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The Effects of Travel on Humans and Culture

Lindsay Devon Brin

Questions that may or may not be answered in this episode of “What Lindsay is Pondering when Sitting in Hicks 211”:
We could never have reached our global information age if ideas had not spread between cultures. Yet, what (real, worthy) purpose is there in sharing information across borders unless it is used to erase other borders?
Can interaction that leads to war be tempered by interaction of ideas?
If Europeans had known that the diseases they carried could (and would) obliterate thousands (millions?) of native Americans, would it have made any difference? And would Europeans have kept from introducing rabbits to Australia if the knew how much of a problem it would be later?
Lines are being blurred. (True or false.)

When humans from different cultures interact, the result is often bloodshed, domination or disease – and also, the exchange of ideas. All three of these effects have helped to shape the course of history. While much of the spread of disease has been reduced since, say, the Black Death, much bloodshed still comes from the interaction of cultures, possibly from physical contact without intellectual or rational interaction and understanding. Interaction itself is necessary and does result in good as well, especially in terms of technological advancements.

The spread of disease is possibly one of the most dramatic results of interactions between cultures. The different ways of living in Europe and other parts of the world caused very different illnesses to develop in each. Europeans lived in close quarters in densely populated cities, which allowed crowd diseases, such as measles, to develop. These diseases quickly result in death, or recovery and immunity. Thus, they do not remain relevant in smaller communities; by the time victims have recovered fully, the disease is not around to be spread. In larger communities, the disease can shift from area to area, remaining in existence until there are babies to be infected in the original area. (Diamond) A leading theory maintains that these diseases developed from animal diseases that adapted to the environment of the human body when humans and animals were in close contact. In particular measles and smallpox came from cattle, and the flu came from pigs and ducks. (Diamond) Because this contact with animals, the close contact with thousands of other humans in cities, and the connection of populations by trade, all of which were particular to Europe, Europe’s history shows some of the most devastating diseases. In the second century, smallpox reached Rome via world trade routes that connected Europe, Asia and Africa. (Diamond) Millions of Romans died during the fifteen-year epidemic. In the fourteenth century, the Black Death (bubonic plague) traveled from Central Asia to Europe and killed a third of Europe’s population. It continued to reappear periodically for the next 300 years. The Great Plague hit London in 1665 and was killing about 6,000 people a week by September. (Ponting) Close quarters and a lack of good sanitation helped perpetuate the problem.

While this logic seems sound, it is also true that we have limited knowledge of the history of meso-American peoples and the diseases they may have discovered. For example, the Mayans disappeared mysteriously, and disease has been suggested as the cause. What we do know is that when the Europeans interacted with the indigenous American peoples, the Americans had no immunity to the diseases the Europeans carried, while the Europeans’ health remained unaffected by the interaction. (Diamond) The result of the spread of European diseases was drastic. When Cortés tried to conquer the Aztecs in 1519, he barely managed to make his way back to the coast with the remaining third of his men. The second time he tried, smallpox had preceded him, resulting in the deaths of half of the Aztecs and some depressingly better luck for Cortés. The disease killed over 18 million of Mexico’s initial 20 million people by 1618. (Diamond) Similarly, Spaniards visiting the coasts of America spread germs to the interior of the continent, so that when Hernando de Soto made his way through the southeastern part of the United States, he discovered towns that had recently been abandoned because of epidemics. (Diamond) European diseases also wreaked havoc in African and Pacific island populations. (Diamond) While Europeans did not bring any disease back to Europe (with the debated exception of syphilis), they did have to contend with tropical disease when traveling. For example, yellow fever in tropical Africa and cholera in Southeast Asia made colonization of these areas difficult. Once malaria was spread from the tropical Old World to the New World, more problems erupted. Europeans quickly became skilled at accidentally bringing death with them everywhere. (Diamond)

