Alfred W. Crosby on the Columbian Exchange

The historian discusses the ecological impact of Columbus’ landing in 1492 on both the Old World and the New World

Historian Alfred W. Crosby coined the term "Columbian Exchange" in reference to the impact of living organisms traded between the New World and Old World. (North Wind Picture Archives via AP Images)

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How did you go about your research?

It was really quite easy. You just have to be prepared somehow or other to notice the obvious. You don’t have to read the original accounts in Spanish or Portuguese. There are excellent English translations dating back for generations. Practically all of them will get into a page or two or ten about the decimation of American Indians, or a page about how important maize is when all European crops fail, and things like that. I really didn’t realize that I was starting a revolution in historiography when I got into this subject.

So, how were the idea and the book received at first?

That is kind of interesting. I had a great deal of trouble getting it published. Now, the ideas are not particularly startling anymore, but they were at the time. Publisher after publisher read it, and it didn’t make a significant impression. Finally, I said, “the hell with this.” I gave it up. And a little publisher in New England wrote me and asked me if I would let them have a try at it, which I did. It came out in 1972, and it has been in print ever since. It has really caused a stir.

What crops do you consider part of the Columbian Exchange?

There was very little sharing of the main characters in our two New World and Old World systems of agriculture. So practically any crop you name was exclusive to one side of the ocean and carried across. I am thinking about the enormous ones that support whole civilizations. Rice is, of course, Old World. Wheat is Old World. Maize, or corn, is New World.

The story of wheat is the story of Old World civilization. Thousands of years ago, it was first cultivated in the Middle East, and it has been a staple for humanity ever since. It is one of Europe’s greatest gifts to the Americas.

Maize was the most important grain of the American Indians in 1491, and it is one of the most important grain sources in the world right now. It is a standard crop of people not only throughout the Americas, but also southern Europe. It is a staple for the Chinese. It is a staple in Indonesia, throughout large areas of Africa. If suddenly American Indian crops would not grow in all of the world, it would be an ecological tragedy. It would be the slaughter of a very large portion of the human race.

Maize, potatoes and other crops are important not only because they are nourishing, but because they have different requirements of soil and weather and prosper in conditions that are different from other plants.

What ideas about domesticating animals traveled across the ocean?

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