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The Columbian Exchange: Biological and…

The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492… (original 1972; edition 1973)

by Alfred W. Crosby, Otto von Mering (Foreword)

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Title:The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Contributions in American Studies #2)
Authors:Alfred W. Crosby
Other authors:Otto von Mering (Foreword)
Info:Greenwood (1973), Paperback, 268 pages
Collections:Your library

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The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 by Alfred W. Crosby (1972)



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1973 first edition
  MatkaBoska | Mar 12, 2017 |
For environmental historians, The Columbian Exchange is one of those books that must be read. Although the book is now 42 years old, and contains some outdated information (for example, Crosby based much of his argument on blood types because DNA analysis wasn’t yet available), the basic idea has stood the test of time. Crosby’s thesis is summed up in the title, which has entered the language as a short-hand descriptor for the idea that “the most important changes brought about by the Columbian voyages were biological in nature.” There’s pretty widespread agreement on the significance of biological change after European contact with the Americas, although not all the people who use Crosby’s term agree with him that the interaction of the old world and the new “has left us with not a richer but a more impoverished genetic pool.” (xiv, 219)

Crosby sets the scene by comparing the old world and the new, to show the biological contrasts between Europe and the Americas. He describes European conquest and the diseases that spread with (and sometimes ahead of) conquistadors and settlers. Crosby then describes the (mostly plant) species that were brought from the Americas to the old world, and the (mostly animal) species the Spanish brought to the new (interestingly, he says most of the really significant species were introduced by the Spanish by 1500, long before North American settlement was begun. 108). After devoting a full chapter to the controversy over the origin of syphilis, Crosby concludes with a look at how American food crops enabled population growth in both Europe and Asia (and continue to, to the present day).

Some of the interesting items along the way include Crosby’s brief discussion of the possible influence of the new world on tradition and religious authority in the old. “Christian and Aristotelian” belief systems, he says, “proved too cramped to accomodate the New World...men of the Columbian generation discovered that ‘Ptolomeus, and others knewe not the halfe.’” (9) Crosby says an argument about “multiple creations” was carried on in Europe until 1859, when Darwin finally laid it to rest, “while also knocking loose a large part of the foundation of traditional Judaism and Christianity.” (14) Crosby’s discussion of the extinction event that wiped out American megafauna has probably been eclipsed by more recent scientific findings, just as his discussion of the worldwide distribution of blood-types has been overtaken by DNA analysis, but in their day they were great examples of interdisciplinary thinking.

Many of the historical details Crosby includes are startling. Cotton Mather’s description of the 1616-17 epidemic that wiped out most of the Massachusetts Indians as a Providential clearing of the woods “of those pernicious creatures, to make room for better growth,” confirms my impression of the Puritan leader (41). The idea that “a million Indians lived on Santo Domingo when the Europeans arrived,” and that they were reduced by 1548 to 500, is something you really have to sit with for a while and think about (45). The “population of central Mexican dropped from about 25 million on the eve of conquest to 16.8 million a decade later” (53) That doesn’t seem as bad, until it sinks in that it means one out of every three people was dead, in just ten years. Makes all the recent movies about plagues, zombies, and human apocalypse seem like so many nightmares of a guilty white American conscience.

Before reading Crosby, I didn’t know that when Columbus returned, he brought “seventeen ships, 1,200 men, and seeds and cuttings for the planting of wheat, chickpeas, melons, onions, radishes, salad greens, grape vines, sugar cane, and fruit stones for the founding of orchards” (67). And it never occurred to me that some new world species, like the white potato, found their way to places like New England via Europe (brought “by the Scotch-Irish...in 1718” 66). Other interesting details: “the banana, brought from the Canaries in 1516” (68). “Cattle...first brought to Mexico for breeding purposes in 1521” (87). But by 1614, “the residents of Santiago [Chile] possessed 39,250 head,” (91) as well as 623,825 sheep (94). I also didn’t know, but should have guessed after reading about De Soto’s expedition through Florida, that when Pizarro crossed the Andes into Peru in 1540, he brought over 2,000 pigs with him (79). Somebody should write a history of the conquest that focuses on what it must have been like, moving conquistadors and their pigs through the wild Americas.

