Alfred Crosby, one of the most influential historians of the 20th century, passed away on March 14, 2018. An environmental historian, he documented new perspectives on colonialism and imperialism through ecological approaches to history. One of his most lasting influences is a new perspective on the Columbian Exchange. Here, Christopher DeCou gives a brief outline of the Columbian Exchange and why it is so influential to our understanding of world history today.

 A depiction of Christopher Columbus encountering the Arawak people on the island of Hispaniola in December 1492.

A depiction of Christopher Columbus encountering the Arawak people on the island of Hispaniola in December 1492.

What is the Columbian Exchange?

The textbook definition of the Columbian Exchange is the “biological and demographic exchange of the Old and New Worlds products and peoples.” Let’s unpack that definition a bit more to see why it is so innovative.

Crosby did not coin the term Columbian Exchange, for it was in use well into the 19th century. Just one example is the now famous Chicago World’s Fair of 1892 as the centennial celebration for Columbus’ discovery of the Americas. The World’s Fair made numerous references to the ways that Europeans and Indigenous peoples interacted and exchanged materials. American History textbooks also included the Columbian Exchange in teaching as an important moment in early American history. However, in all these cases, the type of exchange that was described was surface level interaction and cultural. In other words, historians were more interested in thinking about how Columbus and later Europeans “civilized” the Americas with the printing press, philosophy, art, etc. while the indigenous peoples gave White Europeans tacos.

Crosby turned that focus on its head. Rather than thinking about ideas, he gave priority and agency to the environment. This requires a radical shift in thinking, an ecological compared to an ideological view.

First consider demography, the study of populations and their changes. In the 1960s, historians were interested in trying to quantify population dynamics and attempted to reconstruct historical interactions through statistical methods. One of the interesting questions vexing American historians, broadly defined, was the number of the people present in pre-Columbian North and South America and how disease decimated those populations, and consequently how did these changes impact social changes. Historical texts from the Spanish gave a variety of anecdotal evidence, but surveys and estimates on indigenous population were scanty. Historians had known for years that Columbus and his men had smallpox on board and brought this to the Taino people; but Crosby provided estimates based on new archaeological research and traced the story of disease throughout the Caribbean and Mesoamerica to the rest of the Americas. In other words, Crosby focused on disease as his historical agent. By making disease the focus of his study, he illustrated how disease demolished indigenous populations, sometimes killing more than 90% of certain populations. These population dynamics created labor supply demands with European indentured servants and also African slaves.

Another example of this biological perspective was the introduction of various plant and animal species into new environments. While Europeans introduced Old World diseases into the New World, the New World offered numerous types of plants that flourished in new environments. For instance, the tomato was discovered in Cuzco and brought back to Spain because of Pizarro. The new plant had a fantastical history in Europe, before it became a staple of the European diet. The New World strawberries followed an even more dramatic path. The strawberry was an Old World food, but by the 15th and 16th centuries a variety of diseases had impacted production of the fruit. When explorers found a similar plant in South America, they grafted New World strawberries to those of the Old Word and created hybrid plants that they found were resistant to the diseases affecting Old World strawberries. These new plants allowed for an agricultural revolution to shape the European continent.

Furthermore, New World goods traveled even further than Europe. Contact across the Atlantic and Pacific connected New World plants with Africa and Asia. For instance, manioc was quickly picked up by West African farmers and soon spread throughout the continent to become the most widely cultivated crop in Africa. While India and Indonesia had reputations since antiquity about their spices, the New World chili spread throughout the rest of East Asia and became one of the most important food items. Maize had a similar global impact.

One could give even more examples, such as the reintegration of horses into the New World and its impact on indigenous economies, the introduction of cattle and its impact on desertification, but the point remains. As Crosby tried to illustrate, the Columbian Exchange is more than a cultural affair. It is a way to see biological and demographic changes and their social impacts.


Why is the Columbian Exchange important?

Although these biological influences and their global interactions were important, Crosby’s legacy is far more ideological. One of the comments I made above was that Crosby wanted people to shift their perspective. Truthfully, most of the biological stories were already known beforehand. The history of the tomato was always a light-hearted example in the story about “evil Catholic Spain” and “freedom fighting Britain.” So, what is the real significance here?

We have to step back for a second and see that history at its most basic is how we narrate stories of the past. And until Crosby (and the other critics that contributed to this shift), most mainstream historians focused on a civilizational approach to history. The story of America was framed in European terms. It is easy to mock 19th century versions of history for their view of European superiority and their omissions; but, even in the 20th and 21st centuries, as historians have tried to incorporate more regions and parts of the world to tell more global or world histories, they can still fall prey to this worldview. In some ways, while the details might be more comprehensive, the story is really the same. The ultimate cause for social change was European demands and European exploration. This is still a story of European progress and European success.

If we take Crosby seriously, then what he is really criticizing in his book is not just historical narrative and the “facts” of history but who is the focus of history. For Crosby then, the Columbian Exchange is a story about the environment. People are certainly actors, but they are constrained by factors of the environment. In this way, population changes, food sources and food scarcity, disease – all of these environmental forces are just as important to that story. Moreover, if we allow the environment to become central to the perspective of the past, then suddenly we are able to create a new kind of global history that links geography in new ways. No longer is this just a European story, but suddenly we can see that North and South America were just as important as Africa and Asia in creating history. When we shift our focus to say disease, suddenly the boundaries and geographies that might have seemed important before must also change and reveal new ways of seeing and imagining the past.



Today, the Columbian Exchange is considered a standard portion of any history survey course; but, we often forget that the biological and demographic focus that Crosby integrated in his work is far more revolutionary. Crosby was calling on historians and teachers to change their worldview and discover a new way of seeing the past that moves beyond Euro-centric visions of the past and calls people to action.


What do you think of this article and Crosby’s perspective? Let us know below.