HST287: Reading Notes, 07-Oct-2004

Crosby, Alfred W., Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900
Pomper, Philip. "World History and Its Critics"
Green, William A. "Periodizing World History"
McNeill, William H. "The Changing Shape of World History"

Crosby, Alfred W., Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)


"European emigrants and their descendants are all over the place...They compose the majority of those very few nations on this earth that consistently, decade after decade, export large quantities of food." (p. 3-4) They live in temperate zones that support similar flora and fauna and fall within a range of similar lattitudes.

Pangaea Revisited

MacNeill's Theory: people from complex, dense civilizations carry a broader range of diseases and immunities than people of less dense civilizations. When the two come into contact, the latter usually end up the sickest. (p. 32)

The Norse and the Crusaders

Crosby consciously and somewhat arbitrarily chooses the domestication of the horse (5,000 years ago) as the date by which the Old World Neolithinc Revolution had been completed in its original lands. He then calls the next 4,000 years of civilized development relatively unimportant. The Old World (Eurasia) spreads. The New World fails to develop the horse, the wheel, though they do develop social groups, temples and recording.

On the period 500 A.D to 1,000 A.D.: "Western Europe stopped being the wrack left behind by the ebb of the Roman Empire and began being something new and vital. The dark centuries of barbarian wanderings and Carolingian false starts and general cultural infertility were over. . .this was more than a simple revival. The Gothic cathedral . . .was more than a sign of rebirth. It marked the first birth of a society of remarkable energy, brilliance, and arrogance. Such societies are often expansionistic." (p. 44)

Iceland: 870 AD
Greenland: late 10th
Markland: 1,000 AD
Vinland: 1,000+ AD

What worked?

What didn't?
The Crusaders: why wasn't the conquest permanent?
Iceland was the only surviving colony of this early expansion, probably because it was close, had a relatvely hospitable climate, and had no indigenes to deter colonization.

The Fortunate Isles

Atlantic ventures:
The Canarians, or Guanches, were brought by sailors on their way back from conquering the Canaries to Portugal. They settled the Canaries from Africa, probably from 2,000 BC to 100-200 AD. Related to Berbers, brought barley, wheat, beans, goats, dogs, pigs, maybe sheep, but no horses; pottery but no spinning/weaving or metalwork. 1483: after many years of attempts, and five years of all-out Spanish assault, Gran Canaria falls. 1492: La Palma falls. 1495: Tenerife, the last island, falls.
Was Spanish conquest inevitable? Not by weapons, against which the Guanches had local advantage, nor by numbers (only 1,000 or so Spaniards could be brought in/supported at any time). The Guanches were not united in language or culture and had already suffered 100 years attrition to slavers. Spaniards had cavalry. Guanches ceded flat, grain-producing areas to Spaniards and retreated to defensible hills. Previous population growth among Guanches, possibly helped by importation of fig tree by Europeans, led to female infaticide. European diseases also took its toll.


Why go?
Sailing discoveries:
Within Reach, Beyond Grasp

What areas were not hospitable for European occupation?

"Any respectable theory that attempts to explain the Europeans' demographic advance has to provide explanation for at least two phenomena. The first is the demoralization and often the annihilation of the indigenous population of the Neo-Europes. . .Second, we must explain the stunning, even awesome, success of European agriculture in the Neo-Europes." (p. 147)

Considers three life forms that spread: weeds, feral animals, and pathogens.
Considers three areas that were the seed-beds for further expansion: eastern third of the US, south-eastern corner of Australia (along with New Zealand), and south and coasts of South America.

Forests razed for timber, animals overgrazing, and abandoned cultivated areas, all  make room for weeds.

Peaches: brought by Spaniards to Florida, brought north and grown by Amerindians, abandoned and were naturalized as Amerindian populations declined.

Most "weeds" traveled unidirectionally: from Europe, not to Europe.

