- Motivation for European conquest of the New World
- Origins of European exploration in the Americas
- Christopher Columbus
- Consequences of Columbus's voyage on the Tainos and Europe
- Christopher Columbus and motivations for European conquest
- The Columbian Exchange
- The Columbian Exchange
- Environmental and health effects of European contact with the New World
- Lesson summary: The Columbian Exchange
- The impact of contact on the New World
- The Columbian Exchange, Spanish exploration, and conquest
The Columbian exchange moved commodities, people, and diseases across the Atlantic.
- Mercantilism, an economic theory that rejected free trade and promoted government regulation of the economy for the purpose of enhancing state power, defined the economic policy of European colonizing countries.
- Christopher Columbus introduced horses, sugar plants, and disease to the New World, while facilitating the introduction of New World commodities like sugar, tobacco, chocolate, and potatoes to the Old World.
- The process by which commodities, people, and diseases crossed the Atlantic is known as the Columbian Exchange.
Commerce in the New World
As Europeans expanded their market reach into the colonial sphere, they devised a new economic policy to ensure the colonies’ profitability. The philosophy of mercantilism shaped European perceptions of wealth from the 1500s to the late 1700s. Mercantilism held that only a limited amount of wealth, as measured in gold and silver bullion, existed in the world. In order to gain power, nations had to amass wealth by mining these precious raw materials from their colonial possessions. Mercantilists did not believe in free trade, arguing instead that the nation should control trade to create wealth and to enhance state power. In this view, colonies existed to strengthen the colonizing nation.
Colonial mercantilism, a set of protectionist policies designed to benefit the colonizing nation, relied on several factors:
- Colonies rich in raw materials
- Cheap labor
- Colonial loyalty to the home government
- Control of the shipping trade
Under this system, the colonies sent their raw materials—harvested by enslaved people or native workers—to Europe. European industry then produced and sent finished materials—like textiles, tools, manufactured goods, and clothing—back to the colonies. Colonists were forbidden from trading with other countries.
Commodification quickly affected production in the New World. American silver, tobacco, and other items—which were used by native peoples for ritual purposes—became European commodities with monetary value. Before the arrival of the Spanish, for example, the Inca people of the Andes consumed chicha, a corn beer, for ritual purposes only. When the Spanish discovered chicha, they bought and traded for it, detracting from its spiritual significance for market gain. This process disrupted native economies and spurred early commercial capitalism.
The Columbian Exchange: goods introduced by Europe, produced in New World
As Europeans traversed the Atlantic, they brought with them plants, animals, and diseases that changed lives and landscapes on both sides of the ocean. These two-way exchanges between the Americas and Europe/Africa are known collectively as the Columbian Exchange.
Of all the commodities in the Atlantic World, sugar proved to be the most important. Indeed, in the colonial era, sugar carried the same economic importance as oil does today. European rivals raced to create sugar plantations in the Americas and fought wars for control of production. Although refined sugar was available in the Old World, Europe’s harsher climate made sugarcane difficult to grow. Columbus brought sugar to Hispaniola in 1493, and the new crop thrived. Over the next century of colonization, Caribbean islands and most other tropical areas became centers of sugar production, which in turn fueled the demand to enslave Africans for labor.
The Columbian Exchange: from the New World to the Old World
Though of secondary importance to sugar, tobacco also had great value for Europeans as a cash crop—a crop cultivated for sale instead of personal consumption. Native Americans had been growing tobacco for medicinal and ritual purposes for centuries before European contact, believing tobacco could improve concentration and enhance wisdom. To some, its use meant achieving an entranced, altered, or divine state.
Tobacco was unknown in Europe before 1492, and it carried a negative stigma at first. The early Spanish explorers considered native people's use of tobacco to be proof of their savagery. However, European colonists then took up the habit of smoking, and they brought it across the Atlantic. Europeans ascribed medicinal properties to tobacco, claiming that it could cure headaches and skin irritations. Even so, Europeans did not import tobacco in great quantities until the 1590s. At that time, it became the first truly global commodity; English, French, Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese colonists all grew it for the world market.
