"The Columbian Exchange"

Malori Torey

Lightning Talk Presented: March 13, 2014
Published: March 16, 2014

As Europe started to make its way out of the Middle Ages, the era of the Renaissance arose to push Europe into expanding and conquering the world. According to Alfred W. Crosby, "The seams of Pangaea were closing, drawn together by the sailmaker's needle. Chickens met kiwis, cattle met kangaroos, Irish met potatoes, Comanches met horses, Incas met smallpox-all for the first time."

The empires of England, France, Spain and Portugal were the first to broaden their rule. After Spain sent Christopher Columbus to India, he ended up discovering what is now known as the Americas. Although Christianizing the natives was one of his goals, Columbus observed, "But in truth, should I meet with gold or spices in great quantity, I shall remain till I collect as much as possible, and for this purpose I am proceeding solely in quest of them."

Every monarch in Europe wanted to expand their Empire. As the countries settled into the New World, a trading system was set up so that goods could travel smoothly from continent to continent. This is now referred to as the Columbian exchange. The term was created by historian Alfred Crosby. He came up with the term due to Christopher Columbus discovering America and the exchange of goods from the new world and the old world.

The Columbian exchange was established in 1492 when Columbus touched base in what is now known as Cuba and proceeded to trade with the natives. Once he returned to Spain with news that he had reached Inida, the word spread like wildfire to other Countries. Taking advantage of the chance to expand their individual empires, the countries set sail. With the exchange at full speed, the new world and the old world traded goods and taught each other their ways of life.

The old world took foods such as bananas, citrus fruit, coffee beans, grapes, onions, peaches, rice, sugarcane, pears, and grains such as wheat, rice, barley and oats. Foods were not all the Europeans brought. The brought animals such as cattle, chicken, horses, pigs, and honeybees. Trading these items with the natives of the Americas in exchange for the new world's good which included foods such as beans, cacao (chocolate), Maize (corn), peanuts, pineapples, potatoes, pumpkins, squash, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, avocados, peppers, and vanilla beans. Other goods included tobacco and turkeys. Introducing these new delicacies to Europe brought new and exciting things for the people living there. Going from bland and rather dull foods to spicy and sweet really was a shock.

"European Architectural ingenuity helped to build new homes, ranches, farms, ports and ships in the new world. The establishment of these architectural structures lead to the establishment of the first colonial and native towns and also the first government buildings in the new world. Towns relocated Indians from their land into villages and towns. They also changed building patterns that used wood and charcoals which in turn led to more deforestation. Tools used for construction were made of steel and iron, this allowed natives to build stronger homes and it allowed for Europeans immigrants to build their homes to the same standard as back in Europe." Europe brought over technology of all sorts. England took to settling in what is known as New England, France settled in the north in what is now Canada and the Great Lakes region as well as the Mississippi River valley. Spain and Portugal took to the south.

The weapon technology that Europe brought over quickened the evolution of war for the native Americans. "While Natives already had knives, what they used were very malleable because they were made of obsidian and could not be used over and over like the European knives made of steel and iron. Before guns, spears, hatchets and bows and arrows were the most commonly used weapons of the Native Americans."

Although mostly goods traveled back and forth, the new worlds natives were introduced to diseases that they had no immunity to. More than 90% of the native population was killed due to the alien diseases. This loss is considered among the largest demographic disasters in human history. Smallpox, chicken pox, measles, typhus, whooping cough, and bubonic plague were among the more fatal of the diseases. Crosby explains, "The missionaries and the traders who ventured into the American interior told the same appalling story about smallpox and the indigenes. In 1738 alone the epidemic destroyed half the Cherokee; in 1759 nearly half the Catawbas; in the first years of the next century two-thirds of the Omahas and perhaps half the entire population between the Missouri River and New Mexico; in 1837-1838 nearly every last one of the Mandans and perhaps half the people of the high plains."

From the intense population loss, gained more of the natural habitat such as the woods and the animals repopulated. Crosby continues, "European explorers encountered distinctively American illnesses such as Chagas Disease, but these did not have much effect on Old World populations. Venereal syphilis has also been called American, but that accusation is far from proven. Even if we add all the Old World deaths blamed on American diseases together, including those ascribed to syphilis, the total is insignificant compared to Native American losses to smallpox alone."

The need for expansion and the thirst to explore was the base from which Europe began to expand past its borders.

Works Consulted








Sebastiano del Piombo's painting of Christopher Columbus, 1519.