Christopher Columbus (c. 31 October 1451 – 20 May 1506) was an explorer, colonizer, and navigator, born in the Republic of Genoa, in what is today northwestern Italy. Under the auspices of the Catholic Monarchs of Spain, he completed four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean that led to general European awareness of the American continents in the Western Hemisphere. Those voyages, and his efforts to establish permanent settlements in the island of Hispaniola, initiated the process of Spanish colonization, which foreshadowed the general European colonization of the “New World“.
In the context of emerging western imperialism and economic competition between European kingdoms seeking wealth through the establishment of trade routes and colonies, Columbus’ far-fetched proposal to reach the East Indies by sailing westward received the support of the Spanish crown, which saw in it a promise, however remote, of gaining the upper hand over rival powers in the contest for the lucrative spice trade with Asia. During his first voyage in 1492, instead of reaching Japan as he had intended, Columbus landed in the Bahamas archipelago, at a locale he named San Salvador. Over the course of three more voyages, Columbus visited the Greater and Lesser Antilles, as well as the Caribbean coast of Colombia, Venezuela and Central America, claiming them for the Spanish Empire.
Never admitting that he had reached a continent previously unknown to Europeans, rather than the East Indies he had set out for, Columbus called the inhabitants of the lands he visited indios (Spanish for “Indians“). Columbus’ strained relationship with the Spanish crown and its appointed colonial administrators in America led to his arrest and dismissal as governor of the settlements in Hispaniola in 1500, and later to protracted litigation over the benefits which Columbus and his heirs claimed were owed to them by the crown.
Washington Irving‘s 1828 biography of Columbus popularized the idea that Columbus had difficulty obtaining support for his plan because many Catholic theologians insisted that the Earth was flat. In fact, most educated Westerners had understood that the Earth was spherical at least since the time of Aristotle, who lived in the 4th century BC and whose works were widely studied and revered in Medieval Europe. The sphericity of the Earth is also accounted for in the work of Ptolemy, on which ancient astronomy was largely based. Christian writers whose works clearly reflect the conviction that the Earth is spherical include Saint Bede the Venerable in his Reckoning of Time, written around AD 723. In Columbus’ time, the techniques of celestial navigation, which use the position of the Sun and the Stars in the sky, together with the understanding that the Earth is a sphere, were widely used by mariners.
Where Columbus did differ from the view accepted by scholars in his day was in his estimate of the westward distance from Europe to Asia. Columbus’ ideas in this regard were based on three factors: his low estimate of the size of the Earth, his high estimate of the size of the Eurasian landmass, and his belief that Japan and other inhabited islands lay far to the east of the coast of China. In all three of these issues Columbus was both wrong and at odds with the scholarly consensus of his day.
As far back as the 3rd century BC, Eratosthenes had correctly computed the circumference of the Earth by using simple geometry and studying the shadows cast by objects at two different locations: Alexandria and Syene (modern-day Aswan). Eratosthenes’s results were confirmed by a comparison of stellar observations at Alexandria and Rhodes, carried out by Posidonius in the 1st century BC. These measurements were widely known among scholars, but confusion about the old-fashioned units of distance in which they were expressed had led, in Columbus’s day, to some debate about the exact size of the Earth.
Settler-colonial societies eliminate the indigenous population. Thomas Jefferson said, well, we have no choice but to exterminate the indigenous population, the Native Americans; the reason is they’re attacking us. Why are they attacking us? Because we’re taking everything away from them. But since we’re taking their land and resources away and they defend themselves, we have to exterminate them.
The settler-colonial societies are a striking illustration of, first of all, the massive destructive power of European imperialism. If some extraterrestrial observer were watching this, they’d think the species was insane. And, in fact, it is. But the insanity goes back to the basic institutional structure. That’s the way it works. It’s built into the institutions. It’s one of the reasons it’s going to be very hard to change.
The U.S. was founded on two racist principles: the system of slavery, the source of much of its wealth (and England’s too), and the need to rid the national territory of Native Americans, whom the Declaration of Independence explicitly describes as “the merciless Indian savages,” and whom the framers saw as barring the expansion of the “superior” race. Immigrants were supposed to be basically “Anglo-Saxon,” in accord with racist myths of the founding fathers that persisted through the 19th century.
There are sharp concentration of wealth and power, increasingly in largely predatory financial institutions, stagnation or decline for the majority, deterioration of benefits, astonishing collapse of infrastructure. The result, in the U.S. and in Europe, is an upsurge of anger, resentment and, all too often, a search for scapegoats — typically those even more disadvantaged, who are portrayed as being coddled by liberal elites. It’s a dangerous mix: fertile territory for demagogues.
The threats are far more extreme than the incipient fascist-style tendencies, which are severe enough. Humans are facing a decision of extraordinary significance, which must be made very soon: Will organized human society survive in anything like its present form, or will it be devastated by global catastrophe? The two most ominous threats are nuclear war and environmental catastrophe, both increasing. On the latter, major energy corporations are apparently planning on a future with 5º Celsius above pre-industrial levels by mid-century, and with that in mind, are racing to accelerate what climate scientists recognize to be indescribable catastrophe by maximizing the profitable production of fossil fuels, joined by the biggest banks and other major capitalist institutions.
Meanwhile the Republican administration is anticipating a slightly less overwhelming catastrophe — a rise of 4º[C] by end of the century, also far above what scientists recognize to be a colossal danger. And it concludes from this detailed environmental assessment that we should not limit automotive emissions, because — what’s the difference? We’re going over the cliff anyway.
In mid-April 1945, the war in Europe was essentially over. There was no military reason to attack the Germans stationed near Royan, France, much less to burn the French men, women, and children in the town to death. The British had already destroyed the town in January, similarly bombing it because of its vicinity to German troops, in what was widely called a tragic mistake. Zinn blames everyone involved — which must include himself — for “the most powerful motive of all: the habit of obedience, the universal teaching of all cultures, not to get out of line, not even to think about that which one has not been assigned to think about, the negative motive of not having either a reason or a will to intercede.”
As an active WWII bombardier returning from the end of the war in Europe and preparing for combat in Japan, Howard Zinn read the headline “Atomic Bomb Dropped on Japan” and was glad—the war would be over. “Like other Americans,” writes Zinn, “I had no idea what was going on at the higher levels, and had no idea what that ‘atomic bomb’ had done to men, women, children in Hiroshima, any more than I ever really understood what the bombs I dropped on European cities were doing to human flesh and blood.” During the war, Zinn had taken part in the aerial bombing of Royan, France. In 1966, he went to Hiroshima, where he was invited to a “house of rest” where survivors of the bombing gathered. In The Bomb (City Lights Open Media), the backstory of the making and use of the bomb, Zinn offers his deep personal reflections and political analysis of these events, and the profound influence they had in transforming him from an order-taking combat soldier to one of our greatest anti-authoritarian, anti-war historians.
A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn
An experts’ history of Howard Zinn, FEB. 1, 2010
Howard Zinn, Historian, Dies at 87, by MICHAEL POWELLJAN. 27, 2010
Posted on July 14, 2015 by Howard Zinn Website
Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James W. Loewen.
Noam Chomsky: To Make the US a Democracy, the Constitution Itself Must Change, by C. J. Polychroniou, Truthout, July 24, 2019
HOWARD ZINN’S THE BOMB, By David Swanson|July 26, 2010