The Columbian Exchange Statistics The Columbian Exchange Quotes The Columbian Exchange Photos The Columbian Exchange Trivia The Columbian Exchange Primary Sources Why Should I Care?
The Columbian Exchange: It's a relatively obscure concept, developed by a relatively obscure historian. Most people have never even heard of it. Its definition—the transmission of non-native plants, animals, and diseases from Europe to the Americas, and vice versa, after 1492—doesn't sound very sexy. And yet the Columbian Exchange just may be the single most important event in the modern history of the world.
The Columbian Exchange explains why Indian nations collapsed and European colonies thrived after Columbus's arrival in the New World in 1492.
The Columbian Exchange explains why European nations quickly became the wealthiest and most powerful in the world.
The Columbian Exchange explains why Africans were sold into slavery on the far side of the ocean to toil in fields of tobacco, sugar, and cotton.
The Columbian Exchange even explains why pasta marinara has tomato sauce.
If you don't understand the Columbian Exchange, you cannot truly understand the forces that shape the world we live in today. You cannot understand why you speak the language you speak, why you live in the nation you live in, or even why you eat the food you eat.
If you don't understand the Columbian Exchange, much of what you think you know about the history of the Americas may be wrong. Spanish soldiers did less to defeat the Incas and Aztecs than smallpox did. Divine Providence did less to bless the Puritan settlers of the Mayflower with good health and fortune than the Pilgrims' own immune systems did.
In the Columbian Exchange, ecology became destiny. Powerful environmental forces, understood by no one alive at the time and by very few people even today, determined who would thrive and who would die. And that may be the most shocking truth revealed to those who take the time to understand the Columbian Exchange: we, as humans, cannot always control our own destinies. The most important historical actors in this story are not Christopher Columbus or Moctezuma or Hernán Cortés. They are the smallpox virus, the pig, the potato, and the kernel of corn. The Columbian Exchange Summary & Analysis
The Big Picture: Who, What, When, Where & (Especially) Why Columbus: Discovery, Ecology and Conquest
Unequal Exchange: Food for Disease
History as Demography
The drawback of Old World civilizations' reliance upon domesticated animals came in increased incidence of disease. Many of the world's nastiest illnesses derive from bugs that have leapt back and forth between people and their animals. Humans caught smallpox from their cows, influenza from their fowl, bubonic plague from the rats who lived in their houses. By the time of Columbus, the Old World was wracked by endemic contagions of dozens of deadly diseases, which kept life expectancies low and infant mortality rates high. Largely due to the ravages of disease (especially bubonic plague), the population of Europe in 1492 was lower than it had been 200 years earlier. Jared Diamond, best-selling author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, popularized the notion that European imperialism succeeded due to European advantages over other people in the areas of, well... guns, germs, and steel. As far as colonization of the Americas is concerned, though, guns and steel were all but immaterial. The germs alone were enough.
The word "conquistador" evokes memories of Cortés and Pizarro, but in truth the greatest conquistadors of the New World were smallpox and influenza—not to mention typhoid, cholera, tuberculosis, measles, scarlet fever, yellow fever, and malaria.
Every one of these diseases, endemic to the Old World, spread to the Americas after 1492 with catastrophic effects for indigenous people there. (In return, the Americas afflicted the Old World with only one major affliction—syphilis. And even that is in dispute; scientists and historians remain divided on whether the disease truly originated in the New World.)
Old World diseases—lethal enough already on their continents of origin—became exponentially more dangerous in America, where they spread as virgin-soil epidemics among native populations totally lacking in immunities to them. (In Europe and Africa, countless children died from diseases like smallpox and malaria; those who survived, however, built up antibodies that inoculated them against adult infection. Since no Native Americans had ever encountered these diseases, none built up any immunity, leaving entire populations as "virgin soil" for infection. When the diseases struck, entire communities could be felled in a matter of days.)
Virgin-soil epidemics are among the deadliest phenomena ever experienced by humankind, and the death toll of the pandemics unleashed in the Americas by the Columbian Exchange far exceeded that of history's most famous virgin-soil epidemic, Europe's Black Death (an outbreak of bubonic plague in the 1340s). The cataclysmic effects of virgin-soil epidemics struck Native American societies just as they faced the threat of European invasion, decisively reducing the natives' capability to resist colonization. (It is worth noting that devastating smallpox pandemics struck both the Aztecs and Incas just before their respective disastrous encounters with Cortés and Pizarro.) Mississippian Mystery: De Soto and La Salle
Perhaps the most arresting evidence of the consequences of virgin-soil epidemics came from the entrada** of Hernando *de* Soto, who led an army of conquistadors deep into the North American mainland in 1539. De Soto hoped to find gold in the country that today comprises the southeastern United States; he ended up leading more than 600 men and hundreds of livestock on a four-year wild goose chase. In the end, his mission proved to be a fiasco—two-thirds of the men, including De Soto himself, died without ever finding a trace of gold—but De Soto's expedition powerfully illustrated the destructive force of smallpox, which apparently spread from his pigs to the people of the Mississippi Valley. Before leaving, De Soto's men recorded their impressions of the Mississippian people—they found dense settlements, with large villages and cities often sited within view of each other, separated by carefully tended fields of corn. After De Soto left the country, no European returned for more than 100 years. When the French explorer La Salle canoed down the Mississippi Valley in 1682, he found very few villages, no cities, and no fields of corn, but instead a landscape almost devoid of people and overrun by buffalo* (which De Soto had apparently never encountered). *
In the 140 years that passed between the explorations of De Soto and La Salle, something transformed the Mississippi Valley from a densely populated Indian heartland into a virtually deserted wilderness. That something was almost certainly smallpox. The landscape encountered by La Salle was not, as he believed, a primeval wilderness, but rather an ecosystem that had recently experienced the sudden destruction of its keystone species—Indians. The buffalo wandered in because few Indians survived to hunt them.* *
From Canada to the Tierra del Fuego, the indige*Epidemic* Disease and Manifest Destiny Neither Europeans nor Indians had any scientific understanding of the ecological processes that had so profoundly shaped their encounter. Both groups understood phenomena like agricultural abundance or epidemic disease in spiritual terms, as the respective blessings or punishments of their gods.
Thus, the undeniable facts of the European-American encounter—that Indians seemed to be wasting away, opening bounteous lands to the newcomers from across the Atlantic—acquired deep cultural and ideological meanings in the minds of the colonists who eventually founded the United States. Not understanding the scientific processes at work, Anglo-Americans interpreted their ongoing good fortune as proof of God's special endorsement of their nation.
For example, John Winthrop—Puritan elder and first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony—perceived divine blessing of the colonists' venture in the Indians' Great Dying: "For the natives," Winthrop wrote, "they are neere all dead of Small poxe, so as the Lord hathe cleared our title to what we possess."3 A Frenchman on La Salle's voyage down the Mississippi captured the idea even more bluntly: "Touching these savages, there is a thing I cannot omit to remark to you, it is that it appears visibly that God wishes that they yield their place to new peoples."4
Through generations of successful colonization—in which the descendents of Europe built some of the world's healthiest and wealthiest societies in the lands vacated by the Indians—white Americans' conviction that their presence in America had received a special blessing from God only grew stronger. The cultural and ideological origins of "manifest destiny" and "American exceptionalism" can be found in the exceptionally uneven terms of the Columbian Exchange. Only recently have we become fully aware that the special advantages enjoyed by Europeans in their encounter with Indians were bestowed less by God than by ecology.nous inhabitants of the Americas suffered similar calamities, the Columbian Exchange of diseases ravaging Indian communities and facilitating the European takeover of the hemisphere. Top of Form