I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012. The full collection is accessible here.
Two of the most important attributes of Alfred W. Crosby’s The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 are the groundbreaking nature of the work and its overall staying power. Today the term Columbian Exchange, which refers to the pervasive exchange of peoples, plants, animals, diseases, and ideas between the Eastern and Western hemispheres that Crosby asserts started with the landing of Columbus, is not considered a theory, but, in many circles, a well-known truth about world history. The term is prevalent in school textbooks and popular histories and has led to countless other studies.
The revolutionary nature of the Columbian Exchange lies in Crosby’s removal of the veil of “sensationalism” from the past. For too long the history of “civilizing” the Americas relied on Eurocentric viewpoints on the time period. When one looks past the glitz and glamour of military conquest, political dominance, and racial tensions, one finds that these events were fundamentally driven by biological changes occurring in both hemispheres. The foundation of Crosby’s work is his belief that, going back to Marsh’s ending question, man is a part of nature, not a separate entity. “The first step to understanding man,” he writes, “is to consider him as a biological entity which has existed on this globe, affecting and in turn affected by, his fellow organisms, for many thousands of years.” (xiii) I find this belief to be refreshing and realistic because it is when humans believe themselves above nature that they ultimately place themselves in danger.
The bulk of Crosby’s evidence relies on Elton’s idea that the invasion of an ecological habitat by foreign species usually results from the movement and commerce patterns of man. This kind of occurrence is most striking, according to Elton, when one examines the pattern of disease epidemics in North America after European contact. The Europeans brought with them Old World diseases, such as smallpox, which led to highly fatal outbreaks amongst the indigenous peoples, who were highly susceptible due to the high level of isolation their civilizations had experienced prior to European contact. These epidemics destroyed the native’s political structures, leaving them without a strong social configuration on which to lean in order to help them fend off the Europeans’ advance into their homelands and, in the end, their cultures. The loss in population also allowed Europeans to take over native lands pastorally. As Crosby points out, as the native population decreased, the population of European domestic animals increased. Had the Europeans not been able to successfully supplant their agricultural system into the New World, then not as many Europeans would have been convinced to make the move and the history of the Americas could have been very different. The movement of plant and animal life was not one way though. Despite the fact that he admits that there is evidence to the contrary, Crosby asserts that syphilis was brought from the New World to Europe. He bases this opinion on the fact that there are no pre-Columbian descriptions of the disease in European records. Crosby also discusses the crops that were taken to Europe from the Americas, such as the potato, which in many ways improved the food supply of the continent and subsequently led to a spike in European population that would later filter into the Western hemisphere.
Perhaps because now it is such a well-accepted theory, the Columbian Exchange, in the manner Crosby presents it, is both highly convincing and its validity, evident. It is hard to understand from a contemporary viewpoint how this biological exchange had been ignored by generations of previous scholars. My appreciation of the book is heightened by the fact that Crosby was very much influenced by contemporary issues. The Columbian Exchange, according to Crosby, is still going on. His concern for the environment and scorn for the present-day condition of society and the greed of capitalistic systems is palpable. I find his sentiments very relatable as I continuously struggle with my opposing optimistic and fatalistic views on society.
Feature Photo: “The Herd” by A. Davey