16 July 2014

The Columbian Exchange

The Columbian Exchange (1972) by Alfred W. Crosby is among a small number of texts with which every American historian has some familiarity. Although many historians, perhaps even most, have read Crosby's text by extract, few are ignorant of its thesis.*

Crosby expresses the thesis succinctly: "the most important changes brought on by the Columbian voyages were biological in nature" (xiv). He then proceeds to elucidate the impact of disease, the spread of Old World flora and fauna in the Americas, and examines the impact of New World plants on the Old World. He also offers a reconsideration of the origins of syphilis, although others have reconsidered it since the publication of his seminal work.

Efforts to minimize the significance of the Columbian Exchange characterize A Patriot's History of the United States, as I have expanded upon at length in this blog. Michael Allen and Larry Schweikart dispute the significance of disease, while almost wholly ignoring the impact of pigs, cows, wheat, peaches, Russian thistle, and so on. Howard Zinn errs another way. In A People's History of the United States, he uncritically accepts and transmits the crude and almost certainly exaggerated population estimates of Bartolomé de Las Casas (see "Fragments from Bartolomé de Las Casas"). He does little better than Schweikart and Allen on the history of the peach, as well as cows, pigs, wheat, and thistle. Both A People's History and A Patriot's History are driven by politics. One serves the cause of today's conservatives, while the other serves socialist-leaning liberals.

Among the enduring impacts of the Columbian Exchange:

  • The peppers in General Tso's chicken
  • Tomato sauce on spaghetti
  • The Irish Potato
  • Kansas Wheat
  • Lakota horses, the American rodeo, and everything associated with cowboys
  • Mullein along the Spokane River (see photo)

*"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others..." Francis Bacon, "Of Studies" (1597).

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