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Ecological Imperialism: The Biological…

Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900… (original 1986; edition 2004)

by Alfred W. Crosby (Author)

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596424,857 (4.2)10
Title:Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (Studies in Environment and History)
Authors:Alfred W. Crosby (Author)
Info:Cambridge University Press (2004), Edition: 2nd, 390 pages
Collections:Your library

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Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 by Alfred W. Crosby (1986)


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I wonder why Alfred Crosby isn’t better known. His range of interest is extensive (just the ones I’ve read cover the 1918 influenza epidemic, the history of artillery, and the current study of the environmental consequences of the European expansion into the western hemisphere), and they are all fascinating. Ecological Imperialism might be subtitled “Guns, Germs and Steel and Dandelions”; the non-human inhabitants of the New World seemed as poorly prepared to resist European arrival as the human ones.

I suspect the book was probably collected from expanding as series of scholarly articles; however, unlike many such I’ve read this doesn’t affect the readability or organization of the work. Each section has its own interest. Crosby’s discussion of the Norse settlement of Greenland answers the question of why the Greenlanders weren’t able to expand to the main North American continent convincingly:

*None of the expeditions to Vinland started from Norway, or even Iceland; they all began in Greenland. Greenland was already about as marginal as European civilization could be and didn’t have remotely the resources of 1492 Spain.

*There was nothing in Vinland that could be profitably exported to Europe or even Greenland itself. There were rich timber resources, of course, and timber was in great demand in Greenland and Iceland, but neither the Greenlanders nor the Icelanders had anything to buy it with; i.e., it wouldn’t have been profitable to load up a longship with logs and then haul them to Iceland to trade for – what? Wool? Cod?

*The technological difference between the Norse and the Skraelings was small. The Norse had steel weapons, but, as Crosby points out, a stone axe will smash a skull just as well as a steel one. The things that made the difference for the 1492 Spaniards – cavalry and firearms – weren’t available.

*The Norse didn’t have the disease weapon. Greenland and even Iceland were isolated from the European disease pool and were themselves exceptionally susceptible to the various epidemics that periodically mashed the continent. None of the Vinland explorers brought smallpox or measles or the plague to the New World, as far as anybody can tell.

A subsequent chapter deals with the practically unknown (to me, at least) European colonization of the eastern Atlantic islands – Madeira, the Azores and the Canaries. The Canaries had a native population that the Spanish eliminated in sort of a trial run for the Aztecs – cavalry and disease. The Canaries fell gradually, and it seems like the initial contacts actually improved the lot of the natives – European food plants, especially figs, may have contributed to a seeming episode of population growth. Unfortunately, European diseases and soldiers quickly reversed that.

In South American and New Zealand, Crosby comments on the superiority of European plants – especially grasses – and European animals – especially horses, cattle, and pigs – over their native counterparts. The pampas experienced an “explosion” of cattle and horses, and European grass quickly pushed native species into remote areas; the New Zealand experience was similar (although Crosby notes that some native New Zealand plants that sheep find unpalatable have flourished).

Well worth a read; less personal than Jared Diamond but more scholarly and detailed. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 6, 2017 |
In “Ecological Imperialism”, Crosby shows the important role that biology played in the conquest of the New World. He discusses the impact of disease (i.e., small pox, etc.) introduced by Europeans on the Native American populations as well as the impact of the European “portmanteau biota” on native plant and wildlife populations. This a great book for those who are interested in Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel” or Charles C. Mann’s “1491”. ( )
  atrautz | Jul 12, 2013 |

"Europeans, to borrow a term from agriculture, have swarmed again and again and have selected their new homes as if each swarm were physically repulsed by the other." (p.3)

Until as late at 1800 white populations in the Americas, Australia and New Zealand were relatively small, then came the deluge of emigration. 1820-1930 over 50 million Europeans migrated to non-European lands. Crosby believes that technology and ideology only account for part of this movement. Instead, the more basic factors were "biogeographical." The Europeans were attracted to the world's temperate zones, where they could cultivate wheat and raise cattle. Paradoxically, the areas that now export the most foodstuffs of European origin are areas that 500 years ago had no European flora or fauna at all. This requires an explanation.

Perhaps European humans have triumphed because of their superiority in arms, organization and fanaticism, but what in heaven's name is the reason that the sun never sets on the kingdom of the dandelion? Perhaps the success of European imperialism has a biological, an ecological, component. (p. 7)

Chapter 6: Within Reach, Beyond Grasp

Why did the Neo-Europeans not thrive in areas like Japan, China, Africa and the Middle East? Essentially Europeans tried to establish colonies in the torrid zone, but failed consistently to do so. The heat and tropical diseases made it impossible for the Europeans to establish successful permanent settlements there. Also, Crosby notes, few European women wanted to go to Asia. In Africa, the Europeans crops and animals did poorly. African diseases killed European plants, animals and people alike. African diseases killed Europeans in the same way that European diseases were to kill the Amerindians in the tropics. In the torrid zones it was climactic conditions that lead to racial mixing, producing Mestizo and Creole populations in Latin America, the Caribbean and the Southern United States. When the Pilgrims embarked to the new world they considered both North American and Guiana, choosing the former over the later for climatic reasons. Though many did die, those who survived were able to thrive in a temperate zone that offered little resistance and much to recommend it in terms of the cultivation of familiar plants and animals from the European continent.

