The Columbian Exchange by Crosby?
The 1972 “Columbian Exchange” by Alfred Crosby is one of the few books that have brought forth facts that countless people have forgotten to delve into when studying historical events (Crosby 1972). In “The Columbian Exchange”, Crosby has pointed out that the journey undertaken by Christopher Columbus was not one that was of a purely political or social nature but biological behaviors were also significant determinants that played their roles between the lines. We see that the meeting of two different civilizations and how one civilization dominated over another because of the biological reasons that worked silently. With Crosby we observe the exchanging of customs, crops and organisms; and we realize how biology may plays a silent role in the meeting of civilizations, but one that should be by no means underestimated.
The book allows the reader to view history through a lesser known perspective. History and migration that was previously considered to be constituted of religion, culture, economics, ideology and aggression, held far more than what was visible to the naked eye. The movement of man himself shadowed the plants, diseases, animals and biological trends that moved with him. This book raises the curtain on these very elements. The sober context allows the reader a peek into this historical perspective.
The “Columbian Exchange” has been one of the most prominent of historical events that has introduced two worlds separated by geographical and social distances together. Of course the battle for dominance of ecology, agriculture and culture was won by the visitors, but even so, the role that disease played in this battle was monumental, as Crosby highlights.
Societies that had previously been isolated and were evolving in their own terms were exposed to a new society as an exchanging of crops, culture and livestock took place. But beyond all that was visible, was a far deeper exchange. Diseases such as Influenza, Measles, Bubonic plague and countless others were exposed to the New World as Great Pox and Yaws came to the Old World.
Amongst the more prominent of exchanges are those of corn, maize, horses, disease and sugar. In the realm of ideas however, the New World brought social concepts of liberty, corporate structure and ecology to the Old World.
The Columbian Exchange is considered to be a development in terms of social structures, but devastating in terms of biological consequences. Positive developments in terms of food, livestock and social infrastructure were observed. However, none of this development was abrupt, since the first trade of societies began with that of slaves. The transatlantic slave trade was booming within decades of
An example of the environmental impact can be seen in the fact that while the Old World continued to live and evolve amongst the few organisms it had managed to tame, the New World brought a much more controlled environment to the natives. For instance, no wild horses or cattle were found that could be tamed. The North American Buffalo is one such species that resisted being tamed and is still considered an animal that chooses to live in the wild and open forests and plains. American plants completely changed the way Europeans would consume their food. Several ingredients that the Old World presented allowed famines that had plagues Europe since the middle ages to be dealt with.
Two civilizations that had never known each other before interacted and became what we refer to as the new world. Disease was a silent but significant player in this meeting of civilizations. It is necessary to note that diseases that had previously been unheard of spread like wild fire through this previously untamed region. Where new crops were introduced to both sides of the hemisphere, new diseases also gained ground and led to uncountable deaths. The author notes that these Eurasian diseases and ailments included the likes of syphilis, pox and yellow fever. The influence of the exchanging of diseases upon both societies was not a one way street. European customs, plants and animals were influenced to monumental degrees as well, yet it is believed that the natives were the ones to get the worst part of the bargain.
The impacts of New World diseases upon the Native Americans were disastrous. Diseases such as influenza, typhoid, measles, and small pox resulted in deaths so severe that they cut down Native American populations by almost 80%. The Native Americans lacked the immunities required to fight diseases and ailments that had been born in the streets and sophistication of their visitors. The European visitors had been experiencing and evolving through complex diseases for centuries and had therefore acquired a stronger degree of immunity as compared to their Native American hosts. Backed up by centuries of evolution from regions of the likes of Africa, the New World was much more evolved and prepared for the confrontation as compared to the Natives. Many historians believe that the natives received the harder end of this deal that is so often referred to as “The Columbian Exchange”.
The Native Americans on the other hand, were a relatively fragile people. Their bodies were not used to complex organisms such as the kind that the Europeans brought with them. Hence, this exchange of organisms turned into an exchange of diseases and genocide of forms took place before anybody could realize exactly what had happened. The Native Americans came as a large population with a weak immune system to the diseases and this led to the transformation of various diseases into epidemics that wiped out more than half of the native population; and with them, their culture. Most of the more major parts of South America did not require the deployment of armies in order to be conquered, since the unintentional revelation of disease had already weakened the natives to degrees where they were unable to put up any form of resistance at all.
In terms of retrospect, one can see how all that happened was not at all completely unpredictable. In fact, the natives did not stand a chance. Their immunities were not suitably evolved to be able to compete with those of the “outsiders”. The outsiders were accustomed to adapting to changing environment because of their journeys and the extent of rapid change incorporated in the path of development that they took. The natives on the other hand were not prepared in any way for this contrast of environments. Hence, we see how biology played a silent role and became the reason for why the world is how we see it today.
Crosby, A. The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 . Greenwood Press, 1972.