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February 1st, 2010
Freethought San Marcos: The destruction of Haiti, starting with Columbus

Freethought San Marcos: A column

Columbus sailed the ocean blue

in fourteen hundred and ninety-two

Today we honor him in song

Columbus hero brave and strong

Those verses are part of a childhood song that children of my generation learned in school in the 1950s. No history teacher ever explained the suffering and death that was the result of Columbus’s expedition to the New World. And never did I learn about Columbus’s role in destroying the indigenous population of what is now Haiti.

Columbus’s first voyage to find a new route to China led him to the island of Hispaniola, about 2/3 of which is now the Dominican Republic and the other 1/3 is Haiti. Columbus built his first settlement–La Navida–on the north shore of present day Haiti after one of his ships was wrecked. The Taino Indians, described by Columbus as peaceful and generous, helped salvage the cargo from the wrecked ship. They are believed to be a people created from waves of migrations from Central and South America over 5000 years before Columbus’s voyage.

Columbus left behind 39 crewmen from the wrecked ship and departed to continue his exploration. These Spaniards began enslaving the Taino women for domestic work, which, after several months, led to armed conflict with the Tainos, who destroyed the temporary settlement, killing the Spanish settlers.

In 1493, a permanent European settlement was created on the north side of the island. The Tainos were ravaged by disease brought by the settlers and forced into slavery to pan for gold for the Europeans. A few years later, the Spanish governor of the island arranged the slaughter of nearly all the Taino chiefs at a site where Port-au-Prince is located, ending organized resistance by the Tainos.

After 25 years of Spanish occupation, the Taino population, which had numbered several million in 1492, were reduced to about 50,000. They gradually became mixed biologically with the Spaniards (including black Spaniards) and Africans (who had been brought as slaves to Hispaniola) to become part of the tripartite people known today as Dominicans. The French sent settlers to the Caribbean in the early 1600s and some of them settled in the western end of Hispaniola, which had largely been abandoned by the Spanish.

Two years ago, while reading “Voices of a People’s History of the United States,” by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove, I came across a portion of Columbus’s diary and Zinn’s description of the true story of what Columbus did when he “discovered” the New World, and his real purpose:

“There is no more glaring distortion in the history learned by generations of Americans–in textbooks, in schools, in the popular culture–than in the story of Christopher Columbus. He is universally portrayed as a heroic figure, a brave adventurer, a skilled seaman who crossed the ocean not knowing what he would find, and stumbled on an unknown continent.”

“All that is true. But what is missing from that story is that, when he landed in the Bahamas Islands, Columbus and his men, greeted by peaceful and generous natives, set out on a ruthless quest for gold that led to enslavement, misery, and death for that population.”

“Profit was the driving force behind Columbus’ expedition and behind his actions after he landed.” Zinn describes how Columbus tortured the Indians to force them to find gold for him. He “kidnapped and enslaved hundreds of them” forcing them to work in gold mines. “It was the beginning of the annihilation of the Indians on Hispaniola. …It was the start of the European conquest of the Western Hemisphere.”

After the Spanish came to Hispaniola, next came the French, who arranged for hundreds of thousands of African slaves to be brought there to work in the fields planting and harvesting sugar cane, which made the French colony wealthy. By the end of the 17th century, the western third of Hispaniola became a French possession called Saint Dominique. In 1791, a French Black man by the name of Toussaint L’ouverture led a successful slave revolt. Four years later Spain ceded the Spanish part of Hispaniola to France, and L’ouverture and his followers claimed the entire island. A compatriot of L’ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, declared independence for Haiti, reclaiming the indigenous Taíno name, meaning “Land of Mountains,” for the new nation.

When Napoleon sent an army to defeat the black rule over a French settlement, L’ouverture’s forces defeated them and established the Republic of Haiti on the western third of the island. The French retained control of the eastern side of Hispaniola, which was returned to Spanish rule in 1809. In 1822, the President of Haiti took control of the eastern part of the island and Hispaniola was ruled by Haiti for 22 years. A Spanish underground resistance group succeeded in driving out the Haitians from the eastern two-thirds of the island. In 1844, the independent Dominican Republic was founded.

For the next 70 years, the control of Hispaniola changed hands several times. During the first World War, US Marines were brought in to “protect” the island from the Europeans, mainly a few hundred Germans who controlled much of the commerce in Haiti. The US military raised and trained a local military in both the Dominican Republic and Haiti to create and maintain order, stability, and security. This resulted in a shift of power away from civilians to the military. Rafael Trujillo came to power in the Dominican Republic and maintained power with the help of the United States for 30 years before he was assassinated.

