top of page

Interview with Renowned Historian & UCLA  Department of History Chair,
on the Columbian Exchange

Listen Now

Dr. Carla Pestana Notes

In this episode of Eat My Globe, our host, Simon Majumdar, discusses the notion formulated by Alfred. W. Crosby, that of “The Columbian Exchange,” with Dr. Carla Pestana, the Department Chair of the UCLA Department of History. This movement of goods, people, technology and disease between Europe and the colonized world helped create the world we live in today.

Tune in now.

Share This Page on Social Media










Hi everybody, this is Simon Majumdar, the creator and host of the Eat My Globe food history podcast. Now, those of you have been listening to the podcast since we began over two years ago – nearly 50 episodes so far – will know that we have never sought out sponsorship for the podcast. It’s very much been a labor of love. However, along the way, a large number of people have approached us suggesting they would like to support the podcast. And so, we have opened up a page on Patreon dot com to allow those of you who listen regularly to do just that. Any support we will get will allow us to purchase research materials, buy ingredients for recipes, and maybe, when we can get out and about to bring you some very special in-the-field reporting. But, and this is really important. This is not just a one-way street. For varying levels of membership of our Patreon club, there will be access to fantastic Eat My Globe swag, including that incredible chopping board so many of you have written to me about, recipes based on historical periods about which we chat each week, video shout outs, signed pictures, and even along the way, some very special episodes just for members. So, if you’ve enjoyed the episodes of Eat My Globe you’ve listened to so far, and would like us to make many more into the future, do head over to www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe and consider taking out a membership. Any support will be much appreciated. Remember, that’s www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe. So thank you very much, and keep listening.





Hi everybody. And welcome to Eat My Globe, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food. Now, long-term listeners will know that alongside our regular episodes, what I like to do every now and again is invite real experts on to Eat My Globe, who can share their expertise, but also give me some credibility against all of my usual amateur ramblings.


So today I think we have a perfect example and I am really, really thrilled to introduce Professor Carla Pestana, the Department Chair of the Department of History at UCLA, and the Joyce Appleby Endowed Chair of America in the World.


Now, Carla, how are you today?



I’m well, Simon. Thank you.



Thank you so much joining us. So now I did say I was thrilled for two reasons. It gives me a great opportunity to thank you and all of the Department of History at UCLA, for all your support.


We've been going now. . . we've done 50 episodes plus, I think, now of Eat My Globe. On all of them, I think have been read through by people in your Department who've come back and offered criticisms and guidance, and that's been really valuable to me. And as I said, adds real credibility to all the people who are listening to this. It's not just me rambling in a darkened room somewhere.


So, um, before we go on to talk about the subject, why I've actually invited you today, why I'm doubly thrilled, perhaps you could tell us a little bit more about what it is you do, what it is to be a Department Chair and the Outreach Program that Eat My Globe is part of.



Well, the Department Chair, of course, runs the academic side of the History Department at UCLA, dealing with students and curriculum and faculty members and all of that.


But we also have a role in speaking to the larger community. So we make available our experts, um, both, you know, what everyone produces toward a historical scholarship in sort of more formal senses of books and articles and that sort of thing.


But we also, and increasingly do things like blog and write opinion pieces for newspapers and participate in podcasts like this one. And, uh, in that capacity, we're reaching a much bigger segment of the public than ever before. This was a, a big, um, passion of my predecessor as Department Chair, Steve Aaron, who is actually leaving UCLA to go to the Autry Museum as its new Director. Uh, but, uh, he was very interested in various ways that we could speak to the larger public. And I believe he began the relationship with Eat My Globe. And, um, worked with you about, uh, allowing some of our expertise to come into play when you were producing your podcasts. So we've continued to do that over the years, two and a half years, that I've been Chair as well.



Well, we're very appreciative of that and yes, with Steven as well, we've done some dinners that we cooked together and we had, we've had some great fun over the years. And I. . . Long may it continue.


At the end of this episode, I'll ask you to give all of the outreach connections so people could go on the internet and find out where they can see more of what you do.


Uh, but before we do that, I said there was a second reason that I'm thrilled. And that's because one of the things that I've mentioned a dozen times, probably a lot more in episodes that I've done of Eat My Globe so far is something called the Columbian Exchange. Now I'll give my kind of brief reasons why I've mentioned it. And that's because I've been talking about things particularly that have come from the Americas, things like tomatoes, potatoes, chilies, and how they've come to Europe and to the west and to the wider world from there.


And I keep mentioning it and giving a very glib kind of description because I'm not really an expert. So many people have been asking me about it. I thought, well, it really deserves its own discussion to explain to people why it's so important and kind of the circumstances around it, what happened before it and how people thought of that relationship before and what happened kind of more modern, because this is a book that came out sometime ago.


So before we start that, and I know this is an area you know a great deal about, perhaps you could tell us and tell the listeners if they've never heard this description before what the Columbian Exchange is.



