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3.1: The Impact of "Discovery" - The Columbian Exchange

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    Most historians in the twenty-first century insist that the merits of Columbus and his experience must be measured in terms of fifteenth and sixteenth century standards and values, and not in terms of those of the twenty-first century. Columbus was a product of the crusading zeal of the Renaissance period, a religious man, whose accomplishments were remarkable. He sailed west and though he did not make it to the East Indies, he did encountered continents previously unknown to the Europeans. The subsequent crop and animal exchange revolutionized the lifestyle of Europeans, Asians, and Africans. Historians refer to this process as the “Columbian Exchange.” The Exchange introduced (or in the case of the horse, reintroduced) into the New World such previously unknown commodities as cattle, horses, sugar, tea, and coffee, while such products as tobacco, potatoes, chocolate, corn, and tomatoes made their way from the New World into the Old World. Not all exchanges were beneficial, of course; European diseases such as smallpox and influenza, to which the Native Americans had no resistance, were responsible for the significant depopulation of the New World.

    Because of such crops as the potato, the sweet potato, and maize, however, Europeans and later the East Asians were able to vary their diets and participate in the technological revolution that would begin within 200 years of Columbus’s voyage.

    The biological exchange following the voyages of Columbus was even more extensive than originally thought. Europeans discovered llamas, alpacas, iguana, flying squirrels, catfish, rattlesnakes, bison, cougars, armadillos, opossums, sloths, anacondas, electric eels, vampire bats, toucans, condors, and hummingbirds in the Americas. Europeans introduced goats and crops such as snap, kidney, and lima beans, barley, oats, wine grapes, melons, coffee, olives, bananas, and more to the New World.

    From the New World to the Old: The Exchange of Crops

    Corn (or maize) is a New World crop, which was unknown in the Old World before Columbus’s voyage in 1492. Following his four voyages, corn quickly became a staple crop in Europe. By 1630, the Spanish took over commercial production of corn, overshadowing the ancient use of maize for subsistence in Mesoamerica. Corn also became an important crop in China, whose population was the world’s largest in the early modern period. China lacked flat lands on which to grow crops, and corn was a hearty crop which grew in many locations that would otherwise be unable to be cultivated. Today corn is produced in most countries of the world and is the third-most planted field crop (after wheat and rice).

    Both the white and the sweet potato were New World crops that were unknown in the Old World before Columbus. The white potato originated in South America in the Andes Mountains where the natives developed over 200 varieties and pioneered the freeze-dried potato, or chuño, which can be stored for up to four years. Incan units of time were based on how long it took for a potato to cook to various consistencies. Potatoes were even used to divine the truth and predict weather. It became a staple crop in Europe after Columbus and was brought to North America by the Scots-Irish immigrants in the 1700s. The white potato is also known as the “Irish” potato as it provided the basic food supply of the Irish in the early modern period. The potato is a good source of many nutrients. When the Irish potato famine hit in the nineteenth century, many Irish immigrated to the Americas.

    The sweet potato became an important crop in Europe as well as Asia. Because China has little flat land for cultivation, long ago its people learned to terrace its mountainous areas in order to create more arable land. During the Ming (1398-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties, China became the most populous nation on Earth. The sweet potato grew easily in many different climates and settings, and the Chinese learned to harvest it in the early modern period to supplement the rice supply and to compensate for the lack of flat lands on which to create rice paddies.

    Tobacco was a New World crop, first discovered in 1492 on San Salvador when the Arawak gave Columbus and his men fruit and some pungent dried leaves. Columbus ate the fruit but threw away the leaves. Later, Rodrigo de Jerez witnessed natives in Cuba smoking tobacco in pipes for ceremonial purposes and as a symbol of good will.

    By 1565, tobacco had spread throughout Europe. It became popular in England after it was introduced by Sir Walter Raleigh, explorer and national figure. By 1580, tobacco usage had spread from Spain to Turkey, and from there to Russia, France, England, and the rest of Asia. In 1614, the Spanish mandated that tobacco from the New World be sent to Seville, which became the world center for the production of cigars. In the same year, King James I of England created a royal monopoly on tobacco imports, though at the same time calling it “that noxious weed” and warning of its adverse effects.

    Peppers have been found in prehistoric remains in Peru, where the Incas established their empire. They were grown in Central and South America. Spanish explorers first carried pepper seeds to Spain in 1493, and the plants then spread throughout Europe. Peppers are now cultivated in the tropical regions of Asia and in the Americas near the equator.

