The Columbian Exchange.

Alfred Crosby

Contents | start | define | other authors | Antilles map | finish


Restorations of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, Columbus' first fleet
[roll-over the photograph to see the comparative size].


Contentsbook"rewriting history from an ecological perspective."


  1. The Contrasts
  2. Conquistador y Pestilencia
  3. Old World Plants and Animals in the New World
  4. The Early History of Syphilis: Reappraisal
  5. New World Foods and Old World Demography
  6. The Columbian Exchange continues

"Similar exchanges on the monsoon winds took place between the archipelagoes of Southeast Asia and China. Champa rice, an early ripening variety, made southern China much more productive from the thirteenth century onwards and helped underwrite the prosperity and power of Song and Ming China. . . .These biological exchanges . . .helped shape the history of Eurasia and Africa as surely as the Columbian Exchange."

J. R. McNeill,

p. xiv-xv.

West indies

A map of Cristoforo Columbo's four voyages to the Antilles from 1492 until 1504; the crucible of the Columbian exchange.

A Crossroads of the Americas: To the north are the Bahama banks and islands, to the south is Colombia and Venezuela. Now eastward from the Lesser Antilles is Africa and west of Cuba are the Mayan lands of the Yucatan, Guatemala, and Mexico.

Chapter One | Chapter Two | Chapter Three | Chapter Four | Chapter Five | Chapter Six


The Contrasts


Explorers were: "struck by the strangeness of the flora and fauna of the islands"


"That trend toward biological homogeneity is one of the most important aspects of the history of life on this planet since the retreat of the continental glaciers."

"The connection between the old and the new worlds. Which for more than ten millennia had been no more than a tenuous thing. . . became a bond as significant as the Bearing land bridge had once been."

p. 3.

See the link here.

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Chapter One | Chapter Two | Chapter Three | Chapter Four | Chapter Five | Chapter Six


Conquistador y Pestilencia


pp. 35-63.

What made this contact between two previously separate populations turn out so badly for the Native Americans and comparatively better for the European invaders?

"The annals of the early Spanish empire are filled with complaints about the catastrophic decline in the number of native American subjects."

p. 38.

Arawak peoples deicted in their villages

Arawak peoples depicted in their densely settled villages


Arawak village today and a native woman from 1500s.


"The greatest Indian killer had been an epidemic of smallpox. This testimony is hard to reject, for another document in 1527 mentions the necessity of importing aboriginal slaves into Panama City, Nata, and the port of Honduras, because smallpox had carried off all of the Indians in those areas."

p. 51.

Octavio Paz on conquest and colonialism.

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Chapter One | Chapter Two | Chapter Three | Chapter Four | Chapter Five | Chapter Six


Old World Plants and Animals in the New World


p. 64-121.

Before you read this chapter ask yourself:

p. 64.

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Chapter One | Chapter Two | Chapter Three | Chapter Four | Chapter Five | Chapter Six


The Early History of Syphilis: Reappraisal


p. 122-164.

What made this disease so devastating?

Be sure to note physically what it is, and emotionally the impact of the malady.

What were the social consequences of the disease on the cultural values of the Europeans?

"The physicians, surgeons, and laymen of the Old World who wrote about venereal syphilis in the sixteenth century recorded, with few exceptions, that it was a new malady; and we have no reason to believe they were mistaken."

". . . they had never seen the pox before."

p. 124.


More on the scourge of venereal disease.

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New World Foods and Old World Demography line

p. 165-207.

What is the argument that ties food to population?

What are five to seven examples that Crosby draws upon to make his case persuasive?

"It is provocative to those engaged in an examination of the biological consequences of the voyages of Columbus and his generation to note that this population growth has occurred since 1492."

p. 165.

"It seems more likely that the number of human beings on this planet today would be a good deal smaller but for the horticultural skills of the Neolithic American."

p. 202


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Chapter One | Chapter Two | Chapter Three | Chapter Four | Chapter Five | Chapter Six


The Columbian Exchange continues

p. 208-221.

Be able to explain in writing when and from where to where these numerous migrations took place. [212]

Crosby's Conclusions:

"The Columbian exchange has left us with not a richer but a more impoverished genetic pool. We, all of the life on this planet, are less for Columbus, and the impoverishment will increase.

p. 219

"The . . . exchange continues & will continue."

"The positive result has been an enormous increase in food production &, thereby, in human population. The negative results have been the destruction of ecological stability over enormous areas and an increase of erosion that is so great that it amounts to a crime against posterity."

p. 211

Colombian and Venezuelan borderlands where crude oil is found.

