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A People’s History of the United States: Columbus on Trial

September 28, 2017 (Week Two)

You are charged with the mistreatment and murder of thousands, perhaps millions, of Taíno Indians.

This week we conducted a role-playing exercise created by Bill Bigelow, the Rethinking Schools curriculum editor and Zinn Education Project co-director. The exercise is called "The People vs. Columbus, et al.". You can view and download this exercise here.

“This role play begins with the premise that a monstrous crime was committed in the years after 1492, when perhaps as many as three million or more Taínos on the island of Hispaniola lost their lives. (Most scholars estimate the number of people on Hispaniola in 1492 at between one and three million, some estimates are lower and some much higher. By 1550, very few Taínos remained alive.) Who -- and/or what -- was responsible for this slaughter? This is the question students confront here.” -- Bill Bigelow

Following the script in the exercises, we divide the participants into 5 groups; each group represented either Columbus, Columbus' Men, King Ferdinand & Queen Isabella, Taínos, or The System of Empire.

Fancy table cards were provided.

The Trial

Each group had 3 participants. Indictments, which detailed the charges against them, were given to each group to review. They had approximately 40 minutes to prepare their defense.

When we reconvened, each group designated one member of their defense team to serve on the Jury, one member to be the primary spokesperson, and one person to be the secondary spokesperson. This left us with a Jury of 5, and each group represented by two defendants.

As the facilitator, I played the role of prosecutor.

We kept the format of the trial in line with the exercise script: the prosecutor read the indictment out loud to the courtroom, the defendant came forward and read their defense and called any witnesses they wanted from the other groups, then the Jury could ask whatever follow-up questions they wished.

Columbus is being grilled on the witness stand by Columbus' Men while the Jury looks on.

Nope. The Taínos are having no part of any victim blaming today.

Each of the defendant groups did an amazing job defending themselves, pulling all of the obvious rationalizations you'd expect, but also surprising me with some very creative defenses. For example, when attempting to defend The System of Empire, the defendant stated that "while my system, unfortunately, allows for abuse and atrocities, it does not require them; you still have to choose, on your own, to commit them." I thought that was surprisingly astute.

By working hard to defend each of these groups, the hope was that each group would be examined for its complicity in this crime, and I feel this was most definitely accomplished.

After we completed this process for each of the five groups, the Jury went off to deliberate; their task was to determine guilt, if any, and to what degree (expressed by percentages).

The Verdict

In the end, the Jury found all parties, except the Taínos, guilty as charged; they broked down the guilt by percentage, like this:

  • Columbus was found guilty and 60% responsible.
  • Columbus' Men were found guilty and 20% responsible.
  • The Royals were found guilty and 10% responsible.
  • The Taínos were found not guilty and the court apologized for them even being there.
  • The System of Empire was found not guilty and 10%responsible.

While perhaps there is no right or wrong answer to what percentage of guilt should be assigned to which group, I suggested that by assigning the bulk of the guilt to Columbus, the Jury was making a statement about if humans have free will, or if we are controlled by our culture and environment, with a nod to the former. Admittedly, this is more of a philosophical discussion, and not specifically part of this program; however the defense of “But I was just following orders!” will come up often as we move through the material, and I want the group to be prepared to consider its validity.

We did not have enough time to explore their responses to last week's take-home question (Should we celebrate Columbus?), and I want to allow that this exercise may have given some of them cause to change their answers, so we'll dive into that first thing next week.

Assigned Reading: Chapter 2, "Drawing the Color Line" addresses the African slave trade and servitude of poor British people in the Thirteen Colonies. Zinn writes of the methods by which he says racism was artificially created in order to enforce the economic system. He argues that racism is not natural because there are recorded instances of camaraderie and cooperation between black slaves and white servants in escaping from and in opposing their subjugation.

-- Adrian

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