- Historic Sites
America Illusion And Reality
No event in the history of Western man provided so profound a shock as the discovery of America
August 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 5
More important than the attempt to describe and to draw the birds, animals, and plants was the impact of their variety on the development of European botany and zoology. Knowledge of the new animals had reached Europe, along with specimens, from time to time. The rhinoceros had made a vivid impression on Europe, but Europeans had never been subjected to such a flood of wholly new birds, animals, fruits, vegetables, trees, and flowers as they were from the New World between 1500 and i55o. And it was this variety, its strangeness, and, at times, its marvelous adaptability and usefulness that led to the beginning of a scientifically precise observation—indeed, the beginning of botany and zoology as we know them.
The flora had a far greater impact than the birds and animals, so few of which could be domesticated. Maize, which could easily be grown in Europe, was exploited at once; within ten years of its discovery it was being cultivated in Italy, where it transformed Italian agriculture. Similarly, cassava, which reached West Africa very shortly after the Portuguese discovery of Brazil, had a like dramatic effect. The potato, which took far longer to establish itself as a crop rather than as a curiosity, ultimately had a more profound effect on European history than maize. The high nutritious quality of the potato enabled the European, particularly the Irish peasant, to maintain himself and his family on tinier and tinier garden plots. Millions of men and women depended on a single crop, and the disastrous potato blight of the nineteenth century destroyed the population in a monstrous famine in 1845 and, in an ironic twist of history, sent tens of thousands of starving Irish to find a new life and a new hope in America.
The contributions of the flora of the Americas to the enrichment of Europe is nearly endless; foods such as tomatoes, tapioca, chocolate, pineapples, avocados, runner beans, Jerusalem artichokes, passion fruit, and many more: flowers now common in Europe, such as morning-glory, nasturtium, dahlia, and the tobacco plant, the most dangerous and deadly of all the plants to reach not only Europe but the entire globe, certainly one of the greatest of all hazards to human health. It was thought oddly enough to be deadly and dangerous when first discovered, and no one damned it with greater vehemence than James I of England. But the habit of smoking proved contagious and the profit impossible to resist. The land of America was quickly ravaged by Europe’s addiction to tobacco—and not only America but also Africa, whence came the slave labor needed for its intensive cultivation. What in 1570 was depicted as a delicately beautiful flower decoration of Albrecht V of Bavaria’s prayer book became in less than fifty years a major export for America and a sweeping addiction with traumatic economic and social effects on Africa and Europe.
The potato and tobacco, along with maize, are perhaps the best known of the vegetables that changed the eating and social habits of Europe. What, perhaps, is not such common knowledge is that the great movement in landscape gardening that changed the face of the English countryside in the eighteenth century also owed a great deal to America, above all to Virginia. The Virginian oak was planted by the hundreds of thousands; so were a large number of American pines; and the Magnolia grandiflora became the prize possession of even small gardens. Without the influence of America the English landscape would look quite different today.
However, the mental image of America remained more powerful than the influence upon European artistic expression of its exotic people, plants, and animals, and surely matched even the influence of such exceptional material agents as maize, the potato, or tobacco. America remained for centuries the only New World. When the northern colonies established the first federal republic, at whose birth the liberties and rights of men were proclaimed as inalienable, another New World was born, as potent as that discovered by Columbus. A new political world had come into being, utterly distinct from anything Europe had known before—and one that created as entrancing an illusion as the civilizations the conquistadors had discovered.