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.