Throughout the past week or so, discussions in the Social Studies side of TALONS have stemmed into ongoing conversation inside and outside the classroom, and even online (Twitter #talonsSS). After reading the first chapter in Howard Zinn’s Life After Capitalism, we found ourselves not only discussing the situation of Columbus and the Indians, but also concepts like the writing of history, the ‘greater good’ mantra, and the idea that everything is a remix (check out However, one of the most intriguing subjects for me was human progress and this question in particular:

Is cruelty necessary for human progress?

Now, I acknowledge that this is quite a broad idea, but I hope to break it down a little, in terms of Columbus of and the Arawak People. Crowd around, children, it’s story time!

There is always that one person who asks why Columbus just didn’t ‘make friends’ with the Arawaks  instead of slaughtering them or condemning them to slavery,  and my response to this is simple: it is just easier to kills everyone. Why would Columbus waste time chit-chatting with Indians when his true objective was to obtain gold? He came to North America with guns loaded and swords drawn, prepared to take what he wanted by force, because truthfully, brutality takes a lot less time than peace-making. As I  imagine, Columbus’ justification may have been rooted in the idea that the death of a hundreds of Indians would be a fair price for the forward progress of his own country. In this case, I would say that the ‘greater’ in  ‘greater good’ would be the  superiority that Columbus and his people may have  felt over the Arawaks, rather than the sheer number people benefitting from the extermination of others. To put that in other terms, since the Europeans were ‘higher’ than the Arawaks, their progress and well-being was more important, even if a large population of Arawaks had to be killed to aid a smaller population of Europeans.

So to address Columbus and the Arawak’s situation, my question could be further edited to look like this:

Was the killing of Indians  necessary for the forward progress of the Europeans?

Some people may argue that ‘Europeans’ in the question could be replaced with ‘humans’, as our society today is strongly affected by what happened way back when Columbus walked (and sailed) the Earth. However, the main concept of the questions remains, but it does require us to define what progress truly is.

Perhaps it may have been possible (although in Columbus’s case, not convenient)  to obtain gold from the Arawaks without committing mass genocide, but how would our world be different today if Columbus had acted with diplomacy?  Maybe, if he had ‘made friends’ with the Arawaks, he still would have attained his desired gold, and because of the injection of wealth in Europe,  we might  have ended up where we are in our world today, theoretically. But should we call it progress  if it cost hundreds of Arawaks live to get us there? If the outcomes are the same, and we assume that this outcome is positive, are we progressing, regardless of the murderous acts that we had to commit to get there? In our society today, I think that I can generalize by saying that we don’t strive to be a society where killing people is commonplace, so it seems ironic to kill people for the sake of societal improvement. And if we call progress the nearing  towards an ideal society, Columbus’ case may show us that sometimes we take often take blows to our established ‘progress’ to try to get farther along in the long term, but taking this into account,  I would still say that the mass genocide is not equal in worth to the positive effects that it had for Columbus and his people.

To further explain my point please take a look at the GIF below.




Now aside from being incredibly  mesmerizing, this piece of media seems completely unrelated at first glance, so allow me to explain.

Metaphorically speaking, I would say that the pouring of liquid into the glass represents the acts that Columbus took to progress his own society. However, the fact that the glass never fills up represents that it becomes very difficult to progress our society when we are only willing to take murderous short-cuts to achieve our ideals. Yes, the whiskey keeps pouring, but it cannot refill the holes of sacrifices that have been made for the benefit of another society. Yes, Columbus was responsible for bringing back a wealth of gold back to Spain, but, in the long term, it could never compare to the devastation that the Arawaks  faced; some could argue that the magnitude of progress is not equal to the magnitude of loss.  It all comes down to a fine balance of sacrifice and an assessment of motives.

I would say that progress, in this case, is a one sided situation, but I do not believe that it has to be that way.

So if I were to answer the question…

Was the killing of Indians necessary for the forward progress of the Europeans?

…I would say no. Cruelty for Columbus made it a lot quicker for them to acquire wealth, but I believe that it was not necessary. If Columbus were to act diplomatically and fairly, it would have taken him more time to acquire this gold, but may have resulted in a less de-progression of the Arawaks’ society.  But it seems that the group with the larger weapons seem to be the winner of wealth and progress, and in our history, the winners seemed to have been the Europeans.