The Opressed


The Oppressed

Dr. Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States might be
better titled A Proletarian’s History of the United States. In the first
three chapters Zinn looks at not only the history of the conquerors,
rulers, and leaders; but also the history of the enslaved, the
oppressed, and the led. Like any American History book covering the time
period of 1492 until the early 1760’s, A People’s History tells the
story of the “discovery” of America, early colonization by European
powers, the governing of these colonies, and the rising discontent of
the colonists towards their leaders. Zinn, however, stresses the role of
a number of groups and ideas that most books neglect or skim over: the
plight of the Native Americans that had their numbers reduced by up to
90% by European invasion, the equality of these peoples in many regards
to their European counterparts, the importation of slaves into America
and their unspeakable travel conditions and treatment, the callous
buildup of the agricultural economy around these slaves, the
discontented colonists whose plight was ignored by the ruling
bourgeoisie, and most importantly, the rising class and racial struggles
in America that Zinn correctly credits as being the root of many of the
problems that we as a nation have today. It is refreshing to see a book
that spends space based proportionately around the people that lived
this history. When Columbus arrived on the Island of Haiti, there were
39 men on board his ships compared to the 250,000 Indians on Haiti. If
the white race accounts for less than two hundredths of one percent of
the island’s population, it is only fair that the natives get more than
the two or three sentences that they get in most history books. Zinn
cites population figures, first person accounts, and his own
interpretation of their effects to create an accurate and fair depiction
of the first two and a half centuries of European life on the continent
of North America.
The core part of any history book is obviously history. In the first
three chapters of the book, Zinn presents the major historical facts of
the first 250 years of American history starting from when Christopher
Columbus’s Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria landed in the Bahamas on October
12, 1492. It was there that Europeans and Native Americans first came
into contact; the Arawak natives came out to greet the whites, and the
whites were only interested in finding the gold. From the Bahamas,
Columbus sailed to Cuba and Hispañola, the present-day home of Haiti and
the Dominican Republic. One-hundred fifteen years later and 1,500 miles
to the north, the colony of Jamestown was founded by a group of English
settlers led by John Smith; shortly after that the Massachusetts Bay
Colony was founded by a group of Puritans known to us today as the
Pilgrims. Because of uneasy and hostile relations with the nearby Pequot
Indians, the Pequot War soon started between the colonists and the
natives. Needless to say, the colonists won, but it was at the expense
of several dozen of their own and thousands of Pequots. But despite
Indian conflict, exposure, starvation, famine, disease, and other
hardships, the English kept coming to America. In 1619 they were settled
enough that they started bringing African slaves into the middle
colonies. Before resorting to Africans, the colonists had tried to
subdue the Indians, but that idea failed before it was created. Zinn
writes:
“They couldn’t force the Indians to work for them, as Columbus had
done. They were outnumbered, and while, with superior firearms, they
could massacre the Indians, they would face massacre in return. 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.
“White servants had not yet been brought over in sufficient
quantity.... As for free white settlers, many of them were skilled
craftsmen, or even men of leisure back in England, who were so little
inclined to work the land that John Smith... had to declare a kind of
martial law, organize them into work gangs, and force them into the
fields for survival.....
“Black slaves were the answer. And it was natural to consider imported
blacks as slaves, even if the institution of slavers would not be
regularized and legalized for several decades” (25).
Black slavery became an American institution that the southern and
middle colonies began to depend on for their economic success. The first
stirrings of resentment began to come not from the slaves but from the
proletariat in the form of the frontier whites. Nathaniel Bacon