Crosby first addressed the idea that disease was an important force in American history in a 1967 journal article called “Conquistadors y Pestilencia.” Crosby says he “stumbled into environmental history through the backdoor of epidemiology.” Of course, there was no such field as environmental history at the time, and Crosby helped create it.

“Conquistadors y Pestilencia” is about the Spanish conquest of the Aztec and Inca Empires. “How did Hernán Cortés do it?” Crosby asked. “Well, he didn’t. Old World smallpox did,” he answered.

“When the isolation of the Americas was broken, and Columbus brought the two halves of this planet together, the American Indian met for the first time his most hideous enemy – not the white man or his black servant, but the invisible killers which these men brought in their blood and breath,” wrote Crosby in 1967. Over then next couple of years, Crosby expanded the article into a book and coined the term that has become the accepted name of this phenomenon: the Columbian Exchange.

Crosby tried for several years to interest publishers in his radical book, without success. I had an opportunity to talk with Prof. Crosby and his wife recently via email, and they both recalled the most memorable rejection letter he received consisted of the single word “Nonsense.” Crosby finally attracted a publisher in 1971, when the Greenwood Press, a company begun a few years earlier by an antiquarian bookseller who usually printed out-of-print titles, asked him if he had anything book-length he’d like to see in print. The Columbian Exchange was published in 1972, and slowly began to attract the attention of historians over the next several years.

Early reviews of The Columbian Exchange were generally favorable, although some of the reviewers failed to grasp Crosby’s point. One review in a major academic journal, for example, described disease decimating both old world and new world populations. Crosby’s book didn’t say this, and it wasn’t true. The only disease that may possibly have crossed from the new world to the old, Crosby had claimed, was syphilis. Although a feared killer, syphilis did nowhere near the damage to Europe that smallpox, plague, and other Eurasian diseases did to American populations.

Over time, Crosby’s thesis and his approach to history attracted historians with similar interests in biological and ecological issues, and The Columbian Exchange became one of the founding texts of a new field. Unlike mainstream historians, many of whom rejected the pessimistic conclusion of Crosby’s book, environmental historians were willing to consider the possibility that the Columbian Exchange was not over. Crosby continues to argue the events of the sixteenth century were “simply an early phase in a slide toward worldwide biological homogeneity,” and that this process is “continuing, even accelerating.”

The idea that decreasing biological diversity is bad is essentially a scientific judgment rather than a historical one. So it’s no surprise that some historians disagree. One of the things that defines environmental history as a field is a general belief that these types of scientific arguments are valid and should be taken at least as seriously as cultural, political, or economic judgments. The general idea that biological processes influence history has gained support over the years, and even entered the mainstream. Jared Diamond’s 1997 bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel followed (and borrowed without attribution from) Crosby’s less well-known 1994 book Germs, Seeds, and Animals: Studies in Ecological History. Charles C. Mann’s bestseller 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus acknowledges its debt to The Columbian Exchange, uses the term, and even tells the story of the author’s many interactions with Alfred Crosby. ( )
  Dan.Allosso | Dec 14, 2014 |
A Seminal book that opened the revival of exo-biology. There's a more recent work, "1493" by Charles C. Mann, that I'm hoping to get to soon. We have opened a Pandora's box of shared plants and animals ranging from Kudzu to the Dandelion to the rabbit and the starling. For good or ill, Pangaea is back. Mr. Crosby's work is clear and readable. ( )
  DinadansFriend | Aug 28, 2013 |
An excellent introduction to the biological consequences, disease, agriculture and animal habitats, of the discovery of the New World. ( )
  jcvogan1 | Dec 8, 2005 |
"The best thing about this book is its overarching thesis, the concept of a Columbian exchange. This provocative device permits Crosby to shape a lot of familiar and seemingly unrelated data into a fresh synthesis. . . . The implications of this interplay between novel biological and social forces are fascinating." Journal of American History ( )
  heidilove | Dec 1, 2005 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0837172284, Paperback)

The best thing about this book is its overarching thesis, the concept of a Columbian exchange. This provocative device permits Crosby to shape a lot of familiar and seemingly unrelated data into a fresh synthesis. . . . The implications of this interplay between novel biological and social forces are fascinating. Journal of American History

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:37 -0400)

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