In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Environment and the Natural World

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Surveys and Essay Collections
  • Journals
  • Bibliographies
  • Intercultural Contact
  • Belief and Knowledge Systems
  • Single Commodities/Cultivars

Atlantic History Environment and the Natural World
Susan Scott Parrish
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 May 2010
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 May 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0021


One of the central tenets of environmental history is that the natural world does not constitute a mere background for human agency and social change but that plants, animals, climate, disease vectors, and geography are all crucial actors in history. Though scholars have been studying the movement of plants and animals across the Atlantic since at least the 1930s, Alfred W. Crosby’s The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Crosby 2003, cited under General Overviews) established a field of study and general awareness of the biological facts associated with European and African contact with the Americas. The Atlantic could then be seen as a vector of humanly introduced biological changes moving in both directions, with profound consequences for people and environments on both sides. That those who dominate in Atlantic empires owe much to biological luck is a part of this story, as well as how biology can be used as a tool of empire. Subsequent studies have been more emphatic than Crosby in showing how imperial powers consciously use biology as part of their arsenal. Important interventions involve the debunking of the concept of non-European peoples as somehow “a part of” nature (or of Europeans, for that matter, as completely in conscious control of nature). Work on the “ecological Indian,” on Indian adaptations to the environmental practices and biotic introductions of Europeans, on African practices of cultivation and pastoralism and how these were exported to the Americas, and on African adaptation of New World species in Africa are an integral part of the story.

General Overviews

Building on more local studies, Crosby 2003 invented the concept of the “Columbian exchange,” and Crosby 1986 developed it with the idea of human intentionality. Kiple 1984 rounds out the picture of Atlantic transfers with the concept of the biological African. Hurt 1987 is helpful for understanding Amerindian agricultural practices at contact. Watts 1987 offers the definitive environmental history of the Caribbean and changes brought by the sugar monoculture. Dean 1995 focuses on understanding history through forestry.

  • Crosby, Alfred W. Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

    Builds on the concerns of Crosby 2003 but looks beyond the Atlantic; develops a thesis about the ways environmental change and empire proceed hand in hand.

  • Crosby, Alfred W. The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003.

    Inaugurated the method—and the field that grew around that method—for studying the history of Old World–New World contact through biological transfers and ecological change, especially focusing on cultivars, domesticated animals, and disease vectors that traveled across the ocean. Subsequent studies have added crucial information about the African contribution to this exchange.

  • Dean, Warren. With Broadax and Firebrand: The Destruction of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

    A study of the evolution and destruction of the Atlantic Forest of Brazil; also a history of Brazil told through the development and exploitation of its forests. Discusses how the forest was altered by gold and diamond mining, cattle ranching, coffee growth, and logging.

  • Hurt, R. Douglas. Indian Agriculture in America: Prehistory to the Present. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1987.

    The first few chapters, which cover prehistoric agriculture and eastern farming at the time of European contact, are relevant for Atlantic history pre-1900.

  • Kiple, Kenneth F. The Caribbean Slave: A Biological History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

    Central study to fill in the story of the “Columbian exchange” by looking specifically at Africans (and their nutritional-medicinal practices), Atlantic disease vectors, and plantation nutrition and malnutrition in the West Indies.

  • Watts, David. The West Indies: Patterns of Development, Culture, and Environmental Change since 1492. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

    The definitive and most comprehensive study of West Indian environmental history from time of contact through especially 1833. Addresses the ecological Indian, waves of European colonization, and the sugar complex.

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