HIST2F90: Money & Power in the Atlantic World

The Columbian Exchange

This week's big question:

What was the significance of non-human agents in the making of the Atlantic world?

Video Introduction

Learning outcomes

At the end of this week you should be able to:

Questions to consider, and learning activity

This week (like last) read the secondary text (this time by Crosby) before you read the primary documents.


Our 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 plenty 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.

This new age of global trade and settlement also produced a dramatic, exchange of plants and animals. Domesticated 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). Containing agricultural animals often required fencing off sections of land, interrupting the habitual mobility of indigenous peoples and animals. 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, and often significantly improving, 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.

By far the most important and traumatic 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, most notably). Because most Africans and Europeans 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.

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.

Primary sources

Secondary source

Supplementary material

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