Chapter 7: Weeds

What enabled the white Europeans to thrive where they did? First of all, they did so because the native populations were decimated by disease. To understand the demographic triumph of Europeans, it is necessary to narrow the scope of inquiry to the eastern third of the N. American continent which actually attracted the most Neo-Europeans. In this region it was the weeds that did the trick, transforming the environment to an hospitable habitation.

Weeds are neither good nor bad, they are merely plants that spread quickly and opportunistically in disturbed soil. Old world plants grew up when old world animals and people destroyed the existing vegetation in the New World. A study of California reveals that it is through the presence of Europeans, largely Spanish motivated by the desire to protect Mexico against Russian incursions, that the weeds of Europe were introduced to the state. Other locales in the East saw the introduction of weeds by colonists, intentionally and unintentionally. Weeds that serve well as forage grasses for the cattle goats and sheep of the colonizers (such as white clover and Kentucky Bluegrass) thrived in the new environment. They were carried westward with settlers and explorers until the met with the resistance of the plains grasses (Buffalo grass and grama grass). Similar fates befell the Pampas in S. America where mallows and thistles grew up with European settlements. The same pattern repeated itself in southern Australia, where most of the population lives. And it was similar plants that took off in all three regions. Strangely enough, this exchange of Flora was amazingly one-sided. North American flora hardly migrated to Europe at all. Instead, the weeds of Europe thrived in the Americas because the Europeans disturbed the natural environment and thereby gave them a foothold. Indeed, by clearing the forests the Europeans cuts huge scars into the land that were healed by European weeds, which in turn provided fodder for European animals and fed the settlers.

Chapter 8: Animals

The migrant Europeans could reach and even conquer, but not make colonies of settlement of these pieces of alien earth until they became a good deal more like Europe than they were when the marinhieros first saw them. Fortunate for the Europeans, their domesticated and lithely adaptable animals were very effective at initiating that change. (p. 172)

Because of the rapidity with which they reproduced, and the alterations in the environment which they wrought, animals like horses, cattle, pigs, goats, sheep, asses, chickens, cats, etc. had a profound effect on the continent. Omnivorous, fecund and adaptable, the European pig quickly swarmed the Caribbean Islands once brought there by Columbus. Other mariners who came in Columbus' wake actually seeded islands with pigs for the purpose of providing a ready meat supply for future visitors or themselves when they returned. Cattle, having gone feral in the Pampas of South America, reproduced and spread quickly. In North America a cattle frontier developed in the Carolinas and moved slowly westward with settlement. Likewise horses, when introduced by the Europeans in the Americas went feral and developed into vast herds making possible the rise of gaucho culture in S. America and the cowboy culture of the American West. Honeybees too thrived when brought to the New World. On the negative side, Europeans also imported rats which raided grain stores in towns like Buenos Aires, Sydney Australia and almost extinguished Jamestown in the early 17th Century.

Neo-Europeans did not purposely introduce rats, and they have spent millions and millions of pounds, dollars, pesos, and other currencies to halt their spread - usually in vain ... This seems to indicate that the humans were seldom masters of the biological changes they triggered in the Neo-Europes. They benefited from the great majority of these changes, but benefit or not, their role was less a matter of judgment and choice than of being downstream of a bursting dam. (p. 192)

Chapter 9: Ills

Among the weediest of organisms, pathogens were the most powerful biogeographical force in the Neo-Europes. Indeed, "[i]t was their germs, not these imperialists themselves, for all of their brutality and callousness, that were chiefly responsible for sweeping aside the indigenes and opening the Neo-Europes to demographic takeover." (p. 198) Some of the diseases with which the Amerindians had no previous contact with included: smallpox, measles, diphtheria, trachoma, whooping cough, chicken pox, bubonic plague, malaria, typhoid fever, scarlet fever, amebic dysentery and influenza. The impact of exposure was immediate upon contact. Columbus' attempts to bring Indian slaves back to Europe lead to the death from disease of the vast majority.

Amongst the most virulent pathogens was smallpox, which cleared the way for the conquistadors much more effectively than gunpowder in both Mexico (Aztecs) and Peru (Incas). It had a 10-14 day incubation period, which allowed those infected to spread the disease far and wide before symptoms appeared. Smallpox visited the Algonquin in New England and the Huron in the Great Lakes Region of New York (destroying 50% of that population). The same happened on the Pampas and in Australia. To give a quick impression of the impact of this pathogen on the indigenes, he points to De Soto's account of heavily populated areas of the American South that he encountered in the mid-16th C. Later explorers and settlers would describe the same regions as lightly populated. In the interim, disease had cleared the way for settlement. Even at De Soto's time, the presence of European diseases had weakened the populations. This exchange of pathogens, as the exchange of flora and fauna, was remarkably one-sided. Venereal Syphilis being the only New World import to the Old.

See Also Crosby's Website on The Columbian Exchange: Plants, Animals, and Disease between the Old and New Worlds at the National Humanities Center. ( )
1 vote mdobe | Jul 24, 2011 |
European displacement and replacement of the native peoples in the temperate zones is described more as a matter of biology than of military conquest.
  anne_fitzgerald | Oct 27, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0521456908, Paperback)

People of European descent form the bulk of the population in most of the temperate zones of the world - North America, Australia and New Zealand. The military successes of European imperialism are easy to explain; in many cases they were a matter of firearms against spears. But as Alfred Crosby explains in his highly original and fascinating book, the Europeans' displacement and replacement of the native peoples in the temperate zones was more a matter of biology than of military conquest.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:24 -0400)

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