Okay. The Columbian Exchange is a concept, um, that we trace back to, um, Al Crosby, a historian who wrote a book in 1972, uh, in which he described the way in which the increasing connections between, um, Africa and Europe, on the one hand, and North and South America, on the other hand, after 1492, uh, exchanged various things besides people.


Like everyone's aware of the people who got on the ships, whether they were slave ships in Africa or other ships in Europe, or eventually people who left the Americas and went to either Europe or Africa. But we didn't think at that before he wrote, um, much about what else went on those ships.


I mean, we, we rather envision people who were going to conquer or settle taking the things they needed for that work, but we didn't really envision the way that these connections, um, made a difference on a more material level for things like plants, animals, uh, even pathogens. So it was Crosby's insight that there had been a huge, what he called biological and cultural consequence to that bridging of the Atlantic that brought the Americas into greater contact with, uh, more regular contact with Europe and Africa.


So it's that, um, insight that's really, um, captured in that phrase, Columbian Exchange, which was the title of his book, uh, which as I said, came out in 1972.



Which is, you know, and it's a book I've obviously taken the time to read because it is so impactful on what I do, particularly talking about food.


Was that phrase, just something – and I, I wonder this and I couldn't figure it out from any of the research I've done – that he just created this notion or there's some kind of rumbling before that, of that kind of notion.



Well, there was rising interest at that time in two areas that he kind of brought together with the concept of the Columbian Exchange.


One was an interest in world history. That is, thinking in a global scale about big connections that, you know, let people think about things like what, what difference did it make that these parts of world were more connected than they had ever been before?


Um, and so he was part of, uh, of that rising interest in the history of the world treated as a kind of interconnected global, uh, reality that various scholars had begun to think about.


And then the other component was environmental history, which was also on the rise at that time, the idea of, of studying the landscape and how it changed over time or the presence or absence of particular animals or plants or whatever. So he was inspired by both of those are really, you know, at the cutting edge, in some regards of both of those areas of historical research, uh, and he use Columbus, Christopher Columbus, and the 1492 as a kind of shorthand for that kind of contact.


So he came up with the phrase, the Columbian Exchange, to, to denote all the contact that began to really take off in the late 15th century and carried forward to, to his own time. So he developed the term and he really brought attention in a sort of organized systematic way to the idea that this contact had so many other layers besides simply people meeting each other. Um, and that, that, that it had consequences that aren't immediately apparent. And he was trying to kind of fetter out those.


One of the big areas that people had already began to be somewhat aware was disease. That is, that Europeans had, um, diseases that were endemic in their own populations that, that people suffer from them periodically in, in, uh, outbreaks. But that many people in the population simply were carriers of various diseases. Smallpox would be one of the one good example of that.


And if they go to a place like say North America, which doesn't have smallpox and they, and, and individuals who are carrying these diseases, contact these populations that don't have smallpox, you know, as, as part of their makeup, the, the impact can be quite devastating. And there are records that scholars had already begun to notice of, of communities that are just wiped out with smallpox outbreaks.


Um, the way we talk about this now has changed a little bit, but at the time that, uh, Crosby was writing, there was lots of discussion of virgin populations that had no immunities and, you know, would just be devastated by these diseases. And there were, there were scholars, um, historical demographers anthropologists, various people who were trying to figure out like, what was the extent of that impact?


So that was one insight that had, was already kind of out there. And what he did was to say, not just disease, but also plants, also animals, all of these ways in which, um, the contact changed things. And obviously for your interest, your readers and listeners interests, uh, it's the plants. And maybe also the animals to some extent that are really interesting



From the 15th century that you talked about. There's obviously been some view both, you know, in Europe at the beginning of discovery. And they'd obviously been views in the countries where they went to about this Exchange, and I'd love to know what, what was it, the kind of thought process there, obviously that's hard to kind of get to grasp with, but there's a lot of writings about it.


What was it in the thought process of the, you know, the colonists, what was in the thought process of the explorers? What was in the thought process of the recipients when they started writing about them, whether it's in Aztec lands and some of the codices there, and then what kind of built up and how that changed almost to the point when we get to Crosby, obviously that's a long period of time, but some of the key kind of moments through that, I think it would be really interesting for people to hear.



Well, Europeans didn't have the disease theory that we do now. In fact, I've, I've found it quite fascinating in the context of pandemic, as people are kind of floundering around, trying to figure out how does it spread? How do you prevent it?


To think about these earlier periods in history, where this were more mysterious moments where people weren't sure how to prevent, you know, particular disease from spreading.


So they don't necessarily realize that they are bringing, say, diseases. Um, so you, you see them occasionally say something like, um, God wiped out the population for us to make it easier for us to move into the land, you know, not realizing, well, yes, the fishermen who were on this coast before you brought diseases that wiped out the population, um, as a more kind of immediate cause of what, of what happened.


