By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Explain how technological innovations in the fifteenth century made transatlantic journeys possible
- Discuss the motives for Spanish and Portuguese exploration in the Americas
- Analyze the impact of the Treaty of Tordesillas on the Atlantic World
- Describe the physical and cultural ramifications of the Columbian Exchange
During the European Middle Ages, the Middle East and North Africa entered a golden age of learning. As Europeans increasingly made connections with peoples across the Mediterranean and in Central and East Asia, ideas from this golden age trickled back to them that influenced sailors, explorers, and shipbuilders. Then, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, innovators in navigation and exploration pushed Europeans to expand their trade networks across the globe and connect with new places and peoples. The most notable voyages of this period, known as the Age of Exploration, were the transatlantic voyages of Genoese explorer Christopher Columbus in the 1490s, underwritten by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain.
The Rise of Maritime Nations
Christopher Columbus’s 1492 voyage did not represent the first contact between European explorers and Indigenous peoples on the North American continent. Through archaeological and historical research, historians can now date that contact to nearly five hundred years before Columbus reached his first stop in the Caribbean.
In the early 1000s, Leif Erikson, a Viking explorer living in Greenland, heard from fellow explorer Bjarni Herjólfsson that another land lay only a few hundred miles to the west. In a journey during which he was blown off course, Erikson found a land to the west that he called Vinland, for the grapes that grew near its shores. He stayed there only through the winter, never making direct contact with the Indigenous peoples and returning to Greenland in the spring. His brother Thorvald was the first to make contact, which ended in violent conflict and the deaths of several Native Americans and Thorvald himself. In a third exploration, men and women of Erikson’s family encountered the Indigenous people of Vinland again but maintained peace, creating a small but steady relationship with them based on trade (Figure 5.6).
The Viking explorers referred to these Indigenous peoples as Skraelings. Scholars are not sure which Indigenous group they belonged to, but twentieth-century archaeological digs in Nova Scotia have verified much of the information found in the Icelandic sagas of Vinland. In the 1960s, explorers Helge and Anne Ingstad discovered in Newfoundland, Canada, the buried ruins of a Viking camp from around the time of Erikson’s explorations, in a place called L’Anse aux Meadows. This find definitively proved at last that the Norse had traveled to the Americas before Columbus. Over the years, it has been suggested that other people besides the Vikings also discovered the Americas before Columbus, including Irish monks, African sailors, and Chinese members of Admiral Zheng He’s treasure fleet. There is no widely accepted proof of any of these voyages, however.
Learn how archaeologists found evidence of Viking settlers in Canada and were able to determine the year the Norse were in North America.
The settlements in Newfoundland never became permanent, likely because Indigenous groups developed an increasing hostility toward the often-violent Vikings. By the 1400s, the frontier colonies of Greenland populated by Norse peoples had also all but disappeared. But knowledge of a land farther west survived in the Norse sagas, and it is possible that it trickled across Europe into Italy and Spain and eventually into the mind of a young Christopher Columbus.
In the meantime, with the collapse of Constantinople and the fall of the Byzantine Empire to the Ottomans in 1453, many Europeans felt a sense of doom. Not only had they lost a bastion of Christian power, but Muslims now controlled their tenuous overland connections to South and East Asia. As a result, they now had to go through Muslim intermediaries to purchase valuable spices such as cinnamon, pepper, cloves, and nutmeg that grew in only a few key locations. European nations, therefore, wanted to find an all-water passage to India and the chain of sparsely populated Indonesian islands known as the Spice Islands.
In the fifteenth century, Europe experienced a timely navigational revolution as a result of adopting new non-Western maritime technologies. In the first millennium CE, Arab sailors in the Middle East had created the lateen sail, a triangular sail that allowed ships to travel against the wind. The square European sail gave ships power, but the lateen sail increased their ability to maneuver. When Europeans combined the two kinds of sail on three-masted ships, they could navigate confidently in any direction. The sternpost rudder, created in China in the thirteenth century, also allowed for steering against the currents. For directional guidance, the ancient Greek astrolabe, which used constellations as a guide and enabled mariners to find their north–south position on the earth’s surface, came to Europe after being refined in the Middle East (Figure 5.7). The magnetic compass also came to Europe in the fifteenth century, making its way from China where it was guiding ships by 1100 CE. The adoption of these inventions allowed Europeans to abandon their long-standing practice of navigating by sailing along a coastline. Now they could venture into the open ocean, beyond sight of land.
Learn how an astrolabe works in this video, “How to use an astrolabe,” by William Greenwood of the British Museum, a short but thorough explanation of the mechanics of an incredible navigational tool.
