“It was a tremendous ecological convulsion – the greatest event in the history of life since the death of the dinosaurs.”
The book, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, by Charles C. Mann, adds a significant facet to the history already known about the genocidal imperial project of Cristóbal Colón, whom we know as Christopher Columbus.
“In fourteen-hundred-and-ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” goes the old elementary school rhyme. But it was Columbus’ activities in the years that followed, says writer Charles C. Mann, that really created the New World.
Columbus and his men brought wheat, cattle and domesticated animals like horse and sheep to the Americas. As more Europeans followed, they brought a plethora of insects and animal-borne diseases that had not previously existed outside Europe.
“All of the great diseases from smallpox to measles to influenza … [did not] exist in the Americas because they didn’t have any domesticated animals,” says Mann. “When the Europeans came over, it was as if all the deaths over the millennium caused by these diseases were compressed into 150 years in the Americas. The result was to wipe out between two-thirds and 90% of the people in the Americas. It was the worst demographic disaster in history.”
[Humans now share 65 diseases with dogs, 50 with cattle, 46 with sheep and goats, 42 with pigs, 35 with horses and 26 with poultry – none of which were native to the Americas.]
From the book:
‘Newspapers usually describe globalization in purely economic terms, but it is also a biological phenomenon; indeed, from a long-term perspective it may be primarily a biological phenomenon. Two hundred and fifty million years ago the world contained a single landmass known to scientists as Pangaea. Geological forces broke up this vast expanse, splitting Eurasia and the Americas. Over time the two divided halves of Pangaea developed wildly different suites of plants and animals.”
“Colón‘s signal accomplishment was, in the phrase of historian Alfred W. Crosby, to reknit the seams of Pangaea. After 1492, the world’s ecosystems collided and mixed as European vessels carried thousands of species to new homes across the oceans. The Columbian Exchange, as Crosby called it, is the reason there are tomatoes in Italy, oranges in the United States, chocolates in Switzerland, and chili peppers in Thailand. To ecologists, the Columbian Exchange is arguably the most important event since the death of the dinosaurs.”
“Despite the brevity of its existence, La Isabela marked the beginning of an enormous change: the creation of the modern Caribbean landscape. Colón and his crew did not voyage alone. They were accompanied by a menagerie of insects, plants, mammals, and microorganisms. Beginning with La Isabela, European expeditions brought cattle, sheep, and horses, along with crops like sugarcane (originally from New Guinea), wheat (from the Middle East), bananas (from Africa), and coffee (also from Africa). Equally important, creatures the colonists knew nothing about hitchhiked along for the ride. Earthworms, mosquitoes, and cockroaches; honeybees, dandelions, and African grasses; rats of every description – all of them poured from the hulls of Colón’s vessels and those that followed, rushing like eager tourists into lands that had never seen their like before.”
Timeline for 1493
200,000,000 BCE: Geological forces begin to break up the world’s single giant continent, Pangaea, forever separating the hemispheres. After this, Eurasia and the Americas develop completely different suites of plants and animals.
1493 CE: Columbus sails on second voyage, establishing the first consequential European settlement in the Americas. Without intending to, he ends the long separation of the hemispheres – and sets off the ecological convulsion known as the Columbian Exchange.
1518: In the first environmental calamity of the modern era, accidentally imported African scale insects in Hispaniola lead to an explosion of fire ants. Spaniards flee the ant-infested island in droves; colonists in Santo Domingo hold procession in honor of St. Saturninus, praying for his aid against the insect plague.
1545: Spaniards discover the world’s biggest silver strike in Bolivia. In the next century, the world’s supply of this precious metal will more than double, giving Europe an economic edge that will help it colonize Africa, Asia and the Americas.
1549: Initial appearance of tobacco – the addictive American drug that becomes the first global commodity craze – in China. That same year, Hernán Cortés inaugurates the human part of the Columbian Exchange by signing the first contract to import large numbers of Africans to the American mainland.
1571: Miguel López de Legazpi colonizes Manila and establishes continual trade with China – Columbus’s life-long, never-fulfilled dream. Knitting the entire inhabited planet into a single web of trade, Legazpi’s actions are the beginning of today’s economic globalization.
~1615: Earthworms come to northern North America in English ship ballast. During the next three centuries, they will re-engineer forests from Ohio Valley to Hudson Bay.
1630-60: The gush of American silver finally causes its price to collapse, setting off the world’s first global economic calamity.
1644: Collapse of Ming dynasty. Long struggle between remaining Ming in south and incoming Qing dynasty in north leads the latter to forcibly evacuate most of the southern coast; millions of dispossessed people pour into the mountains, where they grow maize and sweet potatoes, American crops first smuggled into China from Manila and other European bases.
1775: France’s Flour War, set off by high bread prices, persuades King Louis XVI to allow the pioneering nutritional chemist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier to stage a series of publicity stunts to persuade farmers to grow potatoes, a distrusted foreign species from Peru. Parmentier’s PR is so successful that broad swathes of northern Europe are soon covered with a monoculture of potatoes.
1781: Britain’s “southern strategy” pushes Gen. Cornwallis’s army into North America’s malaria zone, an area dominated by malaria parasites introduced from Europe and Africa. Defeated by malaria, the British army surrenders to a general it never fought: George Washington. This ends the Revolutionary War.
1845: Europe’s potato monoculture, which is unlike anything ever seen in Peru, turns out to be especially vulnerable to another Peruvian import, the potato blight. Ravaging the continent from Russia to Ireland, the blight causes a famine that kills an estimated two million people, half of them in Ireland.
~1867: Léopold Trouvelot, French amateur entomologist, smuggles gypsy moths to Medford, Mass., hoping to breed them with native silk-producing moths to produce a more robust silk-producer. Their almost immediate escape sets off an invasion that continues today. Trouvelot hurriedly returns to France before the dimensions of the problem can be known.
1880-1912: Industrializing nations, desperate for the elastic belts, pliable gaskets and the tires needed by steam engines and vehicles, buy every scrap of rubber they can get from the Amazon’s rubber trees, the sole source of high-quality latex. The ensuing rubber boom collapses after an Englishman smuggles rubber trees out of Brazil. Soon much of southeast Asia is covered with this foreign tree.
1979: The golden apple snail is sent from Brazil to Taiwan to launch an escargot industry there. It escapes, proliferates, and becomes a major menace to the island’s rice crop.
20th Century: The most dangerous global export has been petroleum, first pumped from a well in Titusville, Pennsylvania on August 27, 1859, and the consequent middle-class consumer culture that made America famous and envied throughout the globe, but which has now – along with other global economic forces – led to irreversible climate change and the sixth great extinction of species.
2015: Geologists have defined the Anthropocene Epoch – a new geological time period that marks the “Age of Man” – as beginning in 1610, when the planet’s geology shows evidence of fossil American pollen in Europe from the Columbian exchange, as well as the lowest point of CO2 in the ice-core record, due to the dying off of 50 million farmers (one tenth of the global human population) and the return of cleared land to forest and savannah.
by Robert Riversong: may be reproduced only with attribution for non-commercial purposes
For more on the impacts of “discovery” on America, see: The Myth of Virgin America