In 1492, What Did Columbus Really Do?

As plans get under way for 1992 to mark the 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the Americas, Native pleoples and others say there is nothing to celebrate.

Paul McKenna

This is the first article in a two-part series. The second part, to appear in January 1991 issue, will explore the question of Christian mission and how our understanding of its role has changed, particularly in relation to Canada's native peoples.

The morning of October 12, 1492, Christopher Columbus sets foot on a small Caribbean isle called Guanahani, now one of the Bahama Islands.
"He falls on his knees, weeps, kisses the ground. He goes forward staggering , for he has spent more than a month sleeping little or not at all; he chops off some branches wih his sword.
"He then raises the flag. Kneeling down, eyes to the heavens, he pronounces three times the names of Isabel and Ferdinand (the queen and king of Spain). At his side, the scribe, Rodrigo de Escobedo, a slow man with a pen, draws up the document.
"'From now on everything belongs to these distant monarchs - the coral sea, the sands, the moss green rocks, the forests, the parrots, and these bronze-skinned people who still don't know about clothes, guns nor money and (who) watch the scene in a state of shock.'"

(From Memories of Fire by Eduardo Galeano)

With these words and gestures, the native peoples of the Caribbean region and the lands they had inhabited for thousands of years suddenly became the exclusive property of the King and Queen of Spain. Thus began the "discovery" of the Americas.

In Columbus' time, the papacy exercised tremendous authority over the various European monarchs. With papal permission, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella authorized Columbus to sail to India and bring back spices that would bolster Spain's imperial economy. By an accident of history, he stumbled upon the Americas, where he "discovered" native peoples and gold.

Columbus' arrival in the Caribbean was a pivotal, historic event marking the beginning of the European colonization of the Americas. At that time, other European monarchs were also interested in expanding their influence and acquiring natural resources from distant lands. The Portuguese explorer, Cabral, landed on the coast of Brazil in 1494. In the seventeenth century, the Dutch, the British and the French colonized the United States; and in Canada, the British and the French began a long struggle for colonial control.

In 1992, more than 20 countries throughout the world will be celebrating the 500th anniversary of Columbus' landing. There are plans to spend billions of dollars. Countries in Europe and Central and South America will be the major participants in the anniversary celebrations. But other nations, such as Israel, Japan, and the United States, will also play a role. In each of these countries, government commissions have been established to develop campaigns and activities for the anniversary year.

The Vatican is also involved. For some years now, it has been planning a campaign marking "500 Years of Evangelization in the Western Hemisphere".

The initiative for the anniversary year began with the Spanish government, which is hosting the Olympic games and the World's Fair in 1992.

The Canadian government will be sponsoring a Canadian pavilion at the World's Fair. The price tag for Canada's participation at the fair will be $33 million.

But for the indigenous peoples of the Americas, for black people and for many others, there's nothing to celebrate in 1992. From the perspective of these people, Columbus' Caribbean landing was not a discovery, but an armed invasion.

Columbus' arrival in the Americas, they argue, sparked a brutal conquest that spread rapidly across two continents. In their drive to extract gold and other natural resources, the Europeans reduced the aboriginal peoples to slavery, stole their lands and crushed their religions and cultures.

It's estimated that when Columbus arrived, there were 80 million native people living in the Americas. But within 150 years, the native population was reduced to less than 8 million. For every 10 Indians, one remained. This rapid and dramatic decline in population was largely the result of slavery, massacres, torture and disease.

A brief survey of developments in various countries helps to illustrate the fate suffered by the indigenous peoples:

  • Peru - In 1532, Francisco Pizzarro landed on the coast of Peru, the hub of the Incan empire. Within 300 years, the indigenous population was reduced from 10 million to 1 million.
  • Mexico - When Cortes arrived in the early sixteenth century, Mexico had a population of 20 million. One hundred years later, there were 750,000 natives left.
  • Haiti - Shortly after landing in Guanahani, Columbus reached Haiti, which had a population of 200,000. Twenty years later, there were only 29,000 inhabitants.
  • Cuba - Within 80 years of Columbus' arrival, the population was reduced from 500,000 to 3,000.
  • United States - As a result of the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act in 1887, the native peoples lost 100 million acres of land within a period of 50 years.
  • Canada - In the early part of the nineteenth century, the Beothuk nation, which inhabited parts of Newfoundland, became extinct. The brutal mistreatment of the Beothuks by the English and Irish settlers is considered a key factor contributing to the extinction of this once-proud nation.

Throughout the Americas, tens of thousands of people are organizing campaigns to oppose the 1992 celebrations. As they see it, the well-financed programs and activities are really an attempt on the part of wealthy elites to continue the conquest. The triumphant nature of the celebrations is designed, they argue, to flaunt past imperial glory with a view to future political and economic advantages.

Spain's pivotal role in the anniversary celebrations is suspect. Many see it as an effort on the part of the Spanish government to enhance its political and economic interests on the European and international stage.

Indigenous peoples are in the forefront of the efforts to resist the celebration. Already, they have formulated a number of clearly defined goals and strategies for 1992. Foremost among these is a commitment to telling the real story of what happened in 1492 and after.

Most people in the Americas have grown up believing in a Columbus who "in fourteen hundred and ninety-two...sailed the ocean blue". The history books don't mention the fact that he was a brutal conqueror whose actions were imitated by other colonizers throughout the Americas.

History is always written by the conquerors. And in 1992, a false version of history will be perpetuated by the official government commissions. This is why the native peoples are intent on telling the real story.

