Copyright National Humanities Center, 2015
Framing Question
In what ways did the arrival of Europeans to America bring about
unforeseen and unintended consequences for the people and
environments of both the New World and the Old?
The Columbian Exchange — the interchange of plants, animals,
disease, and technology sparked by Columbus’s voyages to the New
World — marked a critical point in history. It allowed ecologies and
cultures that had previously been separated by oceans to mix in new
and unpredictable ways. It was an interconnected web of events with
immediate and extended consequences that could neither be predicted
nor controlled.
Charles C. Mann, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created
When Columbus landed on the island of Hispaniola (the island including
the modern countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic) during his
rst voyage in 1492, he and his men did not realize the lasting effects
their voyage would have on both the New World and the Old at that time
and in the years to come. The Columbian Exchange is the term given to
the transfer of plants, animals, disease, and technology between the Old
World from which Columbus came and the New World which he found.
Some exchanges were purposeful — the explorers intentionally brought
animals and food — but others were accidental. In this lesson you will
read about this Exchange from a description written by Charles C. Mann, a writer specializing in scientic topics.
This lesson uses excerpts from a book entitled 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created in which Mann
describes the effects, both intended and unintended, of the Columbian Exchange. Mann wrote 1493 to explore the
Columbian Exchange as a process which is still going on today.
e Columbian Exchange
Contextualizing Questions
1. What kind of text are we dealing with?
2. When was it written?
3. Who wrote it?
4. For what audience was it intended?
5. For what purpose was it written?
The Columbian Exchange – A Close Reading Guide from America in Class 2
This lesson draws from the introduction in Mann’s book. There are three excerpts, each with close reading
questions. The rst excerpt is a general overview of the Exchange — while it does not include all parts of the
Exchange, you will see examples of how animals and plants from one part of the world replaced those in another
part of the world. In excerpt two you will explore a specic example of unintended consequences of the Columbian
Exchange, when settlers thought they were simply bringing in an enjoyable food, but they wound up with an invasive
pest. Finally, in excerpt three you can see the devastating effects of the Columbian Exchange upon the Taino
Indians, the residents of Hispaniola before Columbus arrived. In some of the excerpts you will see Columbus spelled
as Colon — this is the Spanish spelling and is used by the author.
Text Analysis
Excerpt 1
In this excerpt, Mann oers an overview of the Columbian Exchange
with examples.
…Colon [Columbus] and his crew did not voyage alone. ey
were accompanied by a menagerie of insects, plants, mammals, and
microorganisms. Beginning with La Isabela [Colons rst settlement],
European expeditions brought cattle, sheep, and horses, along with crops like sugar cane
(originally from New Guinea), wheat (from the Middle East), bananas (from Africa), and
coee (also from Africa). Equally important, creatures the colonists knew nothing about
hitchhiked along for the ride. Earthworms, mosquitoes, and cockroaches; honeybees,
dandelions, and African grasses; rats of every description — all of them poured from the
hulls of Colons vessels and those that followed, rushing like eager tourists into lands that
had never seen their like before.
Cattle and sheep ground the American vegetation between their at teeth, preventing
the regrowth of native shrubs and trees. Beneath their hooves would sprout grasses from
Africa, possibly introduced from slave ship bedding; splay-leaved [with wide leaves] and
dense on the ground, they choked out native vegetation. (Alien grasses could withstand
grazing better than Caribbean groundcover plants because grasses grow from the base of
the leaf, unlike most other species, which grows from the tip. Grazing consumes the growth
zones of the latter but has little impact on those in the former.) Over the years forests of
Caribbean palm, mahogany, and ceiba [the silk-cotton tree] became forest of Australian
acacia [small tree of the mimosa family], Ethiopian shrubs, and the Central American
logwood. Scurrying below, mongooses from India eagerly drove Dominican snakes toward
extinction. e changes continue to this day. Orange groves, introduced to Hispaniola
from Spain, have recently begun to fall to the depredation of lime swallowtail butteries, a citrus
pest from Southeast Asia that probably came over in 2004. Today Hispaniola has only small fragments of its original forest.
