Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#671 - Columbus Day, 1999, 06-Oct-1999

This week we take time out from our series on "the meaning of
sustainability" -- or perhaps merely extend it in a new
direction -- to celebrate Columbus Day. I use "celebrate" in the
dictionary sense of "to proclaim or broadcast for the attention
of a wide public." Examining the nation's heroes may tell us
something fundamental about our goals and values. Christopher
Columbus has been a genuine American hero since at least 1792
when the Society of St. Tammany in New York City first held a
dinner to honor the man and his deeds.

Columbus Day -- first observed as a U.S. national holiday in
1892 and declared an annual day of national celebration in 1934
-- commemorates the re-discovery of North America, by
Christopher Columbus and his band of 90 adventurers, who set out
from Palos, Spain just before dawn on August 3, 1492 intending
to find Asia by crossing the Atlantic Ocean in three small

Columbus made four voyages to the New World.[1] The initial
voyage reveals several important things about the man. First, he
had genuine courage because few ship's captains had ever pointed
their prow toward the open ocean, the complete unknown.
Secondly, from numerous of his letters and reports we learn that
his overarching goal was to seize wealth that belonged to
others, even his own men, by whatever means necessary.

Columbus's royal sponsors (Ferdinand and Isabella) had promised
a lifetime pension to the first man who sighted land. A few
hours after midnight on October 12, 1492, Juan Rodriguez Bermeo,
a lookout on the Pinta, cried out -- in the bright moonlight, he
had spied land ahead. Most likely Bermeo was seeing the white
beaches of Watling Island in the Bahamas.

As they waited impatiently for dawn, Columbus let it be known
that he had spotted land several hours before Bermeo. According
to Columbus's journal of that voyage, his ships were, at the
time, traveling 10 miles per hour. To have spotted land several
hours before Bermeo, Columbus would have had to see more than 30
miles over the horizon, a physical impossibility. Nevertheless
Columbus took the lifetime pension for himself.[1,2]

Columbus installed himself as Governor of the Caribbean islands,
with headquarters on Hispaniola (the large island now shared by
Haiti and the Dominican Republic). He described the people, the
Arawaks (called by some the Tainos) this way:

"The people of this island and of all the other islands which I
have found and seen, or have not seen, all go naked, men and
women, as their mothers bore them, except that some women cover
one place only with the leaf of a plant or with a net of cotton
which they make for that purpose. They have no iron or steel or
weapons, nor are they capable of using them, although they are
well-built people of handsome stature, because they are wondrous
timid.... [T]hey are so artless and free with all they possess,
that no one would believe it without having seen it. Of anything
they have, if you ask them for it, they never say no; rather
they invite the person to share it, and show as
much love as if they were giving their hearts; and whether
the thing be of value or of small price, at once they are
content with whatever little thing of whatever kind may be
given to them."[3,pg.63;1,pg.118]

After Columbus had surveyed the Caribbean region, he returned to
Spain to prepare his invasion of the Americas. From accounts of
his second voyage, we can begin to understand what the New World
represented to Columbus and his men -- it offered them life
without limits, unbridled freedom. Columbus took the title
Admiral of the Ocean Sea and proceeded to unleash a reign of
terror unlike anything seen before or since. When he was
finished, eight million Arawaks -- virtually the entire native
population of Hispaniola -- had been exterminated by torture,
murder, forced labor, starvation, disease and despair.[3,pg.x]

A Spanish missionary, Bartolome de las Casas, described
first-hand how the Spaniards terrorized the natives.[4] Las
Casas gives numerous eye-witness accounts of repeated mass
murder and routine sadistic torture. As Barry Lopez has
accurately summarized it, "One day, in front of Las Casas, the
Spanish dismembered, beheaded, or raped 3000 people. 'Such
inhumanities and barbarisms were committed in my sight,' he
says, 'as no age can parallel....' The Spanish cut off the legs
of children who ran from them. They poured people full of
boiling soap. They made bets as to who, with one sweep of his
sword, could cut a person in half. They loosed dogs that
'devoured an Indian like a hog, at first sight, in less than a
moment.' They used nursing infants for dog food."[2,pg.4] This
was not occasional violence -- it was a systematic, prolonged
campaign of brutality and sadism, a policy of torture, mass
murder, slavery and forced labor that continued for CENTURIES.
"The destruction of the Indians of the Americas was, far and
away, the most massive act of genocide in the history of the
world," writes historian David E. Stannard.[3,pg.x] Eventually
more than 100 million natives fell under European rule. Their
extermination would follow. As the natives died out, they were
replaced by slaves brought from Africa.

To make a long story short, Columbus established a pattern that
held for five centuries -- a "ruthless, angry search for
wealth," as Barry Lopez describes it. "It set a tone in the
Americas. The quest for personal possessions was to be, from the
outset, a series of raids, irresponsible and criminal, a spree,
in which an end to it -- the slaves, the timber, the pearls, the
fur, the precious ores, and, later, arable land, coal, oil, and
iron ore-- was never visible, in which an end to it had no
meaning." Indeed, there WAS no end to it, no limit.

As Hans Koning has observed, "There was no real ending to the
conquest of Latin America. It continued in remote forests and on
far mountainsides. It is still going on in our day when miners
and ranchers invade land belonging to the Amazon Indians and
armed thugs occupy Indian villages in the backwoods of Central
America."[6,pg.46] As recently as the 1980s under Presidents
Ronald Reagan and George Bush the U.S. government knowingly gave
direct aid to genocidal campaigns that killed thousands of Mayan
Indian people in Guatemala, El Salvador, and elsewhere.[7] The
pattern holds.

