Typically the process of European colonization and conquest of the Americas is understood in political or military terms. But perhaps the most significant change of all was ecological. The natural environment of the pre-Columbian Americas would have been radically different than the natural environment we know today.
Colonization brought about a wholesale transformation of the environment. This change hinges upon the exchange of domesticated plants and animals between the Old World (Europe, Africa, and Asia) and the Americas. The information collected in this blog post comes from a book The Columbian Exchange, by Alfred Crosby. It is, admittedly, a rather dry book, but its an important work of history. If you’re the kind of person who can make through a really dry history book, The Columbian Exchange is very rewarding and comes to you highly recommended.
Potatoes are a domesticated plant indigenous to the Americas
The importance of familiar food
Europeans were only successful in colonizing the Americans once they started to transform the environment to more closely resemble the natural landscape of Europe. Domesticated plants and animals from the Old World allowed Europeans to change the natural environment of the Americas to suit themselves. Over the course of centuries the whole ecology of the continents was turned to their favor.
At first Europeans were forced to adapt to Indian foods, but they did not know which wild plants were safe to eat, how to cultivate American soil, or which plants to grow and when. On top of this eating wild foods was deemed uncivilized. How can a Catholic Spaniard take communion if there is no wheat to make bread or grapes to make wine? Moreover, the Spanish culture is Mediterranean. They needed olives for olive oil the way Chinese need rice. It is the most basic, essential component of their diet.
Thus Europeans began importing familiar plants and animals. Only with a dependable supply of familiar food was it possible to sustain large European communities in the Americas. This plan was so successful that by the year 1600 AD, or approximately one hundred years from first contact, all the most important plants of the Old World were being grown in the Americas including wheat, olives, and grapes.
Colonization was essentially a capital-intensive business proposition aimed at generating a profit and as such it was driven by economic factors, supply and demand. Principally this market role was satisfied by acquiring raw materials for export. This was accomplished by cash cropping, the mass production of animal hides, mining, and outright plunder of native peoples.
Cash cropping introduced an entirely new way of relating to the land relative to how the native people utilized it. This represents a whole new mode of production. Whereas native peoples had a subsistence relationship to the land, they produced their food through agriculture, cash cropping is a kind of capitalism. You use the land to produce commodities that you sell on the global market in order to gain a profit. Wages earned from that exchange may be used to purchase food and other things as well. From an ecological standpoint, the story of colonization is the story of one mode of production displacing another.
One of the first cash crops to be grown in the New World was sugar. First the Spanish introduced it in the Caribbean, Mexico, and Peru. Then Portugal expanded from Africa to South America, making Brazil the world’s largest sugar supplier. Not to be outdone France and England began growing their own in the Caribbean. Of course distilling fermented sugar results in rum (which when taken with lime prevents scurvy). Rum is a cornerstone of the maritime culture such as England’s in the colonial era.
This is just one example – tobacco, cotton, and coffee were all grown for export on plantations using slave labor or indentured servants. Intensive agricultural production of nonfood items for sale in overseas markets was a completely new economic arrangement for the Americas. And it was one that was only possible through the transformation of the natural environment.
Cash crops sold to a foreign market provide income, but they don’t provide sustenance. To really support a large population you need intensive agriculture of staple foods. So how was it possible for the Spanish to vanquish the Aztec in Mexico and the Inca in Peru with such long supply lines? It would have been impossible if they had to import their food from Europe!
An army marches on its stomach, the Spanish needed near supply lines for their soldiers in the Valley of Mexico and the Andean highlands. The Caribbean acted as a base camp and testing grounds for the cultivation of European crops. Hogs and goats were some of the most successful early imports from Europe.
Pigs were especially easy to cultivate in the tropics because they required little care. Typically they were simply turned loose on an island to forage for themselves and allowed to reproduce naturally. Later when a ship needed food, they only had to stop by the island and hunt a boar. Of course we now know wild boar to be one of the most destructive of invasive species because they trample undergrowth and uproot plants causing erosion of top soil. In the Appalachians it is wild boar season 365 days a year because they are considered a nuisance and threat to the well being of the environment.
Invasive European domesticated animals posed an ecological threat to Indians too. They consumed the local plants and animals Indians depended upon. They spread Old World diseases throughout the Americas. They were frequently left unattended to feed freely on the land that Indians utilized as a source of wild foods. In sum as the number of domesticated European animals increased the population of Indians decreased.
Perhaps no animal in the Americas was more successful as rapidly as the horse. The horse was already a prominent feature of Spanish culture dating back to before the Renascence. Not only was the horse necessary for covering long distances quickly, but it worked as a beast of burden and weapon of war.
From an economic standpoint, horses made large scale cattle ranching possible. The first cattle were brought to the Americas primarily as a way to provide hides for export to Europe (think Spanish leather). The production of meat was secondary. In colonial Argentina, cattle hides were produced at such a rate that the beef was simply thrown away. The people couldn’t eat it all!
In the Americas the horse population exploded in a matter of just a few years after their introduction. Great herds of wild horses stampeded across the plains and pampas. The spread of horses was so great in South America that when the earliest permanent settlers arrived in Argentina there were already herds of horses. This means that in some places domesticated European animals preceded the arrival of Europeans themselves.
Many of these horses were put to work in the ranching business. If you have workers or slaves tending your sugar plantations, or mining for silver and gold, you’re going to need to feed them. Ranching was an important component of colonial economies by providing food for laborers in specialized occupations where they did not produce their own food.
The horse was one of the European species Indians were quick to adopt. As was mentioned in the lecture on New World civilizations, a primary difference relative to Old World civilization is a relative de-emphasis on domesticated animals. And with no beast of burden (aside from the dog and, in the Andes, the llama) there was an accompanying de-emphasis on the wheel. Horses allowed hunters to kill more animals than needed. The surplus could then be used for trade in order to acquire European commodities. Indians could now cover much greater distances in shorter periods of time. And the horse greatly increased the ability of Indians to resist European encroachment into the interiors of North and South America.
What we consider to be the “natural world” today, what is preserved in national parks and the like, is actually radically different than what the Americas looked like prior to the arrival of the Europeans. From an economic standpoint European colonization of the Americas was a success, but this was only possible by the importation of Old World domesticates, both plants and animals. In a matter of centuries the entire ecology of the continents was changed and it was this newly engineered natural environment that truly gave Europeans the upper hand.
Crosby, in his book The Columbian Exchange, remarks that the colonization of the Americas was the single most momentous ecological event in modern human history. Nothing like it will ever come again, he says, until extraterrestrial life comes to planet Earth. If you’re still wondering how Homo Sapiens would fare in such an encounter, reread this blog post.