It is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners. That is the opinion of Albert Camus according to Howard Zinn in his widely-read A People’s History of the United States (2005, first published in 1980, p. 10).
The reference to Camus by Zinn (1922-2010) is found in “Columbus, the Indians, and Human Progress,” the first chapter of his stimulating book. In that chapter he explains how he prefers “to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks” rather than from the European point of view.
From the perspective of the native peoples such as the Arawaks and Taíno, Columbus was clearly an enslaver—as well as an executioner, either directly or indirectly, of tens of thousands of those original inhabitants of the Caribbean Islands.
All of us who grew up in this country learned about Christopher Columbus, and most of what we learned in school was taught in a praiseworthy manner. And tomorrow is Columbus Day, which became a federal holiday in 1934.
In 1968 the date of Columbus Day was changed to the second Monday of October, and each year the President proclaims that that day shall be observed as Columbus Day. As his predecessors have done through the years, just two days ago the President said, “I, , President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim October 11, 2010, as Columbus Day. I call upon the people of the United States to observe this day with appropriate ceremonies and activities. I also direct that the Flag of the United States be displayed on all public buildings on the appointed day in honor of Christopher Columbus.”
In contrast to what we heard about Columbus, I don’t think I heard a word about Bartolomé de las Casas (1484–1566) during my grade school or high school years—or even in college or seminary. Zinn’s book had not yet been published.
Zinn’s stringent criticism of Columbus as the executioner of multitudes of Arawak and Taíno “Indians,” is based on the writings of Las Casas, a Dominican priest from Spain who traveled to Hispaniola in 1502. He later served as a chaplain during the conquest of Cuba, and as such he witnessed the brutality of the Spanish against the Taíno Indians.
As a result of his efforts, Las Casas was finally successful in convincing Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, to enact new laws that were much to the benefit of the native peoples of the West Indies. Through his work of “speaking the truth to power,” Las Casas was, truly, a liberator.
It distresses me that after all the years, Columbus is still widely celebrated and Las Casas and his works of love for the indigenous peoples of the “new world” are still relatively unknown. So if we agree with the assertion that it is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners, we still have our work cut out for us.