1. This semester I am once again lecturing Economic Botany to MSc students. Altogether there are 29 students who registered this 3-credit course consisting mostly Malaysians, one Indian national and three Arabs. Some of the most challenging questions that I faced year in and year out was about how plants and animals species were dispersed from one continent or country or region to another. The easiest answer was to give credits to the European colonialists who plundered the whole world five or six centuries ago in search of spices, cotton, silk, minerals and heavy and hard-wood timbers.
2. Notable among them were the Portuguese and Spanish armadas which sailed east and west from the Iberian Peninsula under their rich and adventurous patrons in search of spices, silk and other oriental goods. At least we learnt the Portuguese sailed to the coast of Brazil, coasts of Africa via the cape of God Hope, to Goa in India, Melaka, in the Malay Peninsula, Macau in China, etc. The names like Vasco da Gama etc were on our lips. The Spanish were in South America and Central America, the Philippines etc. Magellan who was a Portuguese but sailed under the Spanish flag came to the Philippines and was killed there in the local disputes. The French, British, Belgians, Germans, Dutch etc came later to the east......and they claimed their colonies till the 20th century.
3. I told my students the Spanish brought Achras zapota or Mersawa manila, various species of Annona or Durian belanda (why was Annona reticulata was attributed to the Dutch?), Ananas comosus to cite a few from the tropical America to our part of the World. The Chinese and possibly the Champas brought us Hibiscus rosa-sinensis that become our National Flower. The Chinese also brought maiize or corn (Zea mays) from South America to the Philippines. Various animals were introduced too either from China and the East to the West and from the New World to various continents and countries.
4. Later I discovered that the Chinese explorers introduced the Asiatic hens to Central America, sea otters to New Zealand, Ficus religiosa to Australia, Cocos nucifera from the South Pacific to all parts of the World. Rosa laevigata was introduced from China to California, the Tajikistan ponies and pigs were introduced to many continents ......etc. Of course the British introduced camels to Australia. The Chinese too were the early settlers in many parts of South-east Asia, Australia and New Zealand, South, Central and North America ...but not to Europe. Unlike the Westerners who came to trade and spread Christianity, the earlier Chinese traders and explorers didn't want to spread Buddhism to the natives of the continents that they visited.
5. Of course in the 15th to 20th centuries when the Chinese started to isolate themselves, the Europeans had their days and decades. The Europeans explorers learnt from the Chinese and they did with diplomacy and wars. They fought each other to control the products from the East. They introduced many plant and animal species from all parts of the continents to other continents. They globalised the flora and fauna. In the Malay Peninsula they offer protection to the warlords in exchange for tin ores and other minerals, including spices and hard and heavy timbers.
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