How did Europeans, especially coastal nationalities, succeed in subduing the world from 1450 until 1850?



Dutch Proverbs , Pieter Bruegel the Elder ,C.1525-1569



Historical Ecology: Accounting for European dominance

Alfred Crosby, Ph.D.



Brief description

Columbus | consumption | political milieu | miracle happen | consequences | terms

Europe's unsettled conditions

Cuba and the Straights of Florida



  • three field system (1/3 left fallow) after 1200s
  • four field system ("green manure") after 1750s
  • agrarian life was labor (nine in ten people) intensive
  • animal strength essential due to plows, esp, N. of Alps
  • potatoes ripen months ahead of wheat or rye
  • 1587-88 potatoes grown in Belgium & Austria
  • diet consists of grains,soup, lentils, peas for 9 in 10 people.

food crises were cyclical

  • 9 to 11 year cycles (solar & lunar variations)
  • little ice age (solar variations; longer periods of time)
  • famines; 12.7 per century, 900-1800. (Crosby, p. 150)
  • 1600-1690s were a period of war, pestilence, & starvation.
  • cannibalism is evident in Scandinavian church records, during the "starving times."
  • 1740, 1770-1772, famine in Germany
  • 1815, following a volcanic eruption, was a summer without sun, poor crops
  • no period was without the impact of famines since genetic markers in women and men had intergenerational impacts on survivors.

Invasions and disease

Islamic: Mediterranean & Asian peoples

  • Moors or North Africans, invade Iberia, Spain retreats
  • Saracens, Jerusalem & Alexandria fell
  • Turks, Ottoman Empire; Istanbul & Vienna fell


  • Poland and Russia raided
  • Vienna besieged

Black Death, 1340s-1350s

  • one fourth - one third perished in a half decade
  • recurrent pandemics lasted until 1750s

Birth and death rates

  • high mortality
  • high fertility to compensate
  • large teenage populations contribute to wars

consumption | political milieu | miracle happen | consequences

The Miracle of the Indies:

  • Crops: maize, potatoes, beans > nutrition, life span >.
  • Trade: gold, silver, wood and sugar created surplus.
  • Urban revival: 1350-1550, Europe's urban boom
    • from 1530-1591 Spain's numbers nearly doubled
    • 3 to 5.92 millions
  • Slavery: Indigenous & African labor accelerated surplus.
  • Closing of the east by Turkish invasions forced a western focus on nations seeking to replace Genoa and Venice.
  • Second wave of European growth
    • from 1650-1800:
    • 7.5 to 11.5 million in Spain
    • 11 to 19 million in Italy
    • 5 to 9.25 million in England & Wales
    • 16 to 29 million in France.
  • 1700, corn on the Danube, 1800 in the Ukraine
  • Adam Smith extolled the benefits of potatoes in 1776.

Crosby, 151-152, 157.


consumption | political milieu | miracle happen | consequences

Three Revolutions or one?

  1. Columbian Exchange: old and new world mixture.
  2. Renaissance & Reformation: collapse and revival of Catholicism, Puritanism, & learning due to printing.
  3. Commercial Revolution: the replacement of metal by paper, rise of accounting, assurance and credit.

An ecological invasion accounts for the revolutionary changes we see that occurred after 1493.

Consumption | political milieu | miracle happen | consequences

All of these sweeping cultural, intellectual, financial, and technological changes were contributing to a rapid increase in the European family size, survival rates of women and children, and a more productive use of land. As sheep grazing expanded due to better cropland practices, money surpluses accumulated.

Demographic and agricultural changes began undermining the feudal traditions that had solidified after the rise of Islam (750 AD).

Alfred Crosby, Theme and thesis.

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The long term past:

AD first millennia

632, death of Mohammed

700, Arabs take N. Africa

751, Arabs defeat China in central Asia

843, Division of Europe by Charlemagne's heirs

846, Arabs sack Rome

930, Cordoba became the seat of Arabic Learning in Spain

964, New Mayan Empire

AD second millennia

1075, Turkish domination in Syria and Palestine

1090, 1st clock, Beijing

1096, start of 1st Crusade

1125, mariner's compass described in Europe

1145, 2d Crusade

1158, Munich focus of the salt trade

1187, Saladin takes Jerusalem

1193, Indigo imported to Britain from India, dye

1218, fall of Persia, Iran, to Genghis Khan

1225, cotton cloth made in Spain

1267, Aztecs migrate to lake Texcoco, Mexico

1280, Kublai Khan conquers China

1282 Florence as finance center of Europe

1312, Canary islands found by Genoa

1315, silk manufacture in Lyon


1332, Bubonic plague begins in India

1333, Arab zenith in Grenada, Spain

1337, 100 Years War starts, Britain - France

1347, Bubonic Plague, or the Black death hits Europe

1349, German cities' persecute Jews

1351, 75 million dead of the plague

1415, Jan Hus condemned and burned

1453, Fall of Istanbul to Ottoman Turks

1453, Gutenberg's printing press, Mainz

1464, first mail service in Europe, by France

1477, Netherlands become a Hapsburg fief

1492, Pivotal Year

Turks invade Hungary

Castille recaptures Grenada from Arabs

August 3rd, Columbus and 70 men departed Palos.

1509, start of the Slave trade in the Americas

1517, Coffee brought from Arabs to Europe.

1517, Luther defies the Church

1520, chocolate from Mexico

1531, the Great Comet !

1532, earliest sugar planted in Brazil

1537, Mercator's first map: Flanders

1541, Hernando de Soto crosses the Mississippi River

1557, influenza in Europe

1567, Rio de Janeiro established by Portugal

1575, Italy produces imitation Chinese porcelains

1580, Portugal unites with Spain, potatoes from Peru appear in Europe

1605, Santa Fe, N. Mexico founded by Spain

1609, Kepler's Laws of Motion

1717, Assiento gives Britain control of Spanish slave trade

1750, Crosby's benchmark date

1789, French Revolution

1803, Anglo-Franco Peace

1814, Congress of Vienna

1846, beginning of the Irish famine

Treaty of Tordesillas divided the world between Portugal and Spain, bitter Iberian rivals.


consumption | political milieu | miracle happen | consequences

"The European pioneers were accompanied and often preceded by their domesticated animals, walking sources of food, leather, fiber, power and wealth, and these animals often adapted more rapidly to the new surroundings and reproduced more rapidly than their masters."

A. Crosby, p. 34.

Columbus' prophetic remarks:

of the Island Arawaks:
"are very unskilled with arms . . . [and] could all be subjected & made to do all that one wished."

"In another island . . .  greater than Española . . . . there is gold beyond counting !"

"raising sugar or wheat or what ever you have on Madeira is, ' a truly penitential labor.' The original preparation of the land for farming, the clearing and grabbing of the primordial growth, burned or not must have been a Augean (immense and heroic) task."

Crosby, Ecological Imperialism, p. 70.

“Indian killers – smallpox, measles, influenza, tuberculosis, and others – carried off disproportionately large percentages of people aged about fifteen to forty, men and women in the prime years of life who are largely responsible for the vital functions of food procurement, defense, and procreation”

Crosby, pg. 101.

Terms to know
Columbian exchange
Crosby's assumptions
Ecological Invasions


The wealthiest, most sophisticated, and advanced place on earth in 1600.

February 12, 2008

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