The Columbian Exchange





What was the Columbian Exchange?

The Columbian Exchange was the period of biological and cultural exchanges between the Old and New worlds. It describes the various things which were transferred between the Americas and the Europeans during the period of colonization and exploration. It began in 1492 following the discovery of Columbus and lasted throughout the years of discovery and expansion. The exchange had a great transformational impact on the ways of life for both the Native Americans and Europeans. It caused transformational of the cultural, social and biological aspects of both sides of the Atlantic (Nunn, Nathan, and Nancy, 165).  Basically, the transformations resulted from exchanges of various aspects of life including technology, diseases, animals and plants. The evident results of the Columbian Exchange on both sides of the Atlantic included the spread of education, increased mortality rates, evolution of warfare and advancements in agricultural productions. Globalization and cultural diffusion were the major effects of the Columbian Exchange which keep influencing the world (Earle 352). The Columbian Exchange had both positive and negative effects on the world. Generally, the Columbian Exchange provides a significant foundation for understanding the relationship between the Europeans and the Americas, and the transformation of the world.

The Columbian Exchange is named after the discovery of the Americas by explorer Christopher Columbus in 1492. It marks the period of a massive exchange of commodities between the newly discovered Americas and Europe (Boivin et al. 452). Culture, technology, disease, animals and plants were among the various goods exchanged between the two Atlantic sides. Indeed, the working of the Columbian Exchange can be demonstrated in the form of a circle (Nunn, Nathan, and Nancy, 168). While the Europeans brought goods into America, they took the Native American goods back to Europe. Europeans brought in goods like bananas, coffee, apples, sugar, spices, smallpox and horses. On the other side, the Americans gave out things like sunflowers, cotton, cocoa, potatoes and tomatoes. The exchange played a fundamental role in that it allowed for the exchange of important things that influenced the two cultures (Earle 349). The goods exchanged had a significant impact on complimenting the aspects of each culture. For instance, the exchange led to the advancement of food cuisines as a result of the mixing of European and American cultures.  

Despite the significant effects of the Columbian Exchange, it also had negative impacts on society. The transfer of various forms of diseases was a major issue which affected populations on both Europe and America. Different kinds of foreign diseases including typhus, influenza and smallpox were exchanged between the Americas and the Europeans (McAlister 192). The Old Word diseases led to the decimation of the Native American populations. The decrease in population made it ineffective for meeting the high demand for crop production. As a result, the idea of slave trade arose, whereby transatlantic slaves were used to providing free and forced labour at the planation. Most of the slaves were traded from Africa to the Americas, which had devastating economic, social and political impacts on the African continent (Boivin et al. 454). The practice of slavery led to the division of the African continent, attracting the ruling by European colonials. Thus, the colonization emerged as a result of Columbian exchange when the colonizers sought for important goods from Old world.

Besides, the continuity of the Columbian Exchange during the Era of Colonization by Portuguese and Spanish resulted in suppression of the Native Americans. The Columbian Exchange provides a significant basis for understanding how the European colonizers, conquerors and explorers related with the Native Americans (Earle 352). The exchange reveals the economic theory of mercantilism that regulated the economic policy of the nations colonized by Europeans. Mercantilism supported state power by enhancing the government regulation of the economy. Christopher Columbus introduced new things into the New World with the exchange of other things to the Old World. Thus, the Columbian Exchange can be effectively addressed as the process by which different things including goods, diseases and people crossed the Atlantic. Three G’s (glory, gold and God) define the fundamental objectives for migration of the Europeans to the Americas (Boivin et al. 461). According to the ‘glory’ objective, the European colonizers viewed colonization as a source of military strength and improved status of their nation as a world power. To the objective of ‘God’, the European missionaries worked to spread Christianity to the Americas. Lastly was the objective of ‘gold’ whereby most Europeans ventured the New World with the aim of extracting natural resources.