The opponents of the official celebrations are anxious to explode the myth of discovery. Native peoples are particularly sensitive about the misuse of the term. "The concept of discovery is very disturbing," according to Canada's Assembly of First Nations. "Nothing was discovered. This phrase implies the justification for the colonization of the Americas without regard to the form of state which existed. Nations of aboriginal people inhabited these lands long before the Europeans arrived. This fact must be acknowledged."

In rejecting the word discovery, native organizations are opting for terms such as self-discovery, recovery and uncovering.

The aboriginal peoples of the Americas will use 1992 as an occasion to recover their historical selves. For five centuries, their indigenous culture, identity, spirituality and self-esteem have been battered and submerged. History does not record, for example, the many heroic instances of native resistance to the conquistadores and the brutal colonial regimes which followed.

"Our message for 1992 is simple," says the Assembly of First Nations. "For First Nations to celebrate the near destruction of our culture and identity would be insane ...(We) look forward to positive discussions on the presentation of our viewpoint. We want to give you the true picture. And we want to say, First Nations have survived and will continue to be here for the next 500 years."

Native peoples are committed to recovering their historical memory to affirm their identity. They want to uncover those traditions, cultural values and forms of community that sustained them from thousands of years and enabled them to live in harmony with one another and with nature.

Through the experience of self-discovery, native peoples feel they will grow in autonomy and self-reliance and become masters of their destiny. The year 1992 will provide indigenous peoples with an important opportunity to address such specific issues as land claims, self-determination, justice, racism and education.

"Today, the indigenous struggle is centred around the issue of land, a focal point in developing our own appropriate forms of self-determination and resistance," according to the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador. "The land is where our people live, where our food grows. It is where the Sacred Vision of the Cosmos is found."

Cultural and artistic events protesting the official celebrations have already taken place on both continents and more are being planned as 1992 approaches.

By networking, native peoples are trying to speak with a unified voice. In the past year, for example, several indigenous representatives from Central and South America have visited various Canadian cities to raise consciousness about the anniversary theme.

In July of this year, the First Continental Conference of Indigenous Nations - Five Hundred Years of Resistance, took place in Quito, Ecuador. The purpose of this meeting was to develop a continent-wide network of indigenous movements in preparation for 1992. Two representatives of the United Church of Canada's All-Native Circle Conference attended the Quito conference.

One of the sponsors of the conference was the Self-Discovery of America Campaign. This Colombia-based organization has projects in several countries and is networking with similar efforts in Canada and the United States.

The Self Discovery Campaign is addressing the concerns of all social and racial groups who have suffered oppression under colonial rule. These include "the children of slavery and servitude, blacks, Indians, mestizos, mulattos and poor whites".

The individuals and organizations opposing the official celebrations say that the conquest which began with Columbus continues today with an equal ferocity. Columbus' voyage, they say, was part of a larger international project of European expansionism that effectively divided the globe into First and Third Worlds. The process of exploitation continues, they add, with European monarchs and conquerors being replaced by wealthy elites, transnational corporations and death squads.

Native peoples see parallels, for instance, between the destruction of the native populations of Cuba and Haiti and the current genocide of aboriginal peoples in Brazil and Guatemala. And they question whether imperial Spain's lust for gold was any different from the profit motive that drives today's multinational corporations to export natural resources at the expense of the environment.

Native peoples are forging alliances with peace, human rights and environmental organizations. They want to create alternatives that will ensure a safe environment and the dignity of all persons.

The movement to oppose the anniversary celebrations is much better organized and more broadly based in South and Central America than it is in North America.

In Canada, the movement is just beginning to pick up speed. Canadian native organizations -local and national- have been organizing for some time now. At its steering committee meeting last June, the Aboriginal Rights Coalition established a working group to gather information from member churches about their plans for active involvement in this issue.

There's much consciousness-raising still to be done. Various churches are just beginning to address the issue. In August of this year, the All Native Circle Conference (ANCC) made two petitions to the United Church's General Council.

The first of these concerned the pavilion that the Canadian government will be sponsoring at the 1992 World's Fair in Spain. General Council supported the ANCC petition that the United Church urge the Canadian government not to participate in Expo 92, and that it redirect the money from the pavilion project to educational programs that would reflect the historical contribution of aboriginal people to Canada.

The ANCC had also petitioned General Council proposing that the Moderator request an audience with Pope John Paul II to urge him not to support any celebrations of 1492. General Council responded to the petition by asking the United Church to work with the Canadian Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches to make overtures to the Vatican, asking that it not participate in the anniversary and not celebrate masses in honour of it.

The Caribbean and Latin America desk of the United Church's Division of World Outreach is developing a policy on 1992 that will be presented for endorsement to the General Council Executive in November. Tom Edmonds, area secretary for the Caribbean and Latin America, maintains that Canadian Christians lack any sense of what happened to aboriginal people historically.

"The veins of the Americas, and our native peoples, have been open and bleeding for 500 years," Edmonds says. "What has the church done to stop the bleeding? The church must address this issue in 1992."

In February of 1991, representatives of the All Native Circle Conference will visit Aborigine communities in Australia. In 1988, Australia celebrated its bicentennial of colonization and the Aborigines opposed the celebrations for the same reasons that native peoples are resisting 1992. The ANCC representatives want to consult with the Aborigines to learn from their experience.

"If one is going to remember the events of 1492, the meeting of two cultures, that was the opportunity for the gifts of two peoples to come together," says Alf Dumont, speaker of the ANCC. "All of us were given the opportunity, but because one people wanted to dominate the other, the opportunity was missed; it was not used wisely".

"The native traditional teachings that maintain that opportunity will come again. The Creator always provides new possibilities. 1992 will be another opportunity to discern what the true spiritual gifts and teachings are, and to respond to those teachings. Let us use it well."

Paul McKenna is a Toronto-based freelance writer.


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