on August 2, 2000
Alfred Crosby's *The Columbian Exchange* is a classic. To give you an idea of the importance of this book, the concept of the Columbian Exchange is now part of the historical lexicon of college and high school history textbooks. It even made a stealthy appearance of sorts in the title of Jared Diamond's recent Pulitzer Prize winning book, *Guns, Germs, and Steel*. Indeed, no history of the "Spanish Conquest" is complete without reference to the exchange of flora and fauna - especially the role of European pathogens. It was hardly surprising that Crosby's book was required reading at the National Teacher Training Institute for AP World History in 2000.
Even readers who are familiar with the concept of the Columbian Exchange can benefit from reading the original work. Crosby traces the migration across Beringia, using blood types to illustrate the homogeneity of the population. Most importantly, this population remains isolated from the communicable disease pools that periodically decimate Afro-Eurasians following the development of agriculture and cities. When European conquistadors and missionaries arrived in the 15th century, epidemics of Eurasian diseases spread like wildfire through 'virgin' populations - often traveling faster than the Europeans themselves. This demographic collapse creates the world's greatest labor (energy) shortage, which set the stage for the slave trade.
The fate of Eurasian animals transplanted to the Americas was similar. Large domesticated mammals were virtually unknown in the Americas; Eurasian horses, pigs, and sheep found a world devoid of predators and competitors. They too were 'conquistadors' that transformed New World environments and cultures. The American image of a Plains Indian on horseback is perhaps the most familiar example of a 'biological and cultural consequence' of the Columbian Exchange.
With the possible exception of syphilis, the New World's contribution to this Columbian Exchange is almost entirely beneficial to the Old World. Maize, potatoes, tomatoes, cassava, peanuts, chilies, and cacao are perhaps the best-known examples of New World foods that travel back to Eurasian and fuel a demographic surge. For many people, the Columbian Exchange revealed that the foods and images we often take as symbols of national or cultural identity are actually syncretic blends of Old and New World ingredients. Take chocolate, for example. It is perhaps the best example of food created by the Columbian Exchange. Southeast Asian sugar, 'discovered' by Crusaders in the Holy Land, was grown on Caribbean plantations by African slave labor and combined with cacao from the Americas.
As I write this review, I note that only the $65 hardback edition is listed at Amazon. Be advised, there is a less expensive paperback edition. (Ask for it!) If that fails, I would recommend Crosby's *Ecological Imperialism*, which explores the theme of biological diffusion on an even broader global scale than *The Columbian Exchange*.
on March 20, 2007
The Columbian Exchange, by Dr. Alfred W. Crosby, as the title suggests, Crosby's work explains that the most influential aspect of the "discovery" of the "New World" in changing the paradigm of the "Old World" was not the economic ramifications or even the establishment of the United States, but instead the truly unforeseen biological and cultural effects. The Columbian Exchange is divided into four descriptive parts: a description of the paradigmatic shift as a result of Columbus' original crossing, a description of how disease factored into the colonization of the Americas, a description of how the flora and fauna of the "New World" was radically changed by the biological exchange and finally a description of how the Columbian biological exchange continues into the present. After the presentation of stockpiles of research and data, Crosby ends with the conclusion, of course, that the party that sustained the least amount of biological damage became the party less changed. The "New World," the Americas, was more drastically damaged and therefore changed than the "Old World," as Crosby infamously states, "there are two Europes and two Africas: one on either side of the Atlantic."
Alfred W. Crosby received his PhD in History from Boston University, after completing his Bachelor's and Master's degrees at Harvard University. Dr. Crosby has taught at institutions such as the Ohio State University and Washington State University; however, Dr. Crosby has spent the majority of his teaching career (1977 to present) as Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin. He has also been granted visiting professorship at Yale University (1977), University of Hawaii (1991-2) and Umeå University, Sweden (1999). Dr. Crosby is also widely recognized outside of the discipline of history, mostly for his work as a bio-historian and in the field of historical archaeology. In 1988, he was awarded the Robert L. Stigler, Jr. Lectureship in Archeology at the University of Arkansas and in 2000 he was named a fellow of the American Philosophical Society. Dr. Crosby has also been awarded the "Giant" of World History Award at the World 2000 Conference on Teaching World History and World Geography.