So you do see commentary like that, uh, in both the Spanish conquest in the early period, and then all throughout, um, you know, the 17th century when the English are more involved in, in places like North America.


Um, in terms of animals, uh, and plants, they think, first of all, they think we can, can, we should carry with us the things we want. You know, so, so if you're going to have a colony, you're going to need, you know, certain things and you'll bring a horse or whatever it is, you know, because you're not going to find them there and you, you require them.


So there's a conscious effort to bring along certain things. Seeds to plant certain plants, etcetera.


They have, they have interesting ideas in Europe about, um, what's going to grow where. And they, they basically take a simple map or a, you know, a globe and they, they draw a line straight across the ocean and they say, well, it's going to be the identical climate.


So they think New England is going to be just like England. In part, the name, you know, when they get there, they're in for a surprise because it's a great deal colder because they don't know things like the effect of the Gulf stream and, you know, different elements that make a difference there. So they think that a good thing about say the Americas once they of course realized they're in the Americas, as opposed to on the outskirts of Asia, um, is that it's, it's got these tropical lands, which Europe lacks, but which can grow certain kinds of crops.


So they're very excited about that kind of an issue. Um, you know, because they, they assume, oh, we can, we can, we can bring these crops that we want to grow, that we can't grow in, in, uh, Europe. And that therefore this will allow us to have these, um, agricultural undertaking so it’ll supply us with certain kinds of things that we've been getting from elsewhere. And we don't want to continue getting from elsewhere if we can get out of it.


On the American side, of course, it's harder to see what the indigenous peoples thought in some, in some instances. They associate the disease with the Europeans. I mean, from their point of view is fairly obvious. Um, you know, but they're not exactly sure how that's working. Um, if there is some kind of divine or spiritual reason for it, uh, they're not sure if the Europeans control it, you occasionally see some, uh, suggestion that that might be the case. Uh, so there's, you know, there's, there's an obvious sense in which we didn't have this before, and now these people here and we have it now. So they're making a kind of connection that the Europeans are not necessarily, um, making themselves.


They, in terms of the animals and the plants, the reaction is more one of, uh, if the, if the animals disrupt or if the plants disrupt the, their usual way of doing things, then they notice those. Um, a fascinating part of this that doesn't really have much to do with food but it's interesting to think about is, there have been small horses in the Americas that had died out year by, years before. But when the Spanish come into, what's now Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean with horses, you know, many of those horses get away and they end up on the Great Plains.


And by the time the Spanish come in any numbers or any other Europeans come in any numbers to the Great Plains of what is now the United States, they find mounted Native peoples, ready to defend their lands on horses that are only there because the descendants of these Spanish horses are now part of the culture of the Great Plains Indians. So, you know, so some of those things are totally inadvertent happened without really human conscious, you know, participation. And then some of them are, you know, conscious acts of like, let us bring this plant and try to plant it here and see if it'll grow sort of things.



Now, so this, uh, a couple of questions leading on from that. One, would that very early kind of period of discovery. And it was very, there was a religious angle to it. And most of the, most of the things that I've read people writing back tend to be coming from, you know, friars, monks who are writing, you know, codices on the plants and things and sending that back. So there's a lot of religious element there.


How does that implicate the way we think about those now? Do we just look at them as a kind of historical narrative and that's fine, or can they actually tell us anything much about that period because it's so kind of veiled in that religious kind of overview?



Well, I think scholars can read through the religious expectations of the authors in a way, um, and see, you know, so if someone is writing a natural history, for instance, which chronicles, plants, and animals that they find in a new environment, those become a very popular type of writing. You know, the author might frame it in terms of, you know, what God has wrought in the pineapple or something as Oviedo wrote about, you know. But, um, in fact, you can also see what they're, what they're seeing on a kind of material level, what the actual things are that are growing there, what they're thinking about them, what they. . . They have an interesting idea, uh, Europeans assume that whatever diseases come in a place, so too, will the cures come. So if they get to Am. . ., to the Americas and they start, they themselves start experiencing certain illnesses, you know, say eventually mosquito borne illnesses like yellow fever or malaria or whatever. They look around and say, well, if this is a disease here, there must also be a cure here.


So in a way they think God has ordered the world that way, but which is a religious assumption, but at the same time, it doesn't make them any less scientists for their day in terms of trying to study the material contexts that they find and understand it, et cetera. So I do think you can see, I think you can see both.


We're very aware now of the attitudes that they brought with them, which allows us to see sort of when they're, when they're kind of reflexively saying something like, oh, God is punishing the natives for being, you know, not, not being Christians. You know, we, you know, we can take that with a certain perspective, but, you know, it doesn't mean that there's nothing there that's of worth for our own, you know, our own areas of interest or, you know, the kinds of questions we want to ask.



