Social Education 57(3), 1993, pp. 111
1993 National Council for the Social Studies
The Contemporary Relevance of 1492
According to the statement,
Scholars describe the United States as one of history's first universal or world nations-its people are a microcosm of humanity with biological, cultural, and social ties to all other parts of the earth. The origin of these critical features of our demographic and our civic life lies in the initial encounters and migrations of peoples and cultures of the Americas, Europe, and Africa.... [T]he nation and its citizens are an integral part of a global society created by forces that began to unfold in 1492.
The statement adds that the encounters of Native Americans, Africans, and Europeans following 1492 are not stories of vigorous white actors confronting passive red and black spectators and victims....All borrowed from and influenced the others and, in turn, were influenced by them. The internal diversity of the Native Americans, the Africans, and the Europeans contributed to the development of modern American pluralistic culture and world civilization. The NCSS statement provides a vignette of black, copper-colored, and white peoples sitting down together, teaching and learning from each other, and bringing their own special offerings to a multicultural feast: Andean potatoes, Mexican maize, Potosi gold, Arabian horses, Andalusian cattle, beaver pelts, woolen blankets, and guns. Civilization and society are enriched!
This picture is a myth. The rise of the global economy following Columbus's explorations did not bring together the peoples of the Eastern and Western Hemispheres on a footing of equality. European seafarers and merchants were the chief operators of the world market that exploded across the globe in the sixteenth century. They used this market to enrich themselves at the same time as they accomplished the destruction of peoples of color-Native American and African alike. The challenge to historians, in our view, is not to romanticize this market process but to explain how violent and rapacious Europeans used it to create a world they dominated-a world in which, armed with recently won technological superiority, they confronted, enslaved, and exterminated peoples of color.
This is not to say that with Columbus the world became divided into sinners and saints-into inherently evil white Europeans on the one side and innocent victims of color on the other. Some historians have pointed out that the Aztecs made a holocaust out of human sacrifice to their gods. Other have cited the cruelty the Iroquois practiced in torturing prisoners of war and have drawn attention to West African and Arab chiefs and retinues involved in the operation of the slave trade. History calls the Europeans to account not necessarily because they were more evil than other people but because they were armed, technologically, with greater power to inflict wrong. The new era that Columbus inaugurated is a vivid illustration of the maxim Thomas Jefferson formulated three centuries later: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Columbus's heritage lives on in today's world; teaching it ought to reveal how since 1492 the European-created colonial system tapped the labor and resources of the peoples of the world for the benefit of the metropolitan countries. This process laid the economic foundations on which modern industrial civilization has been reared.
The NCSS statement points out that the United States itself may trace its origins as a world power to the developments that Columbus's discoveries initiated. This is true, but there is a striking omission in this formulation: it fails to note the emergence of a distinctively American racism and its connection to the arrival of the Europeans.
A European stampede to the Americas in search of gold, land, furs, and natural resources was an immediate result of Columbus's voyages. Indian wars and the enslavement of both Native and African-American peoples ensued as a long-term outcome. This was a disaster for peoples of color, but the white settlers in the North American colonies and the United States also paid a heavy price. They became obsessed by fear and hatred of their Native American and African victims, who fought back savagely. Over the centuries, these feelings of fear and hatred have crystallized into a social attitude that endures today. The study of this racism, one would think, is of immediate, practical relevance in the classroom. Absent the elimination of racism from our society, the statement that we are "one of history's first universal or world nations" will remain the most precarious and conditional of truths.
Basic Knowledge about the Historical Setting and Effects of Columbus's Voyages
The NCSS statement lists a number of important "facets of history" that, it says, "are in danger of being disregarded, obscured, or ignored in the public hyperbole that is likely to surround the quincentenary." It points out, first, that "the land that Columbus encountered was not a new world. Rather, it was a world of peoples with rich and complex histories dating back at least fifteen thousand years or possibly earlier."1 What Columbus did was put "two old worlds into permanent contact." The America of 1492, the statement continues, was a far different place from the precontact America depicted in folklore, textbooks, and the mass media:
[It] was not a wilderness inhabited by primitive peoples whose history was fundamentally different from that of the people of the Eastern Hemisphere. Many of the same phenomena characterized...the history of the peoples of both the Western and the Eastern Hemispheres, including: highly developed agricultural systems, centers of dense populations, complex civilizations, large-scale empires,... and regional variations in levels of societal complexity.
This statement is perfectly true, but applies primarily to Mesoamerica. Most American peoples north of the Rio Grande (to say nothing of those in the Amazon basin) were hunters, fishers, gatherers, and farmers. They did not construct massive irrigation systems, live in densely populated centers, found complex civilizations, or organize large-scale empires. This was true of the vast majority of the Native peoples who lived on the North American continent for millennia preceding Columbus's arrival. Their technological achievements were often extraordinary but they knew little about metallurgy and in 1492 had not yet embarked upon the fashioning of metal tools or weapons.
