The Clash of Ecologies Page 1 of 8
ENVIRONMENTAL HISTORY IV: ECOLOGICAL
1. The Shock of the New
The quickening of economic and scientific life in the Western world in the 15th
and 16th centuries was stimulated and bolstered by the sudden discovery of a
brand new world that had been uncharted and unprepared for by the traditional
philosophies and sciences. The explorations and exploitations of that New World
transformed the Old World as well as the New. They set the stage for the
supremacy for 400 years of the European way of life, and were the first seeds of
the movement towards globalization that is still underway. For environmentalists,
we can also see that there was a fundamental clash of ecologies involved: also still
underway. One of the most important emerging issues for the 21st century is the
mixing of species around the world as part of the process of globalization. The
first example of this phenomenon shows how potentially devastating this mixing
can be in ecosystems that have no experience with "exotic" species.
When Columbus landed in the Caribbean in 1492, he had a number of obvious
weapons at his disposal, which he and other Spanish and Portugueuse explorers
were able to use to dominate the New World.
He had small weapons -- guns and Toledo steel swords and armour -- and he had
bigger weapons, including the biggest weapon of all, caravels, ships that acted
more or less like the aircraft carriers of the day. These ships were hybrids of tough
Atlantic coastal ships, with square sails; and Arabic ships from the Mediterranean,
that had triangular side sails that improved moveability in the water because they
could catch side winds. The ships were big enough to carry cannon and horses and
Columbus also had an advantage that no one knew about, which was the fact that
he and his culture were carrying disease germs to which they were immune.
What was his mission and his history? What was he doing there? He was looking
for Spices. The story books say that he was trying to prove the world was round --
this is nonsense, everyone with any education knew it was round. What he was
looking for was India, and he believed, until his death that he had found it. That is
why he called the people he met Indians. He wanted to reach the East by sailing
Because the other route was blocked. And it was urgent that he get to the Indies,
because of the amounts of money that were at stake.
Let me go back a bit further. The Clash of Ecologies Page 2 of 8
2. The Search for Spices
In the Middle Ages, in Europe and elsewhere in the Far East, there was a
desperate demand for spices of all kinds, but particularly spices like pepper,
cloves, and nutmeg. The reason was that this was before the days of refrigeration,
and if you kept meat lying around long enough before eating it, you had to either
use spices to cure the meat to make it last a bit longer, and also to cover the bad
taste if it went bad. Spices were worth more than their weight in gold. The richest
people in the world used spices to spice things up.
The main single source for these spices were what is called the Spice Islands in
Southeast Asia (northwest of Australia).
The spices would be grown in these islands, shipped in Arab boats across the
Indian Ocean to the coast of India, and then up the Red Sea, to ports like
Alexandria in Egypt, or Constantinople. Then they would be shipped to Venice or
Genoa in a new set of boats, and then they would be carried in sacks by horseback
all the way to Paris or London or wherever. At each step along the way, some
trader would markup the price, and since it was a monopoly, everyone had to pay.
In the 7th century, one of these spice traders, named Muhammed, founded the
religion of Islam, and within a century Islam had nearly conquered the whole
Mediterranean except for the extreme north of Europe, and within a few more
centuries they had conquered most of India. Because they were merchants, they
controlled the spice trade. This is why Malaysia and Indonesia are Islamic
In the 13th century a Venetian merchant whose name was Marco Polo, travelled
around the Eastern part of the world he knew, first along the Silk Road (which
was another commodity) to China, where he met the great Emperor, Kublai Khan,
and then he took a Chinese ship south around the Spice Islands, because the
Chinese traded there, and so on, back home. He wrote up his travels, and so
everyone soon knew about the Indies and China, and the Spice Islands.
The problem then was that the Arabs controlled the spice trade across the Indian
ocean. And in the course of the 15th century, that is the 1400's when Christopher
Columbus was born, for a variety of reasons, a new state of war developed
between the Arabs and the Northern Europeans, which culminated in 1453 with
the taking of Constantinople from the Christians. This effectively blocked off the
Beginning a little earlier than that, however, the Portuguese, who were situated on
the edge of the Atlantic, had decided on a new idea, which was to see if they could
find a way around the big body of land to the south, Africa., and get to the Spice
Islands that way.