And I think that that's, that's great for me to hear, because I sometimes wonder when I'm reading them, particularly as a kind of historical enthusiast, rather than an academic kind of how much of it I could take with a grain of salt. And I think that's a really interesting kind of perspective.


Uh, just before we move on to talk about some of those aspects that you've touched on already about what Crosby touches on. Um, I know that that perspective changed towards those areas. I'm thinking particularly about having spent time in the Caribbean, um, that from the early point where it was a kind of discovery to the point where it had been discovered, or much of it had been discovered by various nations, and it became almost the cash crop, the cash area for most of the kind of European nations. It funded most of theirs. . . I know, you know, I've just been reading recently about during the American War of Independence that, you know, Britain was probably more worried about losing its sugar plantations down in the Caribbean, that it probably was about the less successful or relatively less successful colonies in America.


So, I'd love to know how it moved to that point, whether there's a kind of gradual process of it becoming so key to the financing of the British Empire and so many others.



Right. Well, this is a big question, Simon.



Sorry. I know we only have a limited time, but I, but I think people would be fascinated because it, it, yeah, because obviously that will lead up to a further question that I have later about slavery.



Right. Well, uh, one thing that prompts Europeans to go to the Americas is that they get things like sugar, which was not much part of the European diet say in 1450. But to the extent that they can get the sugar, we envision it has to come from the east. Uh, you know, it comes from the Eastern Mediterranean, et cetera, lots of things come that way. Most famously silk because it's coming on the silk road from Asia. So a lot of European expansion during this period and outreach to the rest of the world is trying to figure out how to get around being reliant on the Silk Road and the Ottoman Empire through which, you know, they often have to trade in order to get things. So they think if we could grow the crops, silk, sugar, other coffee, other items on land we control, then we don't have to get it from these other trading routes, which are long overland routes that are very expensive and then involve a [inaudible] with trading partners that are difficult to reach. And we don't necessarily want to be totally beholden to.


So, when they're going to the Americas, they're thinking in part about out, um, being able to plant these other things. Uh, so when the Spanish go, the Spanish and the Portuguese that go out to the Atlantic islands, the Madeiras, the Azores, you know, the ones that are very close to Europe and Africa, they immediately start planting things there of that sort. And then as they, as they then leap over into the Caribbean sugar is one of the things that they can plant. Coffee is another. Um, they also find things in those locations like tobacco, which is an American plant and, um, chocolate, which is American, which they want eventually to grow in, on large scale for trading purposes.


So there. . . when they first go, the Spanish in particular are not thinking a lot about agriculture. They're thinking about a conquest and trade. So they think, especially because initially they're thinking they're going to China. In effect, they're thinking we're going to set up trading outposts, where we can have trade with the local peoples who have things we want.


Like, so for instance, when they realize they're in the Americas and that the world is not constructed quite the way that they envisioned, then they, then they come to see, okay, now we, we were somewhere that we didn't expect to be, and we want to figure out what is profitable here. They do plant things right away on say the Caribbean islands, like coffee and sugar, but they mostly focus on mining initially. And, um, gold and silver are the big moneymakers for the Spanish in the first hundred years or so. Silver in particular.


It's other people who come into the region after them. Other Europeans. Spanish are there first, but then the Portuguese come a little bit later. We're really at the same time, but they go down to Brazil. Um, and then the Dutch, the French, the English, all these other groups come in afterwards. They don't get hold of mines. So they're always looking for them. So they think what's another way we can make this profitable. And they often start off saying, let's just trade with the natives for whatever they have. So for instance, when they first get to Jamestown, what will become Virginia, they're expecting to trade, but quickly that, you know, it moves into a different realm altogether and they eventually figure out Virginia can be profitable if we plant tobacco. And we carry that tobacco back to Europe because it's a new, popular crop, was a growing market and we can make money on that.


So, the idea that they're going to actually establish agricultural enterprises that are going to grow crops that are not otherwise available in Europe that are then going to be used for trade, that becomes the basis of, um, French, Dutch, English, et cetera. Especially in the Caribbean, which has the tropical climate and is the most profitable place to have a colony if you're a European late arrival, because those islands do have the most prospect for, um, these large-scale agricultural enterprises, which we now call plantations.


The trick then is, who's going to work this plantation.



Yes. Well, that was the question. . . .



That gets in to your other question. . .



Well, that was the question I was going to come to. And you've, you've touched on it already. Some of the aspects that Crosby wrote about that touched on what happened with the Columbian Exchange. So, we've talked about animals, you've talked about horses, you know, I've talked about beef before. We've thought you could talk about that in the long view, we've talked about plants.


Let's talk just. . . again for people who are coming at this from a kind of, um, enthusiastic angle, again, rather than academic. Let's just think about some of the plants that we kind of take for granted here, whether it's all over the world now. Um, and I've just been writing an episode on the history of the chili pepper, which is one, perhaps you could just give us another few examples of plants that we, suddenly go, oh, I had no idea that that wasn't “x.”