1. Why do you believe Columbus brought cattle, sheep or horses with him?
2. What would the Taino culture have been like without cattle or horses?
Movqvites (Mosquitos), “Histoire
Naturelle des Indes,” ca. 1586
Activity: Vocabulary
Learn denitions by exploring
how words are used in context.
The Columbian Exchange – A Close Reading Guide from America in Class 3
3. What is the thesis statement of paragraph 1? How does Mann develop that thesis? Cite evidence from the text.
4. How did the introduction of cattle and sheep affect plant life on Hispaniola?
5. Why is it important that alien grasses, trees and other plants choked out native vegetation in Hispaniola?
6. What can be the effect of introducing a new predator into an environment, such as the Indian mongoose in Hispaniola?
Give an example.
7. How does Mann show that the Columbian Exchange is still ongoing?
8. In the second paragraph of this excerpt, Mann implies his thesis but does not actually state it. What is the implied thesis of
paragraph 2? How does he imply the thesis?
Excerpt 2
Here Mann gives a specic example of unintended consequences.
Natives and newcomers interacted in unexpected ways, creating biological bedlam. When Spanish colonists imported African
plantains [a tropical plant that resembles a banana] in 1516, the Harvard entomologist Edward O. Wilson has proposed, they also
imported scale insects, small creatures with tough, waxy coats that suck the juices from plant roots and stems. About a dozen banana-
infesting scale insects are known in Africa. In Hispaniola, Wilson argued, these insects had no natural enemies. In consequence, their
numbers must have exploded — a phenomenon known to science as “ecological release.” is spread of scale insects would have
dismayed the island’s European banana farmers but delighted one of its native species: the tropical re ant Solenopsis geminata.
Activity: Diction, Simile and Appeal to Authority
Examine three language tools Mann uses to make a complex subject easily understood.
The Columbian Exchange – A Close Reading Guide from America in Class 4
S. geminata is fond of dining on scale insects’ sugary excrement; to ensure the ow, the ants
will attack anything that disturbs them. A big increase in scale insects would have led to a
big increase in re ants.
So far this is informed speculation. What happened in 1518 and 1519 is not. In those
years, according to Bartolome de Las Casas, a missionary priest who lived through the
incident, Spanish orange, pomegranate, and cassia plantations were destroyed “from the
roots up.” ousands of acres of orchards were “all scorched and dried out, as though
ames had fallen from the sky and burned them.” e actual culprit, Wilson argued, was
the sap-sucking scale insects. But what the Spaniards saw was S. geminata — “an innite
number of ants,” Las Casas reported, their stings causing “greater pains than wasps that
bite and hurt men.” e hordes of ants swarmed through houses, blackening roofs “as if
they had been sprayed with charcoal dust,” covering oors in such numbers that colonists
could sleep only by placing the legs of their beds in bowls of water. ey “could not be
stopped in any way nor by any human means.”… Overwhelmed and terried, Spaniards
abandoned their homes to the insects….
9. According to the author and his sources, what unintended import came in to Hispaniola with plantains?
10. How does the author dene scale insects?
11. Dene “ecological release”.
12. Using the example of scale insects as evidence, why are natural predators important to an ecosystem?
13. What was the unintended effect of this import, scale insects, according to Wilson? Why did they have this effect?
14. Mann begins the second paragraph in this excerpt with “So far this is informed speculation.” What effect does this
admission have on our perception of Mann as an author?
Plantainnes (Plantains), “Histoire
Naturelle des Indes,” ca. 1586
The Columbian Exchange – A Close Reading Guide from America in Class 5
15. What document from the 1500s seems to conrm this unintended effect?
16. What was the unintended effect to settlers of the introduction of plantains to Hispaniola?
17. How does Mann combine 16th and 20th century evidence?
Excerpt 3
Mann explains the most “dramatic impact of the Columbian Exchange.”
From the human perspective, the most dramatic impact of the Columbian Exchange was on humankind itself. Spanish accounts
suggest that Hispaniola had a large native population: Colón, for instance, casually described the Taino as “innumerable, for I
believe there to be millions upon millions of them.” Las Casas claimed the population to be “more than three million.” Modern
researchers have not nailed down the number; estimates range from 60,000 to almost 8,000,000. A careful study in 2003 argued that
the true gure was “a few hundred thousand.” No matter what the original number, though, the European impact was horric. In
1514, twenty-two years after Colons rst voyage, the Spanish
government counted up the Indians on Hispaniola for the
purpose of allocating them among colonists as laborers. Census
agents fanned across the island but found only 26,000 Taino.
irty-four years later, according to one scholarly Spanish
resident, fewer than 500 Taino were alive….