Though his professional and teaching awards are striking, Alfred W. Crosby is most noted for his accomplishments in historical writing. Though The Columbian Exchange is his most renowned book, his other publications have not escaped reputation. He has received several accolades throughout his career including the prestigious Fulbright Fellowship, 1979, and the Medical Writers' Association Award for Best Book on a Medical Subject for Laymen, 1976, for his book, Epidemic and Peace, 1918. For his book, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900, Dr. Crosby was awarded the Friends of the Dallas Public Library Award for the scholarly book making the most important contribution to knowledge in 1987 and Ralph Waldo Emerson Prize of the Phi Beta Kappa Society in 1988. He is truly a renowned bio-historian. His books, especially The Columbian Exchange, are used as indispensable for classroom assignments and reference books for high educational institutions everywhere.
The first part of Crosby's book deals with the change in the historiography of the origins of the world. Crosby lays out a new process in which scientific and religious minds had to think after the discovery of the "New World," due to the obvious biological isolation of the American continent. This new process of thinking about human origins eventually paved the way for the theory of evolution and the replacement of Christian creationism with Darwinism in the realm of rational thought. The believers in the literal translation of creation stories in the Torah, the Bible or the Qur'an faced a faith shaking and life changing paradigmatic shift. These holy books that were always deemed to be a literal history became under analysis and attack. A whole new type of history was born; a history that was biologically-centered. Everything in Dr. Crosby's book focuses around the effect of biological exchange and everything about post-1492, according to Crosby, was changed by the Atlantic biological exchange. Nothing of the Indians' various cultures escapes the effects of biological exchange, not religion, political structure, work systems, most certainly not humans, themselves, nor landscape.
In the second part of the book, Crosby's deals with his strongest and most original argument in The Columbian Exchange, this was the answer to the question, "Why were the Europeans able to conquer America so easily?" This answer is especially original because it puts the point of the sword directly upon disease, rather than Spanish brutality. This is a stark contrast to the historical literature of the twentieth century, even some proceeding the publishing of The Columbian Exchange in 1972. "It has often been suggested," Crosby evoke, "that the high mortality rates of these post-Columbian epidemics were due more to the brutal treatment of the Indians by the Europeans, than to the Indians' lack of resistance to imported maladies." After this statement, Crosby continues dispelling every type of "brutality" argument given by past historians and disputing that instead, biological disease was far more deadly. For example, Crosby mentions that the settlement in Roanoke, North Carolina, prior to any type of hostility between the settlers "open or hidden" that "within a few days after our departure from everies such townes, that people began to die very fast, many in a short space...The disease also was so strange that they neither knew what it was, nor how to cure it; the like by report of the oldest men in the country never happened before, time out of mind." The author even delves into the discussion of how quickly disease spread between the post-contact and proto-contact Indians: "[the Indians] now performed their last function on earth, to act as a reserve of pestilence in the "New World" from which the conquistador drew invisible biological allies for his assault on the mainland." This means of describing the brutal effect of disease on the Indians' resistance as well as on the Spanish conquest, seems to leave the Spanish looking less like monsters than previous historians. Crosby acknowledges the savagery used by the Spanish, but knows that the worst tragedy, the worst executioner, was far beyond the control or foresight of the Spanish.
This is Crosby's most important historiographical contribution. His detailed and well researched description of the pre-contact "New World" clearly shows how the post-contact "New World" was changed radically through the biological exchange. Most of the contemporary historical fallacies that Crosby challenges have to do with the savagery and decimation of the Indians by the Spanish. Rather than seeming as though he is arguing for one side or the other, Crosby seems to try to rectify the mischaracterizations of the past with the depth and accuracy of his research. The reader begins to feel that the events that led to the occupation of the "New World" were less insidious and murderous on behalf of the Spanish, but rather biologically inevitable. Crosby does not give his audience the feel that he is trying to save the reputation of the invading Spanish, but that he is simply trying to describe how it actually was; taking no sides.
Another of Crosby's strongest points in The Columbian Exchange is his description of the "New World" after the biological exchange. Crosby does not merely state "what actually happened," in the von Ranke fashion, for instance "the Spaniards reported that [disease] killed one third to one half of the Indians," but delves further into detail of how the Indian deaths affected everything about the "New World." Deadly disease turned everything the Indians' world upside-down. Not only did disease ravage the humans and decimate the population, but it upset the political, religious and work systems that the Indians had in place before. Crosby describes the fall of Tenochtitlan through the eyes of the Mexicans. After the initial Spanish invasion, smallpox from the Spaniards spread to the Mexicans of Tenochtitlan. Many of the chief men died of this disease and as a result, "the deaths of these important persons must have robbed the empire of much resiliency." Crosby describes empire after empire of American Indians that fell in such a manner. After the empire fell, the Spaniards would take it over and due to their appearance of immunity to this deadly disease, many of the Indians converted to Christianity, because they thought the Spaniard's God to be much more powerful and protective then their indigenous God.
