Pub. Date:
New Press, The
History Lessons: How Textbooks from Around the World Portray U.S. History

History Lessons: How Textbooks from Around the World Portray U.S. History

by Dana Lindaman, Kyle Ward
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History Lessons offers a lighthearted and fascinating challenge to the biases we bring to our understanding of American history. The subject of widespread attention when it was first published in 2004—including a full front-page review in the Washington Post Book World and features on NPR’s Talk of the Nation and the History Channel—this book gives us a glimpse into classrooms across the globe, where opinions about the United States are first formed.

Heralded as “timely and important” ( History News Network ) and “shocking and fascinating” ( New York Times ), History Lessons includes selections from Russia, France, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Canada, and others, covering such events as the American Revolution, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Iran hostage crisis, and the Korean War, providing an alternative history of the United States from the Viking explorers to the post–Cold War era.

By juxtaposing starkly contrasting versions of the historical events we take for granted, History Lessons affords us a sometimes hilarious, often sobering look at what the world learns about America’s past.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781595580825
Publisher: New Press, The
Publication date: 07/04/2006
Pages: 404
Sales rank: 608,524
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)

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Viking Exploration

In the 10th and 11th centuries, the Vikings were considered the most powerful force throughout Europe and the North Atlantic. Through raids and exploration, Viking ships traveled deep into Russia, the Mediterranean, and across the North Atlantic to North America. They are usually given credit for being the first Europeans to set foot on what would be known as the "New World." Most American history textbooks today either briefly mention the Viking exploration of the North Atlantic or, as is more than likely, have completely dropped it from their books. When they are mentioned it is usually within the context of the history predating Columbus, with little attention being given to the actual power they once held.


In the history of the world the period of the Vikings is arguably Norway's great shining moment on the world stage. Even though Norwegian textbooks spend a great deal of time discussing the Vikings within the context of Norway's history, the Vikings' westward exploration is given relatively little attention.

According to the sagas, some Vikings who had been driven off course went to Iceland in the latter half of the 800s. There they met some Irish monks who left the island when settlers from the Western Sea islands and Norway began to settle there from the 860s. One reason that many Norwegian chieftains emigrated to Iceland could have been that they didn't want to submit to Harald Fairhair as overlord, but for most of them another motivation was probably decisive: On the island they could clear new farms without bloody conquest.

Under the leadership of Eirik the Red from Rogaland, Greenland was colonized by Icelanders in the 980s. In the time that followed, over 250 farms were built in the Eastern Settlement and almost 80 farms in the Western Settlement. The Nordic societies lasted until about 1500 when the population died out.

Eirik's son Leif was the first European to land in North America. In the 1960s Norwegian archaeologists found remains of Viking houses in L'Anse aux Meadows on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland. That could have been the place where Leif Eiriksson wintered. The land was given the name of Vineland and several Greenlanders went west to settle there. Attacks by Indians or Inuits is the most likely reason that they were not successful.


Probably because of the assumed geographical location of the Vikings exploration, some Canadian textbooks not only include the story of the Vikings but also go into far greater detail than their American or Scandinavian counterparts.

The First Intruders

As every schoolchild knows, Norsemen made the first documented European visitations to North America. There is contemporary evidence of these visits in the great Icelandic epic sagas, confirmed in our own time by archaeological excavations near L'Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland. The sagas describe the landings to the west of Greenland made by Leif Ericsson and his brother Thorvald. They also relate Thorfinn Karlsefni's colonization attempt at a place Leif had called Vinland, an attempt that was thwarted by hostile Aboriginals labeled in the sagas as 'Skraelings'. It is tempting to equate Vinland with the archaeological discoveries, although there is no real evidence for doing so.

Later Greenlanders may have timbered on Baffin Island. They may also have intermarried with the Inuit to such racial mixings. But Greenland gradually lost contact with Europe, and the Icelandic settlement there died away in the fifteenth century. For all intents and purposes, the Norse activities became at best part of the murky geographical knowledge of the late Middle Ages.

In our own time the uncovering of a world map executed in the midfifteenth century, showing a realistic Greenland and westward islands including inscriptions referring to Vinland, created much speculation about Europe's geographical knowledge before Columbus. This Vinland map has never been definitively authenticated, and many experts have come to regard it with considerable scepticism. Like the Vinland map, none of the various candidates for North American landfalls before Columbus — except for the Vikings in Newfoundland — can be indisputably documented.



Contact between the New World and Old Europe was virtually inevitable given the European desire for riches during the Renaissance period and the advances in navigation and cartography. Although Columbus has become an often maligned figure in contemporary textbooks, nobody fails to mention his contribution to the first lasting contact between the new world and old.


