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READ: The Columbian Exchange

Christopher Columbus was no tourist. His arrival in North America led to a system of exchange that fundamentally altered the environment, economic systems, and culture across the world.

The Columbian Exchange

By Eman M. Elshaikh (adapted from Khan Academy)
Christopher Columbus was no tourist. His arrival in North America led to a system of exchange that fundamentally altered the environment, economic systems, and culture across the world.


"In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue." So begins a popular children's poem, which many generations have recited in schools while studying the voyages of the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus (1451-1506). But we now know that Europeans—including the Vikings—had reached North America previously. So why are Columbus' voyages considered so important?
Christopher Columbus' arrival in North America created large-scale connections between Eurasia, Africa, and the Americas that still exist today. It also began a chain of events that dramatically changed the environment, economic systems, and culture across the world. This transfer of goods, people, microbes1, and ideas is often referred to as the Columbian Exchange. This exchange created new global networks and radically shaped communities in the Americas.
The Columbian Exchange connected almost all of the world through new networks of trade and exchange. The inter- continental transfer of plants, animals, knowledge, and technology changed the world, as communities interacted with completely new species, tools, and ideas. The Columbian Exchange marked the beginning of a period of rapid cultural change.
As new markets and products came into the world economy, new patterns of production, distribution, consumption, and trade also emerged. For example, the rise of plantation farming and cash crops pretty much re-invented the economy. These patterns changed the social and economic organization of the Americas. This included the rise of the Atlantic slave trade and other labor systems.
The Columbian Exchange also had some unintentional but devastating results due to the transfer of diseases. Horrific epidemics, some far worse than the Black Death in both their severity and lasting effects, were enabled by exchange. In the Americas, in particular, millions died. These epidemics resulted in massive demographic (population) shifts. This in turn affected the environment and economic systems. The transfer of plants and animals also affected the environment by introducing new species that competed with and sometimes displaced native plants.

The spread of disease

Possibly the most dramatic, immediate impact of the Columbian Exchange was the spread of diseases. In places where the local population had no or little resistance, especially the Americas, the effect was horrific. Prior to contact, indigenous populations thrived across North and South America. There were millions of people (approximately 35-75 million)2 living in the Americas, some of whom lived in large urban areas like Tenochtitlan and Cusco, among the largest cities in the world at the time.
But most inhabitants of the Americas had little resistance to the diseases common to Afro-Eurasia. This was partly because only small groups of humans had initially crossed over from Asia, so there wasn't much genetic diversity in the Americas. Also, they had few domesticated animals—no cows, pigs, goats, or sheep—which are the source of many human diseases, like smallpox and measles. In Afro-Eurasia, by contrast, humans had already had thousands of generations to develop resistance to those diseases.
So, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries when the indigenous Americans first encountered Europeans, they also encountered smallpox, measles, mumps, whooping cough, cholera, influenza, chicken pox, typhus, and other unpleasant illnesses. Since they had never interacted with these diseases, they had no immunity to them and were especially vulnerable. The people already living in the Americas suffered many epidemics following contact with Europeans, and the death toll was massive. Large cities were nearly wiped out. Some communities on the Caribbean islands lost most of their people. Between 1492 and 1650, the population of indigenous Americans decreased rapidly.
William Bradford, a governor of the Plymouth colony in present-day Massachusetts, described how smallpox spread through some indigenous American communities around 1634:
"This spring also, those Indians that lived about their trading house there, fell sick of the small pox and died most miserably; for a sorer disease cannot befall them, they fear it more than the plague. For usually they that have this disease have them in abundance. […] The condition of this people was so lamentable [sad] and they fell down so generally of this disease as they were in the end not able to help one another, no not to make a fire nor to fetch a little water to drink, nor any to bury the dead. But would strive as long as they could, and when they could procure [obtain] no other means to make fire, they would burn the wooden trays and dishes they ate their meat in, and their very bows and arrows. And some would crawl out on all fours to get a little water, and sometimes die by the way and not be able to get in again."
Epidemics like smallpox resulted in massive demographic shifts, and that in turn affected both the environment and the economy. Forests regrew and animals that had been hunted flourished once again. Because there were so few people, there was a shortage of labor in the Americas. That need for labor contributed to the rise of the Atlantic slave trade, bringing even more diseases to the New World, like malaria and yellow fever.
In contrast, very few diseases traveled from west to east. There is limited information about diseases in the Americas prior to the Columbian Exchange. Some historians argue that syphilis went from the Americas to Europe, but the evidence for this is not conclusive.