These peoples cannot be dismissed as "primitive peoples inhabiting a wilderness" merely because they were ignorant of the more advanced technology of the Europeans or of their Mesoamerican neighbors. The North Americans were human beings who created their own unique societies and who developed their own special artistic and spiritual qualities. Aboriginal history in North America is our history; more than that, it illuminates the history of humanity itself. North America has endured for eons as a land of infinitely varied peoples and cultures. The time has come to give these peoples and these cultures the consideration that is their due. In light of this long multicultural history, the NCSS statement that North American multiculturalism begins with Columbus must be seen as, at best, less than accurate and, at worst, a racist approach.
The NCSS statement next turns its attention to the effect of the European intrusion on Native American mortality rates. "As a result of forces emanating from 1492," it says, "Native Americans suffered catastrophic mortality rates." Depopulation occurred, it seems, when diseases introduced by the Europeans laid low the Native peoples. The statement targets these plagues (e.g., smallpox, measles, and influenza) as "crucial allies in the European conquest of the Native American." It adds that other factors such as war, genocide, and displacement policies "further contributed to the most extensive depopulation of a group of peoples in the history of humankind."
The NCSS statement here singles out microorganisms as the chief villains in accomplishing the destruction of Native American peoples. Centuries of war and genocide, we are invited to believe, only reinforced the lethal role of germs. Thus the tragedy was, on the whole, biologically determined; the NCSS statement implies, therefore, that this demographic disaster was inevitable. In this case, the NCSS statement skirts a central question concerning the fate of Native Americans. What part did war and genocide play in the elimination of these peoples and their replacement by white settlers and black slaves in North America? In answering this question it is necessary to examine the history not only of Native Americans but of African Americans as well. The latter, too, were victims of lethal physical violence and of lethal assaults upon their cultural independence.
The NCSS statement devotes only a single brief paragraph to the African Americans:2
The Atlantic slave trade, which initially linked western Africa to Mediterranean Europe and the Atlantic islands, soon extended to the Americas. Until the end of the eighteenth century, the number of Africans who crossed the Atlantic to the Americas exceeded the number of Europeans. The labor, experiences, and cultures of the African-American people, throughout enslavement as well as after emancipation, have been significant in shaping the economic, political, and social history of the United States. That is all. No reference is made to the fact that the African-American experience for three and a half centuries from the time of Columbus was linked with forcible deracination and high mortality. Surely the genocidal effect of white practice against the African-American peoples-planned, organized, and conducted on West African shores, on the high Atlantic seas, and in American fields, forests, and swamps-ought to have been noted as a major theme of post-Columbian history. As much might have been said, and with equal truth, about the experience of Native peoples in Mesoamerica and Peru.
The subject of genocide in post-Columbian America is not an easy one to contemplate. How will young people feel when they are invited to learn about the manifold wrongs that have been inflicted on peoples of color during the entire post-Columbian era? Is it really permissible-in the NCSS statement's own words-"to disregard, obscure, or ignore" this facet of our history at the moment of the quincentenary observances?
These questions point up another key omission in the NCSS statement: it gives no consideration to the centuries of struggle American peoples of color waged against the Europeans who sought to enslave them, rob them of their land, and exterminate them. Yet it is important that young people today examine this story in detail. The study of the human struggle for liberty gives meaning and life to history; at the same time it boosts the morale and affirms the humanity of students.
Another omission is closely linked with this one: The NCSS statement makes no effort to identify opponents of racism and conquest who arose within the European tradition and European society itself. The NCSS statement, for example, does not invite teachers to celebrate the quincentenary of Bartolomé de Las Casas (1474-1566), the Catholic priest who devoted half his life to arraigning the Spanish Crown and the conquistadors before the bar of history for the crimes they committed against Native American peoples. Las Casas was thus a pioneer in the struggle against racism. He rejected the popular view, in Lewis Hanke's words, "that the Indians...were beasts...slaves by nature...or child-like creatures with such limited understanding that they were to be treated as perpetual minors" (1970, xiv). Las Casas asserted, on the contrary, that Native American cultures were deserving of careful study and that the members of these cultures ought to be treated with deep respect.
The omission of any mention of Las Casas in the NCSS statement is striking. Las Casas's work is well-documented evidence for the genocide that accompanied the European conquest of the Americas. Is it not time that, at long last, this evidence be submitted to the scrutiny of young Americans in their classrooms?
The NCSS statement ends its comments about Native American depopulation on a comforting note. "Despite this traumatic history of destruction and deprivation," it says, "Native American peoples have endured and are experiencing a cultural resurgence as we observe the 500th anniversary of the encounter."
