Alfred W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Alfred Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism is an ambitious book that attempts to cover a millennium of European imperialist history. It begins around 900 A.D. with European imperialist expansion
into the mid-Atlantic ridge of islands (region around Iceland) and broadly covers ten centuries, until the final conquest of the Maoris of New Zealand in the 1890s. Crosby’s main argument is that an “extended family” of European organisms was responsible for Europe’s imperial conquest around the world. He argues that it is not just the military superiority of European humans that allowed them to conquer other lands. Rather, it was the combined effort of European animals, plants and pathogens that proved decisive in the conquest of “Neo-Europes”—a term he develops to describe the temperate regions of North America, Argentina, Uruguay, Australia and New Zealand that eventually become homes to millions of European immigrants.
I find the notion of an “extended family” useful in conceptualizing the multiple agents and dimensions of European imperialism. It is very easy for scholars to focus on just one agent of European imperialism—the humans—and to forget or ignore the other family members—animals, plants, and pathogens—that made European imperialism possible. Small pox, for instance, was a major agent of imperialism. From the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, Europe suffered numerous smallpox epidemics that cumulatively resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions. But the Europeans who survived the small pox virus acquired immunity and became carriers of the same. Thus, when they moved to regions like North America and Australia where diseases like smallpox had never existed, they easily transmitted them to indigenous populations, resulting in the deaths of millions.
As a student of European imperialism in Africa, I believe that historical (and other) studies of the experiences of colonialism could be more representative of the “extended family” that Crosby discusses. There seems to be more emphasis on the human family members and the impact of their imperialist activities on the political and socio-economic landscape in Africa, at the expense of their non-human kin and their contributions. As a result, studies on the experiences of colonialism in Africa have also focused (understandably) on the colonized human subjects and the ways in which they have experienced the political and socio-economic dimensions of European colonialism. To be sure, numerous studies on the ecological impacts of colonialism in Africa have been undertaken, but I don’t know how successful they have been in drawing linkages to the other narratives of colonial experiences. For example, has political independence had any ecological impact in Africa? What were the features of European ecological imperialism in Africa? Did anti-colonial resistance movements have any ecological aspirations and have they been met? Is there ecological liberation that is yet to be achieved in Africa today? Would ecological independence help us avoid Post-Election Violence and other land-related crisis in Africa? All these questions require serious reflection and engagement, especially from an African-centered worldview where nature is living and sacred.
Crosby’s work is fascinating, well-written and useful in broadening our view of the nature and agents of European imperialism. However, by focusing exclusively on the non-human agents, Crosby appears to inadvertently exonerate the human actors whose agency was ultimately responsible for the extermination of millions of indigenous peoples. In other words, viruses did not transport themselves to North America or New Zealand; European humans with a thirst for conquest did that. And only they can be held ultimately responsible for the genocide, plunder, and destruction that the rest of the non-European world has witnessed over the last 1100 years. In spite of this shortcoming, I highly recommend the book.
By Muoki Mbunga