Control of Haiti has shifted many times since 1492. Between enslavement, genocide, revolts, US occupation, dictators, and political deceit, Haiti has enjoyed little political or economic stability. If Columbus had never found Hispaniola, perhaps the history of that island would have been much different, but we will never know. What we do know is that the turmoil created by Columbus in Haiti has continued into modern times.

As explained by Kim Ives, a journalist with Haiti Liberté, in 1991, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was inaugurated as the first democratically elected president of Haiti. Eight months later, he was overthrown by a CIA-backed coup. Then President Clinton was forced to bring in 20,000 US troops, not to stop the coup, but to stop a revolution developing because of the coup. Ives explains that “the Clinton administration brought Aristide back as a sort of hostage on the shoulders of 20,000 US troops, and they remained until about 1999.”

Aristide was reelected in 2000. According to Ives, a coup started again when Aristide “was inaugurated on February 7, 2001, involving Contras based in the Dominican Republic and diplomatic and economic embargos…. They forced him out at gunpoint, essentially. A team of US Navy Seals came in and kidnapped him from his home in Tabarre on February 29th, 2004. And he’s been in exile ever since.”

While the US government has not always done what is in Haiti’s best interest, either politically or economically, the outpouring of contributions from average Americans since the devastating earthquake shows that the American people want to be of real help. Ives suggests several organizations that have good histories, without the corruption that has plagued Haiti generally. They include the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund, (, Dr. Paul Farmer’s Partners in Health (, the Lambi Fund of Haiti (, and Doctors Without Borders (

[This column is dedicated to the memory of Howard Zinn, who died this past week. Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” tells about the history of the US from the perspective of ordinary Americans, some of whom did extraordinary things, but are usually left out of history books or whose role in history is given only superficial coverage.]

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14 thoughts on “Freethought San Marcos: The destruction of Haiti, starting with Columbus

  1. Thank you, Mr. Hankins, for honoring Howard Zinn and for giving voice to the injustices that will never be remedied until people in this country become generally aware of them. Which I doubt will ever happen, but that doesn’t mean we should ever stop pointing them out.

  2. “Objectivity is impossible,” pop historian Howard Zinn once remarked, “and it is also undesirable. That is, if it were possible it would be undesirable, because if you have any kind of a social aim, if you think history should serve society in some way; should serve the progress of the human race; should serve justice in some way, then it requires that you make your selection on the basis of what you think will advance causes of humanity.”

    Through Zinn’s looking-glass, Maoist China, site of history’s bloodiest state-sponsored killings, transforms into “the closest thing, in the long history of that ancient country, to a people’s government, independent of outside control.” The authoritarian Nicaraguan Sandinistas were “welcomed” by their own people, while the opposition Contras, who backed the candidate that triumphed when free elections were finally held, were a “terrorist group” that “seemed to have no popular support inside Nicaragua.” Castro’s Cuba, readers learn, “had no bloody record of suppression.”

    The recently released updated edition of A People’s History of the United States continues to be plagued with inaccuracies and poor judgment. The added sections on the Clinton years, the 2000 election, and 9/11 bear little resemblance to the reality his current readers have lived through.

    * In an effort to bolster his arguments against putting criminals in jail, aggressive law enforcement tactics, and President Clinton’s crime bill, Zinn contends that in spite of all this “violent crime continues to increase.” It doesn’t. Like much of Zinn’s rhetoric, if you believe the opposite of what he says in this instance you would be correct. According to a Department of Justice report released in September of 2002, the violent crime rate has been cut in half since 1993.
    * According to Zinn, it was Mumia Abu-Jamal’s “race and radicalism,” as well as his “persistent criticism of the Philadelphia police” that landed him on death row in the early 1980s. Nothing about Abu-Jamal’s gun being found at the scene; nothing about the testimony of numerous witnesses pointing to him as the triggerman; nothing about additional witnesses reporting a confession by Abu-Jamal—it was Abu-Jamal’s dissenting voice that caused a jury of twelve to unanimously sentence him to death.
    * Predictably, Zinn draws a moral equivalence between America and the 9/11 terrorists. He writes, “It seemed that the United States was reacting to the horrors perpetrated by the terrorists against innocent people in New York by killing other innocent people in Afghanistan.” Scare quotes adorn Bush’s “war on terrorism,” post-9/11 “patriotism,” and other words and phrases Zinn dislikes.

