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A Review of the Columbian Exchange

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The Columbian Exchange, by Alfred W. Crosby, is an in-depth look at the biological and cultural consequences of Columbus’s discovery of the New World. The Columbian Exchange focuses on the negative aspects of the European exploration and exploitation of the Americas and Europe. Alfred W. Crosby focused on the dependence of different foods, the changes in lifestyles, and the effects that the European flora and fauna had on the New World, changing the Americas forever. The Columbian Exchange would be an excellent book for any historian, but not someone looking for a great story. The book was very hard to follow due to the amount of information given in each chapter. Choosing which information was most important in Crosby’s book, was a very difficult task. Crosby also had a tendency to deviate from the subject matter and does not always provide enough evidence for his claims. In some cases, however, these tangents allowed the reader to better understand the point he was trying to make, but mostly it makes trudging through endless examples and repetition a chore.

In the book, The Columbian Exchange, Crosby tries to prove that the natives of the New World were victims of European disease and culture. Crosby goes into great detail about disease and the impact it had on the peoples of the New World. He explains how pure and isolated the Indians lives were before white-men and their diseases entered the New World. Crosby tries to show the founding of the Americas was not just about a man by the name of Christopher Columbus stumbling across a new world. In his book, he shows how the Europeans stumbled across, not a new world, but a world that was already colonized by another race. He tries to show how the Indians lives were taken and overrun by a stronger and more powerful race.

One event Crosby felt had the most impact on the New World was infectious disease. When the Europeans first arrived to the New World, they brought diseases that the Indian cultures had never seen before, diseases such as measles, typhus, pneumonia, smallpox, and syphilis; worst being smallpox. When smallpox first hit the New World, the Indian cultures died by the thousands. Toribio Montolinia, of the Aztec empire in Mexico, said “more than one half of the population died; in others the portion was little less…They died in heaps, like bugs.” (Crosby 1972, 52) In the Empire of the Incas, Cieza de Leon gave a figure of 200, 000, and Martin de Murua, throwing up his hands, says, “Infinite thousands.” (Crosby 1972, 53) Syphilis was another big Indian-killer, but not quite as drastic as smallpox. The impact of syphilis was that the disease did not kill a person right away, but infected many very rapidly. When the isolation of the New World was broken, the Indian cultures had no immunities for the Old World diseases. The only immunities the Indians knew were the diseases of their world. As the Indians of the New World were dieing off, the Spanish were taking their cities and making them their own. In the discussion of disease and the effect it had on the New World, Crosby proves his point with multiple examples.

Then next point Crosby focused on was the exchange of plants and animals in the New World. When the flora and fauna of the New and Old collided, both parties were amazed at how different each other’s worlds were. Oviedo described a banana as having easily removed skin, and “inside it is all flesh which is very much like the marrow of the legbone of a cow.” (Crosby 1972, 68) Other important plants that were introduced to the Europeans were oranges, lemons, pomegranates, citrons, figs, and most importantly maize-corn. Maize was very important to both European and Indian diets. Some of the foods brought from the Old World, were cauliflower, cabbages, radishes, lettuce, and many others. “Indians as farmers were as impressive as any in the world, but very unimpressive in the domesticator of animals.” (Crosby 1972, 74)

The Indians possessed only few animal servants: the llama and alpaca, the guinea pig, turkey, Muscovy duck, and some types of chicken. Most of their meat and leather came from wild game. The Indians had nothing for transportation, or any animal of sort to help load or move anything. If they wanted something done, no matter how far, or how hard, they moved it themselves. Europeans on the other hand, had goats, sheep, pigs, cattle, dogs, and most important, the horse. “No Indian anywhere had ever seen an animal which, at one time, was as strong, fast and obedient to the orders of man.” (Crosby 1972, 81) These amazing creatures terrified whole crowds of Indians and helped Europeans conquer the Americas. Since the Indians were so terrified of these soldiers on horseback, the Europeans were able to take what they wanted and turn the Indians into their slaves. With the examples given, Crosby shows how the Europeans were able to take over the New World.

The authors of America Past and Present echo views that Crosby spoke of in his book. America Past and Present mentions the differences in the flora and fauna of the two worlds, and how disease impacted the people of the New World. America Past and Present does mention the effects of influenza, typhus, measles, and small pox on the New World, but did not give much detail. One incident the textbook and Crosby’s both mention, is the tragic effect that disease had on the Mexico area. Crosby mentions, “In some places in Mexico the mortality was so great that, as Motolinia recorded, the Indians found it impossible to bury the great number of dead.” (Crosby 1972, 57)

The textbook says, “Within fifty years of the first contact, epidemics had virtually exterminated the native population of Hispaniola. (Divine et al. 2002, 12) Both books also mention the reaction of the Indians when they were introduced to men on horseback. The early Spanish explorers reintroduced the horse to North America, and the sight of this large, powerful animal at first terrified the Indians.” (Divine et al. 2002, 13) “No Indian anywhere had ever seen an animal which, at one time, was as strong, fast and obedient to the orders of man.” (Crosby 1972, 81) In comparing America Past and Present with The Columbian Exchange, both books had similar views and opinions and the reader does not have did not learn anything new after reading both books.

The Columbian Exchange changed my way of thinking about Christopher Columbus and the creation of the New World. It is hard to believe that so many Indians were killed and tortured because their way of living was so different from Europeans. While disease killed a great percent of the Indians of the New World, they were also at a disadvantage and were easily taken over by greedy conquistadors. In my opinion, I totally agree with the conclusions made by Alfred W. Crosby. Even though some of his conclusions were somewhat sketchy, they are very believable. I did not detect many bias statements; only conclusions given that did not provide much evidence. For example, in chapter four, Crosby claims that syphilis in Europe came from the New World, without the proof to back up his claims.

He tries to support his theory with a table of the diseases present throughout time, but it is not enough to convince a reader that his is the correct theory. The only real problem with the book was the amount of information given. I think that in the hands of another author, this book could have been eighty pages with little loss of content. Overall, I would have to say that this book is good in getting its point across, but for all other purposes, it was mediocre. I would recommend the book to those looking for an educational view of the causes for the changes in the New World, but for the average recreational, I would not.

The purpose I had in writing this review was to show Crosby’s views and purpose on writing The Columbian Exchange. From reading his book, I have concluded that he was trying to prove that the natives of the New World were victims to European disease and culture. I have given multiple examples of diseases and actions taken by Europeans to help them overrule the Indians and their culture. The evidence for this information has been documented and even mentioned in other textbooks. This book has helped me to better understand life in America’s past, by showing me that the stories of Christopher Columbus discovering a new world were untrue.

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