However, technological advancements and a desire for expanded trade and territory could take explorers only so far without financial backing. The commercial empire that funded European overseas exploration began in the Italian city-states of the Middle Ages, but the investment system on which it was based did not originate there. This system, called commenda, established a sort of financial patronage by which investors funded merchants to expand their trading enterprises and earned a more extensive business network in the process. Like many of the technologies that drove European ships, the commenda was first developed by Muslim merchants.
By the late fifteenth century, Italian city-states were supporting a variety of small family-owned businesses and large companies. Capital was concentrated in land and commerce rather than in industrial pursuits, but credit was widely used. Across Europe, risk-sharing business ventures and joint investment schemes were already commonplace among merchants. Spain, which Muslim rulers had conquered and settled, had connections across the Mediterranean to Africa and the Middle East, while northern and central Europe wielded a sprawling maritime exchange across the North and Baltic Seas.
In the late 1400s, both Portugal and Spain were emerging from centuries of rule by North African Muslim states. Portugal had become an independent country by the twelfth century (Figure 5.8). At the beginning of the fifteenth century, it was a small country with poor soil. However, it did have one advantage—a geographical location that lent itself to exploration, specifically down the African coastline and across the Atlantic. Portugal also had plenty of coves and natural harbors suited for shipping, and speedy crosswinds and currents that gave it a shipping superhighway of sorts between northern and southern Europe. Various nearby islands such as the Azores also teemed with untapped fishing potential.
In the 1340s, King Afonso IV of Portugal raised public funds to build a commercial fleet that by the fifteenth century had transformed the nation into a maritime power. In 1341, the Portuguese sailed to the Canary Islands in the Atlantic. This was only the beginning of their exploration and conquest. In 1415, John I, grandson of Afonso IV, dispatched Portuguese forces to capture the city of Ceuta in Morocco. John hoped that control of a port on the North African coast would open that continent to both conquest and trade. To further cement his control of the region, he requested papal recognition of his efforts. In April 1418, Pope Martin V granted the Portuguese king the right to all African lands taken from Muslim rulers.
Under John’s son Prince Henry, dubbed “the Navigator” by historians, Portuguese explorers claimed the Madeira Islands, the Azores, and the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa. They also sailed down the western coast of Africa as far as today’s Sierra Leone. Eventually, Portuguese expeditions reached the southern tip of Africa, and in 1488, Bartolomeu Dias, who had participated in the Battle of Ceuta, sailed around the Cape of Good Hope to reach the eastern side of the continent.
The Portuguese were driven by both religious fervor and a desire for wealth. Since the Middle Ages, they, like other Europeans, had been intrigued by stories of a lost Christian kingdom somewhere in Africa or Asia, ruled by a legendary king named Prester John (Figure 5.9). By the 1400s, they had come to believe his lands were located in Africa, and their hope of forming an alliance with him to defeat the forces of Islam helped motivate their exploration there.
The Portuguese also hoped to gain access to the wealth of Africa. As they moved southward along the continent’s coast, they established citadels on land leased from local rulers, like the fortress of Elmina, located on the coast of present-day Ghana. From there, they bartered for gold, ivory, and enslaved people. The first shipment of enslaved Africans arrived in Portugal in 1441. To further its economic interests, Portugal also established relations with the African kingdoms of Benin and Kongo. Its connection to Kongo, in what is now Angola, was particularly close. Members of Kongo’s ruling family and nobility converted to Roman Catholicism and adopted Portuguese names. Kongo became an important source of enslaved laborers, and its kings readily assisted the Portuguese in taking captives from enemy tribes. The Portuguese claim to the riches of African trade was affirmed in 1455 in the Romanus Pontifex, a papal decree issued by Pope Nicholas V that granted Portugal exclusive rights to trade in Africa south of Cape Bojador, on the coast of Morocco. The interests of the Africans who controlled these lands were not considered.
Despite the Romanus Pontifex, the Spanish monarchs Isabella I of Castille and Ferdinand II of Aragon were not willing to allow Portugal to take the lead in establishing maritime trade with places outside Europe. By 1492, the final Muslim stronghold on the Iberian Peninsula had been defeated, and, no longer worried about the threat posed by the Muslim presence, Isabella and Ferdinand could turn to matters beyond the peninsula. In 1486, the Genoese navigator Christopher Columbus approached them with a request for funds for exploration. Columbus proposed that he could reach Asia by sailing westward across the Atlantic Ocean. Eager to find an all-water route to Asia to compete with the Portuguese, Isabella and Ferdinand agreed to his request. Like the Portuguese monarchs, they were also dedicated to spreading Christianity and combating the spread of Islam. Indeed, they regarded themselves as Europe’s foremost defenders of Roman Catholicism.
