- Brittney West
Differing Narratives of Christopher Columbus
This was written for a Rhetoric and Ethics class and is a Narrative Rhetorical Criticism. The artifact is analyzed based on the parameters laid out by Sonja K. Foss in her book Rhetorical Criticism Exploration and Practice.
Differing Narratives of Christopher Columbus
If you went to school in the United States, you learned about Christopher Columbus. One of the first things your elementary school teacher taught you was the nursery rhyme: “In Fourteen Hundred and Ninety-Two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue”. I bet the tune popped right into your head. As the history book said, he was the hero who accidentally discovered America for Europe. He introduced Europe to the crops, treasure, and resources that were missing and essentially began colonization of the Americas and his interactions with Native Americans were limited to a peaceful welcoming. But what is omitted from that story to ensure the white, American man proud of the discovery of the Americas?
Those Native Americans whom Columbus proclaimed Indians have a very different story of their encounter with Columbus. Though Columbus never made it to mainland North America, he has come to represent the white men who oppress their people, placed them in reservations, and tried to make them white. If Columbus had not established a precedent on how to treat these people by bringing 3,000 Native Americans to Europe between 1493 and 1501 (Jaide). Maybe if a different man had discovered the continent he would have let them continue their way of life.
In this analysis I will examine how stories of Christopher Columbus differ based on culture, experiences, and perspectives. Using the method of narrative rhetorical criticism, I will examine two videos, both dealing with Columbus’ discovery of America, but that offer completely different narratives. One tells the traditional version that is taught in most American schools and the other is a reaction video where native Americans say the first thing that comes to mind when they hear Christopher Columbus.
Narrative criticism examines characteristics of a narrative to determine if it meets an identified objective. A narrative is “a mental representation of causally connected states and events that captures a segment in the history of a world and of its members” (Foss 320). Additionally, “It should contain at least two events and/or state of affairs that are temporally ordered, and the earlier events in the sequence should be necessary condition for later events. (Foss 322). Narrative criticism searches to understand why certain things are maintained in stories and why the narrator says it in that way.
The first video, “Columbus Day: Christopher Columbus Sets Sail”, was published on YouTube by the History Channel in 2012. It tells the traditional American story of Christopher Columbus in sequential order: he started sailing at a young age, received funding from Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain, led 5 explorations to what would be known as the New World and began exploration in the Americans. It focuses on what he did for Europe and how his explorations were considered a failure because he did not find a quicker passage to India and because he did not provide much profit to the Spanish monarchs (Columbus). The second video was published on YouTube by the channel Cut in 2015 as a part of a series called “One Word” where people respond to an idea that they strongly relate to through culture or experience. The video begins with Native Americans stating the first adjective that comes to mind when they heard the name “Christopher Columbus” and why they feel that way. The most common word is “evil”, and they claim he “was the first terrorist in America” (Christopher). This video touches on the legacy that Columbus left with the native populations of the Americas that is often omitted from the traditional white story.
The objective of these two artifacts is to educate, though each serves to teach a different narrative. The History Channel teaches the traditional story of the founding of the Americas. In doing this, they convey certain ideals of the American culture—expansion, glory, and success. Focusing on the legacy of Columbus’s action with a different culture and peoples serves to clarify aspects of this story that have always been omitted by the white retelling, such as Columbus’ ignorance in claiming peoples he thought was less civilized (Christopher).
The characters are the same in both of these stories. There is Christopher Columbus, The King and Queen of Spain, his three famous ships (La Niña, La Pinta, Santa María), the island in the Bahamas (Hispaniola), and the native peoples that inhabited it. But each story has a different take on these characters. Specifically, the two videos take Columbus and portray him as both the antagonist and protagonist. In one he is an explorer, a hero, and a visionary while in the other he’s an invader, murderer, and rapist. In the white story, native Americans provide no resistance to Columbus’ exploration and are of very little importance. White people don’t experience any consequence of these peoples’ actions because the consequence is colonization and as a result, today’s society. Not focusing on that destruction allows for the characters to be portrayed as heroes and allows for a celebration of how modern society in the Americas came to be. Thus, the native Americans are forced to share their own stories with themselves as a central character.
