Columbus and the Guinea Pig

Christopher Columbus has been perceived as both a hero and a villain over the centuries, but the most historically objective way to glean his ongoing impact is through the prism of the “Columbian Exchange”, which focuses on the biological and environmental consequences of 1492.  The term was coined by Alfred Crosby, whose 1972 book of the same name influenced a succession of environmental, epidemiological, and commodity histories, including Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel.  It is difficult to underestimate its impact, and it is one of the few academic historical theories that has trickled down to the general public.

A very simplified view of the Columbian Exchange; for a more comprehensive discussion, go to the source:  Alfred Crosby, The Columbian Exchange:  Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492.

Crosby’s concept has become classic because it is so accessible; it’s about very basic things:  plants, animals, diseases–and their effect on people. Just a glance at my very basic annotated map reveals how momentous the merging of the eastern and western hemispheres was (and continues to be).  The most devastating consequences of the exchange were caused by the chain of events initiated by the introduction of Old World germs and smallpox into the New World:  the annihilation of the native population is linked to the trans-Atlantic slave trade through the introduction of cash crops like sugar and rice. On a much lighter note, it is difficult to imagine a world without American horses (and cowboys), Italian tomatoes, and potatoes everywhere.

For Europeans in the century after Columbus, America was an unexpected land of brightly-colored plants, exotic birds, and naked people, as exemplified by the popular print of Amerigo Vespucci (rather than Columbus) arriving in America–or rather waking up America.  Here we see another sensationalistic stereotype–cannibalism–illustrated by the leg-on-a-spit in the background.

Theodore Galle engraving, after Stradanus (Jan van der Straet), Discovery of America, from Nova reperta (New inventions and discoveries of modern times), c. 1599–1603.

Galle’s engraving was one of many images of New World flora and fauna produced for early modern audiences.  I’ve assembled a folder of favorites over the years, and thought I would share some on this Columbus Day, beginning with a very scary guinea pig, and an “Indian little Pig- Cony”  cut down to size from Edward Topsell’s History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents (1658), a popular English bestiary. Like most early modern “scientific” texts, Topsell included both real and mythological creatures in his compilation, so there is another American (or “Guinean”) animal, an armadillo, along with a very strange creature from the “new-found” world. I am wondering if these last two would have been equally credible.

Large “Guinea Pig” illustration by Balthasar Anton Dunker, from Livre de divers animaux pour dessus de portes par les meilleurs maitres (1769); Edward Topsell, The History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents. London : E. Cotes for G. Sawbridge,1658

In addition to guinea pigs, armadillos, and the odd fantasy creature for sensation’s sake, turkeys get a lot of ink in the early modern era, as do parrots, which could often symbolize the New World all by themselves. Turning to the plant family, the most influential (and beautiful) printed herbal of the sixteenth century, De historia stirpium commentarii insignes, or “Notable Commentaries on the History of Plants,” (1542) by Leonhart Fuchs, introduced five plants from the New World, including maize, marigolds, pumpkins, kidney beans, and chili peppers. It would take a little while longer for news of the most consequential American plants, potatoes, tomatoes and tobacco, to catch on. Of these three, tobacco was certainly the most popular, celebrated for both its pleasure and health benefits:  it was thought to smoke out toxins in the body rather than deposit them.

A turkey from Konrad Gesner’s  Historiae animalium (1551-1587), from which Edward Topsell “borrowed” heavily, chili peppers in Leonhart Fuchs’ Historia Stirpium, tobacco in Nicolas Monardes’ Joyfull Newes out of the New-founde World (1577), and exotic tropical American plants by Arnoldus Montanus, 1671.

Well, I could go on and on and on…..this is a big topic!  But I’ve already posted on tobacco at greater length, and tomatoes, and potatoes certainly deserve their own post. So I think it’s time to return to guinea pigs. The evidence is mounting to support the view that these little (easily transportable) creatures were kept as pets in some illustrious sixteenth-century households, including that of Queen Elizabeth. By the seventeenth century, they are depicted among more familiar animals, apparently assimilated into the European–global– menagerie as one very small manifestation of the Columbian Exchange.

Guinea Pigs in the center of two seventeenth-century Dutch scenes:  in the midst of a barnyard in a drawing by Jan Fyt (British Museum) and among the animals entering Noah’s Ark, by Jan Breughel the Elder (in the immediate foreground, with the turtles, squirrel and porcupines; Getty Museum).


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