On August 3, 1492, Columbus set sail from Spain with three ships. After stopping briefly in the Canary Islands, he set off again on September 6. Five weeks later, he reached the Bahamas, which he believed were a part of Southeast Asia called the Indies. From there, he sailed to Cuba and an island Columbus named Hispaniola (meaning “little Spain”), the island now divided between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Columbus made contact with the inhabitants of Hispaniola, whom he called “Indians.” Some welcomed the Europeans, who attempted to learn whether the inhabitants had gold, but one group, perhaps mistrusting the newcomers, engaged them in battle.
Leaving behind a handful of men to found a settlement on Hispaniola, Columbus and his crew departed for Europe, taking with them some Arawak people they had kidnapped. They arrived in Spain in 1493, with Columbus believing he had succeeded in reaching the Indies. He returned to the Americas three more times (Figure 5.10). On the third voyage, he explored the coast of Venezuela, which he was certain was part of the Asian mainland.
Columbus Day vs. Indigenous Peoples’ Day
Local governments across the United States have recently begun replacing the federal holiday honoring Christopher Columbus with one honoring the role of Indigenous peoples in the nation’s past and present. South Dakota began the trend as far back as 1989, but Columbus’s place in history remains controversial. While some believe he should be honored, others, including many Native Americans, believe that as a known enslaver of Africans and Native Americans, he should not be glorified.
The adoption of Columbus as the original “American son” who “discovered America” was once meant to humanize immigrants and minority populations, particularly Italian Catholics who had come to the northeastern United States in the late 1800s. (Columbus was Italian and Catholic.) But at the same time, the U.S. government continued to exile Indigenous peoples from their homelands and suppress their religion and culture. Many historians also argue that Columbus opened the door not just to European settlement but also to disease, oppression, and genocide. The debate about whether the holiday named for him is culturally insensitive continues.
- How might the continued celebration of Columbus Day affect Indigenous communities?
- How should U.S. citizens decide whether and how to change federal holidays? Who should or should not be honored by such holidays? Why?
Soon, however, Europeans came to realize that the lands Columbus had found were new continents, which were then named the Americas after the Italian mapmaker Amerigo Vespucci, who accompanied later Spanish and Portuguese voyages to South America. This was the beginning of European colonialism in the Americas. Colonialism is a practice in which one group of people attempts to establish control over another, usually for purposes of economic exploitation. The lands in the Americas to which the Spanish, Portuguese, and other European nations laid claim in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were incorporated into the colonial empires these countries were beginning to build.
Columbus’s expeditions did not produce the riches the Spanish monarchs had hoped for. Nevertheless, Spain’s exploration of the new continents continued, led by conquistadors. Some of these explorers were nobles or had military training and had fought against the Muslims in Spain; others were landless and wished to improve their lot in life. One instrument by which the Spanish government compensated conquistadors was the encomienda, a hereditary grant that entitled the holder, called an encomendero, to the labor of a specified number of conquered people, or to a tribute of precious metals or agricultural produce. Although the Crown forbade the enslavement of Indigenous peoples, the encomienda system enabled their abuse at the hands of Spanish settlers who hoped to profit from their labor (Figure 5.11).
The great prizes the Spanish hoped to find were soon discovered in Mexico. In 1519, the conquistador Hernán Cortés landed at Potonchan on the Yucatán Peninsula and marched north to the interior of Mexico, where he encountered the powerful Aztec Empire. The wealth of the Aztecs and the sophistication of their capital city of Tenochtitlán dazzled the Spanish. At first the Aztec emperor Moctezuma II welcomed them and presented them with gifts. Cortés, however, took Moctezuma prisoner and used him as a puppet to attempt to control his people. Conflict erupted in 1520 when the Spanish killed participants in an Aztec religious ritual, and the residents of Tenochtitlán attacked the conquistadors. In the chaos Moctezuma II was killed, possibly by his own people who felt he had betrayed them, and the Spanish, facing destruction, fled Tenochtitlán for the nearby city of Tlaxcala, a rival of Tenochtitlán (Figure 5.12).
Massacre in the Temple
The Aztecs rose against the Spanish following their attack on worshippers at an Aztec religious ritual at the Great Temple in Tenochtitlán. One of the gods to be honored there was Huitzilopochtli, a god of war. The uprising was briefly successful, and the Spanish were temporarily driven from the city. The following excerpt is an Aztec account of the Spanish attack.
During this time, the people asked Motecuhzoma how they should celebrate their god’s fiesta. He said: “Dress him in all his finery, in all his sacred ornaments.”
During this same time . . . . The Spaniards hanged a chief from Acolhuacan named Nezahualquentzin. They also murdered the king of Nauhtla, Cohualpopocatzin, by wounding him with arrows and then burning him alive.