    Tomatoes originated in the coastal highlands of western South America and were later cultivated by the Maya in Mesoamerica. The Spanish took them to Europe, where at first the Europeans believed them to be poisonous because of the pungent odor of their leaves. The Physalis pubescens, or husk tomato, was called tomatl by the natives, whereas the early common tomato was the xitomatl. The Spaniards called both fruits tomatoes. The use of tomatoes in sauces became known as “Spanish” cuisine. American tomatoes gradually made their way into the cuisine of Portugal, North Africa, and Italy, as well as the Germanic and Slavic regions held by the Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs. By the late seventeenth century, tomatoes were included in southern Italian dishes, where they were known as also poma d’oro. Raw and cooked tomatoes were eaten in the Caribbean, Philippines, and southeastern Asia.

    The peanut plant probably originated in Brazil or Peru. Inca graves often contain jars filled with peanuts to provide food for the dead in the afterlife. When the Spanish arrived in the New World, peanuts were grown as far north as Mexico. The explorers took peanuts back to Spain, where they are still grown. From Spain, traders and explorers took peanuts to Africa and Asia. Africans believed the plant possessed a soul, and they brought peanuts to the southern part of North America when they were brought there as slaves. The word “goober” comes from the Congo name for peanuts, nguba.

    The wonderful commodity we know as chocolate is a product of the cacao tree. This tree requires the warm, moist climate which is found only within fifteen or twenty degrees of the equator. The first written records of chocolate date to the sixteenth century, but this product of cacao trees was likely harvested as long as three or four thousand years ago. This product consists of pods containing a pulpy mass, inside of which are seeds. The cacao bean is a brown kernel inside the seed.

    The Olmec used cacao beans as early as 400 BCE; later the Mayans, Aztecs, and Toltecs also cultivated the crop. Eventually, the Indians learned how to make a drink from grinding the beans into a paste, thinning it with water, and adding sweeteners such as honey. They called the drink xocolatl (pronounced shoco-latle). The Aztecs used cacao beans as currency, and in 1502, Columbus returned from one of his expeditions with a bag full of cacao beans as a sample of the coins being used in the New World. In 1519, Cortés observed the Aztec Emperor Montezuma and his court drinking chocolate. In 1606, Italians reached the West Indies and returned with the secret of this splendid potion. The drink became popular in Europe, and in 1657, the first chocolate house opened in London.

    Exchange of Diseases

    Although the origin of syphilis has been widely debated and its exact origin is unknown, Europeans like Bartolomé de las Casas, who visited the Americas in the early sixteenth century, wrote that the disease was well known among the natives there. Skeletal remains of Native Americans from this period and earlier suggest that here, in contrast to other regions of the world, the disease had a congenital form. Skeletons show “Hutchinson’s Teeth”, which are associated with the congenital form of the disease. They also show lesions on the skull and other parts of the skeleton, a feature associated with the late stages of the disease.

    A second explanation which has received a good deal of support in the twenty-first century is that syphilis existed in the Old World prior to the voyages of Columbus, but that it was unrecognized until it became common and widely spread in the years following the discovery of the New World.

    The eighteenth century writer Voltaire called syphilis the “first fruits the Spanish brought from the New World.” The disease was first described in Europe after Charles VIII of France marched his troops to Italy in 1494; when his men returned to France, they brought the disease with them and from there it spread to Germany, Switzerland, Greece, and other regions. When Vasco da Gama sailed around the tip of Africa in 1498, he carried the disease to India. In the 1500s, it reached China; in 1520 it reached Japan, where fifty percent of the population in Edo (modern Tokyo) was infected within one hundred years. Hernán Cortés contracted the disease in Haiti as he made his way to Mesoamerica. So widespread was the disease in the sixteenth century, it was called the “Great Pox” or, in a reflection of politics associated with the development of nation states, the disease was called the “French Pox,” the “Italian Pox,” or whatever name reflected the antagonisms of the time.

    The Europeans brought smallpox, influenza, measles, and typhus to the New World, devastating the Native American population. Although Europeans had resistance to these diseases, the Native Americans did not. In Europe, measles was a minor irritant; in the New World, it killed countless natives. In the twenty-five years after Columbus landed on Hispaniola, the population there dropped from 5,000,000 to 500.

    Some scholars estimate that between fifty to ninety percent of the Native American population died in the wake of the Spanish voyages. If these percentages are correct, they would represent an epidemic of monumental proportions to which there are no comparisons. For example, during the fourteenth century, the Black Death ravaged Europe, killing about fourteen million people, or between thirty to fifty percent of the population. By contrast, in Mexico alone, eight million people died from the diseases brought by the Spanish; there is really no accurate count as to how many other natives died in other regions of the Americas. The impact of smallpox on the native population continued for many centuries after Columbus. During the westward expansion of the United States, pioneers and the army often gave Native Americans blankets laced with smallpox germs in order to more quickly “civilize” the West.