Although most U.S. textbooks place "discovery" in quotations, this Cuban textbook does so for the "new world." The terms may be controversial in some circles, but there is little debate that Columbus is the key figure.

Christopher Columbus and the "new world." The existence of Cuba, and of the American continent, remained practically unknown to Europeans until the end of the 15th century. It is true that stories were being told of Norman incursions into territories west of Europe, beyond the cold Northern Sea, and that names like Eric the Red and his son Leif were being mentioned as the protagonists of those adventures. But in practice nothing was known about those lands, and much less about their inhabitants.

So when Christopher Columbus, an experienced sailor from Genoa, set about organizing a voyage across the Atlantic, his purpose was not to discover a new world but to find a shorter, less dangerous route to India, an important market of spices and other items in great demand in countries of Western Europe.

In his journey Columbus could of course come across territories not yet occupied by any European power, so in accepting the project, the Catholic King and Queen of Spain, Fernando and Isabel, not only agreed to share with Columbus the commercial benefits resulting from the undertaking but also appointed him Admiral, Viceroy, and Governor General of the lands he might discover.

This is how, authorized by the Capitulations of Santa Fe, and with supplies provided by the Spanish Crown, Columbus began his voyage. His three ships — the Santa María, the Niña, and the Pinta — set sail from palos de Moguer harbor, in the southern Spanish province of Huelva, on August 3rd, 1492.

Columbus sailed for 72 days. Longer than expected, the voyage created panic among the ever more restless sailors, who feared Columbus might have gone insane, and pressed him to return to Spain. But before the agreed 3 day term expired, in the early morning of October 12th, 1492, Andalucian sailor Rodrigo de Triana sighted land. Columbus' intrepidity, willpower, and skills had paid off. They had arrived at an island the indigenous inhabitants called Guanahaní — presently Watling — in the Lucayas or Bahamas, and which the Admiral called San Salvador, since it had saved his efforts from disaster. Columbus did not know it then, but he had discovered a new continent for Spain.

Advised by the native inhabitants through signs and gestures that there was more land nearby, he continued his voyage southeast. Fifteen days later, on October 27th, Columbus arrived at the coasts of Cuba, which he called Juana in honor of Prince Juan, the first born of the Spanish royal couple. Later, in 1515, the island would be renamed Fernandina by a decision of King Fernando, although all along it would retain its primitive name of Cuba.

This is how Europe arrived in Cuba, a land whose pristine natural scenery prompted Columbus to call it "the most beautiful land the human eye has beheld".

Columbus found in Cuba a hospitable, industrious, and peaceful civilization whose members he called Indians, in the belief he had arrived in India, the legendary Asian peninsula he had originally set off to find.


This Caribbean text is meant for students of the English-speaking Caribbean. There is insufficient demand in each island country to merit publishing separate textbooks. Consequently, these countries typically look to British or U.S. publishers for one general edition to be used across the various islands. The text spends a considerable amount of time recounting the destructive results of this initial contact.

Columbus's First Voyage

The fears of the seamen grew daily as the trade winds steadily blew their ships further and further west. By mid-September they were on the point of mutiny. Even Columbus began to doubt the wisdom of his plan. According to his earlier reckoning they should have already reached Japan. For a while he quietened his men's fears by showing them a log book in which he had underestimated the true distance they had travelled. A week later the seamen were once again talking about throwing their stubborn admiral into the sea and turning back. Columbus avoided mutiny by telling his men that they were sailing between two islands and could at any time turn towards land. On 10 October Columbus himself promised that the voyage would be abandoned if land was not sighted within forty-eight hours. As the deadline was drawing to a close, on Friday 12 October 1492, Rodrigo de Triana, keeping watch on the Pinta, sighted land.

Columbus went to bed convinced that the island was one of the Far Eastern spice islands. A closer look in the morning showed that the island had no exotic spices, jewels, rich clothes or gold. The natives he met had no trade goods at all, except a little inferior cotton. He could not learn where he was or what they called their island. Columbus gave it a new name, San Salvador (Holy Saviour), and pointed out to his men that the natives were willing to please and were nonbelievers. Their souls could be won for the Christian Church and that was sure to please Queen Isabella. Besides, the 'Indians', as Columbus mistakenly called the Arawaks, might be taught to cultivate cotton to export to Europe. In the meantime he took several Arawaks on board to guide him to the real spice islands.


The Arawak guides led Columbus along their own trade routes between San Salvador, Cuba and Hispaniola. They continually told him — as they did all later European explorers — that there were mountains of gold further inland, or on 'just' the next island. For three months Columbus unsuccessfully looked for the fabled wealth of Asia. The search continued until one day just before Christmas when the Santa Maria ran aground on the north shore of Hispaniola, and sank. Thirty-nine seamen who couldn't find a place on the remaining two ships unhappily became the first European settlers in the West.

