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A People’s History of the United States Chapters 1/2 Essay

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After reading the first two chapters of A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, I learned many new facts that I wasn’t aware of. I learned a lot of new information spanning from the time period of 1492, when Christopher Columbus first discovered North America until the early 17th Century when the first African slaves were brought to America via the Triangular Trade.

Howard Zinn commences his first chapter, Columbus, The Indians, and Human Progress by using imagery to describe the scene when Christopher Columbus and his crew struck land and the Arawaks of the Bahama Islands greeted them with extreme hospitality. Howard Zinn writes in the opening paragraph, “When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts.” This quote makes it seem that the Native Americans on the Bahama Islands were very innocent and they had no bad intentions towards the incoming Spanish explorers. Until I read this quote, I was not aware how innocent the Native Americans were, making it seem that the heinous acts that the Spaniards committed against the Arawaks and other neighboring tribes were even worse than they already seemed.

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The first thing Christopher Columbus noticed about the Arawak tribe when he arrived was the gold ornaments the natives wore on their ears. This led Columbus to believe that there was much more gold to be found, and it had to be discovered at any cost. Because of this observation, Columbus and his crew took multiple natives as prisoners because he wanted them to act as guides to find the source of the gold.

There were many methods the Spaniards used against the the native Americans to force them to perform hard labor. With the slaves Columbus obtained from the Bahamas, he sailed with them to Cuba, and then Hispaniola. On the shores of Hispaniola there were bits of gold visible in the river and tribe leader on Hispaniola presented a gold mask to him. Columbus wrote in his journal, “Hispaniola is a miracle. Mountains and hills, plains and pastures, are both fertile and beautiful … the harbors are unbelievably good and there are many wide rivers of which the majority contain gold. … There are many spices, and great mines of gold and other metals….” This is partly exaggerated because when he returned to Spain, he was trying to make a case to Queen Isabella to get additional funding and goods for a second voyage to Hispaniola. Because of the flattery he gave about Hispaniola, he was given seventeen ships and 1,200 crew members for the voyage.

When Columbus arrived in Hispaniola for the second time in 1495, Columbus and his crews did not find any gold fields, but he rounded up a total of 1,500 Arawaks and he sent the 500 best back to Spain to be sold as slaves. Because many of the slaves died in captivity, Columbus was desperate to get more of a return from the island of Hispaniola which he expressed in such high regards to the royalty of Spain. So, Columbus wanted to fill his ships with a great amount of gold. Every person over fourteen years of age was required to bring a specific quantity of gold every three months. If they did not meet the specific requirement their hands would be chopped off and they would die a slow, and painful death as they bled out. But, this task was impossible for the Indians because there was only small bits of gold dust to be found. Because of the abuse from the Spaniards, the Arawaks attempted to assemble a resistance force against an enemy that had armor, muskets, swords, and horses. Two years later in 1497, 125,000 Indians on Hispaniola died by murder, mutilation, or suicide. This chapter by Howard Zinn completely sheds a new light on how heinously the Spaniards acted towards the innocent native Americans.

The second chapter in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Drawing the Color Line, Zinn describes the main reasons for racism and enslavement of supposedly inferior peoples.
The first reason Zinn states for racism is because the first blacks that lived in Jamestown, Virginia were servants, but they were treated much differently than the white indentured servants from Europe solely because of their skin color. The reason the Virginians were not able to enslave the Indians in the vicinity is because they were outnumbered and the Native Americans knew how to survive better than the Virginians did in the “New World.” Zinn wrote, “They could not capture them and keep them enslaved; the Indians were tough, resourceful, defiant, and at home in these woods, as the transplanted Englishmen were not.”

Many years after the settling of Jamestown, Europeans went to Africa in order to try to find men, women, and children that would be easy to enslave. The reason Europeans had so much success in the exploitation of the Africans is because the Eurocentric culture was completely foreign to them and their cultures were completely different. In Africa, the idea of severe punishment for stealing private property was unknown. Howard Zinn describes this idea by saying, “… in the Congo, communal life persisted, the idea of private property was a strange one, and thefts were punished with fines or various degrees of servitude.” Because the cultures and ideals of the Africans were so different from the Europeans, it was very easy to exploit the African people and put them on slave ships en route to the Americas or Europe.

From reading the first two chapters of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States it completely shed a new light on what I already learned about the Spaniards conquering the Native Americans and Europeans going to Africa and enslaving the native people. This reading was very similar to what I already knew, but Howard Zinn goes into much more detail, making what I already knew about the awful acts the conquerors of America and Africa seem much more heinous and gruesome.