    Exchange of Animals

    Fossil evidence shows that turkeys were in the Americas ten million years ago. Wild turkeys are originally native to North and Central America. Mesoamericans domesticated the turkey, and the Spanish took it to Europe. By 1524 the turkey reached England, and by 1558, it was popular at banquets in England and in other parts of Europe. Ironically, English settlers brought the domesticated turkey back to North America and interbred it with native wild turkeys. In 1579, the English explorer Martin Frobisher celebrated the first formal Thanksgiving in the Americas with a ceremony in Newfoundland to give thanks for surviving the long journey. The pilgrims who settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621 celebrated their first harvest in the New World by eating wild turkey.

    Although the horse very likely originated in the Americas, it migrated to Asia over the Bering Strait land bridge and became extinct in the Americas after prehistoric times. The horse was completely unknown to the Native Americans prior to the Spanish conquest. In 1519, Hernán Cortés wrote: “Next to God, We Owe Our Victory to Our Horses.” Cortés had brought only sixteen horses, but because the Aztecs fought primarily on foot, the Spaniards had a decided advantage. After their victory over the Aztecs, the Spanish brought more horses. In 1519, Coronado had 150 horses when he went to North America, and de Soto had 237 horses in 1539. By 1547, Antonio de Mendoza, the first governor of New Spain (Mexico), owned over 1,500 horses. The Spanish forbade Native Americans to ride horses without permission.

    Cattle were unknown in the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans. The Vikings brought European cattle to the Americas in 1000 CE. When their colony disappeared, so did their cattle. Columbus brought cattle to Hispaniola in 1493. In 1519, Cortés brought cattle to Central America. These cattle sported very long horns, hence the term “longhorns.” Spanish missionaries brought longhorns to Texas, New Mexico, and California; the breed also thrived in South America, especially near modern Brazil and Argentina. The Jamestown colony got its first cattle from England in 1611, and other European powers later brought cattle to their colonies. As the westward expansion began in the nineteenth century, the eastern cattle supplanted the longhorn, as they were better for meat and proved to be hardy in difficult weather. Today, there are few longhorns in North America.

    Pigs were unknown in the Americas before Hernán do de Soto brought thirteen of these animals to the Florida mainland. Columbus brought red pigs to the Americas on his second voyage. They were also brought into the United States from the Guinea coast of Africa on early slave-trading vessels. Today, the state of Kansas alone produces enough pigs every year to feed ten million people.

    Sheep were first introduced in the southwestern United States by Cortés in 1519 to supply wool for his soldiers. Navajo sheep are descended from the multi-colored sheep from the Spanish. During the westward expansion of the nineteenth century, there would be great conflict between cattle and sheep owners over grazing land.

    From the Columbian Exchange to Transculturation

    The economic and cultural exchange in the wake of Columbus’s voyages brought about a profound shift in the world view of Europeans; the trading empires that resulted from the discovery of the Americas created a new, global economy in which many different peoples interacted. The economic exchange had a profound effect on society and politics and the Americas were a microcosm of these changes.

    Silver from the mines in the Americas flooded the European markets. From 1503-1650, the Spanish brought 6 million kilograms of silver and 185,000 kilograms of gold into Seville. Although the influx of New World silver has often been blamed for the rampant inflation which hit Spain and later Europe in the sixteenth century, prices had already risen sharply before 1565, while silver imports did not reach their peak until 1580-1620. However, Phillip II of Spain paid his armies and foreign debts with New World silver and transmitted the rising prices and inflation in Spain to the rest of Europe. This surge in prices is known as the Price Revolution. In Saxony in 1517, the year Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses, prices had risen by one hundred percent over what they were in 1492, the year of Columbus’s first voyage.

    The Voyages of Exploration also created a global economy through sea trade. The Portuguese reached India and then went on to Japan and China. They brought back spices to Lisbon and often paid for these goods with textiles from India along with gold and ivory from East Africa. From the Portuguese outpost at Macao, they took Chinese silk to the Philippines and Japan, where they traded silk for Spanish silver. Spanish silver from the New World had a dramatic effect on the Chinese economy; the Single Whip Reform united the taxation system of China through a single tax payable in silver.

    The Portuguese also brought horses to India from Mesopotamia and copper from Arabia, and carried hawks and peacocks from India to China and Japan. The Portuguese traded in African slaves; African slave labor produced the sugar on their plantations in Brazil, which produced the bulk of Europe’s sugar supply in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Portuguese became the language of trade in East Africa and Asia. The legacy of the Portuguese trading empire continued until the late twentieth century.

    The Spanish and Dutch also established large maritime empires during the Age of Exploration. Miguel López de Legazpi established Spanish control over the Philippine Islands, linking Spanish trade in the Americas with trade in the East. Similarly, the Dutch established a trading empire based on spices, and in 1599, a Dutch fleet brought over 600,000 pounds of pepper and other spices to Amsterdam.

