Christopher Columbus is among the most well-known of our historical figures. For many school-age children, Columbus’ exploration of the Americas is their first exposure to the concept of history. It can be quite significant, shaping how they will interpret many other historical accounts of conquests and settlements across the globe. For many of us, the mere mention of Columbus brings that familiar chant “In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. . .” running through our minds.
Unfortunately, too often, our knowledge of Columbus and his explorations stops short soon after Columbus set sail. Rarely do any of our history books delve too deeply into the years of Caribbean history following 1492. We learn all about Columbus in our text books and classrooms–how he bravely sailed across the world in search of new lands and adventure, discovered and claimed the islands of the Caribbean, and brought civilization to the ‘New World’. Very rarely do we learn much about the people that were already living on the islands that Columbus claimed, or what happened to these populations in the century that followed as they were brought into ‘civilization.’ If these people groups are mentioned in books or curriculum, the story is often framed as a pleasant cultural exchange. Yet, somehow this friendly cross-cultural experience resulted in the death of almost the entire population of Taíno people. Historical estimates state that there were anywhere from 1-3 million Taíno when Columbus arrived, by 1542, there were 200 remaining.
So, in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. . .but then what happened?
Ten years ago marked the Columbus Quincentenary, as many prepared for elaborate celebrations, others began pushing to publicize the efforts of those who had been working to re-evaluate the historical accounts of Columbus offered in our schools. Organizations across the Americas worked to provide alternative versions of the story through curriculum, films and books. Rethinking Columbus:The Next 500 Years is one of the amazing resources that came out of these efforts. It’s a curriculum guide written for k-12 teachers packed with lessons, resources, and reflections on how to go about unpacking the traditional Columbus history and providing a more accurate historical account that tells both sides of the exploration and conquest of the Americas. Incidentally, it was one of the books banned by the Tucson, Arizona school district last year. In the words of the editors, “We try to offer an alternative narrative. Our goal is not to idealize native people, demonize Europeans, or present a depressing litany of victimization. We hope to encourage a deeper understanding of the European invasion’s consequences, to honor the rich legacy of resistance to the injustices it created, to convey some appreciation for the diverse indigenous cultures of the hemisphere, and to reflect on what this all means for us today” (p. 11). It’s a resource that I have used with great success in both my elementary and middle school classrooms. I highly recommend it.
As Columbus Day is a little more than a month away, I thought it would be appropriate to do a series of En la Clase posts on how we can Rethink Columbus in our classrooms. In the following weeks, I’ll be writing about various activities and resources that might help us, as educators, to reconsider the traditional or standard history of Columbus, and the ramifications that Columbus’ explorations had on the Americas and its people. Hopefully, these posts will provide a space for all of us to discuss matters relevant to teaching about Columbus and to rethink how we present him and his legacy to our students.