Right. Well, the chilies. . . lots of chilies come from the Americas. Um, most importantly, eventually chocolate is original to the Americas. I mean, lots of other things that you've talked about on your show, like tomato, the potato, et cetera, but at the, in terms of commerce, the one that's the most important in that category besides tobacco is probably chocolate. Although chocolate is, it takes a while to become a really popular consumable. The, the Spanish love it. They, they have it in a kind of spicy drink that, you know, has chilies and chocolate in it. And it's nothing like what we picture when we imagine it, you know, a pot of cocoa today. Um, but it doesn't catch on with a lot of other people in Europe for a long time, it's thought of as a Spanish thing. And so it takes a while for it to become a consumable product that is traded widely. Tobacco is much quicker that way. Other things can be transplanted to Europe or to Africa, and therefore they don't remain so exclusively American crops on American lands.


Um, the, uh, there's also, uh, you know, dyes that grow in the Americas that are important, et cetera. So there's, you know, there's a lot of different things. And there’s  cochineal is, uh, is, uh, actually an insect that is processed to make a very vivid red dye. And if you look at the paintings, the religious paintings, after the Spanish conquest in the Americas, suddenly they have bright red robes for saints or whatever, because that's become possible with the cochineal.


Um, so there are a lot of things that are American that can be picked up and grown somewhere else, but there are some things that are American that they're not as successful doing that, that they then, you know, th that become the objects of trade and tobacco being the most, you know, stunningly successful example in the, in the 16th and 17th centuries.


Um, in terms of plants that are brought to the Americas. Sugar is probably the biggest one in, in terms of the early modern period. Um, there's a fabulous book by, uh, Sidney Mintz that, “Sweetness and Power,” which talks about how in effect the diet of Europe and of the world ultimately is completely transformed by the advent of huge amounts of sugar. Um, so, you know, that has a huge, you know, and he shows, he shows how it comes in as a kind of elite luxury item used to spin sugar figures to put on the tops of desserts or on dining tables of royalty. And then by the end of the period that he's looking at it in the pale of tea, which comes from another part of the world, um, that the miner carries, you know, into the coal mine or, or the factory worker carries into the factory in Britain. So, you know, and that's a long period of time before it becomes a cheap item that you can buy in a working class area within Britain.


So, you know, these are, these are the reasons why this is kind of world transforming changes that have interests, that interested Crosby, and that have interested a lot of scholars since then. There's a huge study now of commodities in the Atlantic world and how different things are developed and then still hold.


Um, the Native peoples as laborers is a tricky question. Um, initially what the Spanish say is if you convert to Catholicism and accept our political authority then we will not enslave you, basically. But if you don't agree to conversion and to be in our political underlings, then we will make war on you and anybody who's an enemy can then be enslaved if they're defeated. So eventually the Spanish policy is to say that all those people who agreed to Spanish authority are vassals of the king and cannot be enslaved, which is not to say that their labor isn't extracted in other ways by unscrupulous landlords or by deals that make their communities have to owe a certain labor tribute to the local authorities or whatever. But as straightforward owned slaves, those people are supposed to be protected.


Um, but there's lots of people in the Americas, lots of indigenous people in the Americas who do not submit to the Spanish authority who are considered fair game and who are captured and put into slavery. So there's Indian slavery in the Americas very early. There's also African slavery very early because the Spanish show up with enslaved Africans, you know, almost from the very beginning. So, you know, it's a practice in the Mediterranean world. It's a practice in the, on the Iberian peninsula to have enslaved people. So it's not a new, it's not an innovation


But the first big plantations in the Caribbean are created by English, French, and Dutch people, particularly English people. And they at first think they're going to use their own people as laborers. The English thinks that there are a lot of underemployed people who can be brought to colonies and made to work for a period of years, whether because they're criminals, they're poor, um, or they can be induced to be recruited on, you know, with what level of honesty about the experiences I have, you know, is it sort of open to question, but so they, they do, um, create this revised version of the practices of indentured servitude and they use it to, to carry lots of people across the Atlantic to put them to work in the early colonies.


Um, over time. . . . And some of them are prisoners of war as in the English Civil Wars. Um, eventually many Irish people are transported. But over time, the supply of Europeans from England, Ireland and Scotland goes down for a wide variety of reasons. And at the same time, the English are getting more and more involved in, and actually beginning to take a leading role in the enslavement of African peoples.


So, that a shift occurs in which most of the laborers on a sugar plantation say in Barbados or later in Jamaica would be enslaved Africans who are brought for that purpose. And there'll be fewer and fewer Europeans on indentured, servant contracts, inter interspersed with those Africans will be indigenous slaves. And that's something that scholars have become more and more aware of in the last couple of decade. The numbers of native peoples of the Americas who were enslaved and moved around to work in these variety of, of agricultural undertakings.


