Agriculture, Resource Exploitation, and Environmental Change
Agriculture, Resource Exploitation, and Environmental Change is volume 17 of A. J. R. Russell-Wood’s giant series, which consists of edited collections of previously published articles, chapters in multiauthor books, and, very rarely, excerpts from books. The point is to bring together between single covers the best work (in English, French, and Spanish) on various aspects of the European impact on the early modern world.
Helen Wheatley has assembled sixteen pieces on her theme and organized them into three categories. In her introduction she frames the book in the following way: “Historians have approached the problem of agriculture, resource exploitation and cross-cultural encounter in three broad ways. They have analyzed the process of biological exchange which resulted from European expansion; they have evaluated [End Page 466] the impact of land and resource exploitation on the environment and on indigenous societies; and they have examined Europeans’ own responses to expansion and change, especially in terms of European attitudes toward nature” (p. xvii). The first category, biological exchange, is represented by two articles on the diffusion of American food crops to the Balkans and the Philippines, and four on the impact of Old World (for want of a better term) livestock and cultigens on the Americas and on New Caledonia. The second category, a rather loose one, is exploitation. It includes six contributions on forest depletion, soil erosion, and groundwater appropriation, among other topics. The final category, conservation, includes three pieces on attempts at conserving resources such as forests, furs, and soil in various locales and a fourth on the bowhead whale fishery of the Davis Strait (which does not deal with conservation). All chapters are in English.
The sixteen pieces have a wide geographical reach. Six deal with North America, two with South America, two with southeast Asia, three with islands, and one each with Europe, South Africa, and the Davis Strait. Australia and New Zealand are not included, although their environmental and agricultural histories display the themes of this book very clearly. Chronologically, the selections range from the early sixteenth century to the twentieth.
The tripartite organization is probably as good as any other scheme. In any case, such a volume does not stand or fall on the categories into which the editor lumps selections, but on the selections themselves and the value of the introduction. Wheatley’s introduction tries briefly to justify the tripartite organizational scheme and to locate each of the contributions in the larger picture. It claims, quite rightly I think, that biological exchange is central to the analysis of European expansion. But it is otherwise modest, making no attempt to summarize the issues or crystallize a vision of her subject. For ideas, one ought still to turn to the works of Alfred Crosby.
The selections themselves are on the whole very useful pieces. Variorum often reprints obscure and dated articles that scholars might otherwise never get to see. Here the reverse is true: most of the pieces are from well-known journals and twelve are from the 1990s. Given Wheatley’s subject, there are not many aged and obscure pieces in need of resurrection, so the preponderance of recent scholarship makes sense. But the value of the collection is diminished by the fact that most of its contents will already be found in any library that can afford the book’s outrageous price. The best articles, I thought, were Dan Flores’s on the bison of the U.S. southern plains (1800–1850), and Leonard Guelke and Robert Shell’s on Afrikaner appropriation of [End Page 467] water from Khoikhoi in South Africa. Flores shows how bison numbers had already begun to decline in the early nineteenth century, partly because of the grazing needs of horse populations, well before the large-scale slaughter of 1865–80. Guelke and Shell show how the Khoikhoi were gradually dispossessed through loss of access to water supplies before 1780, and in the process reduce the explanatory weight others attribute to introduced disease in sealing the fate of the Khoikhoi. Other articles seemed a bit less compelling to me, but good selections nonetheless. Only one (which shall go nameless) struck me as genuinely weak.
The articles are reproduced as facsimiles from their original venues, so one gets original pagination and typefaces. Unfortunately, the photographs, illustrations, and maps appear to be printed here from photocopies of dubious quality. Some of the maps are almost entirely illegible, and most of the photographs are hard to make out. How the publishers can charge $122 for a book with such production quality is a wonder. The index, happily, is a good one.
In sum, this volume offers a collection of useful pieces on the environmental history (broadly conceived) of European impact around the world from 1492 to about 1920. It does not attempt to survey or define the field, or offer new ideas. No one is likely to read it cover to cover, but every historian can find interesting and stimulating work in it. It is, sadly, too expensive for almost anyone to buy, except big libraries that will likely already have its contents, albeit dispersed among several journals.