From East to West

The depopulation of the Americas, mainly through disease, made it possible for European settlers to rapidly change the territories in which they settled—often using the labor of enslaved Africans. European settlers brought many plants and animals from Afro-Eurasia to the Americas. It's important to note that before all this, the only domesticated animals in indigenous American communities were llamas and alpacas and some small animals. There were no other large mammals in the Americas that were suitable for domestication. Europeans brought horses, cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs, among others. These animals changed agricultural practices and transportation.
Horses had a huge effect on the indigenous American economies and culture. Buffalo hunting became far more efficient when done on horseback. Cattle became important in indigenous American society for meat, tallow, hide, and transportation.
To support their own settlements, Europeans also brought wheat, barley, rye, sugar, bananas, and citrus, among other crops—and this changed the economy. Wheat, in particular, thrived as a key crop and staple, and would eventually be exported in large quantities from the Americas.
Crops are for eating, but they can also be sold. As European governments, companies, and individuals raced to become wealthy in this era, many expanded their plans to include the Americas. To that purpose, European settlers organized the production of cash crops, like sugar, coffee, tobacco, and cotton.
High demand for some of these money-making crops led to large-scale production. But to do that you need a massive labor force, and the European solution to that problem was to import enslaved peoples. Labor systems like the encomienda and other forms of forced labor were common at this time. Encomienda was part of the colonial Spanish legal system used to control the indigenous American labor force, and it was a form of enslavement. But the deaths of millions of indigenous Americans from diseases introduced by the Europeans caused a labor shortage locally. Europeans dealt with that problem by forcibly bringing enslaved people from West Africa to the Americas to work on plantations. Over the next few hundred years, more than twelve million enslaved people were brought to the Americas through the Atlantic slave trade system.
Sugar was the most important cash crop grown in the Americas. It made great money, but took a lot of labor to produce it. The Spanish crown even required that sugarcane be grown before approving land grants. Sugarcane thrived in the Spanish colony of Hispaniola (Haiti and Dominican Republic, today). Hispaniola and the other Caribbean islands became the centers of sugar production. Because so much labor was needed, these places also became centers of forced labor systems such as the slave trade. You will learn more about the plantation complex and the slave trade later in this era.

From West to East

While plants from the "Old World" (Afro-Eurasia) may not have significantly changed the diets of indigenous Americans, crops from the "New World" (the Americas, so not new to the indigenous peoples) revolutionized cuisines in the "Old World". It is difficult to imagine Italian food without tomatoes, Indian food without chili peppers, or Irish food without potatoes. Yet, before the Columbian Exchange, none of these crops were known in Europe, Asia, or Africa. A historical look at changing food cultures like these is a good way to understand the processes of production, distribution, and exchange.
Plants from the Americas transformed life in Europe, Asia, and Africa. They not only changed cuisine and culture but resulted in major economic and environmental shifts. This is because many of the new crops, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, maize, and cassava, were calorically rich and quickly became staple crops.
Potatoes and other crops from the Americas did well even in rough environmental conditions. Land no one thought was very useful could suddenly be used to grow these new crops. The potato, for example, thrived even in the freezing temperatures of northwestern Europe. It became a common food of the people in places like Ireland. It led to massive population growth and increasing urbanization.
The Columbian Exchange completely changed the face of the world. Patterns of production and distribution shifted, as millions of people moved from Afro-Eurasia to the Americas, both willingly and forcibly. Goods—many of which were produced in the Americas by African and indigenous peoples—were distributed around the world. These goods were being circulated in ever-broader networks, creating webs of exchange that shape the world we live in today.
As people moved from East to West, they formed new communities in the Americas, many of which were organized by new systems of labor. At the same time, existing communities in the Americas were displaced or devastated by disease.
Author bio
The author of this article is Eman M. Elshaikh. She is a writer, researcher, and teacher who has taught K-12 and undergraduates in the United States and in the Middle East. She teaches writing at the University of Chicago, where she also completed her master’s in social sciences and is currently pursuing her PhD. She was previously a World History Fellow at Khan Academy, where she worked closely with the College Board to develop curriculum for AP World History.

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