So that's a, that's a piece of this history that was less well known to scholars some, some years ago.


The. . . it's interesting, the Spanish though, they're their first, they go for big plantation agriculture and heavy use of enslaved laborers only later. I mean, they have them, they have small scale, um, undertakings with a few laborers from the 17th century. Uh, but they don't, uh, go for like, like Cuba doesn't become a massive population of enslaved people working on plantations until, uh, much later. 18th century. So it's, uh, an into the 19th century. Um, so it's a change that, that is brought by the interloper Europeans.


The exception to this is Brazil. The Portuguese are in Brazil very early, and they do a lot of enslaving of African peoples and setting up sugar. So the first after the Atlantic islands, the first big supply of sugar to be coming into Europe from the Americas is from Brazil. And then Brazil and the Caribbean kind of go neck and neck once these others, uh, begin growing, uh, lots of sugar in the Caribbean islands. Beginning with Barbados in the 1640s, and then moving to other islands, eventually.


The. . . North America doesn't have the right climate. So it doesn't become, um, a big sugar creator. It has other plantation crops, tobacco being the first popular one, but then rice eventually, indigo, um, over time cotton obviously will become huge.


So, uh, and all of that is done using enslaved people who are brought from Africa. So there isn't an African slave trade from the early 16th century into the Americas.


Uh, my students, you know, when we're, you know, would say, well, 16, 19, we heard 1619 was the beginning of slavery and what would become the United States. And I would say, well, unless you count 1520 in Puerto Rico, which is a hundred years earlier and is in fact part of the United States, uh, as of now. Um, but it's, you know, it's an, a practice that existed from very early in European colonization was to bring inside people from Africa.



So with obviously talking about the slave trade, and previously you've talked about the kind of flow from the, the colonized areas back into the west, into Europe. Um, it's all seemed very one way, and that's how we tend to think about that whole process of, you know, exploration, discovery, whatever people want to call it. And it, is that something that we're looking at now, was there any benefit to any of this? And this may be a dumb question and tell me if it is, but you know, of any of this to the kind of the nations that were colonized.



Well, that's a very political question, of course.






Um, you know, this is, I mean, this has to do with the creation of the modern world. So everything you see around us now, is a result of, you know, these, um, expropriation of native lands, huge reductions in Native populations, et cetera. Um, so, you know, it's hard to, it's hard to look at that. What would people said at the time, and this gets back to your religion question, your religious angle, is that it was good for them that Europeans had come because they brought true religion.






You know, so if you were a Spanish, uh, Catholic, or you were, uh, an, uh, British Protestant, you were confident that you were bringing the right religion. Um, and that, that was a benefit.


At the time, of course, um, there was a huge rivalry between those two groups, but, uh, you know, now to us, it looks like part of a, uh, a global transformation that was occurring in lots of different places.


I mean, I think it's hard to get past the loss of land, of cultural practices of, um, of population, to think of it as a positive development. I mean, what you, what you notice from these stories is how resilient people are, and how in spite of everything that they confronted, that they have figured out how to persist and to, to, you know, protect their traditions, and, and, uh, you know, and to live in the modern world, in spite of the, you know, elements of the situation that are stacked against them in various ways. So I wouldn't say there's a particular piece of this where you, it immediately jumps out at you from the Columbian Exchange that, you know, this is a positive, positive development.



I think that's more maybe to do with the, you know, the, the way it was professed at the time. And I know, you know, as I ask it that it's, uh, you know, it's a tough question that there's not a good answer. I mean, there's a good answer too, but not one that really says anything positive.


I asked it because I just think of from being a youth spending time in India, which was obviously, you know, with the British influence there, that I was constantly having it drummed into me by kind of the, the great and the good that they brought the legal system. And they brought this and bureaucracy and didn't this make everything wonderful. It obviously didn’t, but it was just the way that it's promoted. So I, it was a bit of a devil's advocate question. I think you've got around it very well.



You know, I think empires, you know, empires justify their expansion by saying they're bringing their Imperial institutions, you know. And we're still dealing with the consequences of that, you know. As, as, uh, people try to reclaim say, you know, if you look at Native tribes in the United States now who are trying to reclaim their rights, you know, they're, they're in effect trying to push back against what was originally a British legal system.



Obviously, this is a huge issue. And when we look at the Columbian Exchange, it impacted on just about every aspect of those countries that were involved and probably informed other countries that were colonized much later.


So how would you describe that? How it changed your world, you touched on it before, the ways that we've, we've altered everything in the way that we live and, and how do you think we're reacting to it now in the kind of modern age, in terms of people reclaiming land, people reclaiming languages, people reclaiming literature, all kinds of elements. Uh, and I said, it's a huge question, but I'd love just to hear, you know, an expert's view, a historian's view and where you think we kind of are.