Why don't they take over? "As they take over disturbed ground, they stabilize the soil, block the baking rays of the sunm and, for all their competitiveness, make it a better place for other plants than it was before. . .they give way to plants that may grow more slowly but grow taller and sturdier." (p. 169)


Pigs: prolific, eat anything (including much that humans eat: competing), high percent edible, go feral pretty fast,
Cows: adapt to more hot climates than pigs, eat what humans don't and convert it to that which Europeans can digest: milk,
Horses: adapt well
Bees: native of Mediterranean and Middle East, brought to North America via Virginia colony, moved west slowly, sad harbingers to Amerindians of approaching Europeans,
Rats: stowaways, almost destroyed Jamestown


Rapid spread of disease among indigenes was hastened by fleeing the disease. Often it appeared that whole areas were abandoned and left vacant before Europeans arrived. The southeastern US was fairly heavily populated, with complex societies, before disease left the area empaty. "The uneveness of the exchange [between Old World and New World epidemics] operated to the overwhelming advantage of the European invaders, and to the crushing disadvantage of the peoples whose ancestral homes were on the losing side of the seams of Pangaea." (p. 216)

New Zealand

So completely different from Europe but with certain compelling reasons for colonization in the late 18th cent.: timber, seals and whales, Maoris to convert or enslave. By the early 19th cent. they had decimated the seal population and there were only sporadic whaling stations. That was in decline by 1840s due to harvesting calves and mothers from shore.

Three requirements for Europeanization:
Maori's adopted white potatoes and were soon exporting them to the world. Pigs also adapted well. They were physically and culturally susceptible to disease, including veneral disease, and practiced infanticide. After Europeans and missionaries established a colony on the north end of North Island and Maori's started adapting European plants and animals, the area became a popular port for whalers. Maori products were traded for metal implements and muskets by which Maori's could use to dominate other local Maori groups.

Maori groups, decimated by European disease and too willingly adapting European culture, eventually allowed Britain to make them a colony in hopes of maintaining some of their own culture. From a pakeha population of 2,000 in 1840, the population rose to 32,000 by 1854. Meanwhile Old World animals took over, making room for Old World invasive plants. The same pattern emerged in the South Island as Maori's were able to plant and raise Old World crops and animals.


Martin's theory, [that the first wave of human hunters devastated ecosystems, provides an explanation for much about the neo-Europes that is otherwise obscure. And it places Amerindians, Aborigines, and Maori, on the one hand, and European invaders, on the other, in a fresh and intellectually provocative relationship: not simply as adversaries, with the indigenes passive and the whites active, but as two waves of invaders of the same species, the first acting as shock troops, clearing the way for the second wave, with its more complicated economies and greater numbers." (p. 280)


The Neo-Europes were created in waves. Early invasion of pioneers and mid 19th century invasions of push-pull from Europe. Neo-Europeans population increased rapidly but has since stabilised. Neo-Europes have the appropriate climate to grow most of the world's food. There are no more earth locations to provide windfall advantages to migrants. We need to be careful with the ecosystem we use now to ensure its future.

McNeill, William H. "The Changing Shape of World History" History and Theory, Vol. 34, No. 2, Theme Issue 34: World Historians and Their Critics (May, 1995), 8-26.

What are the best approaches to world history? "The organizing concept is hard to name, being the geographically largest circle of effective interation among peoples of diverse cultures and circumstances. . .Before 1500 several different communications nest co-existed, each with a dynamic of its own, though the largest was always situated in Eurasia and now embraces the globe."

"Competing terms exist: "interactive zone," "world system," and "ecumene," but none is completely satisfactory or generally accepted by world historians. Nonetheless, the author asserts that a perceptible drift towards recognizing the reality and centrality of this large structure in the human past has begun to show up among practicing world historians; and the balance of the essay sketches how key alterations in patterns of Eurasian communication mark the principal stages in the expansion and intensification of interaction within the Eurasion ecumeme." (p. 8: Abstract)

Thucydides; "a pridefully accurate, sharply focused monograph" dealing with a specific event, a war

Judeo-Christian: a historical vision in which God is central: all history is world history with God as the moving force

China: cyclical, dynastic: heaven chooses ruler, dynasties become corrupt and are replaced by new pure dynasties

Italy: study of pagan writers revives reaffirmation of human actions as focus of history

"We in the historical profession persist in the same behavior today, remaining for the most part content to work (often unconsciously) within the liberal, nineteenth-century interpretation of history whose principles, if overtly affirmed, would embarrass most of us because we no longer believe them." (p. 10)

18th century historians (Vico, Voltaire, Gibbon, Herder) desacralized the past, finding larger patterns (cyclical or cumulative)

19th cent: The "compromise between pagan and Christian heritages carried over into the nineteenth century, when the liberal vision of history took shape. . .The core idea was simple enough: what mattered in history was the sporadic but ineluctable advance of Freedom." (p. 11) (So European history became "good times" and "bad times" and US history held a privileged place)

So where does WWI fit in. Oops. So, Spengler and Toynbee suggest a cyclical model again, but in so doing included the rest of the world in the picture. This world history see the driving forces of history as either economic/technical or as religious/artistic/scientific cultural. (p. 13)

Landmarks in the history of the interactive, ecumenical world system of Eurasia:

Pomper, Philip. "World History and Its Critics" History and Theory, Vol. 34, No. 2, Theme Issue: World Historians and Their Critics (May, 1995), 1-7)

Cognitive differences:
To make an impact:

Green, William A. "Periodizing World History" History and Theory, Vol. 34, No. 2, Theme Issue 34: World Histoirans and Their Critics (May, 1995), 99-111.

