the years leading up to 1492 A.D.—Vikings, for example. By noting that other people had journeyed to America before Columbus, Loewen emphasizes the point that Columbus wasn’t a uniquely brave or adventurous man (contrary to what many history textbooks imply about him)—he was just lucky to arrive in America at the perfect time; the era when Europe knew exactly what to do with its new colonial holdings.
An interesting test of the Eurocentrism of history textbooks is to compare their accounts of Irish and West African voyages to the Americas. While there is robust evidence for a West African presence in the Americas prior to Columbus, there is relatively little evidence for Irish exploration—just a handful of legends. And yet almost half of American textbooks surveyed for Loewen’s book mention the possibility of Irish exploration in the New World, and none mention West African exploration.
At various points in the text, Loewen offers comparative studies of textbooks—here, for example, he compares textbooks’ accounts of African and Irish exploration of the Americas. Comparative studies are important because they give a fuller sense of real textbooks’ biases and omissions—Loewen implies that textbooks ignore the possibility of African colonization because of Eurocentrism, or even just plain racism.
Textbooks portray Columbus as a hero who boldly explored the Americas. They say that he was the son of a poor family, or that he courageously ordered his mutinous crew to sail ahead, even though they thought the world was flat. There’s no accepted conclusion about what kind of family Columbus came from, and it had been well accepted that the world was round long before 1492. Other textbooks describe Columbus’s death melodramatically: supposedly, he died poor and lonely. In fact, Columbus died a famous man: his Spanish supporters immediately recognized the profitability of New World exploration, which is why they sent him on another voyage almost as soon as he’d returned to Europe. At every step of the way, textbooks distort and exaggerate the details of Columbus’s life to create a more dramatic story.
This passage is an important example of how history textbooks offer the most dramatic, sentimental interpretation of the facts in order to make historical figures seem particularly glorious or heroic. Thus, even though there’s some healthy debate over whether or not Columbus was born into a poor family, textbooks usually insist that he was, thereby reinforcing an image of Columbus as a hard-working, “rags to riches” figure.
Columbus’s most lasting legacy was not his discovery of America, however; it was his exploitation and massacre of the indigenous peoples of the Western hemisphere, which utterly transformed the modern world. Columbus’s earliest writings about the people he encountered in the Americas stress their agreeability, their docility, and the ease with which he could conquer them. Before returning from his first voyage, Columbus kidnapped several indigenous Americans and brought them back to Spain. On his second voyage, Columbus brought soldiers, who helped him search for gold, and killed and tortured indigenous people. To incentivize his troops, he encouraged them to rape native women. After failing to find any gold, he brought back more indigenous people and offered them to his Spanish masters as slaves. In the following decades, Spanish settlers in the Americas forced thousands of indigenous people to mine for gold and silver. Within a few generations, settlers had wiped out all but a small fraction of the indigenous peoples of Haiti, Mexico, and Peru. After colonialism had nearly wiped out the population of North America, Europeans began using African slaves.
Loewen includes what almost all history textbooks omit from an account of Columbus—excerpts from Columbus’s journals and diaries. As Loewen shows, Columbus—far from being a starry-eyed idealist—was harshly realistic about the new continent he’d discovered: he wanted to enslave the native peoples and put them to work mining gold and silver. This passage is also a good example of how Loewen situates different historical episodes in a broader narrative: so, for example, he connects Columbus’s exploitation of Native Americans with Europeans’ later attempts to enslave Africans. In contrast to Loewen’s approach, most high school textbooks either omit any discussion of Native American enslavement, or they treat it as an isolated historical phenomenon with no connection to subsequent historical events.
All the information Loewen has been discussing so far is readily available—there is no controversy about the fact that Columbus was a murderer and a racist. And yet history textbooks continue to praise him, or discuss his genocidal policies as “character flaws.”
Previously, Loewen criticized textbooks for failing to characterize the ambiguity surrounding the history of America’s “discovery.” Here, his point is slightly different: he says that textbooks don’t even suggest the possibility of ambiguity in Columbus’s life because it’s so unambiguous that he was a murderer. Textbook authors, knowing full-well what they’re doing, censor any mention of Columbus’s genocidal policies.
The impact of the discovery of America upon Europe was enormous, and not just in an economic sense. The existence of a place outside Europe, Africa, and Asia—the three continents that Europeans had known about since ancient times—arguably created the European “self-consciousness.” Europeans began to see themselves as one unified group of people—a race of “Christian whites,” in contrast to the “uncivilized races” of the Americas. Textbooks largely ignore the philosophical changes in European culture caused by the discovery of the Americas—perpetuating the idea that Europeans have always seen themselves as being at the “center of the world.”
Another aspect of European colonization that textbooks largely ignore is the effect of American exploration on Europeans’ image of themselves. Loewen takes a dialectical view of consciousness—in other words, he suggests that a group of people (here, the Europeans) can only understand themselves when they contrast their group with its opposite. Thus, Europeans only came to see themselves as “Europeans” (rather than Frenchmen, Italians, Englishmen, etc.) after they encountered Native Americans.
Columbus’s decision to journey across the Atlantic Ocean was undeniably brave, and yet his conquest was undeniably racist. And while it’s certainly true that Columbus was a “product of his time”—a time when slavery and conquest were far more accepted practices than they are today—there were also many notable figures, such as Bartolomé de Las Casas, who opposed Columbus’s conquest. When textbooks present Columbus as an unambiguous hero, they not only offend African Americans (whose ancestors may have “discovered” America long before Columbus) and Native Americans (whose ancestors may have been wiped out by Columbus’s conquest); they also present a “feel-good history that bores everyone.”
Loewen’s criticism of history textbooks here is two-pronged: first, he faults textbooks for omitting discussion of other explorers who opposed Columbus’s genocide (although, thanks in part to Loewen’s influence, some recent textbooks have included a greater discussion of de Las Casas); second, and more generally, he criticizes textbooks for taking an overly optimistic and simplistic view of history, according to which Columbus’s conquest was “for the best.”