    Readers of A People’s History of the United States learn very little about history. They do learn quite a bit, however, about Howard Zinn. In fact, the book is perhaps best thought of as a massive Rorschach Test, with the author’s familiar reaction to every major event in American history proving that his is a captive mind long closed by ideology.

    More striking than Zinn’s inaccuracies—intentional and otherwise—is what he leaves out.

    Washington’s Farewell Address, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and Reagan’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate all fail to merit a mention. Nowhere do we learn that Americans were first in flight, first to fly across the Atlantic, and first to walk on the moon. Alexander Graham Bell, Jonas Salk, and the Wright Brothers are entirely absent. Instead, the reader is treated to the exploits of Speckled Snake, Joan Baez, and the Berrigan brothers. While Zinn sees fit to mention that immigrants often went into professions like ditch-digging and prostitution, American success stories like those of Alexander Hamilton, John Jacob Astor, and Louis B. Mayer—to name but a few—are excluded. Valley Forge rates a single fleeting reference, while D-Day’s Normandy invasion, Gettysburg, and other important military battles are left out. In their place, we get several pages on the My Lai massacre and colorful descriptions of U.S. bombs falling on hotels, air-raid shelters, and markets during the Gulf War of the early 1990s.

    How do students learn about U.S. history with all these omissions? They don’t.

    Zinn utters perhaps the most honest words of A People’s History of the United States in the conclusion of the book’s 1995 edition, conceding that his work is “a biased account.” “I am not troubled by that,” he adds, “because the mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the other direction—so tremblingly respectful of states and statesmen and so disrespectful, by inattention, to people’s movements—that we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission.” Two wrongs, he seems to be saying, make a right.

    More recently, Zinn made clear that it is not just the idea of objectivity that he finds fault with, but facts themselves. In the current updated version of A People’s History, the author declares: “there is no such thing as pure fact.” Whether Zinn really believes this, or if it serves to rationalize intellectual dishonesty, one can only guess.

    “I wanted my writing of history and my teaching of history to be a part of social struggle,” Howard Zinn candidly remarked in an interview conducted long after the release of A People’s History of the United States. “I wanted to be a part of history and not just a recorder and teacher of history. So that kind of attitude towards history, history itself as a political act, has always informed my writing and my teaching.” Indeed it has.

  3. Howard Zinn’s entire body of work is riddled with historical inaccuracies and troubling omissions. He uses his “version” of history to push his social agenda, completely abandoning any objectivity or desire for truth.

    What’s more troubling is the deceptive manner in which many teachers, across the nation, have been promoting this trash in their classrooms without approval from the school boards, those in charge of developing curriculum for the States, or the parents who entrusted them with their children.

    Wake up people. There are anti-American, Marxists that are rewriting our history.

  4. To Robert G.:

    Thanks for your review of Zinn’s “People’s History.” However, you did not point out any inaccuracies in what I wrote or quoted in my column about Columbus and Haiti.

    You also seem to have missed the point in Zinn’s work. He was writing a “people’s history,” not a history that focused on the power elite, which is what most history books focus on. His work is an alternative to the ordinary, which shows that in the US, people who never get elected to office can still have an enormous effect on history.

    Mainstream history is much like mainstream media – it covers events from the perspective of the powerful, not ordinary Americans. I will continue to cast my lot with those who struggle against the fascists, the war-mongers, and the authoritarians.

  5. Lamar,

    Oh the irony in your final line – “I will continue to cast my lost with those who struggle against the fascists, the war-mongers, and the authoritarians.” For the last 100 plus years, the only fascists, war-mongers, and authoritarians have been Progressives. HELLO McFLY!!!

  6. To Robert G.:

    I guess you forgot about Teddy Roosevelt in the Philippines and George W. Bush in Iraq, just to name two of our presidents that come quickly to mind.

  7. “For the last 100 plus years, the only fascists, war-mongers, and authoritarians have been Progressives.”

    That’s a very sweeping statement. What exactly do you mean by “progressives,” and would you care to back it up with any facts?

    “More striking than Zinn’s inaccuracies—intentional and otherwise—is what he leaves out.”

    No, it’s not striking; because as the title of the book — as well as the author’s forward — indicates, it is a survey of the skeletons in the country’s closet, so to speak, not an attempt to write a comprehensive history.

