In 1972, Alfred W. Crosby wrote a book called The Columbian Exchange. In it, the historian tells the story of Columbus’s landing in 1492 through the ecological ramifications it had on the New World.
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At the time of publication, Crosby’s approach to history, through biology, was novel. “For historians Crosby framed a new subject,” wrote J.R. McNeil, a professor at Georgetown University, in a foreword to the book’s 30th anniversary edition. Today, The Columbian Exchange is considered a founding text in the field of environmental history.
I recently spoke with the retired professor about “Columbian Exchange”—a term that has worked its way into historians’ vernacular—and the impacts of some of the living organisms that transferred between continents, beginning in the 15th century.
You coined the term “Columbian Exchange.” Can you define it?
In 1491, the world was in many of its aspects and characteristics a minimum of two worlds—the New World, of the Americas, and the Old World, consisting of Eurasia and Africa. Columbus brought them together, and almost immediately and continually ever since, we have had an exchange of native plants, animals and diseases moving back and forth across the oceans between the two worlds. A great deal of the economic, social, political history of the world is involved in the exchange of living organisms between the two worlds.
When you wrote The Columbian Exchange, this was a new idea—telling history from an ecological perspective. Why hadn’t this approach been taken before?
Sometimes the more obvious a thing is the more difficult it is to see it. I am 80 years old, and for the first 40 or 50 years of my life, the Columbian Exchange simply didn’t figure into history courses even at the finest universities. We were thinking politically and ideologically, but very rarely were historians thinking ecologically, biologically.
What made you want to write the book?
I was a young American historian teaching undergraduates. I tell you, after about ten years of muttering about Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, you really need some invigoration from other sources. Then, I fell upon it, starting with smallpox.
Smallpox was enormously important until quite modern times, until the middle of the 20th century at the latest. So I was chasing it down, and I found myself reading the original accounts of the European settlements in Mexico, Peru or Cuba in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. I kept coming across smallpox just blowing people away. So I thought there must be something else going on here, and there was—and I suppose still is.