Technological innovation supported the success of the Columbian exchange. Various forms of technological innovations such as astrolabes, caravels and compasses substantially promoted the European colonization of the Americas. Technological innovation also enhanced the development of large scale trade networks between the Americas and Europeans which influenced economic development (Nunn, Nathan, and Nancy, 175). Colonial mercantilism influenced the exchange of commodities between the Old and New worlds. It involved a system of protectionist policies formulated to empower the colonies. Mercantilism supported the European colonies to import raw materials while restricting the colonists from trading with the rest of the world (McAlister 192). Production in the New World was influenced by commodification. The Europeans used the money to transfer the ownership of the items used by Native Americans for ritual purposes. Market trade affected the spiritual significance of American commodities, hence disrupted native economies and initiated capitalism.

The Europeans introduced a variety of goods into the Americas. The new goods from the New World changed the landscapes and lives on both sides of the Atlantic. Sugar was ranked among the most important commodities from the Atlantic World. The economic significance of the sugar in the colonial era can be related to that of oil in the modern world. However, harsh climatic conditions in Europe affected the thriving of sugar plantations (Earle 352). Thus, the Europeans colonies invented the Caribbean islands and tropical areas of America to control sugar productions. The increased demand for labour in sugar plantations pushed for enslaving of African. Besides sugar, there was a variety of other crops exported to the Old World from the New World. Native Americans produced tobacco for ritual and medicinal purposes (Boivin et al. 462). The crop was believed to have the ability to enhance wisdom and improving concentration among other benefits. However, the Europeans cultivated tobacco as a cash crop rather than personal consumption. Europeans explored the application of tobacco for medicinal purposes. Native Americans also supplied Europeans with chocolate from cocoa seeds.

Despite supplying, the Americas also received new things from the Europeans. The behaviours and practices of the Europeans changed after the discovery of the New World. While Europeans acquired plants like tobacco and cocoa from the Americas, they introduced Old World animals into the New World. Christopher Columbus introduced many breeds of animals like horses, chicken, cows and pigs to the Caribbean islands. These new animals transformed the lives of most Native Americans. The invasion of Europeans into the Americas also led to the introduction of new diseases in the New World (Nunn, Nathan, and Nancy, 175). The Old World diseases had a great negative impact on the Native people because they lacked immunity to the new infections. Indeed, the European explorers infected the Native people with various harmful diseases including smallpox, mumps, measles and chickenpox. Sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis also entered the New World from the Old World.

There are other aspects of life which arose from the exchange of things between the Old World and the New World. Interactions of the European, American and African populations promoted the thriving of the Columbian exchange. Trade was the major aspect which arose from the exchange of goods between the two sides of the world. Trade enabled the exchange of goods from the Old World for goods from the New World, hence creating a spirit of relationship and interactions between the different populations. Intermarriages arose from the interactions of populations across the two sides of Atlantic (McAlister 192). There was also the exchange of cultural and religious beliefs and practices across the two sides of Atlantic. The Europeans introduced the western culture which violated the traditional practices of the Native populations. Due to enhanced productions during the era, there was an increased demand for labour. The native populations were forced to provide free labour in the plantations, which led to the practice of slavery. In the fight for their rights, the enslaved Native populations arose wars against the Europeans. Therefore, the Columbian exchange had both positive and negative impacts.

Works Cited

Boivin, Nicole, Dorian Q. Fuller, and Alison Crowther. “Old World globalization and the Columbian exchange: comparison and contrast.” World Archaeology 44.3 (2012): 452-469.

Earle, Rebecca. “The Columbian exchange.” The oxford handbook of food history. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. 341-357.

McAlister, Lyle N. “COLUMBIAN EXCHANGE.” Encyclopedia of World Trade: From Ancient Times to the Present: From Ancient Times to the Present 1 (2015): 192.

Nunn, Nathan, and Nancy Qian. “The Columbian exchange: A history of the disease, food, and ideas.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 24.2 (2010): 163-88.

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