Spanish cruelty played its part in the calamity, but its larger
cause was the Columbian Exchange. Before Colon none of the
epidemic diseases common in Europe and Asia existed in the
Americas. e viruses that cause smallpox, inuenza, hepatitis,
measles, encephalitis, and viral pneumonia; the bacteria that
cause tuberculosis, diphtheria, cholera, typhus, scarlet fever, and
bacterial meningitis — by a quirk of evolutionary history, all
were unknown in the Western Hemisphere. Shipped across the
ocean from Europe these maladies consumed Hispaniolas native
population with stunning rapacity. e rst recorded epidemic,
perhaps due to swine u, was in 1493….
18. What is the thesis of this excerpt?
Joan Vinckeboons, “Map of the islands of
Hispaniola and Puerto Rico,” 1639(?)
The Columbian Exchange – A Close Reading Guide from America in Class 6
19. What evidence does Mann use to develop this thesis?
20. Why did the Spanish conduct a census of the Indians on Hispaniola in 1514? What did the census nd regarding the
Taino population?
21. According to the author, what two factors caused this change in population? Which cause was the most inuential?
22. The third sentence in paragraph 2 of this excerpt uses a rhetorical device called asyndeton. Asyndeton is a list of items
with conjunctions omitted and can be used to imply that there are more items that could be added to the list. What types
of items does the author list using asyndeton? What is the effect?
23. Why was the introduction of these diseases so devastating for the Taino and not the Spanish explorers?
24. What is the effect of Mann including the information about the rst recorded epidemic, which occurred within one year of
Columbus’s arrival?
Activity: Review
Review the central points of the textual analysis.
The Columbian Exchange – A Close Reading Guide from America in Class 7
menagerie: collection of wild or unusual animals
alien: foreign, hostile
depredation: ravages
bedlam: wild confusion
entomologist: insect expert
phenomenon: observable event or fact
dismayed: alarmed
speculation: thoughtful opinion
culprit: villain
horric: causing horror
fanned: spread out
calamity: great disaster
quirk: peculiar action
maladies: chronic diseases
rapacity: erce hunger
Charles C. Mann, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created (New York: Vintage Books, 2012).
Bouttats, Pieter Balthazar, 1666–1755, engraver. : El almirante Christoral Colon descubre la Isla Española, iy haze poner una
Cruz, etc. / P. B. Bouttats fec., Aqua forti. [1728] Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division Washington,
D.C. 20540 USA (accessed September 15, 2014).
Histoire Naturelle des Indes, Illustrated manuscript. ca. 1586. Bequest of Clara S. Peck, 1983 MA 3900 (fol. 71v–72) The
Morgan Library and Museum, New York.
Vinckeboons, Joan. Map of the islands of Hispaniola and Puerto Rico. Map. [1639?] Pen-and-ink and watercolor. Library of
Congress Geography and Map Division Washington, D.C. 20540-4650 USA (accessed
September 15, 2014)
De insulis nuper in mari Indico repertis [Christopher Columbus discovering America]. Woodcut, 1494. Library of Congress Rare
Book and Special Collections Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA Illus. in Incun. 1494 .V47 Vollbehr Coll [Rare Book RR] (accessed September 29, 2014).
Christopher Columbus leaving Spain to go to America. London : J. Edwards, 1800? 1 print : engraving. Illus. in: America,
part 4 / Theodore de Bry, 1528-1598, ed., 1800?, plate VIII. Library of Congress Miscellaneous Items in High Demand Collection (accessed September 29, 2014).
Christophe Colomb parmi les Indiens / lith. de Turgis. Paris : Vve. Turgis, [between 1850 and 1900]. Library of Congress Prints
and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 (accessed September 29, 2014).
Histoire Naturelle des Indes, Illustrated manuscript. ca. 1586. Bequest of Clara S. Peck, 1983 MA 3900 (fol. 11v–12) The
Morgan Library and Museum, New York.