on November 25, 2010
Although only a large essay, Columbian Exchange was a paradigm shift in how Western historians view biological exchanges between Old & New World after 1492. Besides the exchange in human (mostly African) slaves which was the intended 1st leg of a nefarious Triangular Trade cycle between Old & New Worlds, Crosby also examines the unintended consequences of food crops, pathogens, domesticated animals, and commodity crops (rubber, cotton, etc.)
It concerns not only the cash crops (tobacco, sugar,coffee, rubber, cotton).
It also suggests the effect of pigs & horses which readily adapted to the New World. Horses transformed many Amerindian cultures into horse-centered cultures.
Many Old World plants & animals transformed the Americas(and Africa). Unintended 'hitchhikers' like smallpox & flu had the effect of a genocidal pandemic upon native Amerindian tribes.
New World species, especially potato, once they gained acceptance in Europe, became a staple of the poor, (Ireland & Russia).
Not emphasized by Crosby, many exotic New World specimens were returned to the Old World by natural scientists and the idea of natural selection was devised based upon evidence & specimens gathered in New World by European naturalists (i.e., Darwin's studies of finches of Galapagos)
These are a few of the effects of the Columbian Exchange. Crosby's work changed the way that historians and scientists understand the Age of Discovery.
I read this book 'after the fact', having become familiar with the exchanges by secondary, later sources. I am surprised that more scholarship hasn't pursued the effect of Dutch exchanges in Indonesia, British exchanges in India, etc which I would expect to have been as transformative as the Old World / Americas exchanges.
Note: This summary of important exchange species gives a sense of scale of exchanges (wikipedia)
Old World to New World
New to Old
Domesticated plants Old to New
CITRUS (orange, lemon, etc.)
New to Old plants /crops
amaranth (as grain)
common beans (pinto, lima, kidney, etc.)
cranberries (large cranberry, or bearberry species)
COTTON(long staple species)
manioc (cassava, tapioca, yuca)
strawberry (commercial varieties)
Infectious diseases Old to New
New to Old pathogens
on April 13, 2014
After being deluged in recent years with Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel" theory of history in books and on TV, its refreshing to go back to the original thinker. One only need consider the "Great Man" theory of history, and its utter inadequacy to account for the dynamics of old world meets new world history to realize how much history has changed and the seminal part in that change of this author and this book. Crosby shows that a knowledge of epidemiology and botany informs our history more than belief, culture, or technology. That the spanish slaughtered and enslaved in pursuit of gold, ignoring a harvest of potatoes and tomatoes; since valued much higher than all the gold ever mined, puts in doubt both any "great man" theories of history not to mention any "rational self interest" based economic theories. We're just now beginning to perceive the greater gifts of agricultural diversity that the native americans left us but we have rejected, possibly to our peril. The first flickers of recognition of the depths of their gift and sacrifice starts here. A book that's a joy to read and changes the way you see the world - more than one can reasonably ask of any book.
on May 9, 2011
Alfred W. Crosby's Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 discusses the anomaly of European migration. European colonization of the so-called "Neo-Europes", in particular, is the focus of this work. Crosby argues that the reason for European success in lands, so different than their own, in the temperate zone can be attributed to biology. The temperate climates occupied by European forces across the globe were more accommodating than other zones for habitation, which Crosby explains is the reason that European settlements were able to thrive there. In addition, as well as causing, the European cultures to thrive, a biological occupation occurred; European plants, diseases, and species of animals invaded and supplanted the local lands. This combination allowed European colonialists--human, plant, and animal alike--to take control of the temperate zone and, as a result, the agricultural belt of the world.
The areas deemed "Neo-Europes" by Crosby are composed of populations of European ancestry, despite the distance from Europe, and produce the most food surpluses; these two facts are not coincidental. Although the nineteenth century saw mass emigration due to a variety of conditions, it was the Neo-Europes which were the most popular. Crosby explains this success in the temperate zones by European imperialists biogeographically, starting with an observation about the respective latitudes of European and the Neo-Europes. The respective latitudes lie in the temperate zones and share similar climates. Therefore, when European plants and animals were transported to the new lands, they found an environment which was able to sustain them; more so, it allowed them to thrive. However, the arrival of these biological invaders had a negative effect on the original species of the Neo-Europes. The invader plants and animals ended up flourishing and overtaking the native species, creating an environment which imitated Europe.