Unfortunately, Columbus and the Spaniards were not unique. They
conquered Mexico and what is now the Southwestern U.S., with
forays into Florida, the Carolinas, even into Virginia. From
Virginia northward, the land had been taken by the English who,
if anything, had even less tolerance for the indigenous people.
As Hans Koning says, "From the beginning, the Spaniards saw the
native Americans as natural slaves, beasts of burden, part of
the loot. When working them to death was more economical than
treating them somewhat humanely, they worked them to death. The
English, on the other hand, had no use for the native peoples.
They saw them as devil worshippers, savages who were beyond
salvation by the church, and exterminating them increasingly
became accepted policy."[6,pg.14]

The British arrived in Jamestown in 1607. By 1610 the
intentional extermination of the native population was well
along. As David E. Stannard has written, "Hundreds of Indians
were killed in skirmish after skirmish. Other hundreds were
killed in successful plots of mass poisoning. They were hunted
down by dogs, 'blood-Hounds to draw after them, and Mastives
[mastiffs] to seaze them.' Their canoes and fishing weirs were
smashed, their villages and agricultural fields burned to the
ground. Indian peace offers were accepted by the English only
until their prisoners were returned; then, having lulled the
natives into false security, the colonists returned to the
attack. It was the colonists' expressed desire that the Indians
be exterminated, rooted 'out from being longer a people uppon
the face of the earth.' In a single raid the settlers destroyed
corn sufficient to feed four thousand people for a year.
Starvation and the massacre of non-combatants was becoming the
preferred British approach to dealing with the

In Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Jersey extermination was
officially promoted by a "scalp bounty" on dead Indians.
"Indeed, in many areas it [murdering Indians] became an outright
business," writes historian Ward Churchill.[5,pg.182]

Indians were defined as subhumans, lower than animals. George
Washington compared them to wolves, "beasts of prey" and called
for their total destruction.[3,pgs.119-120] Andrew Jackson --
whose portrait appears on the U.S. $20 bill today -- in 1814
"supervised the mutilation of 800 or more Creek Indian corpses
-- the bodies of men, women and children that [his troops] had
massacred -- cutting off their noses to count and preserve a
record of the dead, slicing long strips of flesh from their
bodies to tan and turn into bridle reins."[5,pg.186]

The English policy of extermination -- another name for genocide
-- grew more insistent as settlers pushed westward. In 1851 the
Governor of California officially called for the extermination
of the Indians in his state.[3,pg.144] On March 24, 1863, the
ROCKY MOUNTAIN NEWS in Denver ran an editorial titled,
"Exterminate Them." On April 2, 1863, the SANTA FE NEW MEXICAN
advocated "extermination of the Indians."[5,pg.228] In 1867,
General William Tecumseh Sherman said, "We must act with
vindictive earnestness against the [Lakotas, known to whites as
the Sioux] even to their extermination, men, women and

In 1891, Frank L. Baum (gentle author of the WIZARD OF OZ) wrote
in the ABERDEEN (KANSAS) SATURDAY PIONEER that the army should
"finish the job" by the "total annihilation" of the few
remaining Indians. The U.S. did not follow through on Baum's
macabre demand for there really was no need. By then the native
population had been reduced to 2.5% of its original numbers and
97.5% of the aboriginal land base had been expropriated and
renamed the land of the free and the home of the brave. Hundreds
upon hundreds of native tribes with unique languages, learning,
customs, and cultures had simply been erased from the face of the
earth, most often without even the pretense of justice or law.

Today we can see the remnant cultural arrogance of Christopher
Columbus and Captain John Smith shadowed in the cult of the
"global free market" which aims to eradicate indigenous cultures and
traditions world-wide, to force all peoples to adopt the ways of
the U.S. Global free trade is manifest destiny writ large.

But as Barry Lopez says, "This violent corruption needn't define
us.... We can say, yes, this happened, and we are ashamed. We
repudiate the greed. We recognize and condemn the evil. And we
see how the harm has been perpetuated. But, five hundred years
later, we intend to mean something else in the world." If we
chose, we could set limits on ourselves for once. We could
declare enough is enough. So it is always good to celebrate
Columbus on his day.

--Peter Montague(National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)


(London: Penguin Books, 1969). ISBN 0-14-044217-0.

Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 1990. ISBN

CONQUEST OF THE NEW WORLD (New York: Oxford University Press,
1992). ISBN 0-19-507581-1.

[4] Bartolome de las Casas, THE DEVASTATION OF THE INDIES: A
BRIEF ACCOUNT (translated by Herma Briffault) (Baltimore,
Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992). ISBN

Lights Books, 1997). ISBN 0-87286-323-9.

LOST THEIR CONTINENT (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1993), pg.
46. ISBN 0-85345-876-6.

[7] For example, see Mireya Navarro, "Guatemalan Army Waged
'Genocide,' New Report Finds," NEW YORK TIMES February 26, 1999,
pg. unknown. The TIMES described "torture, kidnapping and
execution of thousands of civilians" -- most of them Mayan
Indians -- a campaign to which the U.S. government contributed
"money and training." See http://www.nytimes.com/

Descriptor terms: columbus; native people, U.S.; genocide;
spain; england; indian policy;