Free Research Paper On History Midterm: American Exchange

Type of paper: Research Paper

Topic: Europe, World, America, United States, Medicine, Health, Environment, Exchange

Pages: 5

Words: 1375

Published: 2020/12/12

The American Exchange, more commonly known as the Columbian Exchange, profoundly affected the modern world between 1500 and 1800 at both the micro and macro levels. Historians consider the American Exchange to be one of the most significant events in world history because of its profound impact on the culture, ecology, and culture of the modern world. They deploy this phrase to describe the diffuse exchange of flora, fauna, human populations, foods, communicable diseases, and ideas between the Western and Eastern hemispheres subsequent to the “discovery” of the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Many novel goods freely flowed between the Earth’s two hemispheres, which catalyzed new revolutions both in Europe and in the Americas. Columbus’ voyage to the New World launched an epoch of contact between Europe and the Americas on a large scale that spawned an ecological revolution. This American Exchange profoundly affected societies and cultures spanning the globe because it spread destructive communicable diseases that effectively depopulated indigenous cultures and societies. Moreover, a vast array of new livestock and crops circulated that, in the long run, resulted in a increase in the world’s population.
The exchange of flora and fauna transformed people’s ways of life in the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa because new foods became introduced into their diets, and crops became cultivated and grown in new regions. Potatoes and maize emerged as very significant crops in Europe and Asia by the eighteenth century. Moreover, manioc and peanuts flourished in West Africa and Southern Asia, both of while had tropical soils that were conducive with growing these new foods. Prior to 1000 AD, potatoes solely grew in South America. By the middle of the nineteenth century, however, Ireland became so dependent on the potatoes as a staple in their denizens’ diet that a mutated resulted in the diffusion of a disease that wiped out the potato crop, resulting in the infamously devastating Irish Potato Famine, which forced many people to migrate to the Americas. Tomatoes grown in the Americas were used to make tomato sauce, which emerged as a staple food in Italy. Paprika and chili were both appropriated by the Portuguese in India. Indeed, today, Indian cuisine always includes paprika and other spices in all of their trademark dishes. Prior to the American Exchange, modern-day Florida did not grow oranges; tomatoes were not grown in Italy; Ecuador lacked indigenous fruits such as bananas that are so significant in the region today; Hawaii did not grow pineapples; Africa did not have a large supply of rubber trees; Mexico lacked burros; and Switzerland did not provide an ample supply of chocolate made from indigenous cocoa trees. Indeed, Europeans even brought the dandelion to America in order to use it as an important herb. Ultimately, it is unequivocal that the introduction of crop plants such as sweet potatoes, squash, maize, chilies, and manioc has represented one of the greatest contributions of the American Exchange. The global population explosion and demographic expansion witnessed in the modern era, which resulted in certain migration patterns, must be attributed to this global exchange of flora.
The global exchange of fauna has also played a critical role in shaping the modern world in ways that cannot be minimized or discounted. In the grand narrative of American history, explorers and Native Americans have emerged as central actors. Few historians have explored the agency of non-human factors such as cattle and swine and their pivotal role in shaping both American and indigenous societies and cultures. Domesticated animals represent some of the most significant imports from Europe in changing the contours of modern society not only in America but across the globe. For example, the horse drastically altered the lives of many indigenous tribes that lived on the Great Plains because they enabled Native Americans to embrace a nomadic lifestyle predicated on hunting bison while riding on horseback. Scholar Virginia DeJohn Anderson extends her analysis beyond merely examining the environmental and ecological changes wrought by the introduction of British livestock in her monograph, Creatures of Empire.Anderson considers the key role played by domesticated farm animals in American and indigenous societies. The migrations and activities of domesticated animals not only enabled the success of European colonization in North America but also produced changes in the behaviors and perceptions of those who came into contact with them. Livestock thus served as agents of empire and ultimately destabilized indigenous communities that futilely adopted English culture as a buffer against such brutal colonial subjugation yet found themselves erased from their own land.
Anderson charts encounters between indigenous peoples and colonists over livestock disputes, which served as sites for negotiating the contours of colonial society. These disputes, negotiations, and cultural clashes occurred on the colonists’ terms, settled either through diplomacy or in the court houses. Roaming British livestock often ruined native peoples’ crops, which led natives to in turn kill the unsupervised animals. Violent reactions angered colonists who rendered such actions as unjustified for the destruction of their private property. The 1670s witnessed the worst violence between natives and colonists as the despoiling of land by livestock reached its apex, resulting in King Phillip’s War and other violent encounters. Towards the end of the seventeenth century, colonists utilized livestock as a tool to force Native Americans of the land by purposely putting their livestock in natives’ cornfields in order to destroy their crops. A booming colonial population combined with this wide-ranging style of husbandry necessitated their need to appropriate and encroach on the native peoples’ land. Although natives made concerted efforts to accommodate the colonial vision of a civilized society, the desire and need for more land rendered coexistence impossible. Thus, it is unequivocal that European livestock catalyzed conquest and colonization, although it seems that the thirst for land rather than livestock husbandry served as the driving force for this conquest.
