The Columbian Exchange was a
global phenomenon whose unintended consequences changed the world forever. Its primary effect was to change the ecology
and cuisine of virtually every country in the world. Its secondary effect was to change the
balance of world power from Asia to Europe.
After Columbus discovered the
Americas, Spain continued to send galleons across the Atlantic for decades to
recover its gold and silver. In the
simply process of Europeans landing on the Americas seeking precious metals, a
complex unintentional exchange of non-native plants, animals, and diseases from Europe to the
Americas, and vice versa, was set up that would
change the ecology of the world. This exchange
greatly enriched European life and had a devastating effect on life in the
In addition to the precious
metals, the exchange primarily consisted of three items: pathogens from Europe that didn’t exist in
the Americas, domestic animals from Europe that didn’t exist in the Americas,
and plants native to the Americas that didn’t exist in Europe or anywhere else
in the world.
The Exchange modified the
balance of global forces primarily in two ways.
It changed the culture of many if not most nations and increased the
military and economic power of some countries, thus changing the balance of
power over the globe.
The cultural changes were:
The domestic animals brought
from Europe, primarily the horse, cow and pig, allowed the Natives to change
from an agricultural society to a nomadic and ranching society.
Items like tomatoes, beans, cacao, peanuts,
tobacco, and squash would transform the diets of all Europeans and eventually
The introduction of the potato to Europe and
eventually to Ireland where they became heavily dependent them, lead to their
great famine. Tomatoes, brought to Italy
from the Americas became the staple of their world famous cuisine.
Because of their lack of technology, the people
of the Americas were not a global force.
However, the virtual decimation of their population wrought by the
Exchange and the subsequent treatment they received destroyed their culture.
In order to exploit the resources in the Americas
the Europeans imported slave labor from Africa.
Up until the mid 19th century more Africans came to the
Americas than Europeans. Thus,
indirectly, the Exchange was responsible for the enslavement of a culture for
more than 300 years.
The economic and military changes were:
While there were several
factors that allowed the Europeans to eventually conquer the American natives,
arguably the most important was disease.
They brought with them the smallpox and measles germs from which the
natives had no immunity. The result was
that as many as 90% of the natives were killed off by these diseases. This made their conquest significantly
The silver and gold brought
back to Europe significantly enriched their governments. It was used to pay for goods from Asia,
expanding their military, and erect extravagant governmental buildings.
Additionally, the transfer of native staples, such as efficient
carbohydrate-rich crops like corn and potatoes, allowed Europeans and Africans to overcome their
food shortages. This was a major factor
in allowing the population of Europe to increase substantially over the next
few centuries and thus have larger militaries.
The transformation of North America into ranching
for the production of pigs and cows changed the ranges of Western American into
a pork and beef production centers, eventually making it a major economic area.
Based upon these changes in the global peoples
and economies it is clear that the Columbian Exchange produced major changes in
the way the world was to function for hundreds of years.
The conquest of the New World
began when Columbus asked Spain to finance his trip across the Atlantic Ocean
in order to open a trade route to Japan and China. He also intended to Christianize the natives
and enrich himself and the queen. It
was not a single event such as Columbus’ discovery but consisted of many events
and decisions that lasted for about four hundred years.
Changes in technology within
Europe provided them with large ships that could cross the ocean carrying many
men. The discovery of Brazilwood helped
accelerated the development of ship building. The ability to fabricate steel
provided them with weapons that were a force unmatched by the people in the
Americas. Among these weapons were
spears, swords, and guns.
Another major cause of the conquest
was the pathogens brought by the Europeans that the natives had no immunity
from, basically smallpox and measles.
The Europeans were able to domesticate several animals to perform farm
work. Over the years this close relationship
provided the Europeans with immunities to certain diseases. However, in America there were virtually no
domesticated animals and thus the natives did not have these immunities and
were overcome with the European pathogens.
There forged steel swords
were a large advantage since the natives had no similar weapons. The natives
had not ever seen any structure as large as the European ships. This gave the Europeans a godlike quality.
Initially Columbus came with
three ships and 87 men. But upon
returning and relating his story of the gold he found the Spanish soon sent
many more ships and men to recover the riches.
The crown devised an economic
model whereby a conquistador was granted control over the native land and labor
in order to extract the gold. In return
the crown imposed a tax on the extracted precious metals. This was an economic model that worked well
for everyone but the native population.
This action however was in conflict
with the Church’s intent to Christianize the natives. The friars claimed this relationship as
exploitive of their potential converts. The
controversy leads to an ethical issue within Spain as to whether enslavement of
New World natives was immoral. This issue
caused friar by de las Casas to write his famous book on ethics. This argument leads to their decision on how
to govern the colonies populated by the Spanish captives.
As the placer gold mines ran
dry the Spanish went to the mainland and found much larger and more civilized
societies. This represented an
opportunity for Spain to reap substantially larger rewards.
Cortez and his over 500 men set
out in the beginning of the sixteenth century to conquer a much larger Aztec
civilization. Their ability to do this
was due primarily to: disease, more
Aztecs died of disease then were killed by the Spanish; the help of neighboring
tribes who were rivals to the Aztecs; vastly superior arms; the passivity of
the Aztecs warriors who were trained not to kill their rivals; and finally the
use of an intermediary, the daughter of a local leader.
In addition to the Aztec
civilization, the Spanish also conquered the Incas, who lived in the Andes Mountains
and who population was larger than four million. When Pizzaro arrived with only 500 soldiers
the Incas were in the middle of a civil war.
Once again it was disease and overwhelming arms power that allow Pizzaro
to become victorious over his more numerous opposition.
The conquest of these peoples
raised the issue of what form of government would be used to control the native
people. In general, a compromise between the
conquerors and the conquered was used to maximize the chance of stability. The stability was required to maximize the
riches that they could extract from the colonies.
In North America the Spanish
meet a different situation because it was much less populated and
organized. As a result the conquest was
much less militant and much more cooperative.
Trading of beaver pelts was an example of diplomacy used.
With the conquest of the
Aztecs and Incas Spain was in control of the New World. This brought them two major rewards: control over both the human and material
riches of the area and a colony that would purchase Spanish products and would
produce products for consumption in Europe.
This would change the balance of power between Europe and the rest of