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Ecological imperialism is the process by which colonizers carried the plants, animals, and diseases of their homeland to new lands, albeit sometimes unintentionally. Changing a new environment to more closely resemble a familiar one was often critical to the establishment and success of the imperialists, most prominently Europeans in the Americas, Africa, and Oceania.
Imperialism is usually considered to be a political and sometimes an economic or religious phenomenon. But it also has an ecological side: imperialists have intentionally, more often unintentionally, and always inevitably carried with them plants, animals, and microlife from their lands of origin to their new lands. Where imperialists have been successful not simply in conquest but also in settlement, they have done so with the indispensable assistance of the life forms they brought with them. The most successful imperialists have been those who have, as much by chance as intention, changed the flora and fauna, macro and micro, of their new environments to be much like their old environments.
Immigrant life forms often have done poorly in their new homes: for instance, attempts to permanently establish the European nightingale in North America have never succeeded. But these immigrants, moving into environments where organisms were not preadapted to prey on or effectively resist them, have often done well indeed.
Examples of Ecological Imperialism
Ecological imperialism is as old as human migration. For example, the ancestors of the Australian aborigines arrived in Australia from the Malay Archipelago fifty or so thousand years ago and some millennia afterward imported their dog, the dingo—the continent’s first domesticated animal—which figured importantly in their success there.
The best examples pertain to European expansion because the Europeans were the first to habitually cross oceans, that is to say, to travel between continents with sharply contrasting biotas (flora and fauna). The human invaders’ attendant organisms spearheaded alterations in local ecosystems essential for the biological and economic success of the humans. This can be considered under three headings: crops, animals, and diseases.
Europeans learned to eat the foods of America and Oceania (lands of the Pacific Ocean) but generally preferred their own food, planting wheat, barley, rice, turnips, peas, bananas, and so forth in their colonies wherever they would grow and as soon as was practical after arrival. These crops were often particularly important in enabling the imperialists to live in numbers in areas where indigenous crops did not grow well. A good example of a successful European crop is wheat, which prospers where Native American cereals do not and provided the nutritional and economic foundation for large populations in the temperate-zone grasslands of North and South America and Australia.
European imperialists were most successful where there were few domesticated animals prior to their arrival. In America imported pigs fed on a great variety of locally available substances propagated wildly, and pigs generously provided proteins and fats for the imperialists. Imported cattle turned what humans cannot eat—grasses and forbs (nongrass herbs)—into what they can eat—meat and milk—and were running in vast feral herds in northern Mexico and Argentina within a century or so of their arrival. Old World sheep also thrived in many of the colonies, and their numbers exploded in Australia and New Zealand. Where these and like quadrupeds—goats, for instance—did well, so did the Europeans.
Horses were slower than most imported quadrupeds to have population explosions, but they did so in time. They made supermen of the invaders in battle with native foot soldiers, most of whom had never seen such large animals before and none of whom had ever seen an animal carry a human and obey human will.
The biological revolutions underlying these successes were much more complicated than simply bringing crops and animals ashore. Whole ecosystems or at least several of their components had to be imported, too. For example, in the thirteen colonies and then the early states of the United States one of the problems of establishing large herds of domesticated animals from Europe was the fact that native grasses and forbs, products of millennia free from the tread and teeth of domesticated herds, did not tolerate heavy grazing pressure well. The importation and then often-rapid expansion of European forage plants—for instance, white clover and what Americans inaccurately call Kentucky bluegrass—unrolled a carpet of food for immigrant quadrupeds. Much the same thing happened in the humid zones of Argentina, Australia, and Argentina.
In the first stage of European imperialism in the Americas and Oceania the triumph of the invaders over the natives seemed unlikely. The newcomers were always outnumbered. They were isolated by whole oceans from their home bases and were inexperienced in even how to survive in the new and alien environments. They were in need of powerful allies, such as the animals cited earlier and the germs they and their animals brought in their blood and breath. The Old World invaders’ advantage was that their microorganic evolution and human history were different than those of the natives of the New World.
Heavy populations dependent on agriculture appeared earlier in the Old World than elsewhere, most significantly in crowded and filthy cities, providing the pathogens with food, habitat, and opportunity for transmission. Heavy populations of domesticated animals first appeared there likewise, providing more habitats for pathogens and opportunities for jumping from one species to another, including humans. The possibilities for epidemiological disasters were multiplied by the penchant of Old World peoples for long-range commerce.
When European imperialists crossed the oceans they brought with them infections unknown to American and Oceanic peoples, whose general density of population was low or relatively new, as were their cities. Large herds of domesticated animals were rare or nonexistent, and the tempo of long-range commerce was relatively low. Thus native peoples were unfamiliar with such infections as smallpox, measles, typhus, influenza, yellow fever, and malaria.
The most important or at least most spectacular of these infections in ecological imperialism was smallpox. It first arrived in the West Indies at the end of 1518, spread rapidly through the Greater Antilles and then on to Mexico, where Hernan Cortes and his conquistadors had just been driven out of the Aztec capital. All or nearly all of the Spaniards had already had the disease on the other side of the Atlantic and were immune. The peoples of Mexico were universally susceptible and died in droves.
Similar sequences of events occurred elsewhere in the Americas and Oceania. For example, the way was cleared for the Pilgrims who arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620 by some sort of devastating epidemic in 1616. For another example, smallpox raced through the aborigines of New South Wales in 1789 soon after the arrival of the Botany Bay colonists.
Failure of Ecological Imperialism
Where the Europeans’ attendant organisms, macro and micro, triumphed, as in temperate zone regions of America and the southwest Pacific, the Europeans took over demographically. Where the triumph was mixed, as in tropical America and South Africa, the Europeans conquered militarily but not demographically. Where the attendant organisms had only minor effect, as in tropical Africa and Asia, the Europeans failed to found colonies of settlement and were ejected in the twentieth century.
- Campbell, Judy. (2002). Invisible invaders: Smallpox and other diseases in aboriginal Australia, 1780–1880. Victoria, Australia: Melbourne University Press.
- Cook, N. D. (1998). Born to die: Disease and New World conquest, 1493–1650. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Cronon, W. (1994). Changes in the land: Indians, colonists, and the ecology of New England. New York: Hill and Wang.
- Crosby, A. W. (1972). The Columbian exchange: Biological and cultural consequences of 1492. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
- Crosby, A. W. (1986). Ecological imperialism: The biological expansion of Europe, 900–1900. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Diamond, J. (1996). Guns, germs, and steel. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
- Melville, E. G. K. (1994). A plague of sheep: Environmental consequences of the conquest of Mexico. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Merchant, C. (1989). Ecological revolutions: Nature, gender, and science in New England. Chapel Hill: University of Carolina Press.
- Thornton, R. (1987). American Indian holocaust and survival: A population history since 1492. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
- Todd, K. (2001). Tinkering with Eden: A natural history of exotics in America. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
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