Native peoples also introduced Europeans to chocolate, made from cacao seeds and used by the Aztec in Mesoamerica as currency. Mesoamerican Indians consumed unsweetened chocolate in a drink with chili peppers, vanilla, and a spice called achiote. This chocolate drink—xocolatl—was part of ritual ceremonies like marriage. Chocolate contains theobromine, a stimulant, which may be why native people believed it brought them closer to the sacred world.
The Columbian Exchange: from the Old World to the New World
The crossing of the Atlantic by plants like cacao and tobacco illustrates the ways in which the discovery of the New World changed the habits and behaviors of Europeans. Europeans changed the New World in turn, not least by bringing Old World animals to the Americas. On his second voyage, Christopher Columbus brought pigs, cows, chickens, and horses to the islands of the Caribbean. Many Native Americans used horses to transform their hunting and gathering into a highly mobile practice.
Travelers between the Americas, Africa, and Europe also included microbes: silent, invisible life forms that had profoundly devastating consequences. Native peoples had no immunity to Old World diseases to which they had never been exposed. European explorers unwittingly brought with them chickenpox, measles, mumps, and smallpox, decimating some populations and wholly destroying others. One disease did travel the other direction—syphilis, a lethal sexually transmitted disease, came with travelers from the New World to Europe for the first time.
The Columbian Exchange embodies both the positive and negative environmental and health results of contact as well as the cultural shifts produced by such contact.
What do you think?
What was the best commodity introduced to the New World by the Columbian Exchange? What was the worst?
How did the Columbian Exchange shift cultural norms of Native Americans? Of European colonizers?
Try to draw your own diagram of the Columbian Exchange on a world map.
Want to join the conversation?
- Why is there a question asked about mercantilism in the previous quiz when in fact, it is only introduced in this section?(45 votes)
- Why were the natives so much more susceptible to the diseases of Europeans (and why did they have so many more) than the other way around?(20 votes)
- Well, if you are exposed to a disease a lot, (which the Europeans would have been, because they lived in a much more polluted environment than the Native Americans) you become more immune to it. Never having experienced these types of diseases before, the Native Americans were way more susceptible to them.(35 votes)
- Why was the demand for slaves so high? Were paying jobs an abstract idea back then?(7 votes)
- Because the Europeans wanted free labor to work there cash crops...sugar and also mine gold.(18 votes)
- Hello. I do not understand what capitalism is. Do you happen to have a simple definition?(5 votes)
- "Capitalism is an economic system and an ideology based on private ownership of the means of production and their operation for profit."-Wikipedia(15 votes)
- wouldn't salt be the first global commodity?(8 votes)
- Salt had been used in Europe for centuries before the Spanish ventured across the Atlantic ocean. It was even used as a currency in some civilizations, but it wouldn't have technically been a global commodity since it never reached the Americas.(4 votes)
- Why do Europeans have to give the finished goods to Africa?Why can't they just ship it over to the Americas or the US.(6 votes)
- They did ship it over to the Americas as well.
The reason they exported finished goods to Africa was because they wanted to create a positive balance of trade, meaning more exports, usually to colonial holdings, than imports. Creating a positive balance of trade was practiced as part of mercantilism, the dominant school of thought in the ruling classes of Europe at that time. Its purpose was to elevate the power of one nation over their competitors.(5 votes)
- Why did they want sugar so much?(5 votes)
- The main components of the human diet are carbohydrates, fats, and protein. Sugar is a simple carbohydrate. It is easy to digest and provides a burst of energy to the person who eats it.(6 votes)
- What is a simple description of the Columbian Exchange?(3 votes)
- why was sugar so important?(5 votes)
- Sugar was originally known to Europe as a rare and costly spice, but the growth of sugarcane production, first in the Mediterranean and then in the Atlantic, made sugar ever more available.(2 votes)