The Amerindians and the Spanish


Columbus returned to Spain in 1493 convinced that he had discovered one of the islands of the Indies. He wrote to Queen Isabella with plans for making Hispaniola the centre of a great trading empire. The first step would be to build towns from which Spaniards could trade with the Indians. The island could also be used as a base for exploring other parts of the Indies.

Isabella gave the task of collecting stores, men and ships to Juan de Fonseca, who was a priest, like most of the officials at her court. He and Columbus gathered seventeen ships and 1,200 men. Among them were builders, masons and carpenters with the materials to start work on the first towns in the 'Indies'. To organise the trade there were merchants and clerks as well as map-makers who would be useful for voyages beyond Hispaniola. To provide food for the colony there were farmers with animals and stocks of seed. An important part of the expedition was a party of priests for the work of converting the Indians to Christianity.

Columbus led his fleet back to Hispaniola through the islands of the Lesser Antilles, where he saw many Carib settlements. He wrote that the Caribs were a savage people but that they seemed healthy and intelligent and would make good slaves.

At Hispaniola the fleet landed at Navidad. Columbus found that the fort built a year before had been destroyed and the Spaniards he left behind had all been killed in fights with the Arawaks. He ordered a new trading post to be built and named after Queen Isabella, but he chose a site far away from supplies of fresh water. Plants soon wilted in the salty soil and men died from fevers carried by mosquitoes in the nearby swamps. He sent expeditions to seek gold but his men found that the Arawaks were farming people with no riches to trade. Some gold could be panned from rivers but there were no mines.

These setbacks did not stop Columbus' belief in the wealth of the Indies and he took three ships to explore further west. They sailed to Jamaica but passed quickly on to Cuba. For a month the ships explored its south coast before they returned to Hispaniola.


While Columbus was away from Hispaniola, the Spaniards had abandoned work on the buildings and farms at Isabella. Instead they forced the Arawaks to provide them with food. They had also robbed them of trinkets and assaulted their women. The Arawaks were a peaceful people who had treated the Spanish with courtesy. Now they decided to resist and came together to fight the invaders who had made themselves unwelcome. Columbus immediately organised expeditions to overcome the Arawak forces. A one-sided struggle followed.

The Arawaks had only simple bows and arrows, stone clubs and wooden spears. The Spaniards were armed with steel swords, metal-tipped pikes and cross-bows. They used fierce dogs and armour-covered horses which terrified people who had never seen animals larger than a rabbit or coney. Horses gave the Spaniards the advantage of quick attacks and retreats, while the Arawaks suffered dreadful casualties by rushing headlong at the enemy. In a very short time tens of thousands of them were killed.

The fighting marked the end of any pretence that the Spaniards would trade fairly. Instead, Columbus forced the people of the island to pay a tax. Every three months each male over fourteen had to hand over enough gold to fill a hawk's bell and every other Arawak had to supply 25 pounds (about 12 kilograms) of spun cotton. Arawaks who failed to pay were forced to give several weeks' free labour. Hundreds of Arawaks who resisted the tax were captured and sent back to Spain for sale as slaves. They were given no extra clothing and half died from cold on the voyage.

In 1496, Christopher Columbus returned to Spain, leaving his brother, Bartholomew, in charge of Hispaniola. The wars against the Arawaks continued and led to Spanish control of the whole island. In 1493 there had been between 200,000 and 300,000 Arawaks on Hispaniola. By the end of 1496 perhaps as many as two-thirds of the Arawaks were dead. They were killed not only by Spanish weapons but also by the smallpox brought to the island on Columbus' ships. The Arawaks had no immunity to the disease and it raced through the island, weakening and killing whole tribes. Within a few years great herds of European cattle, swine and goats were roaming the island destroying the Arawaks' maize and cassava crops.

In three years the Spanish plan for a trading base in Hispaniola had given way to a conquest of the whole island. Bartholomew Columbus built a line of forts from the abandoned Isabella to a new Spanish headquarters which he started at Santo Domingo. Hispaniola had become the first Caribbean colony of Spain and Santo Domingo its capital.


On his return to Spain Columbus found himself out of favour with Queen Isabella. She was disappointed with the way he had governed Hispaniola and annoyed that he had not found the wealth of the Indies. She had sent back the Arawak slaves and turned down Columbus' idea that Caribs might be made slaves for the same reasons. The cold would kill many of them on the voyage. Spain had no use for slave labour and as a Christian queen it was her duty to protect the Indians, not enslave them. It was only in 1498 that Isabella agreed to let Columbus make a third voyage.