Humans, who have nearly always had the idea that one should take whatever one wants from another culture, as long as the culture can be rationalized into inferiority, have excelled at bringing death to other peoples intentionally as well as unintentionally. On occasion this practice has the benefit of spreading ideas, whether ideas of warfare technology or ideas of intellect (i.e. government, economy, or science). The ends, however, is bloodied by the means. Warfare and domination are closely entangled, as each often leads to the other. The purpose of war is often control, but the unapproved control of a people may lead to uprising and thus more war. In any case, either is a result of the interaction of separate cultures, whether divided within or across borders. Travel allows the people to interact, come good or come bad. European exploration after 1400 resulted in much colonization of Africa and Asia, with Europeans in charge whether or not the indigenous people approved. However, in many situations – especially in eastern Asia – the Europeans only existed at the grace of the native rulers, who were quite aware that Europe strength lay only in their naval force and not in ground force. (Cipolla)

Interaction from travel also allows for the spread of ideas. Throughout history, the exchange of ideas has happened both passively and actively. In the 1740s, William Smith went ashore by the mouth of the Gambia River, African natives saw the inventions of the Europeans and were, according to Smith, struck with awe. (Adas) In situations such as this, information and ideas were spread unintentionally, in that the purpose of the interaction, if it existed, had nothing to do with spreading ideas. When missionaries followed the initial explorers into Africa and India, they came with the intention of spreading their ideas of religion. Technological advancements were often used to impress cultures without technology and thus pave the way for the missionaries to insinuate themselves into native cultures. (Adas)

Generally, though, technological ideas are spread intentionally, whether by inventors or entrepreneurs interested in investment of a new technology, or by travelers who want to bring a technology back to their home country. Both of these pathways were encountered in the spread of steam engines throughout Europe and from Europe to America. When Thomas Jefferson traveled to England in 1785, he learned of Watt’s improved steam engine, and brought the idea back with him to America. Other travelers to England, such the Connecticut merchant Silas Deane, also saw the power that steam could provide, and hoped to export the idea to America. (Pursell) When William Tatham returned to England after many years in America, he attempted to export steam engines to America. (Pursell) Although he was unsuccessful, his attempt provides an example of the desire to bring technology to a new country.

These examples help to highlight the necessity of travel in the exchange of ideas. Although information could also be spread by mail, firsthand experience provided the most accurate explanation of technologies. When John Fitch attempted to build a steam-powered boat in the late eighteenth century, he was severely hindered by his and his mechanics’ lack of firsthand knowledge of the steam engine. If he had been able to import an engine or, even, more information from England, his project may have been more successful. (Pursell) Travel by linen promoters throughout Europe in the seventeenth century allowed the spread of new views on Christianity as well as progressive ideas of culture. (Schneider) And of course, Christianity would not have been spread to Africa without travel. Whether or not any of these interactions were beneficial to all parties involved, they were only made possible by the interactions of people over distances.

People will always interact with each other, from city to city or country to country. In this forum, the spread of ideas is of the utmost importance. It is a human tendency to judge, and a necessity to make decisions about life and the world. With the ease of international interaction, the decisions made by people of one country affect people of another. It is obviously beneficial to be informed. It is important, for the sake of a safe world, that the spread of ideas and information precedes the spread of blunt interaction.


All bibliographical information taken from Professor Carr Everbach’s blackboard site for this Envs02 class: Human Nature, Technology and the Environment
Adas, Michael, "Machines as the Meaure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance", Cornell Univ. Press 1989, pp. 1-35.
Cipolla, Carlo M., Epilog from "Guns, Sails, and Empires: Technological Innovation and the Early Phases of European Expansion, 1400-1700" Sunflower Univ. Press, 1996, pp. 132-148.
Diamond, Jared, "Ch. 11: Lethal gift of livestock," in "Guns, Germs, and Steel" W.W. Norton & Co, 1997, ISBN 0-393-03891-2, pp. 195-214
Ponting, Clive. Ch.11 from "A Green History of the World," St. Martins Press, NYC, 1991, pp. 224-239.
Pursell, Carroll W. Jr., Ch. 1 and 2 in "Early Stationary Steam Engines in America: a study in the migration of a technology" Smithsonian Inst. Press, 1969, pp. 1-27.
Schneider, "Rumplestiltzkins"


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last updated le 21 fevrier 2003