    The interaction among Europeans, Native Americans, and Africans in the sixteenth century illustrated the clash of cultures that arose as European motives were at odds with the ethos and lifestyle of the indigenous civilizations of the Americas. This process, transculturation, occurred especially in the cities, where the different ethnicities lived in closer proximity than in the provinces, and where African slaves were allowed greater freedom of movement and association. Transculturation was also obvious on the plantations of Brazil and the larger estates, known as haciendas, in Spanish America; on both, African slaves and indigenous peoples worked side by side with mestizos, who were usually “sharecroppers.”

    New ethnicities appeared: the mestizos were created by intermarriage between Europeans and Indians; mulattoes were the offspring of whites and Africans. Similarly, religion reflected the fact that traditional Indian religions adapted and adopted elements of Catholicism. An example of this can be found in the patron saint of Mexico, the Virgin of Guadalupe. The figure was placed on a site sacred to Aztec religion, and at times, her face is depicted as dark, at other times, light. The Nahuatl-speaking Mexicans gave her the name of the Aztec earth goddess, Tonantzin. The same melding of religious traditions is evident in the tendency of Mexican crucifixion figures to be covered in blood, a bow to the Aztec belief that blood was needed to keep the sun burning and thus was a symbol of a life-giving force.

    In looking at the story of the conquest and its impact on both conquistadors and the monarchs of Spain, it is interesting to compare the views of Philip II of Spain, writing in 1559, with those of Lope de Aguirre, a Spanish adventurer in Peru, just two years later. Philip II’s thoughts turned entirely to the wealth that the Indies had brought to the Spanish monarchy (and indeed this wealth helped fund the famous Spanish Armada), while the conquistador chided the king for his indifference to the plight of those who had done so much to secure this wealth. Philip explained:

    [F]rom New Spain are obtained gold and silver, cochineal [little insects like flies], from which crimson dye is made, leather, cotton, sugar and other things; but from Peru nothing is obtained except minerals. The fifth part of all that is produced goes to the king, but since the gold and silver is brought to Spain and he has a tenth part of that which goes to the mint and is refined and coined, he eventually gets one-fourth of the whole sum.

    He was also aware that the supply of precious metals would not last forever because “great quantities of gold and silver are no longer found upon the surface of the earth, as they have been in past years; and to penetrate into the bowels of the earth requires greater effort.” The effort would not come from the Crown, of course.

    A very different picture is painted by Lope de Aguirre, who actually scolded the King by saying,

    Look here, King of Spain! Do not be cruel and ungrateful to your vassals, because while your father and you stayed in Spain without the slightest bother, your vassals, at the price of their blood and fortune, have given you all the kingdoms and holding you have in these parts. Beware, King and lord, that you cannot take, under the title of legitimate king, any benefit from this land where you risked nothing, without first giving due gratification to those who have labored and sweated in it.

    These two writings came in the mid-sixteenth century, just a few decades after the conquest of the Aztec Empire and not long after the fall of the Incas to Pizarro. Great wealth had come to the Spanish monarchy, great suffering to those who actually went to or already lived in the New World.


    The significance of the exchange and sharing of cultures that resulted from the discovery of the Americas and their colonization by the Spanish and Portuguese can hardly be overstated. A profound economic revolution shook both hemispheres as the influx of crops, diseases, animals, and metals to the Old World changed patterns of trade, the medium of exchange, and ideas about the use and distribution of wealth.

    Similarly, traditional ideas about the structure and inhabitants of the world were put aside as Europeans and Indians encountered and ultimately learned from each other. Ethnicities were intertwined as Europeans, Africans, Indians, and their children created a complicated hierarchy of race and class in the colonies. The world had been turned upside down, perhaps for the first, if not for the last, time.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    1. Which of the following animals did not originate in the Old World of Europe, Africa, or Asia?

    1. Llamas
    2. Cattle
    3. Sheep
    4. Pigs


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    2. Which of the following crops originated in the New World?

    1. Oats
    2. Peanuts
    3. Barley
    4. Coffee


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    What crop was so controversial that monarchs in Europe and China attempted to ban its use?

    1. Tobacco
    2. Rice
    3. Potato
    4. Wheat


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{4}\)

    Which of the following crops did not originate in the New World?

    1. Tobacco
    2. Maize
    3. Potato
    4. Wheat


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{5}\)

    Which of the following European diseases was responsible for the greatest number of Amerindian deaths in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries?

    1. Measles
    2. Influenza
    3. Bubonic Plague
    4. Smallpox


    This page titled 3.1: The Impact of "Discovery" - The Columbian Exchange is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Catherine Locks, Sarah Mergel, Pamela Roseman, Tamara Spike & Marie Lasseter (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.