October 11, 2011
THE COLUMBIAN EXCHANGE
Charles C. Mann, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created (New York: Knopf, 2011) ("Before [Alfred W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism] (and some of his colleagues) looked into the matter, historians tended to explain Europe's spread across the globe almost entirely in terms of European superiority, social and scientific. Crosby proposed another explanation in Ecological Imperialism. Europe frequently had better-trained troops and more-advanced weaponry than its adversaries, he agreed, but in the long run its critical advantage was biological, not technological. The ships that sailed across the Atlantic carried not only human beings, but plants and animals--sometimes intentionally, sometimes accidentally. After Columbus, ecosystems that had been separate for eons suddenly met and mixed in a process Crosby called, as he had titled his previous book, the Columbian Exchange. The exchange took corn (maize) to Africa and sweet potatoes to East Asia, horses and apples  to the Americas, and rhubarb and eucalyptus to Europe--and also swapped about a host of less-familiar organisms like insects, grasses, bacteria, and viruses. The Columbian Exchange was neither fully controlled nor understood by its participants, but it allowed Europeans to transform much of the America, Asia, and, to a lesser extent, Africa into ecological versions of Europe, landscapes the foreigners could use more comfortably than could their original inhabitants. This ecological imperialism, Crosby argued, provided the British, French, Dutch Portuguese, and Spanish with the consistent edge needed to win their empires." Id. at xiv-xv. "[R]esearchers in [environmental history and Atlantic studies] have been assembling what amounts to a new picture of the origins of our world-spanning interconnected civilization, the way of life evoked by the term 'globalization.' One way to summarize their efforts might be to say that to the history of kings and queens most of us learned as students has been added a recognition of the remarkable role of exchange, both ecological and economic. Another way might be to say that there is growing recognition that Columbus's voyage did not mark the discovery of a New World, but its creation. How that world was created is the subject of this book. Id. at xv."What happened after Columbus . . . was nothing less than the forming of a single world from the collision of two old worlds--three, if one counts Africa as separate from Eurasia. Born in the sixteenth century from European desires to join the thriving Asia trade sphere, the economic system for exchange ended up transforming the globe into a single ecological system by the nineteenth century--almost instantly, in biological terms. The creation of this ecological system helped Europe seize, for several vital centuries, the political initiative, which in turn shaped the contours of today's world-spanning economic system in its interlaced, omnipresent barely comprehended splendor." Id. at xv-xvi. "For millennia, almost all Europeans were found in Europe, few Africans existed outside of Africa, and Asians lived, nearly without exception, in Asia alone. No one in the Eastern Hemisphere in 1492, so far as is known, had ever seen an American native. . . . Colon's voyages inaugurated an unprecedented reshuffling of Homo sapiens: the human wing of the Columbian Exchange. People shot around the world like dice flung in a gaming table. . . . Id. at 285. "The movement was dominated by the African slave trade. . . . Its most recent iteration, released in 2009, estimates that between 1500 and 1840, the heyday of the slave trade, 11.7 million captive Africans left for the America--a massive transfer of human flesh unlike anything before it. In that period, perhaps 3.4 million Europeans emigrated. Roughly speaking, for every European who came to the Americas, three Africans made the trip." "The implications of these figures are as staggering as their size. Textbooks commonly present American history in terms of Europeans moving into a lightly settled hemisphere. In fact, the hemisphere was full of Indians--tens of millions of them. And most of the movement into the Americas was by Africans, who soon became the majority population in almost every place that wasn't controlled by Indians. Demographically speaking, Eltis has written, 'America was an extension of Africa rather than Europe until late in the nineteenth century.' " Id. at 286-287.).