Columbian Exchange

Historian Alfred W. Crosby coined the phrase Columbian Exchange in 1972 to describe the significant biological consequences of the meeting of Europe and the Americas in the 1490s and beyond. Since Crosby’s landmark study, scholars have expanded the concept to include the cultural and material consequences of this exchange. The Columbian Exchange is, for many historians, one of the pivotal moments in human history. Its consequences spread far beyond the simple meeting of cultures. The resulting disease epidemics, coupled with the massive mineral and agricultural wealth reaped by Europeans (and their American descendants), affected world history profoundly and touched nearly every part of the globe. Considered together, the effects of the Columbian Exchange are not simply important to understanding the development of European colonies in the Americas; they are one of the key events in human history. The term exchange implies that each side, Europe and the Americas, received and gave something. The first, deadliest, and most significant impact that Europe had on the Americas was disease. Native American history, and likely European history, would have been profoundly different had it not been for the crippling effects of epidemics on native societies. The dramatic decrease in the number of Native Americans after 1492 is startling and tragic, but it tells only part of the story of the effect of diseases such as measles and smallpox. Both of these diseases were unknown in the Americas prior to 1492, but they colored nearly every meeting of Europeans and Americans. Although the numbers are very much in dispute, and we are unlikely to know for certain how many Native Americans there were before 1492, recent estimates place the Native American population of the area that became the United States between 5 million and 7 million. At its nadir, around the turn of the twentieth century, the native population had dropped to around 250,000. Disease was not the only culprit, but it was a major factor. The numbers, as horrific as they may be, fail to capture the cultural significance of such a loss of population. In societies where records and cultural traditions are kept orally, the loss of elders exacted a painful cultural price. Diseases that wiped out whole generations of Native Americans made effective resistance against colonial encroachment all but impossible. Since Europeans were, for the most part, immune to these diseases, their populations soared in North America, while native populations plummeted. In some communities, the mortality rate reached 90 percent. The Columbian Exchange, in this regard, was not a fair trade conducted on equal footing. Disease would appear to have had the most profound impact on Native Americans, but the Columbian Exchange also brought about other changes in native life, not all of which were negative. Columbus’s voyages and early Spanish colonization efforts introduced pigs and horses to the Americas. Plains cultures in particular recognized the efficacy of horseback combat and quickly developed skill in riding. Pigs descended from Spanish drifts fed generations of Native Americans, particularly in the Southeast. Among the Navajo of the American Southwest, sheep had been unknown prior to the arrival of flocks from Spanish Mexico, but weaving, particularly among Navajo women, has become one of the defining characteristics of Navajo cultural production. Of course, European-introduced livestock also overran Native American farmland and hunting territory with serious ecological consequences. The effects of the Columbian Exchange on Europe, while not as devastating, are significant in terms of intellectual, economic, and dietary developments. Prior to 1492, European concepts of the world had changed strikingly little for at least 1,000 years. The world was generally divided into the only three inhabitable parts Europe, Africa, and Asia. The rest of the world fell under the ominous category of the Torrid Zone, where the climate was considered too inhospitable to support human life. Columbus, together with Portuguese explorers in Africa, exploded this myth with the revelation that there were people many of them inhabiting areas long believed vacant by Europeans. Europeans in 1491 were familiar with Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, all of which grew from similar monotheistic foundations. After the existence of native peoples in the Americas became known in Europe, European philosophers struggled to fit Native Americans into their medieval categories. Though Columbus had sailed with the intent of crusading for Catholic Spain, the scientific furor ignited by his discoveries promoted skepticism of ancient theories. Knowledge of new plants and animals further challenged European systems. The European pursuits of biology, botany, and anthropology all can be traced to the Columbian Exchange. From an economic standpoint, the Columbian Exchange encouraged a rise in European wealth, commerce, and productivity that would eventually propel Europe into the dominant position it held during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. The Spanish, for instance, extracted huge amounts of gold and, later, silver from Peru and Mexico. The rise in European wealth prompted countries to pursue trade with the Far East more vigorously than they had previously. This effect is a matter of some disagreement; the new hard currency almost certainly produced great wealth for some and grinding poverty for others. In the wake of Columbus’s discoveries, Europe created a world market, with itself at the center. Not all the wealth extracted from the New World was in the form of precious metals. Furs, skins, sugar, tobacco, and rice became important exports from the Americas, and demand in Europe and elsewhere for these products grew throughout much of the colonial period. As demand grew, planters acquired more and more African slaves to plant and harvest valuable commodities, ensuring that the Columbian Exchange would have a significant impact on the continent of Africa as well. Though estimates vary, about 10 million African slaves arrived in the Americas through the four centuries of the African slave trade. The number is high but becomes even more tragic when it is added to the 5 million or so slaves who left Africa but died before they reached the Americas, not to mention the many millions of people displaced in various West and Central African polities. In addition to the profits from plants such as tobacco, New World exports such as cassava, potatoes, corn, and turkeys became more common in European and African diets. Cassava grows well enough in harsh environments to support large populations where there had been few people previously. Corn and sweet potatoes, both unknown in Asia prior to their introduction there by Europeans, provide a significant portion of the calories consumed in China. And today the Russian Federation produces about ten times as many potatoes as all of South America, the potato’s continent of origin. One of the more controversial ideas offered, though not by Crosby, concerning the Columbian Exchange is that the relatively egalitarian Native American forms of government influenced leaders, particularly in the United States, to adopt democratic forms of government. Adherents to this view cite Benjamin Franklin’s admiration of the Iroquois. It is likely that the chain of events set in motion by Columbus would have occurred whether he had sailed or not. Nonetheless, the Columbian Exchange provides a useful, broad framework for understanding the effects of the meeting of the New and Old Worlds, an interaction that began in 1492 and has continued through the present day. Matthew Jennings See also: Agriculture; Corn; Cotton; Grain; Horses; Indigo; Livestock; Rice; Sugar; Tobacco; Document: Tobacco Growing (1775). Bibliography Crosby, Alfred W. The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1972. Crosby, Alfred W. The Columbian Voyages, the Columbian Exchange, and Their Historians. Washington, DC: American Historical Association, 1987. Nash, Gary B. Red, White, and Black: The Peoples of Early North America. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000.
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