Once upon a Genocide: Christopher Columbus in Children's Literature
Bigelow, Bill, Social Justice
Robert Young, Christopher Columbus and His Voyage to the New World, (Let's Celebrate Series). Silver Press, 1990, 32 pp. (2nd grade). James T. de Kay, Meet Christopher Columbus. Random House, 1989, 72 pp. (2nd grade). Jan Gleiter and Kathleen Thompson, Christopher Columbus, (Great Tales Series). Ideals, 1985, 32 pp. (3rd grade). Ingri and Edgar Parin Aulaire, Columbus. Doubleday, 1955, 59 pp. (5th grade). Jean Fritz, Where Do You Think You're Going, Christopher Columbus? G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1980, 80 pp. (Upper elementary). Lino Monchieri (trans. by Mary Lee Grisanti), Christopher Columbus. Silver Burdett, 1985, 62 pp. (Upper elementary). Mary Pope Osborne, Christopher Columbus: Admiral of the Ocean Sea. Dell, 1987, 90 pp. (Upper elementary/middle school). Scan J. Dolan, Christopher Columbus: The Intrepid Mariner, (Great Lives Series). Fawcett Columbine, 1989, 117 pp. (Middle school).
Children's biographies of Christopher Columbus function as primers on racism and imperialism. These books teach youngsters to accept the right of white people to rule over people of color, of powerful nations to dominate weaker nations. And because the Columbus myth is so pervasive -- Columbus' "discovery" is probably the only historical episode with which all my students at Jefferson High School are familiar -- it is vital that educators analyze how this myth inhibits children from developing democratic, multicultural, and anti-racist attitudes.
The Columbus myth goes like this: Long ago there lived a great white man. This man was very brave, smart, and determined. He loved adventure. He sailed across the ocean and found many islands with dark-skinned people. He took possession of these islands and called the people "Indians." His name was Christopher Columbus -- he discovered America.
Almost without exception this is the portrait of Columbus presented in biographies written for children. They depict the journey to the New World as a "great adventure" led by "probably the greatest sailor of his time." It's a story of courage and superhuman tenacity.
Yet behind this tale of courage, adventure, and "discovery" is the gruesome reality. For Columbus, land was real estate and it didn't matter to him that other people were already living there; if he "discovered" it, he took it. If he needed guides or translators, he kidnaped them. If his men wanted women, he captured sex slaves. If the indigenous people resisted, he countered with vicious dogs, hangings, and mutilations. On his second voyage, desperate to show his royal patrons a return on their investment, Columbus rounded up some 1,500 Taino Indians on the island of Hispaniola and chose 500 as slaves to be shipped back to Spain and sold. As one of the Spanish colonists wrote, the remaining Indians "rushed in all directions like lunatics, women dropping and abandoning infants in the panic, running for miles without stopping, fleeing across mountains and rivers."' Slavery did not show a profit as almost all the slaves died en route to Spain or soon after their arrival. Thus, Columbus decided to concentrate on the search for gold. Nonetheless, he wrote, "Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold."(2) As for gold, Columbus ordered every Taino 14 years and over to deliver a regular quota. Those who failed were punished by having their hands chopped off. In a mere two years of the Columbus regime possibly a quarter of a million people died. Yes, in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue -- but he did much more than that.(3)
It is worth noting that none of this information is based on new or controversial research; in fact, some of the most horrifying details of Columbus' reign in the Indies come from biographers like Samuel Eliot Morison, who are great admirers of the admiral.
This article follows Columbus as he sails through children's biographies, comparing the books' versions of events with the historical record and then analyzing how these accounts may influence young readers. I especially focus on the authors' portrayals of Columbus' relationship to Native Americans and the way these accounts justify racism and other social inequalities. I conclude with a brief examination of the pedagogy implicit in these books and a discussion of more appropriate ways to teach Columbus in this quincentennial period.
Portrait of Columbus: The Books vs. the Historical Record
Why did Columbus want to sail west to get to the Indies? The answer offered to children in today's books seems not to have changed much since I was in fourth grade. I remember my teacher, Mrs. O'Neill, asking our class this question. As usual, I didn't have a clue, but up went Jimmy Martin's hand. "Why do men want to go to the moon?" he said triumphantly. Mrs. O'Neill was delighted and told us all how smart Jimmy was because he had answered a question with a question. In other words: just because -- because he was curious, because he loved adventure, because he wanted to prove he could do it --just because. And for years I accepted this explanation (and envied Jimmy Martin).
In reality, Columbus wanted to become very rich. It was no easy task convincing Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand to finance this highly questionable journey to the Indies, partly because his terms were pretty outrageous. Columbus demanded 10% of all the wealth returned to Europe along the new trade route to Asia (where Columbus thought he was headed) -- that's 10% of the riches brought back by everyone, not just by himself. Furthermore, he wanted this guaranteed forever, for him, for his sons, for their sons, in perpetuity. He demanded that he be granted the titles "Viceroy" and "Admiral of the Ocean Sea." He was to be governor of all new territories found; the "Admiral" title was hereditary and would give him a share in proceeds from naval booty.
As for Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, curiosity, adventure, and "exploration" were the last things on the minds of these Spanish monarches. They wanted the tremendous profits that could be secured by finding a western passage to the Indies.
The books acknowledge -- and even endorse -- Columbus' demands and readily admit that securing "gold and spices" was an objective of the Enterprise. "Of course [Columbus] wanted a lot! What was wrong with that?" James de Kay's Meet Christopher Columbus tells second graders. Yet this quest for wealth as a motive for Columbus' expedition is downplayed in favor of adventure. "Exploration" meant going to "strange …
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Publication information: Article title: Once upon a Genocide: Christopher Columbus in Children's Literature. Contributors: Bigelow, Bill - Author. Journal title: Social Justice. Volume: 19. Issue: 2 Publication date: Summer 1992. Page number: 106+. © 1998 Crime and Social Justice Associates. COPYRIGHT 1992 Gale Group.
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