Another major result of the deaths of the majority of the Indian population was the change in work ethic, which then facilitated the importation and success of domesticated packing animals and livestock. Prior to European arrival, there was a lack of large animals in the Americas, domesticated or not. The largest animal native to the Americas was the jaguar. This meant that no matter how heavy or large the load, the Indians had to move it using only their strength. "As the number of humans plummeted," Crosby states, "the population of imported domesticated animals shot upward." After the depletion of the population, many working bodies, the Indians readily accepted the horses and cattle that were being brought to the Americas.
The next part of The Columbian Exchange deals with the more subtle, but still important affects of the biological exchange on the "Old World," mostly Europe. For this section, Crosby does not revisit the paradigmatic shift, as in Chapter One; instead he visits the two most obvious biological effects on the "Old World": syphilis and food. Syphilis did not immediately begin decimating the population as smallpox or influenza did in the Americas, however, during times of cultural turmoil the disease took its toll. Crosby argues that venereal disease will only become a major problem to a society when "a society is in such chaos that the sexual morality breaks down. Such a sad state of affairs is usually the product of war." Though in the sixteenth century, syphilis raged in epidemics throughout Europe the fact of the matter was, that unlike smallpox, influenza or measles, syphilis was a "very dangerous infection, but not one that could be called explosive in the nature of its attack on the victim." Hence the same deadly toll was not taken on Europeans as it was on Indians.
The food exchange, on the other hand, was an undeniable exchange of food staples for the Europeans. Most people know that the potato which became a staple for European peasants was not native to the "Old World," but came over in the exchange. However, what many do not know was that the tomato was not native to Europe, either. Crosby argues that "some American foods have been so thoroughly adopted by the Europeans that one cannot imagine what their national diets must have been like before Columbus...Who could imagine the Italian chef deprived of the tomato?" Aside from cuisine, Crosby paints a picture of a Europe faced with famine and utterly saved by the imported American staples such as potato, beans and maize.
Just as he argues that the Spanish could not have foreseen what would have biologically taken place, Crosby also used the last part of his book to describe how epic and irreproducible the effects of the Columbian exchange truly were. Even though the exchange still continues today, it most probably "will never be repeated in as spectacular a fashion as in the Americas as in the first post-Columbian century, not unless there is, one day, an exchange of life forms between planets."
Dr. Crosby's publications throughout the last three decades have moved seamlessly between both Spanish and English. Many of the sources used in The Columbian Exchange are written in Spanish, both contemporary documents and primary documents from the sixteenth century. This fluency allowed Crosby to read primary source documents crucial to his research with less of a chance of improper translation. For example, the author discusses the previous historical assessments of the epidemics facing the Indians as solely smallpox. However, in reading such primary source chronicles of the sixteenth century, he discovers that the Spanish word viruelas "is almost invariably translated as `smallpox,' it specifically means not the disease but the pimpled, pustuled appearance which is the most obvious symptom of the disease. Thus the generation of conquistadors may have used `viruelas' to measles, chicken pox, or typhus."
The sources Dr. Crosby uses for The Columbian Exchange are no doubt what produced such a well-organized and data-based argument. It is not that the author uses several primary sources documents from Spanish conquistadors, colonists and Catholic religious, that is extraordinary, but using his fluency in Spanish translates the documents himself (as mentioned before). Crosby's new translations and interpretations aided the originality of his study of the effects of disease that ravaged the Indians. Nearly half of all of Crosby's sources are in Spanish. For this part of his description of the initial effects of European disease on Indians, Crosby uses very little secondary sources. He comes to nearly all personal and innovative conclusions. The secondary source material that Crosby does use for this section is a plethora of non-historical, medical texts, such as C.W. Dixon's, Smallpox, and Horacio Figueroa Marroquin's, Enfermedades de los Conquistadores. For the description of the pre- and post-Columbian flora and fauna of the "New World," Crosby uses some secondary historical texts, but again, relies mostly on primary descriptions from the Spanish. Then, Crosby steps outside of the discipline and uses food and botanical texts. Finally, for the description of the effect of Columbian biological exchange on the Europeans and the rest of the "Old World," Crosby relies mostly on secondary sources and encyclopedias, such as George P. Murdock's, Africa, Its People and Their Cultural History, Jean Astruc's, A Treatise on Venereal Diseases, and the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. In all, Crosby's comprisal of a variation of sources, not only sources from the historical discipline, but interdisciplinary sources, as well, made for a very credible account of his version of the Atlantic biological exchange.
