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The Columbian Exchange
This week's big question:
What was the significance of non-human agents in the making of the Atlantic world?
Learning outcomesAt the end of this week you should be able to:
- Explain the basic outline of the Columbian Exchange;
- Understand something of the significance of the Columbian Exchange in the development of the Americas and of Europe;
- Explain the significance of the movement of new organisms into the New World;
- Describe early modern people’s understanding of the significance and the meaning of exchanging of biological organisms.
Questions to consider, and learning activityThis week (like last) read the secondary text (this time by Crosby) before you read the primary documents.
- How did early modern people understand the presence of diseases in their worlds?
- How did Amos Adams and Pierre Biard understand the demography of early America? What does Sahagun’s narrative tell us about the Spanish conquest of Mexico?
- Why was disease still a problem for Indigenous peoples in Nebraska in the 1830s?
- Crosby reminds us that early colonizers didn’t want Indigenous peoples to die; they wanted them to become labourers who would produce goods for European markets, and customers for European goods. The mass deaths brought about by infectious diseases changed that. Discuss the significance of these developments for the different peoples of the Atlantic World.
BackgroundOur examination of the early modern trans-Atlantic world emphasizes the movement of people and trade goods, but historians in the past few decades have also begun to highlight the movement of other organisms – plants, animals, and even microbes. Science and archaeology show us that the biology – the flora, the fauna, and the microbial worlds – of the Americas and that of Europe and Africa were quite different. There are lots of reasons to explain this, but the most obvious is that while Africa, Asia, and Europe have many biological differences, their proximity to one another means that there was nevertheless a good deal of movement of peoples, animals, plants, and microbes across the regions. Whether carried by the wind, or by ships, biological agents crafted a broadly similar ecology across the vast sweep of three continents. The Americas, however, were completely apart. For a million years, the Atlantic Ocean had separated the New and Old Worlds; now exploration, trade, and settlement brought these two separate ecological zones into contact for the first time. Historians have come to call this movement of biological agents, and its important transformative effect, the Columbian Exchange.
By far the most important of these exchanges involved microbial diseases. Both Indigenous Americans and Europeans had their own diseases, but European ones were particularly powerful. Unlike Europe, Africa, and Asia, America had no domestic beasts of burden (cows, horses, and so on). Because most people lived in relatively close proximity to domestic animals, the diseases common to livestock – and thus ultimately some level of immunity to such diseases – were widespread. No such immunities existed among Indigenous Americans, and the results were catastrophic. Estimates vary considerably, but even fairly cautious writers maintain that at least 50 per cent (and some argue as much as 90 per cent) of the Indigenous populations of the east coast of the Americas was wiped out by the arrival of European diseases in the first few decades of contact.
This was an astounding and profound catastrophe for Indigenous societies. Some societies were devastated; others simply disappeared. Recall that when John Cotton (1630) argued that Englishmen found in America “a vacant soyle”, he meant in part that Indigenous peoples did not farm it in the manners Europeans did – that is, did not fix properties, build fences, and maximize their yields – but he also meant simply that there were no people. Apologists ever since him have maintained that America was under-utilized, and that because God wanted the land to be productive, it was therefore good that Christians "improve" the land – i.e., settle and farm it. We will not, in this course, debate God's will, but there is little doubt that the land had only very recently been vacated, and not in any voluntary sense.
This new age of global trade also produced a much less traumatic, but no less dramatic, exchange of plants and animals. Horses and cattle were introduced into the Americas, offering fantastic new labour-saving possibilities, but also dramatically altering the landscape of the Americas. Raising grain and cattle required large grasslands and that meant either dyking extensive coastal marshlands (as the French Acadians did in Nova Scotia, or the English settlers in early Virginia), or cutting large expanses of forests (as English settlers did in the mid-Atlantic colonies). Sheep created their own grasslands, literally transforming huge swaths of central Mexico, overgrazing it to the extent that much of the region became an arid wasteland. Exchanges went both ways. New products, notably coffee and cochineal, were exported back to western Europe. And new crops were introduced into Europe, notably corn, potatoes, and tomatoes, altering not only the diets of Europeans (can we even imagine Italy without polenta, gnocchi, or tomato sauce?), but also in some cases offering peasants new market possibilities which some historians argue eroded the power of aristocratic landowners in the 17th and 18th centuries. Rice – which would later become a major slave-produced staple of the New World – was an African crop introduced to the Americas and domesticated by slaves.
The Columbian Exchange also offers us a window on the world of unintended consequences – that is, of historical outcomes that do not appear to have been planned. It reminds us that humans are not all powerful, and that while we may be the dominant species on this planet, nature is a powerful force, and one that we can only sometimes control. This also raises controversial issues of human agency. Some social commentators now argue, for example, that Europeans cannot be blamed for bringing diseases to the New World: no one understood how germs worked – at least not this well – and so Europeans can hardly be blamed for what happened to Indigenous peoples. And yet others argue that while this may well be true, Europeans knew it was happening, took full advantage of the situation, and passed it off as God’s will – a feeble alibi for what remained enormous sins or crimes. Our readings this week take us to some examples of those exchanges where we can pursue some of those questions.
- Excerpt on smallpox epidemic from book 12 of Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, General History of the Things New Spain, in Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble, eds., The war of conquest: how it was waged here in Mexico: the Aztecs' own story (Salt Lake City, University of Utah, 1978).
- Pierre Biard, “On their Marriages and the Sparseness of Population”, The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, volume III, Rueben Gold Thwaites, ed., (Cleveland, 1894), 99-113.
- Amos Adams, A Concise Historical View of the Perils, Hardships, Difficulties, and Discouragements which have Attended the Planting and Progressive Improvements of New-England (Boston, 1769), 9-13.
- Paul Le Jeune describes the Huron response to epidemics, 1638, in Jesuit Relations, volume 15, pp. 37-51.
- Alfred W. Crosby, “Infectious Disease and the Demography of the Atlantic Peoples,” Journal of World History 2:2 (1991), 119-33.
- Interview with Alfred Crosby (if the interview does not show up right away, use the link to go to the Smithsonian site, and then search for "Alfred Crosby")