The Columbian Exchange: Evil Pigs?

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The history of the colonial conflict that followed Columbus’s discovery of America is often explained using terms like ‘greed’, ‘invaders’, and ‘genocide.’ It is also regarded as a prime example of how European settlers played the global ‘bad guys.’ Every year, new movies, books, and TV shows come out that attempt to teach young minds how the unbridled lust for resources or wealth can lead to unspeakable atrocities. Such a ‘greed is the source of all evil’ narrative is endlessly repeated for good reason since humanity does have a relatively short memory and a tendency to repeat the same mistakes.

However, by the same token, reducing historical conflicts to one-sided stories of good guys and bad guys can be equally dangerous. Oversimplifying reality in such a manner may give young and impressionable minds a skewed sense of how conflicts between people arise, reducing every conflict to the ‘bully-victim’ narrative. Furthermore, such a characterization of people does not do the pain, suffering, and effort our ancestors endured to get us to the present age any justice. 

With that in mind, let us attempt to add some color and detail to these one-sided colonial conflicts in order to gain a better understanding of how social, economic, and political conflicts arise. Let us do so by taking a closer look at the conflict between European settlers and Native Americans during the 1600s. And to really drive the point of oversimplification home, let us look specifically at an often-overlooked detail in this complex conflict.


Pigs as the ultimate food source

Pigs were brought to the Americas by the early European explorers and settlers for several reasons. They were highly adaptable animals, capable of surviving in diverse environments and feeding on various food sources. Pigs were valued for their ability to reproduce quickly and provide a steady source of meat, making them an important food resource for the Europeans.

Unintended consequences

However, the introduction of pigs had unintended consequences for the Native American populations. In many Native American cultures, pigs were not raised for meat consumption, and their presence posed significant challenges. Pigs were highly destructive to the natural environment, rooting up plants and damaging crops. Native Americans relied on the land for sustenance, and the encroachment of pigs threatened their food sources and disrupted their way of life. The European settlers often were not aware of this since the Native Americans did not plant their crops in the way Europeans were used to. As a result, Native American crops were often mistaken for naturally growing plants and weeds.

Different ideas of landownership

Moreover, the cultural differences surrounding the ownership and management of pigs led to conflicts between Native Americans and British settlers. Native American communities often practiced communal land use and shared resources collectively. In contrast, European settlers introduced the concept of private property ownership, including the enclosure of land for pig farming. This clash of cultural norms led to disputes over land rights, further straining relations between the two groups. Imagine coming back to a bit of land on which you planted crops only to find that some European settler has gotten rid of your crops and built a fence around the land. Not a very pleasant discovery at all.

Pigs as carriers of disease

Pigs also played a role in spreading diseases to Native American populations. European pigs carried various diseases, including swine flu, which were foreign to the Native Americans and against which they had no immunity. As pigs were allowed to roam around freely, they carried these diseases all over the land, wreaking havoc on Native American communities and resulting in a devastating loss of life that further destabilized their Native American societies.

Pigs against nature

Finally, the introduction of pigs to the New World had lasting effects on the environment and the relationship between Native Americans and British settlers. The destruction caused by pigs' rooting behavior altered ecosystems and disrupted the delicate balance of native plant and animal species, which led to a decrease of wildlife in Native American hunting grounds. This decrease only intensified conflicts over land and resources as Native Americans fought to protect their way of life while British settlers sought to expand their agricultural practices.

American pigs

In conclusion, the introduction of pigs to the American continent, while seeming like an insignificant detail, had profound effects on human relations. These effects may not have been not foreseen or intended but they exacerbated human relations in a time of great change just the same. 

So, are pigs evil then? Or were the people who brought them to America doing so with the express purpose of destroying the Native American way of life? One might answer in the negative to both these questions. Furthermore, one might also consider that the effect of pigs on human relations does not fit the simplified ‘good versus evil’ narrative we are so used to seeing in modern media. Pigs in colonial American history are a detail that is often overlooked. 

Is that a bad thing? Some might think so. After all, it is not for nothing that we use the following expression in the English language when trying to explain the cause of terrible things: 

The Devil is in the details.

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