    “Nowhere do we learn that Americans were first in flight, first to fly across the Atlantic, and first to walk on the moon. Alexander Graham Bell, Jonas Salk, and the Wright Brothers are entirely absent.”

    I’m curious: the above facts you cited are important and should be included in any comprehensive history book, but what is it you want students to learn from them? Because if you think it is important to inculcate patriotic fervor in children, you are just as misguided as you say Zinn is. Patriotic, masturbatory fervor is a dangerous intoxicant, it has sent millions of people to their graves early, blighted countless lives, and empowered demagogues, fools and tyrants. Zinn offers something of a vaccine to that drug. Learning about the policies of American politicians that have had disastrous consequences for real human beings, I would think, is just as important — if not more so — as learning things that make us appreciate living where are when we do.

    You said Zinn wishes to “bolster his arguments against putting criminals in jail.” Really? I wasn’t aware that Zinn was in favor of abolishing all forms of incarceration.

  8. Lamar,

    You must be historically challenged to claim that Teddy Roosevelt was not a progressive.

    Here’s a lesson for you:

    “In the United States, the Progressive Party of 1912 was a political party created by a split in the Republican Party in the presidential election of 1912. It was formed by Theodore Roosevelt when he lost the Republican nomination to the incumbent President William Howard Taft and pulled his delegates out of the convention. ” – Wikipedia, The Progressive Party

    “The welfare of each of us is dependent fundamentally upon the welfare of all of us.” Teddy Roosevelt, New York State Fair, Syracuse, September 7, 1903

    “Every man holds his property subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require it.” – Teddy Roosevelt, The New Nationalism (1910)

    “The object of government is the welfare of the people. The material progress and prosperity of a nation are desirable chiefly so far as they lead to the moral and material welfare of all good citizens.” – Teddy Roosevelt, The New Nationalism (1910)

    “It is essential that there should be organizations of labor. This is an era of organization. Capital organizes and therefore labor must organize.” – Teddy Roosevelt, Speech, Oct 14, 1912

    I’ll save your education on GWB and his progressive policies for another day. Here’s a teaser: No Child Left Behind, TARP, and all countless violations of the Constitution and civil liberties the Left shouted about for 8 years.

  9. To Robert G.:

    I don’t consider any war-monger a progressive, no matter what party he may belong to.

  10. Lamar:

    It must be nice to live in a fantasy world where you can arbitrarily apply the term “progressive” to whom ever, whenever it fits your rosy little picture.

    But those of us rooting in history know that progressives have been great supporters of war, at least in the latter periods of their campaigns. In my opinion, most progressives that were against war at a given time only did so because it was a convenient political/social tactic.

    Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Che were all considered progressives at the beginning of their ‘campaigns’. In your eyes, are they a) not progressives, or b) not war-mongers?

    Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, FDR, LBJ were all considered progressives at the beginning of their ‘campaigns’. In your eyes, are they a) not progressives, or b) not war-mongers?

  11. My view of progressives is that they are humanists first and foremost. One cannot be a war-monger and a humanist. LBJ had humanist tendencies, but they went the way of all such tendencies when he gave himself over completely to the War in Vietnam. Hitler was authoritarian, fascist, and Catholic. I’ve never heard anyone in any context refer to him as either progressive or humanist and the same goes for some of the others you mention. However, while I like to continue encouraging discussion, this discussion has gotten far afield from my column, which was about Columbus and his conquests, the substance of which you failed completely to comment about except to harangue about Howard Zinn for telling the truth.

    In Zinn’s defense, I offer this quote and a comment from Harold Blum:

    “The chief problem in historical honesty is not outright lying. It is omission or de-emphasis of important data. The definition of ‘important’, of course, depends on one’s values.” [See Failure to Quit: Reflections of an Optimistic Historian, (1993), p.30.]

    Blum: “A People’s History and his other writings can be seen as an attempt to make up for the omissions and under-emphases of America’s dark side in American history books and media.”

    When Zinn told us the parts about Columbus that were missed in most of the history books, he did a great service to historical honesty. Not one commenter has refuted his view of Columbus.

  12. Note to everyone. Don’t deviate from the discussion because Lamar don’t like tangents. He has a very narrow scope of knowledge and tangents expose him for who he is.

    Now Lamar:
    What Hitler a Catholic before AND after he murdered millions of Jews?

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