Alex's Reviews > The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492

The Columbian Exchange by Alfred W. Crosby
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Sep 19, 12

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Read on September 19, 2012

For all its many strengths, Alfred Crosby’s The Columbian Exchange was, for me, a read that was occasionally as subtly vexing as it was for his contemporaries at the time of its initial publication in the 1960s. This is not at all to suggest that the work was in any way indicative of a faulty scholarship on the part of its author, or that the material was methodologically problematic. The material presented was utterly enthralling, and I found myself quite engaged by the author’s garrulous tone (his “verve” to crib from McNeill’s foreword to the thirtieth anniversary edition [xiii]). Indeed, with each new revelation regarding some hitherto unexplored aspect of the moment of colonial contact between “Old” and “New” Worlds, I was ever more enticed to see how he might develop its significance.
Yet, as engaging as it was, as provocative as it was, I would inevitably catch myself wondering, “is this really a history text?”
This makes for what I consider to be a rather strong point of intellectual ingress with the project: how do we define a history as such? Does Crosby's preoccupation with incubation periods of smallpox (46), or the proliferation of genetic dispersal patterns of populations of type-O blood (23) disqualify the work here from reaching the rarified landscape of "history" as such?
Still, the question is not necessarily a groundbreaking one, for again, it was one that Crosby was subject to before. We might also note that, in as far as overall usefulness is concerned, whether or not a monograph conforms to the strictures of a given discipline is much less important now than it might have been in decades past. Interdisciplinarity is something to be looked at now with favour, rather than the disdain of bygone days.
The times and the vicissitudes of the field, it seems, have served to vindicate Crosby. McNiell's foreword highlights the ubiquity of the very phrase, "Columbian exchange" within the common parlance of the contemporary historical discourse of imperialism in the so-called "New World" (xii). What we see here is, very literally, an exemplar of the very sort of history that John Gaddis identified in his The Landscape of History, in that the work clearly demonstrates the historical nature of science (to say nothing of the "scientific" nature of history). Contextualising the presence of microscopic and vertebrate fauna, to say nothing of the biological impact of importation of various and sundry types of flora, does much to provide a fuller picture of what was going on at the time of imperial contact than simply conquistadors overpowering the indigenes. The struggle was never simply a military contest, and Crosby sets the precedent (whilst building upon the work of earlier scholars) of providing this much-needed historical addition to the grand narrative of subjugation by force of arms.
Indeed, The Columbian Exchange presents a supplementary narrative that tells the story of a much more comprehensive subjugation of the New World by the Old. Rather than simply a tale of social and cultural systems of indigenous peoples being dominated by invading Europeans, herein we see the partial subjugation of ecosystems by foreign agents. The introduction of Old World foodstuffs, nuisance creatures, and even grasses--to say nothing of pathogens--literally set the stage for the incoming waves of colonists that would fundamentally change the continents of North and South America.
Crosby's narrative is not completely bleak, though; the contact between worlds here is one of exchange after all. Thus, his discussion of syphilis in the chapter, "The Early History of Syphilis: A Reappraisal," in particular stood out as a fascinating contradiction of the total submission of the New World to the Old. The exchange of this disease stands in marked contrast to the smallpox pandemic that dominates a considerable portion of the earlier chapter entitled “Conquistador y Pestilencia” in terms of the implied impact of pathogen on the affected population. The fact that the discussion of a disease of the Western hemisphere afflicted the East at all, though, is an element of the history that frequently goes without commented.
This treatment of syphilis was actually one of the book's most salient features, not only because of this comparatively under-discussed reversal of Trans-Atlantic trade in pathogenic microbes, but also because it engages directly with the most “uniquely ‘historical’” of mankind’s maladies (123). The author dissects and backtracks the disease’s possible origins, critiquing the then prominent theories of a European genesis. Following the disease eastward across the Old World by virtue of how it was named--the "French Disease" in Germany, the "German Disease" in Poland, the "Polish Disease" in Russia, and so on (124-5)--was an exceptionally clever bit of historical detective work that we might backtrack to points of disembarkation from ships in from the colonies. But Crosby is never one to simply settle on the circumstantial, and so, goes further. He positions his "reappraisal" of the genealogy of syphilis between a discourse of Euro-genesis and one of American-genesis. He challenges the notion of European origins, but presents the evidence that proponents of this theory utilise in their scholarship. The result is a comprehensive historicisation of the disease that straddles epidemiology and close readings of various documents.
We can laud Crosby for the strength of his foreword thinking interdisciplinary approach, but as he himself admits, the work was a product of its times. Bleeding-edge though parts of it are, it still antedates some of the more significant upheavals in academia in terms of area studies and identity politics. He acknowledges the limits of his access to information regarding Africa and its role in the exchange (though he does speak to this in the conclusion), but more than that, we might ask questions regarding his work's accessibility to gendered readings of history (213).
Also, the correction of "men/mankind" to a less gendered expression, "humanity" is well and good (xvii), but I might have liked to see how issues of gender might have factored into the discussions of syphilis. For a social disease of that nature, I was intrigued by how utterly sterile he was able to render his analysis of it; identifying the disease's neurological and physiological components in the normative male victim is one thing, but to present evidence on how the women of Europe dealt with it, and how this might or might not have influenced sexual behaviours in the "Old World" might have presented a much more comprehensive view (though the discussion of epidemics of syphilis during wartime and the social rationale for such was certainly a good start [149-50]).
Overall, though, the work stands as a thoroughly solid text that has weathered well the slings and arrows of those who might seek to force it to conform to a more "orthodox" approach to history (whatever that might look like). As stated above, I was well and truly engaged in the reading, and gained considerable insight into the various aspects of the biology of the moment of imperial contact between Europe and America. It might not have necessarily fit to my conception of a history monograph, with its frequent forays into evolutionary biology and epidemiology; however, to have my experience with the field thus broadened, and to see actual evidence of Gaddis' claims about the similarities between history and these other fields was unequivocally a beneficial step in my growth as an historian.
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Reading Progress

09/19/2012 page 37
11.0% "Rushing through it for class discussion; seems cool though, and I may have to revisit it when I have a little more time!"

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