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.

Born to a Protestant family in Devon, England in 1552, Sir Walter Raleigh was not only a prolific writer, poet and courtier of the Virgin Queen, but also a commendable explorer. Knighted by Queen Elizabeth I in the year 1585 and recognized nation-wide for his numerous talents, Raleigh is now mockingly remembered as the man who laid his cloak across a muddy pool so that Her Majesty could cross it without getting her feet dirty! Prapti Panda explains all.

Sir Walter Raleigh and his son Walter. 1602.

Sir Walter Raleigh and his son Walter. 1602.

Raleigh had to face extreme difficulties right from his childhood. When he was a boy, his family suffered greatly, trying to outrun the Roman Catholic Church that flourished under the rule of Mary I of England. In 1569, he joined troops in subduing civil uprisings in France but eventually returned to pursue his education as an undergraduate in the well-known Oriel College, Oxford. Many such events, such as his successful abortion of the Irish rebellion, followed that showed his ambition and skills that ultimately culminated in him gaining favor with the Virgin Queen.



Sailing with his half-brother Humphrey Gilbert to America in 1578 turned out to be the first of many expeditions he would undertake. Therein, after two attempts, he managed to set up a British colony on Roanoke Island under the governance of John White. But after he sailed back to England and got delayed in returning, the colonists disappeared, and today their settlement is known popularly as the ‘Lost City of Roanoke Island’, but the people of America honored him by naming the state capital of North Carolina as Raleigh. Moreover, Raleigh County, West Virginia and Mount Raleigh in British Columbia are also named after him.

But all of this hard work and gallantness of his was thrown to the wind when Queen Elizabeth found out that he had secretly married one of her ladies-in-waiting, Elizabeth Throckmorton, and imprisoned them both in the Tower of London. He regained his reputation by capturing the incredible treasure-laden ship Madre de Deus and presenting it to the Queen. Some historians believe that that was when his obsession with gold started.



In the year 1594, the first hint of the existence of a ‘City of Gold’ reached him. He read the accounts of several people including Gonzalo Pizarro, Francisco Lopez and Francisco de Orellana that described the exploration of the Amazon basin and the Lower Orinoco.  By the time he decided to embark on a voyage to Guiana, he had become sure of the existence of El Dorado, the city that contained immeasurable wealth and which he dubbed Manoa. In his book, Discovery of Guiana, Raleigh recounts that it was the account of a Spaniard by the name of Juan Martinez, who was serving at the time as master of munitions to Diego Ordas, a Knight of the Order of Santiago, which provided the final proof that he needed.

Martinez, Raleigh believed, was the first European to ‘find’ El Dorado. The story was that Martinez, fearing execution due to mismanagement of some armaments that he was supposed to be in charge of, set out in a canoe down the Orinoco and was rescued by natives who took him to Manoa, the seat of their emperor. After several months of living there, Martinez was sent back to his land, laden heavily with gifts of gold which were eventually robbed off of him.

But Raleigh was not too dogmatic in his beliefs either. He reached out to various people connected with the story and was told with solid proof that left absolutely no room for doubts - in his mind at least. Then, he set sail to the New World in 1595 in search of Manoa. In reality, he had another, more significant objective - he wanted to weaken Spanish colonization of South America and build British influence there. If there was one thing that Raleigh had no qualms about stating, it was his contempt towards the Spanish. In the Discovery of Guiana, he never forgets to insert a jab or a wry comparison to his Spanish ‘friends’.

Although he gave exaggerated reports of the gold he found in Guiana when he went back to England, he was not successful in finding Manoa. Yet, silently, his belief in its existence was not shaken. In 1600, he was appointed governor of the Channel Island in Jersey and focused on improving defenses and administration.

Once again, Raleigh was struck by a bout of bad luck when Queen Elizabeth died in 1603. Her successor, King James I, son of Mary, Queen of Scots, was not quite ready to be favorably disposed towards him. In fact, King James was of a platonic nature, eager to amend relations with the Spanish. His first step was accusing Raleigh of treason and throwing him once more into the Tower of London - his only concession being that he was spared his life. During his imprisonment, Raleigh penned the popular Historie of the World.

A ray of hope appeared for Raleigh in 1616, when King James allowed him to travel a second time to Guiana in search of El Dorado in exchange for a massive fortune and strict orders to not attack the Spanish. But as ill luck would have it, one of his long-time friends and confidante Lawrence Keymis’ troops attacked a Spanish outpost on the banks of the Orinoco River, defying Raleigh’s orders and resulting in the untimely death of his son Walter.

On his return to England, again empty-handed, the Spanish Ambassador was angry, wanting King James to punish Raleigh for breaking the peace treaty. With no other way out, King James ordered Raleigh’s execution. So it was that on October 29, 1618, the world saw the last of a valiant man who traversed dangerous waters and explored uncharted lands, a man who was not afraid of going after what he believed in. Now he lies in a grave in St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, London, known mainly as a name that history students remember. 


Did you find this article interesting? If so, tell the world by sharing it, tweeting it or liking it!

The author: Prapti Panda has a deep interest in history - especially colonization and the Industrial Revolution. She spends her days researching and reading about the Royal Family and is a compulsive writer. Her first book, based on the European colonization of Latin America, will be out soon.



The Discovery of Guiana, Walter Raleigh- 1595



AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones
CategoriesBlog Post