Zinn\'s A People\'s History of the United States: 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 Niñ
a, 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