The problem is that the ocean currents are no help this way. The currents and the The Clash of Ecologies Page 3 of 8
winds go the wrong way, away from Africa towards the Caribbean. The trick,
which was learned by the late 1480's, just as Columbus was getting in the act, was
to swing out along the current going west, and then take it far south, and then
swing back south of South Africa through the Cape of Good Hope. but somebody
had to discover that. And in 1488, Bartholomew Diaz, a Portuguese, did discover
it, rounded the Cape, but had to come home. When he arrived back in Lisbon in
1488 with the news, Christopher Columbus was on the shore watching.
Columbus had been trying to persuade the Portuguese king to go West, rather than
take the arduous exploration south. But Diaz had succeeded, and shortly Vasco de
Gama would enter right into the Indian Ocean, and within 30 years, the
Portuguese had destroyed the Arab trade system, and were rapidly colonizing
parts of Africa. This is why parts of Southern Africa were Portuguese colonies
until 30 years ago, countries like Mozambique.
Columbus went to Spain instead, the rivals next door, and convinced them to try
the alternative route. Now the important thing about the Spaniards was they had
been fighting the Arabs, the Moors who had lived in Spain for about 500 years
and in 1492 they succeeded in expelling the last Arab from Spain, and later in the
year they also decided to throw out the last of the Jews, thus crippling their
economy, and losing all the banking expertise they would need shortly, when all
the gold and silver came in from the New World.
In doing this, they had turned themselves into a war economy, and had developed
one of the most ruthless and powerful armed forces, on horseback, that has ever
been seen. It was this armed force, which had the ideals of a Christian crusade
against heretics burned into their soul, which accompanied Christopher Columbus
on his voyages.
3. The Devastation of Central and South America
When Columbus arrived at the island of San Salvador in the Caribbean in 1492,
the tribe he met belonged to the Arawak-Taino Culture, which was a hunter-
After some initial period of friendliness with the natives, he realized that these
natives were no match for his troops, and he proceeded to enslave them, first, to
assist them in the hunt for gold -- of which the island he was then on (Hispaniola,
later Haiti and the Dominican Republic) had very little -- and then as providers of
food for the troops, and lastly as laborers in the newly imported sugar cane fields.
I will come back to the cane fields shortly. As you will know by now, among the
weapons Columbus brought with him were guns and ships. He also brought other
powerful tools, or weapons, if you like. The first of these were domesticated
animals, sheep, cattle, goats, and pigs. One of the important ecological differences
between the Old World and the New was that there were hardly any large
domesticated animals, and especially animals useful in farming. The only three of The Clash of Ecologies Page 4 of 8
any consequence were the llama (in Peru) which was used for heavy lifting and
wool, the guinea pig (which was used a little bit as a food source), and a
domesticated species of dog (which has gone extinct). To give you an idea of how
rapidly the introduced species multiplied in the absence of competition, two dozen
pigs were landed in Hispaniola in the first two Columbus voyages, and by 1515 it
was estimated that there something like 30,000.
Dogs were landed, and were used very quickly as tools of war. And of course,
horses. The horse was clearly the most terrifying new creature, and in combat
combined with armour, was invincible.
Apart from combat, it was the combination of horses and cattle that would be
among the most crucial elements in the restructuring of the environment of Latin
America. Very soon after the Spaniards hit the mainland, in 1513, horses and
cattle proliferated. The Spaniards had, back home in Spain, created a ranchero
culture over the previous few hundred years, involving large areas of grassland
used for cattle, herding by horses, and managed from ranchhouses by cowboys.
This whole culture was transported to the New World, eventually covering
Argentina, parts of Paraguay, Venezuala, Brazil, Northern Mexico, and of course,
Western North America. The animals required, carried with them, the imperatives
of the ecology of southern Europe, which was imposed on Latin America.
There is one more important aspect of the arrival of domestic animals, which is
that these animals had been part of the whole system of infectious diseases that
was endemic in the Old World. The animals and the humans had lived in close
proximity for thousands of years, and had both developed relative immunities,
etc., to certain diseases like smallpox that came from cowpox, and others that had
gone backwards and forwards between human beings and animals. By
comparison, the human beings in the New World were essentially "innocent" of
most of these diseases.
About a generation ago, historians started to re-examine what few records there
were about the loss of life due to disease in this period, and the numbers just kept
going up and up. It was always something of a puzzle why North America was so
relatively empty when settlers moved West, and the natives were accused of
letting all this land go to waste, it needed to be developed by people who knew
how to develop land properly. It turns out that the indigenous population of North