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by William H. Benson

October 15, 2009

     In 1995, James W. Loewen published a book he entitled Lies My Teacher Told Me, in which he released the results of his survey of a dozen different high school American history textbooks that each began with a similar account of Christopher Columbus’s 1492 voyage west across the Atlantic.

     Loewen observed that these twelve texts presented an average of 800 words on Columbus, covered two and a half pages, and featured either a picture or perhaps a map. Loewen then provided a synthesized recap of those 800 words, and then observed that “unfortunately, almost everything in this traditional account is wrong or unverifiable.”

     He had two major problems with what the textbook authors said about Columbus: first, they underplayed previous explorers, such as the Viking Leif Erickson of the tenth century, and second, none of them provided any kind of analysis of the major changes going on in Europe then that prompted the response there after Columbus’s return.

     In other words, Loewen faults the textbook authors for failing to provide adequate explanations for what Columbus unleashed—not just an Age of Exploration but the Age of Conquest in the new World.

     Loewen wrote: “We must pay attention to what the textbooks are telling us and what they are not telling us. The changes in Europe in the fifteen century not only prompted Columbus’s voyages, but also paved the way for Europe’s domination of the world for the next five hundred years. Except for the invention of agriculture, this was probably the most consequential development in human history.”

     What were these changes in Europe? First, there were the advances in military technology, mounting bigger guns on bigger ships; in other words an arms race. “We live with this arms race still.” The Western nations, including the United States, continue to try to keep non-Western nations disadvantaged in military technology, i.e. Iraq and Iran.

     Second, there were new forms of social technology: the printing press, double-entry bookkeeping, and bureaucratic chains of command that allowed the Spanish to maintain and direct their far-flung empire.

     Third, a shift in the theology in Europe sanctioned the domination of other peoples and the theft of their wealth as a means to win esteem on earth and salvation in the hereafter. In other words, Europe now had a Christian faith that they could transport, and that faith “rationalized conquest.”

     Finally, the Europeans had diseases, especially smallpox, that would decimate the native tribes, rendering them vanquished, before mustering a fight.

     Loewen addressed then the issue of Eurocentrism, by asking the question—why was it that the nations of Europe rose to dominate the world? “It is rarely presented as a question,” Loewen wrote. “It seems natural, a given, not something that needs to be explained.” Furthermore, why must one group, race, culture, tribe, or state dominate another, for, Loewen argued, domination is not a natural phenomenon but cultural.

     Columbus dominated; of that, we are sure. As soon as he was off the boat, he claimed ownership of all he saw for the King and Queen of Spain. His style was world class “shock and awe.” His purpose was not exploration, writing better maps, sightseeing, or even establishing trade, but conquest and exploitation of the people and their land. 

     Michael de Cuneo accompanied Columbus on an expedition into the interior of Haiti in 1494, and said this of him: “It seemed to the Lord Admiral that it was time to put into execution his desire to search for gold, which was the main reason he had started on so great a voyage full of so many dangers.” Once he had found Haiti’s gold, he enslaved the natives to dig it for him until they dropped dead of starvation and overwork.

     Exploiting the Americas transformed Europe: Spain, with its enormous horde of gold and silver, became the envy of the world. Islamic power to the east was undermined, and Africa became the source for laborers in the New World.

     Lowen wrote that the Columbus account as presented in the textbooks “allows us to accept the contemporary division of the world into developed and underdeveloped spheres as natural and given, rather than as a historical product that began with Columbus’s first voyage.”