Crosby does not seem to be writing for any type of political or professional purpose. Unlike historians such as Howard Zinn or Jawaharlal Nehru, Crosby does not begin, flesh out, nor end his book including any type of political cause. The writing is more of matter-of-fact, like a biology text book, than driven by personal motive or arguments. A main question in historiography is how to be objective, while still producing a work that is "readable" to the general, popular public. The style in which The Columbian Exchange is written is as unchallenging to read as a bestselling novel, which probably adds to its popularity as a teaching tool in undergraduate and beginner's history courses. This type of mastery of "stylistic objectivity" makes this book an amazing model for the study of historiography.
With the retail price of $29.95, this book is an investment, not only for historians or as a model for historiographical study, but also for every human being, especially for those on the "New World" side of the globe. Crosby does a wonderful job in describing just how radically and nonnegligible the effect of the initial voyage of Columbus was. The important he imposes upon the subject (and rightly so), makes it seem as though it is all humanity's duty to read his book and understand what truly occurred in the Columbian exchange and how drastically it shaped the known world today.
Its been almost 40 years since the first publication of Alfred Crosby's _The Columbian Exchange_, but the work is monumental in its historical and ecological impact. The ideas furthered by Crosby - that the exchange of people, plants and disease from the Old World (not just Europe, but Africa and Asia as well) to the New irrevovably and dramatically changed ecosystems and global politics was revolutionary in its time. In the interveneing years it has been become accepted fact, which belies the impact and importance it initially had.
The importation of disease from Europe to the Americas (largely unintentionally - no stories of "passing typhus riddled blankets to the Natives" here) decimated the population, as is typical when a new pathogen is introduced to a previously unexposed populaton. In fact, Crosby argues, it was disease rather than Spanish steel or horses that led to the conquest and occupation of the New World. I agree. And the diseases are legion: typhus, smallpox, influenza, typhoid, malaria, measles, whooping cough - these, along with the brutal policies implemented by the Spaniards led to the virutal extermination of the Arawak and the decimation of other Native populations. In a historical irony, Crosby convincingly argues that syphillis originated in the New World, a gift in return for the myriad of pathogens that liquidated so many indigenous Americans.
The Columbian Exhange is also the exchange of mega-fauna. As Crosby writes, "seen from far above, one might have been led to think that the Europeans were actively replacing the indigenous population with pigs and horses." Indeed, the introduction of pigs, sheep, goats, cattle and especially horses had an immediate and far-reaching impact on the New World - not only socially (as Natives as far north as present-day Canada became horsemen) but ecologically, as these new animals impacted the eco-systems they were introduced to. Crosby also devotes attention to crops - not only those brought to the New World (sugar, especially), but those exported to the Old World - maize and potatoes most significantly. That the Columbian Exchange is still on-going is something Crosby points out with pessimism: as new plants, animals and diseases are introduced, the effects are not always pleasant, and not always what is intended. The long-term prognosis, in his opinion, is that the resulting narrowing of the genetic pool is to the detriment of all living things. While this is true, I think Crosby neglects to realize that evolution is continually on-going, and that the shrinking of the world (biologically speaking) is not the end, but rather an opportunity for new species to develop.
A final point that Crosby misses - and perhaps this is due to the intervening years since its publication, is the long-term economic impact of the Columbian Exchange. I can't help but see the origins of the "first" (industrialized) world and the "third" (exploited - or "developing") world here - that the wealth of the New World: mineral, agricultural, and as an outlet for surplus population in Europe - was instrumental in the industrial / economic and later political domination of Europe, while the depopulaiton and exploitation (in terms of both natural resources and in human terms) of the indigenous Americans (an in turn, of West Africans) led to their place as "third world" nations. Perhaps I am going too far here, or asking too much of Crosby - the result of my own social and political leanings. Nonetheless, a landmark book that will change the way in which you understand and see the European discovery of the New World. Recommended.