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The Columbian Exchange

KC‑1.2.I.B (KC)
SOC (Theme)
Unit 1: Learning Objective D
Columbus's voyage connected the Americas, Europe, and Africa in a web of exchange that transformed the environments of the Old World and the New World.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] Although we tend to think about Christopher Columbus' first voyage in 1492, transforming the history of the Americas, it actually transformed a great deal more than that, and in this video I want to talk about the larger world historical process that Columbus' voyage opened up, that transformed not only the Americas, but also Europe and Africa, and this was called the Columbian Exchange. So what was the Columbian Exchange? This was a process of transferring plants, animals, microbes and people across the Atlantic in both directions. And not just trading these goods, but transplanting them from Europe and Africa into the Americas and the other way around. And some of these exchanges of species were intentional, like bringing new crops to grow in environments that were suited to them, and some of them were unintentional, like the microbes and pests, which were like little hitchhikers on the bodies and crops that Europeans brought to the New World. And it had a tremendous environmental affect that had real consequences for people on both sides of the Atlantic. So let's look a little bit closer at some of the things that were exchanged across the Atlantic after Columbus began the process of bringing things from the Old World to the New World, and from the New World to the Old World. So first let's take a closer look at the plants. Now, Spain, much like Portugal, was hoping to use this tropical landscape to grow cash crops. So Columbus brought with him sugar and grapes for wine, and coffee, these were all crops that would fetch high prices in Europe. It was so lucrative to grow sugar in the Caribbean that they didn't even want to give up any space to grow food, they imported their food so that they could spend all of their land growing sugar. The Europeans also brought New World crops back to the Old World, and some of these it's almost impossible to imagine a world before, for example, the tomato had ever come to Europe. Can you imagine Italian food with no tomato sauce? They also brought corn and potatoes and sweet potatoes and cassava, or manioc. And what's important about most of these crops is that they're very calorically dense. So if you grew a field of potatoes, instead of a field of wheat, which might be a typical crop grown in the Old Word before contact, you can feed three times as many people with a field of potatoes than you can with wheat. So what does this cause? It causes a real increase in population in Europe. It also causes an increase in population in Africa, where manioc is a crop that was frequently grown and also very calorically dense. So New World foods helped Europe and Africa increase their populations. So what about these animals? The Europeans brought cattle, sheep, pigs, and horses to the New World, with mixed results. Horses, for example, were a tremendous technology that was widely adopted throughout Mexico and the Native Americans living in the Great Plains of what is today the United States found that horses revolutionized their ability to hunt. So that was a great step up for them. The pigs they brought over, however, weren't so great because Europeans allowed the pigs to roam freely, which meant that they ate everything, including the Native Americans' crops, and they multiplied very quickly. So they became kind of a pest in the New World. Probably the thing that had the biggest affect in the Columbian Exchange was the transfer of Old World diseases to the New World. With Europeans came smallpox, measles, whooping cough, and the Native Americans had very little immunity to these diseases. It's estimated that within 100 years of Columbus landing in Hispaniola, 90% of all people who were living in the Americas died of disease. This is a demographic catastrophe the likes of which the world has never seen before or since. And most of the Native Americans who were affected by these diseases would never have actually interacted with a European, they just had trade networks that spread these diseases back and forth throughout the Americas. Now, you might be wondering, okay, so if the Native Americans were being exposed to new diseases from the Europeans, weren't the Europeans also being exposed to new diseases from the Native Americans? Why didn't it have such a strong impact on them? There are a couple of reasons for that. One is that there was a greater population density in Europe and Africa, there were more people and they lived closer together in cities. So this gave diseases opportunities to bounce back and forth between people and evolve and become stronger. The other important thing is that Europeans lived close to animals, and as we remember from things like bird flu or swine flu, animals and humans can pass diseases back and forth between each other, and that makes those diseases even stronger. In comparison, Native Americans didn't have much population density and they only domesticated dogs. And dogs, unlike pigs, can't pass that many diseases back and forth between humans. So Native Americans just didn't have diseases that were as vicious as the diseases that had been passed from person to person for many thousands of years in Europe and Africa. So this gets to the last aspect of the Columbian Exchange, the exchange of people. Very quickly after Europeans arrived, the Native American population suffered from tremendous outbreak of disease, which meant that although the Europeans had hoped to enslave them and use them as a labor force in these Caribbean plantations, very few of them survived, which meant that the Europeans needed another labor force. They found that labor source on the West Coast of Africa, where there was a long tradition of slave trading, and they brought enslaved African people against their will across the Atlantic to work in the Caribbean, so that very quickly a majority of the population in the Caribbean was of African descent. Ironically, this population explosion brought on by New World foods meant that there were more people in Africa who were possible subjects to enslavement, and it helped them keep their population numbers relatively steady despite the exodus of as many as 12 to 13 million people over the course of the years between Columbus arriving and approximately 1800. Likewise, this population explosion in Europe led to worries about overpopulation in the 1600s and 1700s. And what did the nations of Europe do? They began sending people over to the colonies. So the contact and exchange initiated by Christopher Columbus when he connected the Old World with the New had a profound affect on the environment, not just of the New World, but of the Old World as well. And this profound affect on the whole benefited Europe, at the expense of the Americas and of Africa.