The Columbian Exchange between the Americas and Europe
The Columbian Exchange refers to the two-way exchange of people, flora & fauna, products, and pathogens that occurred between the New World of the Americas and the Old World of Europe, Africa, and Asia following discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Benefits and losses occurred on both sides of the Atlantic with far reaching effects. People migrated to the New World, bringing with them a collection of widely useful animals. However, they also brought with them diseases foreign to native peoples, causing widespread sickness and depopulation. Valuable resources were discovered in the Americas, especially food bearing plants. Europeans introduced resources into the eastern hemisphere that allowed for population growth, urbanization, industrialization of Europe, and colonization into other regions of the world.
Major population shifts due to transfer of disease and resources impacted both the Old and New World in significant ways as trade routes increasingly linked the western and eastern hemispheres together. The Americas had food sources which became valuable not only in Europe, but also in the global economy. Europeans discovered crops such as potatoes and sweet potatoes, maize, and cassava valuable to supplement the normal European diets. Not only were these foods nutritious, but many of them could be grown in bulk successfully in Europe, contributing to the versatility and diversity of agriculture. For example, potatoes discovered by conquistadors in the Andes Mountains are rich in calories and vitamins. Introduced to Europe in the 1500’s, potatoes grew easily even in poor conditions and became the food staple of Ireland. The potato had a significant impact on population, contributing to a dramatic increase following adoption of the potato to the Old World diet. Some argue that the increase in population associated with the transfer of food from west to east contributed to urbanization and even the industrial revolution. Also discovered in the Americas were specialty foods such as peppers, tomatoes, cacao, and vanilla, which not only added to the nutritional content of foods, but also improved taste. These products made their way to Europe, Africa, the East Indies, China and Southeast Asia.
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Peppers from these transfers often form the base of authentic cuisine throughout the eastern hemisphere. They were also used in medicines to treat a diversity of conditions including pain, respiratory disorders, and arthritis. Another vital discovery was Quinine, a bitter crystalline compound found in cinchona bark in tropical South America. Quinine was used as an anti-malarial drug. Because of its discovery the British were able to colonize parts of malaria-ridden Africa and tropical areas which had been impossible to settle due to disease. Not only were New World species imported to the Old World, but Old World species were also cultivated in the New World. An advantage to this was the vast arable land available in the New World, with similar climates and none of the pests and parasites native to the Old World. Sugar cane was carried to the New World on Columbus’ second voyage in 1493 where it was cultivated and then exported back to Europe.
By 1680 the Americas dominated world sugar production. Sugar provided a cheap and easy source of calories for the urban working class in Europe and boosted the production of processed and preserved foods. Other than introduction of the turkey to England in 1526, the exchange of animals during the Columbian Exchange mostly occurred in one direction. Useful farm animals such as horses, cattle, sheep, pigs, and goats, were transported from the Old World to make communities in the New World more operational. Native American societies had been limited to native species, of which few were suitable for domestication. For instance, the communities of the High Andes had domesticated llamas and alpacas but had no beasts of burden over 100 lbs. The horse was of particular value in the New World. Horses changed life for native peoples of the American plains, allowing tribes to hunt buffalo more effectively. Some tribes based on settled agricultural communities shifted to a nomadic lifestyle hunting on horseback and moving throughout the Great Plains. Cattle acclimated well to the American grasslands and gave rise to ranching economies that stretched from Argentina to the Canadian prairies. Horses, cattle, sheep, pigs, and goats provided meat, tallow, hides, transportation, and the ability to haul in bulk, which virtually revolutionized life in the Americas.
With the transfer of people, plants, and animals came the transfer of disease. Again, most of the transfer was one sided. European sailors returning to the Old World introduced venereal syphilis to Europe. When first introduced, syphilis was severe and fatal, but by the 17th century it weakened to a fairly benign disease. The Old World however, had much disease to share. Prior to the Columbian Exchange significant shifts in population occurred as the bubonic plague of Central Asia migrated via trade routes to Medieval Europe. Although the “Black Death” ended in 1351, millions of people died, and it continued with epidemics every few years through to the end of the 15th century. The Black Death is believed to have been a combination of three plagues that resulted in grave death rates.
The bubonic plaque killed many of its victims as well as the pneumonic plague, and the septicemic plague killed almost everyone who suffered from it. The bubonic plague was one of the many infectious diseases transported to the New World. Because native peoples had no prior contact with these diseases, their immune systems were defenseless. Researchers believe the Native American peoples had enjoyed a relatively disease-free environment, so when European germs and viruses were introduced the results were catastrophic. Among the killers were smallpox, measles, whooping cough, chicken pox, typhus, typhoid, influenza, diphtheria, cholera, scarlet fever, malaria, and bubonic plague. It is estimated that almost all of the Native American population was decimated by 1650. Some areas lost close to 80% of their populations while others were completely wiped out. As European farmers needed laborers to work the crops a new tragedy was born. Fueled by the high demand for labor and low population density in the New World, over 12 million Africans were shipped to the Americas in the transatlantic slave trade. The flow of slaves began to slow in the 1800’s with the British Slave Trade Act and Slavery Abolition Act followed by the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment. Migration of indentured laborers continued as workers were moved from the Indian subcontinent to the British Caribbean into the 20th century. The 19th and 20th centuries also experienced a dramatic increase in voluntary migration as millions of people came to the New World to forge a life for themselves.
Between 1851 and 1924 alone, 45 million people migrated from the Old World to the Americas. The Columbian Exchange had far reaching global impacts. Populations were bolstered as food supplies were supplemented. Cuisine was impacted and developed in new ways as unknown products were introduced. Medicinal products and advances were shared among societies. Domesticated livestock was introduced to developing people groups. Pathogens turned over entire populations and resulted in the downfall of major empires and native tribes. Lastly, mass migrations of people over the Atlantic Ocean resulted in a diversity of New World people and settlements that would later become nations such as the United States and Canada. New and Old World influences can be seen reaching around the globe today with lasting results such as these.
- “How the Potato Changed the World.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 1 Nov. 2011, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-the-potato-changed-the-world-108470605/.
- “The Columbian Exchange.” Khan Academy, Khan Academy, www.khanacademy.org/ humanities/us-history/precontact-and-early-colonial-era/old-and-new-worlds-collide/a/thecolumbian- exchange-ka.
- The Columbian Exchange, Native Americans and the Land, Nature Transformed, TeacherServe, National Humanities Center, nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/nattrans/ntecoindian/essays/ columbian.htm.