This position, in our view, needs qualification. Political resurgence certainly has taken place, if by this we mean the struggle of Native Americans to unite and battle for survival against the white developers and governmental agents who steal their land, wipe out their fishing rights, pollute their soil, and disrupt their organizations. Nor should we overlook the success of Indian schools that involve the students in studying their historic cultures and reviving their ancient traditions. Tribute must also be paid to the historic meeting, "Columbus Didn't Discover Us," that took place in Ecuador in 1990; that meeting brought together three hundred Native people to participate in the First Continental Conference of Indigenous Peoples. The participants spoke movingly of the destruction of Indian societies and the importance of reviving their own spiritual traditions as part of today's struggle for human rights and for worldwide action on the environmental crisis.
Beyond this, many Native American groups are populations at risk. Their young people, especially those that live on reservations, view themselves as "born dead"-condemned to a prisonlike existence without hope, without decent jobs, and without a future. Nearly one in every six Indian adolescents in the United States has attempted suicide. The statistic is a stark one. It is the highest rate for any group in the country-four times that for all teenagers.
Its discussion of Native American depopulation finished, the NCSS statement moves on to a final point. Columbus's voyages, it says, "were a facet of Europe's millennia-long history of interaction with Asia and Africa," and were in part made possible by this interaction:
The "discovery" of America was an unintended outcome of Iberian Europe's search for an all-sea route to the "Indies"-a search stimulated in large part by the disruption of European-Asian trade routes occasioned by the collapse of the Mongol Empire. Technology critical to Columbus's voyages such as the compass, the sternpost rudder, gunpowder, and paper originated in China. The lateen sail, along with much of the geographical knowledge on which Columbus relied, originated with or was transmitted by the Arabs.
Twentieth-century scholarship has progressed far beyond this position (already becoming part of the conventional wisdom of the texts by the end of World War I).3 The NCSS statement ignores the contributions of twentieth-century systems builders such as L. Dudley Stamp, René Grousset, Fernand Braudel, Joseph Needham, Wilfrid Blunt, Mark Elvin, Immanuel Wallerstein, and Janet Abu-Lughod, to name a few. A world system, a global economy, had come into being by the fourteenth century, 150 years before Columbus sailed out into the Atlantic. Recognition of this fact may oblige us to change radically our classroom presentation of American history. To begin this study with Columbus-as most texts now do-may soon be seen as pointless. We may need first to introduce our students to the world system that by the fourteenth century linked China, via the Asian heartland and the Indian Ocean, to the Near East, North Africa, and Europe. Only then will our students be able to understand the full significance of the "discoveries" that integrated the Americas into a new and vastly expanded world system under European, not Chinese, hegemony.
1Prehistorians today estimate that the Native Americans have dwelt in this hemisphere for thirty thousand years. See Jean Guilaine, "Prehistory: A Changing Science," in Prehistory: The World of Early Man, edited by Jean Guilaine (New York: Facts on File, 1986), 10.2Here African Americans fare better than Asian Americans, who receive no mention in the NCSS statement at all.3See David Saville Muzzey, History of the American People (New York:Ginn and Company, 1927), which was read by tens of thousands of students in the period between the two world wars. Western indebtedness to China and Islam has long been a standard feature of scholarly works on the history of technology, e.g., Abbott Payson Usher, A History of Mechanical Inventions (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1929); A. R. Hall, The Scientific Revolution 1500-1800 (London: Longman, Green and Company, 1954); Lynn White, Jr., Medieval Technology and Social Change (Oxford:Oxford University Press, 1962); and Mark Elvin, The Pattern of the Chinese Past (London:Eyre Methuan, 1973).Reference
de Las Casas, Bartolomé. Tears of the Indians. Williamstown, Mass.: John Lilburne Co., 1970. With an introduction by Louis Hanke.Signatories to the Response
(Affiliations are listed for purposes of identification only.)
Bill Bigelow, Rethinking Columbus, Portland, OregonMichael Charney, Editor, The Critique; Cleveland Teachers' Union, Cleveland, OhioDonald S. Detwiler, Southern Illinois University,Carbondale, IllinoisChristopher Dodge, The Minnesota Library Association, MinneapolisJohn Duffy, Hinsdale High School, Hinsdale, IllinoisDennis Fox, Sangamon State University, Springfield, IllinoisHermon George, Black Studies, University of North Colorado, GreeleyJames W. Loewen, University of Vermont, BurlingtonDeborah Menkart, Network of Educators on the Americas, Washington, D.C.Philip Tajitsu Nash, formerly Asian American Studies, Yale University, New Haven, ConnecticutFranklin S. Odo, Ethnic Studies Program, University of Hawaii, Manoa Ronald Sakolsky, Sangamon State University, Springfield, IllinoisJohn Anthony Scott, Committee on History in the Classroom, Holland, MassachusettsJohn W. Scott, High School of Commerce, Springfield, MassachusettsSal Salerno, Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs, Hamline University, St. Paul, MinnesotaIra Shor, The City University of New York, New York CityMark Simon, Board of Directors, National Education Association, Washington, D.C.Meredith Sommers, Quincentennial Education Project, Minneapolis, MinnesotaRonald Takaki, Asian American Studies, University of California, Berkeley