This time Columbus sailed far to the south through the Gulf of Paria. He saw a huge volume of fresh water pouring out of the Orinoco River. There seemed so much that he was sure that the river must run through an entire continent and not just an island. He sailed on to Hispaniola where he found that a revolt had broken out against his brother Bartholomew. Columbus had five ringleaders hanged and tried to buy the support of the other Spanish by allowing them to take over parts of the island as private estates. This did not stop a steady stream of complaints to Spain against the Columbus brothers and, in 1499, Isabella sent Francisco de Bobadilla to Hispaniola with special powers to act on her behalf. His first act was to have the Columbus brothers arrested and sent back to Spain.


Isabella forgave Columbus and after a while allowed him to make a fourth voyage to the Caribbean to explore the coastline he had sighted across the Gulf of Paria. She warned him to stay clear of Hispaniola. Columbus did not heed the warning but sailed directly to Santo Domingo to claim his share of the taxes which had been so cruelly taken from the Arawaks. He was not allowed to enter Santo Domingo but had to take on fresh water and supplies at a nearby natural harbour.


Excerpted from "History Lessons"
by .
Copyright © 2004 Dana Lindaman and Kyle Ward.
Excerpted by permission of The New Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Editors' Note,
PART I: The New World and a New American Nation,
1. Viking Exploration: Norway, Canada,
2. Columbus: Cuba, Caribbean,
3. British Exploration: Great Britain, Canada,
4. Puritans: Great Britain,
5. French and Indian War: Great Britain, Caribbean, Canada,
6. Government in Colonial America: Great Britain,
7. The American Revolution: Great Britain, France, Canada, Caribbean, Germany,
PART II: Westward Expansion,
8. The War of 1812: Great Britain, Canada, Caribbean,
9. The Monroe Doctrine: Great Britain, Brazil, Caribbean, Mexico, France,
10. Manifest Destiny: Canada, Mexico, Brazil,
11. Texas and the Mexican-American Wars: Mexico,
12. Slavery: Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Portugal, Great Britain, Mexico,
13. The Civil War: Canada, Great Britain, Mexico,
14. Immigration: Japan, Canada, Norway, Ireland, Italy,
PART III: A World Power,
15. Opening of Japan: Japan,
16. The Spanish-American War: Spain, Philippines, Cuba, Caribbean,
17. Philippine-American War: Philippines,
18. Boxer Rebellion: China (Hong Kong), Japan, Great Britain,
19. Interventions in Latin America and the Caribbean: U.S. Brazil, Costa Rica, Cuba, Nicaragua, Caribbean,
PART IV: World War I,
20. Causes of World War I: France, Germany, Italy, Great Britain,
21. The Great War: France, Canada, Great Britain, Italy, Germany,
22. Aftermath of the War: Germany, France, Nigeria, Great Britain,
23. Invasion of Russia: Japan, Great Britain,
24. The Treaty of Versailles: Germany, Japan, Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy,
PART V: The Great Depression and World War II,
25. The Great Depression: Russia, France, Caribbean,
26. World War II: Europe: Great Britain, Germany, Russia,
27. D-Day and the Liberation of Europe: Great Britain, Canada, France, Italy,
28. Resistance: France, Italy, Germany,
29. World War II: Pacific Theater: Philippines, Japan,
30. The Atomic Bomb: Japan, Philippines, Canada, Great Britain, Italy,
PART VI: The Cold War,
31. The Origins of the Cold War: Canada, Russia, Great Britain,
32. The United Nations: Great Britain, Russia, Canada,
33. The Cuban Revolution: Cuba,
34. Korean War: North Korea, South Korea, Great Britain, Russia, Canada, Japan,
35. NATO: Great Britain, Russia, Canada,
36. McCarthyism: Canada, France,
37. Suez Canal: Great Britain, France, Israel, Saudi Arabia,
38. The Cuban Missile Crisis: Cuba, Russia, Canada, Caribbean,
39. The Pueblo Incident: North Korea,
40. The Vietnam War: France, Vietnam, Canada,
41. The End of the Cold War: France, Russia, Canada,
PART VII: Modern Times,
42. The Hostage Crisis in Iran: Iran,
43. Nicaragua in the 1980s: Nicaragua, Canada,
44. Apartheid: Zimbabwe,
45. Free Trade: Canada, Mexico, Japan,
46. U.S.-Philippine Relations: Philippines,
47. Cuban-American Relations: Cuba,
48. The Middle East: Saudi Arabia, Great Britain, France, Israel, Syria,
49. Nuclear Weapons in North Korea: North Korea,
50. A New World Order: France,
A Translation,

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