In history classes, students struggle to memorize and regurgitate the names, dates, and places essential to our glorious myth — the sacred journey that brought us to the miracle of today. For many, this parade of dusty factoids is the story they will believe for the rest of their days. What I was taught about Christopher Columbus resembled a kindergarten fairy tale — the courageous hero succeeds. Hooray!
The last 50+ years have released a flash flood of important new information. Our planet is being disemboweled by seven-point-something billion humans racing down a hell-bound path for no good reason. Alfred Crosby was an important pioneer in the field of environmental history. In his book, Germs, Seeds, and Animals, Crosby described how the Columbus voyage of 1492 detonated a global ecological catastrophe. It was a monumental event in the human saga, something like an asteroid strike.
When the Pilgrims washed ashore at Plymouth Rock in 1620, they were not immediately exterminated by Wampanoag warriors, because the tribe was nearly extinct. Smallpox got there first. Pilgrims found an empty village surrounded by cornfields full of weeds. During the first winter, half of the colonists died from malnutrition, exhaustion, and exposure. They knew almost nothing about surviving in a foreign ecosystem. Pilgrims struggled to survive on shellfish, and on corn (maize) that was bought or stolen from the Indians. It wasn’t until 1624 that they figured out how to live on their own.
Native Americans were spooked by the freaky aliens. Everyone around them was dead or dying, while none of the aliens were molested by evil spirits. Deadly diseases, especially smallpox, spread from tribe to tribe, across vast regions, well in advance of explorers and settlers. Natives could have easily exterminated the Pilgrims, but they were fearful of their horrific dark powers. Without smallpox, history could have taken a radically different path.
The Pilgrims came from a densely populated civilization that had transformed its thriving rainforest into fields, pastures, and disease-ridden cities. In Europe, smallpox had raged for centuries. Around 1500, the virus mutated into a far more virulent form, killing many children in cities near the Atlantic coast of Europe. Folks who survived to adulthood were those lucky to have unusually robust immune systems. It was these folks who carried smallpox to the New World in 1518, where it killed up to half of those infected. The virus could unintentionally be transported via a trunk of clothing. Human-to-human contact was not needed.
In an era of long distance sea travel, ships often returned to Europe with new and exciting diseases from every corner of the Old World. Many deadly diseases originated in domesticated animals, with whom Old World people often lived in close contact. A number of livestock pathogens were able to transfer to human hosts. These germs especially loved infecting dense crowds in filthy cities. Epidemics of assorted diseases bounced from region to region on a regular basis. Native Americans, who did not enslave herds of animals, had only two indigenous pathogens, Chagas’s disease and Carrion’s disease.
Spaniards documented the die-off in Mesoamerica (Aztecs) and Peru (Incas), where 90 percent of the Native Americans were dead within a century. In these cooler highland regions, folks died from temperate diseases, primarily smallpox, measles, whooping cough, and pneumonia. In the hot, wet coastal lowlands, people not only died from temperate diseases, but also tropical diseases, like malaria, yellow fever, dengue fever, and amoebic dysentery. Around 1590, an observer estimated that 29 of every 30 lowland natives had perished from disease. As a special bonus, Europeans also brought chicken pox, typhus, typhoid fever, bubonic plague, cholera, scarlet fever, diphtheria, and influenza.
To this day, Old World diseases continue killing natives who come into contact with outsiders for the first time — missionaries, loggers, miners, etc. By far, the primary reason Europeans conquered the Americas was disease. I was surprised to learn that Europeans did not intend to exterminate the natives and replace them with settlers. Colonists suffered from get rich quick fever, and the fast path to wealth was to control and exploit multitudes of Indians.
Unfortunately, the native workers rapidly died from disease, malnutrition, and abuse. This labor shortage inspired a rapid expansion of the highly profitable slave trade. Africans were less vulnerable to the tropical diseases, for which white folks were helpless sitting ducks. At least ten million slaves arrived alive in America. Millions more perished before setting foot ashore. Once here, their death rate was higher than births, which kept the slave industry booming.
Old World livestock thrived in the New World. The new ecosystem had abundant vegetation, was free from Old World pathogens and parasites, and wild predators were not a serious threat. Animals grew faster and larger, and had more offspring. On the pampa of South America, where few humans lived, feral horses and cattle multiplied into huge populations — they had no buffalo to compete with.
Corn (maize) was a super-productive crop. Sowing a bushel of wheat might yield 12 to 20 bushels at harvest time. A bushel of corn might yield 200 bushels or more. Corn could be grown using simple tools and unskilled labor. It could be grown on marginal soils, required minimal weeding, and could survive several frosts. It stored well. Husks discouraged losses to birds. When mature, ears could be left on the stalk and harvested later, without risk of spoilage.
Settlers in America were far better nourished than the sickly mobs of Europe. Most lived in rural areas, in low density, which discouraged epidemics. They bred like crazy, and many of their kiddies survived to adulthood. Folks had access to abundant land for expansion. By 1775, the U.S. population was doubling every 25 years. In 1790, half of Americans were younger than 16 years old.
Meanwhile, Europeans took corn, potatoes, and treasure back to the Old World, where they blindsided almost everything. Corn became a staple in southern Europe. For many folks, it was their primary food. Because it lacks the essential nutrient niacin, many poor folks came down with pellagra. Around the world, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, hundreds of thousands died from pellagra. The simple cure was a slightly better diet.
Potatoes were widely adopted in northern Europe, where they produced far more nutrients per area than traditional grain crops, which were vulnerable to molds, fungus, and cool weather. A family of five could survive on 5 acres (2 ha) of grain, or just 1.5 acres of potatoes. Folks remained healthy on a daily diet of 11 pounds (5 kg) of potatoes and some milk (another source said 10 pounds). Potatoes contained vitamin C, so far fewer died from scurvy during winter months. Farmers could raise them on marginal soils, using only a spade. In wartime, invaders could easily steal stored grain, but buried spuds were often too much effort to swipe, so fewer farmers starved.
Gold, silver, and gems were hauled back to Europe. This provided a flash flood of new wealth, which greatly expanded the global economy. Manufactured stuff went to the New World, and resources sailed back to Europe. The wealth surge provided the capital needed to jump start the Industrial Revolution.
Because potatoes and corn were highly productive, less cropland was needed. So, many peasants were forced off the land, to make room for sheep, which generated more profit. Mobs of displaced people migrated into cities, where they provided cheap labor for industry. After the 1666 epidemic in London, the plague largely went dormant in Europe. This spurred population growth, which intensified urban filth, and provided ideal conditions for the cholera epidemic that arrived in 1829.
Aided by potatoes and corn, both Europe and America were able to harvest far more food. People were better nourished, so child mortality dropped. The population of Europe leaped from 80 million in 1492, to 180 million in 1800, and 390 million in 1900. Europe was bursting with people, and many migrated to colonies — Australia, New Zealand, southern Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Canada, and the U.S. Bottom line, world population leaped from 450 million in 1500 to 7.5 billion in 2018.
Crosby concluded that Columbus sparked “the greatest demographic catastrophe in the human record.” “The encounter may have been the most influential event on this planet since the retreat of the continental glaciers.” “Calories can make as much history as cannons — more in the long run.”
Crosby, Alfred W. Germs, Seeds, and Animals: Studies in Ecological History, M. E. Sharpe, Armonk, New York, 1994.