The"Columbian Exchange"—a phrase coined by historianAlfred Crosby—describes the interchange of plants, animals, and diseases between the Old World and the Americas followingColumbus's arrival in the Caribbean in 1492. For reasons beyond human control, rooted deep in the divergent evolutionary histories of the continents, the Columbian Exchange massively benefited the people of Europe and its colonies while bringing catastrophe to Native Americans.
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 exciting. 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.
Columbus: Discovery, Ecology and Conquest
In 1492, Christopher Columbus and his crew of ragtag, starving, near-mutinous sailors washed ashore in the Bahamas, "discovering" the New World and claiming ownership of it for the Spanish monarchy. The Taino Indians Columbus encountered—whose homeland he claimed for Spain—must have thought he was mad, suffering delusions of grandeur.
But, as we know, Columbus's arrival was indeed the first act in a centuries-long drama of colonization and conquest in which Europeans and their descendents largely displaced the Taino and their fellow Indians while remaking the Western Hemisphere in their own image.
How and why were the European colonists able to achieve such total dominance in far-off continents? Did the Europeans' power lie in their technological superiority, especially in weapons of war? Or was the European advantage ideological, rooted in the aggressive expansionism of crusading Christianity or the profit motive of entrepreneurial conquistadors? Was it simply a matter of the Europeans proving more brutally committed to a genocidal fight to the finish?
While a case can be made for the significance of any of these factors—or all of them—in truth the single most important factor in facilitating the European conquest of the Americas may be found, surprisingly, in a realm beyond simple human control: ecology.
Unequal Exchange: Food for Disease
Columbus's ships, and those of the innumerable Europeans who followed him to America, short-circuited millions of years of divergent evolution in the two hemispheres by rapidly introducing Old World plants, animals, and micro-organisms into New World environments, and vice versa. This manmade reunion of the ecologies of the hemispheres—dubbed "The Columbian Exchange" by historian Alfred Crosby—had dramatically asymmetric consequences for the peoples of the Old World and the New.
The New World happened to be much a healthier place than the Old before 1492, hosting few or none of the devastating diseases that continuously plagued the populations of Europe, Africa, and Asia. Thus, when Europeans arrived, they generally found life in the Americas to be at least as healthy as back home. By contrast, American Indians—never before exposed to vicious Old World pathogens like smallpox and thus lacking any immunities to them—began dying at apocalyptic rates. Many historians now believe that new diseases introduced after Columbus's arrival killed off as much as 90% or more of the indigenous population of the Americas.
The Indians' "Great Dying"—which may have killed as many as one out of every five humans alive worldwide in the sixteenth century—ravaged not only Indian bodies but entire Indian societies and cultures. The traumatized survivors were often left unable to mount any effective resistance against the incursions of the European colonists.
The Columbian Exchange became even more unbalanced with Europe's successful appropriation of New World staple crops originally developed by Indians. The adoption of efficient, carbohydrate-rich American crops such as corn, potatoes, and cassava allowed Europeans and Africans to overcome chronic food shortages. Thus, even while Native American populations were decimated by Old World diseases, European and African populations swelled as American crops helped to overcome Old World famine.