The events chosen by each culture to be portray, remembered, and focused on is the main defining characteristics. The History Channel chose to portray an epic plot that “focuses on the exports of a solitary hero, and the focus is on physical actions, exploits, or feats” (Foss 330). In the events of the story they never even mention that there were native peoples on Hispaniola besides the fact that they gave the Europeans some spices. Cut choses to portray a much more complicated, less pleasant story that includes no glory and no success.
To tell their version of the story, the History Channel chose a faceless narrator, a voice that is supposed to represent the masses (Columbus). With this comes the old pictures that have all been seen in history textbooks. This choice of narrator allowed them to present this lens on the historical events as irrefutable fact that the viewer accepts without questions. The video of the native Americans exists to show that this kind of educational video should be questioned. By having many different narrators, Cut shows that the issue is not limited to one individual. They also decided to display the faces of each other the people instead of using the audio and showing art or animations, like the History channel decided to do. In doing this, Cut legitimizes the crimes of Columbus for the Americans who believe that this did not happen and that he is still the hero the country celebrates every October 8. In addition, these adults that are representing the native American population are speaking from pain derived from stories told by their ancestors and from “the scars that are still felt today” (Christopher). Their pain comes from the horrors done to these ancestors and for the continued omission of this treatment from white tradition.
In addition to the narrator, the structure of the videos also contributes to the stories the videos tell. The History Channel makes the traditional story more clinical with the old-fashioned way they present the information. All there is to accompany the voiceover is a slideshow of pictures that somehow relate to what is being said. A student could easily tune out if it was played during class as it looks like all the other educational videos they have seen. The camera angles that the Cut video employs relate more to a BuzzFeed-like genre. They cut from person to person and the frame solely consists of that person’s face on a dark backdrop. It allows for the confessions to seem more honest and for the words given (“evil”, “fuck him”, “terrorist”) to have a greater impact (Christopher). This format is also more accessible for a broader range of people and will not cause anyone to hit a snooze button. Younger audiences will pay attention to this kind of video because its shorter, it’s to the point, and the native Americans speak in conversational language.
The audiences are similar, are not the same. The videos are both on YouTube, a site that allows anyone to access the videos. People with an interest in history and interest in Christopher Columbus and teachers would choose the video from the History Channel because it more closely aligns with the textbooks they must teach from. One could argue that the History Channel also has better credibility than Cut. While Cut does specialize in social experiments, identifications, and clarifications, it is not as well-known as does not claim to be a purveyor of history (Watchcut).
These two videos and the stories they tell show the importance of whiteness is the retelling of history and in rhetoric as white people decided to write the story of Columbus in this way and expected future generation forever to appreciate and accept this story. The Cut video of the native Americans was shocking, and it shouldn’t be. It wasn’t the honesty or the sudden “fuck Columbus” moment that were surprising, but the fact that native American mistreatment from this time period on is not taught. The first real introduction the American education system provides to the crimes against natives is the Trail of Tears, which happened 343 years after Columbus kidnapped the first native Americans and brought them back to Spain (The Trail). It also shows what is effective in telling a story. The juxtaposition of these two videos shows, that should a rhetor want to continue the movement away from the white narrative, they need to communicate in a conversational way and target younger audiences who are more open to challenging tradition.
“Christopher Columbus | Native Americans | One Word | Cut.” YouTube, Cut, 24 Nov. 2015,
“Columbus Day: Christopher Columbus Sets Sail | History.” YouTube, The History Channel, 30 \ Sept. 2012, youtu.be/uGtIHZMr0vQ.
Jaide, Don. “Christopher Columbus Started The Indian Slave Trade.” Rasta Livewire, 23 July
2015, www.africaresource.com/rasta/sesostris-the-great-the-egyptian- hercules/christopher-columbus-began-the-indian-slave-trade/.
Foss, Sonja K. Rhetorial Criticism: Exploration and Practice. Waveland Press, 2018
“The Trails of Tears.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service,
Watchcut. “Cut.” YouTube, YouTube,