Right. That is an interesting question.


Well, you know, I mean, when you think about the Columbian Exchange, Crosby, except for the disease was really interested in the intentional movement. You know, you bring a cow or, or in particular, a pig because they were everywhere and, you know, in the colonized areas rooting up everything. And, um, so my feral, you know, pigs were a huge bane of the existence of many Native communities.


Um, but there were also inadvertent things, like if you put ballast in a ship, that's got soil in it, and then you dig it out and throw it on the ground before you lit up the ship, you bring seeds without even intending to, you know, introduce certain weeds or, you know, uh, a certain number of rats will escape off of any ship that docks and like no one intended to bring them, but there they are, you know.


So there's all this, there's all this other layer of things that are coming without anybody thinking, wouldn't this be a great place to plant “x,” you know?


Um, so in that regard, it's a really brilliant idea about these parts of the world touching each other and changing each other without, you know, regard for what had been boundaries that existed before.


Now, I think what you can see is people are becoming much more conscious of things like, is it an invasive species? You know, should we, should we recognize it and try to, you know, get rid of it? Um, can we bring back then native plants of a particular region?


I worked for some time at a university in Ohio that has a relationship with the Native peoples who had lived in that area, um, you know, in, in the historic past, but then also are, have a place there now. Um, and they're working on bringing back the food ways of the community that had existed in Southwestern Ohio in, you know, the 18th, 17th, 16th centuries. So, you know, and that's an academic project that has to do with land, uh, reclamation, but language reclamation that the reclaiming of the diet.


So I think there's a, like a conscious effort to think, what did the world look like before this happened? And can we, can we, in some senses certainly study that and understand it better, but can we also recapture some elements of that? So I do think people are much more conscious of, of those components than, you know, even than even they were at the time when Crosby was writing.



And I think that brings me to the, kind of the final question about the Columbian Exchange before we go on to something else.


Yeah. This is a book that was written 50 years ago, well 48 years ago when we're recording. And it's still the central kind of viewpoint I see of discussion. Now I'm positive that in the last 50 years, people have been thinking about this other than, you know, Alfred Crosby.


So what are the other thoughts? Where are we kind of now in terms of looking at that? We've obviously got more evidence now, whether it's archeological, whether it's, you know, more literature that's been discovered. Um, where are we now? How relevant is Crosby, even though it still seems to be the center to me. Um, and where do you think we're going in that in a purely kind of academic sense?



Well, I do think Crosby is still used as a kind of shorthand to talk about the massive nature of the changes and how the world becomes, uh, you know, interpenetration develops between these different regions and exchange occurs intentionally unintentionally, et cetera. I mean, it's, it's a phrase you hear quite frequently and, you know, undergraduate survey courses in, on college campuses or whatever, just to make a quick, um, you know, gesture toward that.


I think what's happened now is that we have a lot more, um, a deeper understanding of the various different components of what he's talking about. Uh, for instance, you know, the different pieces of it have been. . . because his was a big, broad base kind of, you know, rough sketch of this, that, and the other thing we're all affected. Um, and people have done deep dive research into, you know, the, the crops that became profitable and that were developed as commodities, the unintentional consequences of the introduction of certain animals.


I mean, all those stories have been kind of refined and worked through. The disease narrative is different now. You don't really hear so much virgin soil epidemic language, you hear more discussion about the complexity of the local responses. Um, so I think, you know, there's been a lot of revision, but I do think people still think that the, that the core idea of more traffic back and forth between these areas means they become more connected. And that, that has profound consequences that aren't the obvious or intentional ones that people are thinking about.


So I do think we still think in those terms, uh, despite, you know, working out the details in various newer ways.



Oh, that's, that's fantastic. So I think that's given everybody who's listening. I, I hope it has. It certainly has myself given me a much deeper understanding of the Columbian Exchange and why I keep mentioning it. And we'll probably keep mentioning it as I pull out subjects to talk about on future episodes of Eat My Globe. So I really appreciate you taking the time to do that.


But we always like to finish just with a few things. So first I always throw some fun questions cause I get so many great answers from everyone. So if you're, if you're up for it, I have three kind of fun questions. Do you, do you feel. . . .









I’ll give it my best shot.



Whatever, whenever we interview, we have, we've had some really terrific answers.


Okay. So if you were a meal, what would it be?



If I personally were a meal?






Well. Given my heritage, which is one way your mind immediately goes, given what we've been talking about lately, I would be a combination of Italian Irish, and then a sort of weird smattering of French, Scots, Irish, et cetera.



Oh my gosh, that’s a real mix.



You know, basically the American immigrant. Yeah. The American immigrant, uh, uh, experience of, um, of cuisine. How that comes into a single meal though. I'll have to picture my grandmother. . . who I'll have to go to Southern.



I’ll have to do some fusion work on that.



Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Who, I mean, she was, she was from Southern stock, uh, but she, then she married an Italian man. So that was a sort of, you know, corned beef and cabbage one day. And then some kind of pasta after that.



You could be, you could have more than one meal. I think that makes sense. And I think in many ways it sums up who, you know, here I am as a half Welsh, half Bengali, Anglo American. So, you know, we've all got real mixes in there.









I mean heritage is not the only way to go, of course.



No, no, I mean you. . . You could have one that people always say to me, I should just be something old and bitter. So, you know, I've had lots of, I've had lots of, I've had lots of suggestions. So, um, we, I think we've had, I think Alton Brown said he’d be a gin and tonic. So I was very happy with that. So yeah.



That's a particular idea of a meal for you.



Yeah. Well, for me, it's the perfect meal because you've got the vitamin C with that particularly if you have it with a twist.


Now, if you could select any single meal or any period in history in which to have a meal. Now, this is a tough one to ask a historian who's covered, you know, lots of different periods of history, what would it be? So would you like to be at a meal that people talk about and we've had people say the Last Supper we've had people say all kinds of things or a period of time.



Okay. So there's a fabulous description of food that you should probably know about in Richard Ligon’s account of being in Barbados in the late 1640s. And he's trying to persuade his fellow Englishman that it's, uh, to be rich in Barbados in 1648 is no hardship.


And he describes how food comes from all over. Um, he describes that you can get the food of the sea, of the local sea, but then also you can have trade with all over the world. Um, and you can eat a fabulous banquet in Barbados in 16, you know, in the late 1640s based on this trade. Now, what he does give away is that they're trading with lots of people they're not supposed to be trading with according to the authorities in England. But he has these very lavish descriptions of the sea fruit and the fruit and the, you know, so I think that would be a sort of a fun meal to attempt to recreate would be from this account.



Fantastic. I've got to have to go and read more about that.


And the final one. Now this is, we've again, we've had lots of great answers, uh, to this.


What would you consider to be the most important food invention in history?



I don't know if this counts, but the ability to make a chocolate bar with the technology that was involved in that.





The kind of tempering of it. I think it, it, I remember writing about chocolate. I think it was in inevitably in Switzerland where they first started tempering them to put them into a block bar.



Right. It wasn't just ground together, chilies and chocolate, which should have been very bitter, but they figured out how to kind of, you know. . . .



And again, that links to your talking about how chocolate wasn't immediately popular, but probably with the result of sugar becoming cheaper and the discovery of tempering chocolate that it became the yeah, the chocolate bar. I think it was a fantastic event.


Fantastic suggestion. Excellent. Those are great answers. And finally, before. . . .


Finally, finally, before we let you go and you've given us so much of your time and I'm really, really appreciative, not just of this, but of course of all the help you give us with Eat My Globe.


Uh, tell people if they wanted to, you know, if they're looking from outside as it were, and they wanted to see the outreach programs that, uh, the Department of History at UCLA is doing, what, where can they go? Where can they go and look? Obviously it's harder to do, I know you do some public speaking programs, but obviously that's tougher right now. We're in the middle of COVID. But when that opens again, I'm sure people want to know and online things that you do, I'm sure people want to be part of it.



Well when the, when the pandemic hit things kind of closed down, but we're back open in terms of, um, outreach to the public and various activities. So if you just look on our website, which is at history dot ucla dot edu, you'll see we're having speakers and various events. They're all virtual right now, but there's, you know, it's a big rich Department with lots of different things going on, including the new interest in some of the faculty, um, in food studies. And I know they're developing a, um, they're developing a study abroad experience for undergraduates. That's going to involve going to Italy and yeah. So there's lots going on and, um, you can just look at it all on the website.



Oh, I definitely need to go and learn more about that. Fantastic. Well, Carla, thank you so much again. This has been a genuine privilege, uh, as has been working with you on all of your team.



We're happy to be of assistance, and it's lovely to talk to you.



Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.



You're welcome. Thank you.





Do make sure to check out the website associated with this podcast at www dot Eat My Globe dot com where we will be posting the transcripts from each episode, along with all the references and resources we used putting the episodes together, in case you want to delve deeper into each subject. There is also a contact button, so please do let us know if there are any subjects that you would like us to cover.


And, if you like what you hear, please don’t forget to subscribe, recommend us to your family and friends and give us a good rating on your favorite podcast provider. That really makes a difference.


Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, and we’ll speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.



The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions”


[pah pah pah pah pah]


and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History. We would especially like to thank Professor Carla Pestana, the Department Chair of the Department of History and Doctor Tawny Paul, Public History Initiative Director, for their notes on this episode. Also, a huge thank you to Sybil Villanueva for her help with the research and the preparations of the transcripts for this episode, which can be found on the website.

Published Date: June 7, 2021

Updated Date: June 7, 2021

For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.

bottom of page