Crosby also focuses on disease, which he claims is the reason for the comparative ease of the initial and recurring European invasion. Whereas the natives of the Neo-Europe regions had not participated in the same close contact with domestic animals that Europeans did, they were not exposed to conditions in which diseases festered. Rodents, cockroaches, worms, lice, et al. prospered in the urban settings of Europe and, as the main disease carriers, were an important aspect in the European people's eventual resistance to the diseases which would devastate the human populations of the Neo-Europes. The likened temperate climate which had allowed for European plant and animal species to thrive led in turn to a place for disease to flourish as well, which in turn eased the human invasion take place.
Another important part of Crosby's argument is the role of wind in European imperialism. It was through the development of understanding how the winds worked that Europeans were able to successfully travel by ship to destinations further and further from their homeland. In particular, the experimentation which resulted in the modern process of tacking--creating zigzag lines to move forward--that allowed for greater travel and, therefore expansion. An important point mentioned in this section is that of the problematic doldrums, which had an effect on where explorers sailed. Because the doldrums made travel more difficult, and by default expansion and colonization as well because of the inability to transport as much livestock and goods, the winds played an important role in where Neo-Europes were created. And so through both understanding the winds and atmospheric circulation, the Europeans were able to make it to the lands which would become Neo-Europes.
Neo-Europes were created through biological expansion, which was possible because of disease and wind manipulation, as Crosby argues. I found Crosby's argument to be invigorating and interesting. The idea that the temperate climates of the Neo-Europes was similar enough for the plants and animals of Europe to thrive is more than plausible for two reasons: the first being that places of similar latitudes receive similar insolation and can be defined as having relatively similar temperatures and climates and, most importantly, that climates are not defined only and exactly by latitude, but rather by many forces. This makes the movement from Europe to the Neo-Europes plausible in terms of invasion because of the ability for species to thrive in areas with similar insolation, which is an important aspect when considering vegetation.
However, I do have a point of contention with Crosby's analysis, which is that I do not believe he takes the differences in the microclimates into enough account. Rather, he seems to ignore the fact that the makeup of the landmasses themselves results in different climates; topography, coastal versus continental, and specific climate are not taken into a detailed account. The problem with not addressing these features is that Crosby makes a lot of generalizations. The makeup of the soil is also important because it influences the type of vegetation and erosion in the area. A part of this is because the material is intended for those with little to no previous knowledge on the subject matter, making it distracting for those with more advanced knowledge on both history and climate. Given that Crosby is focusing on the Neo-Europes as a whole, this can be forgiven.
Although he makes generalizations in regards to the climates, Crosby is also guilty of focusing his attention on very specific areas of basic knowledge--his historical examples, for instance, focus on specific regions and lose the greater picture. Despite the limitations, this work piece is overall very insightful. The hindrances are merely minor speed bumps which are far from difficult to get past. He does well in maintaining balance on this very complex and broad topic, making Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 both informative and accessible.
on October 8, 2014
before heading to read Jared Diamond trilogy, this is an interesting book that was written 30+years ago. Stunning cultural, social, natural transition/exchange of what the adventurers of Spanish brought to/back between the Europe and America continent. Potatoes, diseases (Syphilis), woodstocks (horse, sheep, pigs, etc), population growth, are the items that change the world for both. Worth the quick read. Stunning discoveries and researches that was done 30 years ago with enormous research material.
on August 9, 2003
The Columbian Exchange: Biological And Cultural Consequences Of 1942 by Alfred W. Crosby Jr. (Professor Emeritus of American Studies, History, and Geography, University of Texas - Austin) is the 30th anniversary edition of a classic treatise that shows how the voyages of Columbus caused a sweeping biological change as organisms large and small spread to both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. From the deadly toll of smallpox among the Indians of Mexico, to the introduction of Old World plants and animals to the New World, and so much more, The Columbian Exchange is a seminal, educational, and uniquely insightful contribution to Native American, Medical History, and World History Studies reference collections and reading lists.