Alfred Crosby’s Columbian Exchange: Native American Indian Genocide and Food Sustainability

The Columbian Exchange is a term used by historian Alfred W. Crosby to describe the biological and environmental exchanges that took place between the New World and the Old World after Christopher Columbus landed in the Caribbean. The Europeans brought with them diseases for which the Native American Indians had no immunity, causing a massive depopulation among the natives. Likewise, the Indians gave the Spaniards and Portuguese venereal diseases for which they had no immunity, thus returning the lethal favor, albeit to a lesser extent. Europeans greatly enriched the animal life of the New World by introducing Old World livestock that were unknown in the New World. In return, the plant life of the Western Hemisphere eventually spread throughout all three continents of the Old World with many New World agricultural products such as potatoes, corn, and beans becoming major staples throughout countries in the Eastern Hemisphere.[1]

The isolation of American Indians ensured that they had no protection from the sicknesses and diseases that the Europeans and Africans brought over to the Western Hemisphere. One German missionary commented in 1699 that “the Indians die so easily that the very look and smell of a Spaniard causes them to give up the ghost.”[2] The highest rate of Indian mortality occurred within the first century of Spanish conquest as fatal Old World diseases killed with much more intensity in the New.[3] The primary killers that the Europeans and their African servants brought to the Western Hemisphere were those accompanied by fevers, namely smallpox, typhus, and measles, with the most deadly being smallpox.[4] No one knows for sure exactly how many Indians were killed by European disease. The historian Oviedo, writing in 1548, estimated that the number of Indians on Santo Domingo had dropped down from about a million when the Spaniards arrived to five hundred. Cieza de Leon estimates that two hundred thousand Incas were killed by disease.[5] The Spaniards and Portuguese were spared from having to fight their way to New World supremacy because the diseases they carried in their breath did most of their fighting for them.

The clashing of the Old and New Worlds also had a profound impact on New World flora and fauna. Many of the garden items the Spaniards introduced to the New World were cauliflowers, cabbages, radishes, lettuce, and European melons. In addition, the Spanish and Portuguese imported many of the major plantation crops that were grown for export back to Europe. These included sugar, rice, cotton and indigo.[6] The three staples of Spanish diet, wheat, wine, and olive oil were also transported to the New World and grown wherever the climate permitted. Wheat prospered in most places in Latin America, but, grapes and olives only grew in abundance in South America, particularly in Peru and Chile.[7]

If there was a dearth of anything in the New World it was of a diversity of animals. The Indians had no beasts of burdens comparable to the horse or ox. The most they had at their disposal were dogs and two types of South American camel, the llama and alpaca.[8] The Spaniards introduced to the Americas horses, new breeds of dogs, cattle, pigs, sheep, chickens, and goats.[9] In the 1560s alone, Espanola exported approximately 720,000 hides.[10] Horses multiplied slower than the cattle and swine, but, near the end of the 16th century, there were ten thousand horses grazing between Queretaro and San Juan del Rio, Mexico alone.[11] Sheep also exploded exponentially in population, reaching 623,825 in 1614, in the district of Santiago.[12] The black rat also followed the Europeans over on their ships and helped spread the bubonic plague throughout the New World.[13] The large European animals provided both a large labor supply and much needed food source, however, they also had the damaging effect of overgrazing which ended up destroying massive amounts of grassland, resulting in today’s vast swaths of palmettos, scrub palms, and prickly cardoons.[14]

The Columbian exchange was by no means a one-way street. Ulrich von Hutten and Ruy Diaz de Isla both claimed that the disease syphilis began to spread among Europeans in the year 1493. Diaz attributed the disease to the island Espanola.[15] Syphilis was never mentioned in any Pre-Columbian, Old World writings, but, began to spread rapidly throughout the Eastern Hemisphere during the 16th century.[16] There has been found no paleopathological evidence to show that syphilis ever existed in the Old World, but, there is ample archeological and paleopathological evidence from New World bones that syphilis was native to the New World.[17] Furthermore, Bartolome de las Casas personally asked the Indians if they had suffered from the disease and they said they had “beyond all memory.”[18] Just like the diseases that the Europeans and Africans brought to the New World, syphilis had a far more deadly effect on populations who with acquired immunity to it than it did on the Native Americans who contracted it. The disease quickly spread throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia and did not begin to decline until the 17th century.[19]

The positive contribution that the New World made to the Old far outweighed the curse of syphilis. The Americas provided the Eastern Hemisphere with maize, beans, peanuts, potatoes, manioc, squash, pumpkins, pineapples, tomatoes, chile peppers, and cocoa.[20] Maize has been an excellent check on famine because of its ability to grow quickly. The potato is another crop that can grow plentifully on small plots of land and resist poor soils.[21] The primary food staples of American origin also provide more calories per hectare than the primary Old World staples. Africa benefited the most agriculturally from the discovery of the New World. Much of Africa’s climate is similar to that of South America, so, many New World crops required very little adaptation. Manioc, peanuts, and sweet potatoes are especially popular crops in Africa.[22] Crosby believes that the jump in the world’s population is connected to the discovery and dispersion of New World crops and that if it were not for the Indians’ contribution to the world food supply, that the world’s present population would be much smaller.[23]

The Columbian Exchange was a biological and agricultural exchange and for the most part a two-way street. The Europeans and Africans brought Old World, airborne diseases to the New World for which the Indians did not have any immunity which they exchanged for syphilis. While syphilis had a deadly effect on Old World inhabitants, the airborne diseases had a genocidal effect, wiping out entire tribes over time. The Europeans’ livestock provided much needed labor and food source in the New World. In return, the Americas supplied the Eastern Hemisphere with an abundance of agricultural products which would relieve hunger, increase nutrition, and enable a rapid growth-spurt in the world’s population.






[1] Alfred, Crosby, The Columbian Exchange Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1972), 211.
[2] Ibid, 37.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid, 42.
[5] Ibid, 53.
[6] Ibid, 68.
[7] Ibid, 72-73.
[8] Ibid, 74.
[9] Ibid, 75.
[10] Ibid, 78.
[11] Ibid, 82.
[12] Ibid, 74.
[13] Ibid, 94.
[14] Ibid, 112.
[15] Ibid, 123.
[16] Ibid, 124.
[17] Ibid, 126-127.
[18] Ibid, 139.
[19] Ibid, 152.
[20] Ibid, 170.
[21] Ibid, 171-172.
[22] Ibid, 175.
[23] Ibid, 202.

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