The inefficacy of indigenous resistance to Europeans must further be attributed to communicable diseases that effectively decimated indigenous populations. Viruses indeed have shaped international affairs, which J.R. McNeil demonstrates in his captivating monograph Mosquito Empires. McNeill examines the intersectionality of ecology, disease, and geopolitics in order to understand how ecological changes within the Greater Caribbean, or the littoral regions of the Americas from Surinam to the Chesapeake Bay, spawned new environments apt for mosquito vectors of deadly diseases such as yellow fever and malaria. Because survivors of these disease gained immunity or resistance, the viruses assumed partisan roles in imperial battles and revolutions by ravaging non-immune populations over others. These notions of “differential immunity” and “differential resistance” played a significant role in shaping the geopolitical make-up of the Atlantic world from the seventeenth century into the twentieth century. European imperialism prompted environmental changes by transforming landscapes to support large-scale agricultural as a steady source of wealth, which facilitated the spread of these deadly diseases. McNeil posits that imperial ambitions for wealth and glory altered the ecologies in the Caribbean, and conversely, these ecological changes wrought by European settlement dictated the outcomes of war and revolution during the early modern era. He situates European political and military strategies within an ecological context to elucidate the impact of non-human factors on historical events and changes. Mosquitoes and microbial viruses superseded imperial ambitions and ultimately carved out the destinies of various human societies which shaped the contours of the modern world.
Various case studies in the Caribbean region elucidate how the environment assumed a primary role in determining the outcome of geopolitical and military structures in societies. The history of the Caribbean region unequivocal demonstrates the links between politics, warfare, and environmental change. Struggles for imperial dominance of Caribbean territories transpired during an epoch of great environmental change prompted by imperialism itself. The creation of the plantation system propelled a profound ecological and demographic transformation that resulted in fomented ideal conditions for mosquitoes to thrive in. These “creole ecologies” facilitated the spread of yellow fever and malaria through urbanization and demographic explosion such economic initiatives generated. Additionally, the need for slave labor led to increased ship traffic. Slave ships became vessels of mosquito activity and thus circulated diseases and infections amongst littoral societies in the New World. Race indeed functioned with regards to disease and immunity, and McNeill rebuts racist interpretations of environmental history by explaining the biology of the partisanship of disease. European medicinal practices proved ineffective in quelling yellow fever and malarial outbreaks, which conferred these diseases immense influence over imperial struggles in the Caribbean.
European conquests in Darien and Kourou demonstrate how diseases prevented large-scale European settlement in the Caribbean. Prior to yellow fever and malaria taking root, invading armies achieved significant conquests up into the middle of the seventeenth century when these diseases fortified the landscapes against Europeans. After the 1690s, however, yellow fever ravaged the Caribbean and restricted military initiatives and settlement. Although yellow fever played a minimal role prior to the 1640s, it emerged as a potent ally for Spain, addition to the fortification of ports, in defense of empire. Cartagena, Santiago de Cuba, and Havana provide examples of the agency of non-human factors and exposed their nonmilitary value. Timing and unpredictable circumstances in military campaigns regarding ecological factors unequivocally shaped large-scale armed conflicts in the New World. Up until the 1770s, the partisanship of diseases dictated the allotment o territory among imperial powers. At the dawn of the nineteenth century, however, yellow fever and malaria bolstered revolutionary activity by decimating European forces sent to quell it. Differential immunity of rebels chafing against the status quo such as the slaves in Surinam enhanced their chances of revolutionary success. Malaria played a primary role in the British defeat during the American Revolution, as differential resistance to malaria put the British at an immediate disadvantage. Without malaria, the British may have successfully quelled the revolution at Yorktown. Other revolutions in Haiti, New Granada, and Cuba witnessed similar dynamics whereby the partisan impacts of diseases caused by mosquitoes aided in revolutionary success. Using letters and diary entries, McNeill plausibly demonstrates that revolutionary leaders recognized the potency of yellow fever and exploited the disease and differential immunity to their advantage to overthrow European hegemony in the region. Disease, thus, became interwoven into military strategy. The American Exchange thus underscores the environmental dimensions of modern politics in both the New and Old World, which profoundly shaped the contours of the modern world.
Prior to the contact between the Western and Eastern hemispheres, domesticated animals and infectious diseases were far more diffuse in the Old World than in the New World. As a result, upon contact, communicable diseases had a devastating impact on indigenous populations in the New World. Yellow Fever, malaria, and smallpox epidemics resulted in the decimation of several indigenous tribes. It is unequivocal that societies and cultures across the globe were profoundly and permanently altered by this global ecological clash and exchange.


Anderson, V.D. Creatures of empire: How domestic animals transformed early America. Oxford: Oxford University.
Bentley, J. & Ziegler, H. (2006). Traditions & encounters: A global perspective on the past. Third Edition. United States: McGraw-Hill.
McNeill, J.R. (2010). Mosquito empires: Ecology and war in the greater Caribbean, 1614-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ringrose, D. (2001). Expansion and global interaction, 1200-1700.United States: Longman.

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