Medieval: divine intervention
post-Marx: material forces

Period frontiers: coincidental watershed moments (perceptions of univers, printing, gunpowder, ships all coincided to produce the Columbus moment) or leading sector (discovering the New World changed everything)?

"To make a cake, one needs a recipe. To divine why and how history has evolved as it has, one needs a theory of change. Theory does more than identify the ingredients of historical problems. It explains the process which gives those ingredients meaning." (p. 102)

Some theories:
technologies, trade-driven theories (Frank: economic surplus between regions)
Can disease theory solve the problem? Not really: Important but not a central driving force.


1) What an enjoyable book! I think Crosby has found a good balance between the Braudellian dilemma of "is it about the Mediterranean/is it about Phillip II." He includes individuals where it seems reasonable to do so, for example, when looking at the early European explorers, but avoids doing so when focusing on the larger, sweeping patterns of change. That makes complete sense in terms of his thesis but I could wish for more, specifically two acknoledgements or explorations: 1) Crosby puposely (almost gleefully) glosses over the years 500-1,000 in Eurasia as being the "ebb of the Roman Empire." Was there really so little movement between Eurasian peoples in the years before 1,000 A.D, especially between 500-1,000? and 2) He doesn't mention that the earliests crusaders were, I believe, primarily Normans who were themselves only one or two generations past the "roving days" of their Norse forebears.  We'll probably have to await further developments in brain science or genetics to determine if there is a biological basis for the "pioneering spirit" or "marauding nature," but it would be interesting to see how that type of cultural background/mentalities impacts Crosby's thesis.

2) MacNeill says: "We in the historical profession persist in the same behavior today, remaining for the most part content to work (often unconsciously) within the liberal, nineteenth-century interpretation of history whose principles, if overtly affirmed, would embarrass most of us because we no longer believe them." (p. 10) He assumes that his audience understands what those interpretations are. Given the nature of where he is writing, an article that can not exceed a certain length, it is only reasonable that he does not elaborate. However, is one of the difficulties of trying to write a (or even several) world histor(y/ies) finding a starting point among all the possible presuppositions that different historians might bring to the process? How does one know that one person's assumptions about that starting place will be interpreted the same way as another's?

3) Though it suggests unanswerable questions, this one resonates for me this year, given the political situation (and probably, I'll admit, given the fact that I did a summer fun re-read of Asimov's "Empire" science fiction series which ends with an interesting twist on a similar dilemma). Long, but the whole quote is:
"Human groups, even while borrowing from outsiders, cherish a keen sense of their uniqueness.  The more they share, the more each group focuses attention on residual differences, since only so can the cohesion and morale of the community sustain itself.. .The upshot has always been conflict, rivalry, and chronic collision among human groups. . .Even if world government were to come such rivalries would not cease, though their expression would have to alter in deference to the overriding power of a bureacratic world administration. In all probability, human genetic inheritance is attuned to membership in a  small, primary community. Only so can life have meaning and purpose. Only so can moral rules be firm and definite enough to simplify choices. But membership in such groups perpetuates the gap between "us" and "them" and invites conflict since the best way to consolidate any group is to have an enemy close at hand." (p. 25)
My question is: Really?
Is this an accurate assessment of all past human cultures? Is this a 'basic human characteristic' or simply a manifestation of recent times? And must it always hold true? Under what circumstances might it change?

(Hmm...I wrote this before reading Pomper. So should I be looking at Fukuyama and Nandy for these questions?)

4) Could replace #2 which is not that interesting anyway...
Pomper: MacNeill, Abu-Lughod, and Green "search for patterns and integrative periodizations, and for new ways to comprehend the relationships of the parts making up systemic wholes." But isn't this almost an impossibility? Humans seem to be very good at pattern-finding. (gets us intor trouble, too--just look at the Eugenicists.) If one can find patterns in everything, how can one say with any conviction that this pattern is better/more accurate/superior to that pattern? Or, how do world historians guard against that?

hope.greenberg@uvm.edu, Created/updated: 2-Oct-2004/7-Oct-2004
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