"The source of the earliest migration of Old World peoples to the New World"

p. 213

With the introduction of sweet potatoes and beans the Chinese famines were ameliorated


"Indeed the Euro and African-Americans now often consider themselves to be the natives of those regions and the Indians to be aliens."


Slave trade

"The mass of African immigrants arrived in America before the mass of Europeans."

8 to 10.5 million African slaves
42 percent to the Antilles
38 percent to Brazil

W. E. B. Dubois on Slavery and the African Slave Trade


The greatest transoceanic migration in all human history began, at first a freshet in the" seventeenth century.


"From 1851 to 1960, over 61 million Europeans migrated to continents other than that of their birth."

34 of 45 million (by 1920) to USA alone in the Americas


Argentina 7 million & Brazil 4.5 million


"There are two Europes, as there are two Africas: one on either side of the Atlantic.

The Europeans and the Africans in the Americas are the most blatant products of the Columbian Exchange."


Europeans went from 19 %in 1750 to 36% of the world by 1950 -- 200 years.


Table of productive grains.

Corn (maize) and rice (oryza) are twice as productive as wheat and grains; corn needed less water than rice.


The value of imports to Europe.

"between 1714 and 1773, Britain imported £101.264 million pounds sterling"

"worth of goods, mostly sugar, from the West Indian colonies – 20.5 percent of her total imports for that period – much of it was re-exported as profit, to the continent [Europe]."

Colonials were twenty times more profitable than those who remained at home


"the Columbian exchange has created markets for Europe without which she would have been and would now be very different and a much poorer region of the earth, and poverty a palpably heavier burden on the connubial propensities of  young adults."

"The long range biological effects of the Columbian exchange are not encouraging."

Therefore: The economies that sustained Europe were focused on the West Indies, the mineral and livestock wealth of the Americas.

p. 218.

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Chapter One | Chapter Two | Chapter Three | Chapter Four | Chapter Five | Chapter Six

The defined terms:

homogeneity -- or sameness, the process of homogenizing or making differences much less extreme than before a process of amalgamation occurs. A condition wherein extreme, or noticeable differences become less obvious or even disappear.


Civilization & its relation to the biosphere





Political fragmentation, in large part, grew out of Spanish colonization from 1493 to 1565 because of two factors: one, biological and two, cultural.

Biological: founder effects of a small European population and later African population intermixing with indigenous survivors of the chronic and acute epidemics and wars.

Cultural: the inherent provinciality of Iberian nationalities, the need for more new colonists from Spain who often did not bring their families, and the necessity of Portuguese sailors and navigators.


The Conquest succeeded as much from fortunate circumstances as it did from the complementary attributes of native Amerindian plants, on which European livestock could thrive and spread. There eventually arose a differential vulnerability to disease, and the remarkable capacity of American foodstuffs to spark a European population explosion after 1522. All of these complementary attributes of Columbian exchange has led Crosby to suggest that the repopulating of the Americas by African and Eurasian nationalities after 1500 is one example of ecological imperialism. Biology and culture conspired to make a significant revolution in world history and the Caribbean region was the site of that revolution's nativity.


The Caribbean was the crucible of change in the Americas and the world. It is the disembarkation point for the eventual subjugation of the indigenous people including the Mayan, Aztec, and Incan empires whose people remain on the land today, and the commercial gateway of a trade in people, minerals, goods, and services that enriched Europe for four centuries, diminished the ecological vitality of the soils, and an homogenization of the world's biological communities.



bookThe Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492, 30th Anniversary Edition, New York: Preager Publishers, 2003.

Chapter One | Chapter Two | Chapter Three | Chapter Four | Chapter Five | Chapter Six


What is culture?

"From the very beginning of its history in the late fifteenth century there has been various confusion concerning the definition, both geographical and cultural of the Caribbean region."

Gordon K. Lewis , Main Currents in Caribbean Thought, pp. ix,x,1.

books Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude
Alfred W. Crosby, Germs, Seeds and Animals
Sydney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power
W. E. B. Dubois, The Negro
Jamaica Kincaid, A Small Place

Woman selling a pig in Barbados, 1900s.horsesman on donkey

Woman selling pigs in Barbados, 1900s | descendants of Spanish horses on the great plains | Cuban man on a European donkey.

She and her animals are a photographic example of biological homogeneity because her ancestry is from west Africa, the pigs are from Southeast Asia, and they reside together on an Island in the West Indies owned by Great Britain until the 1960s.

Therefore, a complete change in the make-up and lasting development of the world due to:

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