For this reason, our warriors were on guard at the Eagle Gate . . . . But messengers came to tell them to dress the figure of Huitzilopochtli. They left their posts and went to dress him in his sacred finery: his ornaments and his paper clothing.
When this had been done, the celebrants began to sing their songs. That is how they celebrated the first day of the fiesta. On the second day they began to sing again, but without warning they were all put to death. The dancers and singers were completely unarmed. . . .
The Spaniards attacked the musicians first, slashing at their hands and faces until they had killed all of them. The singers—and even the spectators—were also killed. This slaughter in the Sacred Patio went on for three hours. Then the Spaniards burst into the rooms of the temple to kill the others: those who were carrying water, or bringing fodder for the horses, or grinding meal, or sweeping, or standing watch over this work.
The king Motecuhzoma, who was accompanied by . . . those who had brought food for the Spaniards, protested: “Our lords, that is enough! What are you doing? These people are not carrying shields. . . . Our lords, they are completely unarmed!”
—Miguel Léon-Portilla, The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico
- What may have motivated this attack? Why might the Spanish have chosen to attack people at a religious festival?
- Do the Aztecs seem to have had any idea of what was going to happen? Explain your answer.
Cortés and his Tlaxcalan allies returned to Tenochtitlán in May 1521. By this time, the Aztecs were beginning to suffer from infectious diseases brought by the Spanish. Smallpox was a likely culprit, but other diseases may have been spreading as well. (For example, evidence exists that an outbreak of salmonella in 1540 also took many Aztec lives.) Badly weakened, the Aztecs could not defeat Cortés and his Indigenous allies. After a siege of three months, Tenochtitlán fell to the Spanish, who began converting the Aztecs to Christianity. Although some Aztecs converted voluntarily, many were forced. Aztec temples were destroyed, and Catholic Churches were built on top of them. The Spanish renamed Tenochtitlán Mexico City, and it became the capital of the colony of New Spain. The colony eventually provided Spanish monarchs with the wealth they craved in the form of rich silver deposits.
Cortés’s exploits in Mexico were soon matched by those of another Spanish adventurer, Francisco Pizarro, who conquered the Inca Empire in South America. In January 1530, Pizarro sailed from the Canary Islands on an expedition to conquer Peru, which he had heard was rich in precious metals. His conquest had been authorized in 1529 by Queen Isabella of Portugal, the wife of Holy Roman emperor Charles V, who was also king of Spain. The Inca ruler had recently died of smallpox, and rival heirs to the throne were at war. Pizarro took advantage of the chaos and the fact that the Inca forces had been depleted by years of fighting. In 1532, he captured Atahualpa, one of the parties in the civil war; the following year, the Spanish executed him, despite his promises to fill an entire room with gold and two with silver if Pizarro set him free. Pizarro then seized control of Cuzco, the Inca capital. Peru, which like Mexico had extensive silver deposits, was reduced to a Spanish colony.
The Inca did not passively accept Spanish rule. Under the leader Manco Inca, about 100,000 Incas lay siege to Cuzco in 1536. They lacked the gunpowder weapons of the Spanish, however, and could not drive the Europeans out. The Spanish divided the Inca Empire into four regions, each with a Spanish governor, and Pizarro was given the territory that corresponds to the modern country of Peru.
The Treaty of Tordesillas
Word of Columbus’s discoveries on behalf of the Spanish alarmed and angered the Portuguese. Under the terms of the 1479 Treaty of Alcáçovas, Portugal had renounced any claim to the Spanish throne and granted Spain control of the Canary Islands. In exchange, Portugal received the coast of Guinea in Africa, which was rich in gold, and all islands in the Atlantic south of the Canaries. This included not only those territories Portugal already controlled (Madeira, the Azores, and Cape Verde) but also any that might be discovered in the future. In 1481, the pope also issued a decree that granted Portugal territories in the Atlantic.
Spain’s claim to the Caribbean islands Columbus had explored thus seemed to violate both the treaty and the pope’s decree. The Portuguese king announced his intention to send an armed fleet to take control of them. Unable to challenge Portugal’s dominance at sea, Isabella and Ferdinand asked Pope Alexander VI to intercede. The pope, who was Spanish, decreed that all lands belonged to Spain that fell west of a line drawn one hundred leagues west of any of the Azores and Cape Verde Islands.
Portugal accordingly began negotiations with Spain, which consented to move the line dividing Spanish from Portuguese possessions farther to the west. The new line cut across the eastern bulge of the South American continent (now part of Brazil) but left the rest of the Americas to Spain. This agreement, the Treaty of Tordesillas, was signed in 1494 and endorsed in 1506 by a decree of Pope Julius II (Figure 5.13). Thus, when the explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral landed on the eastern coast of South America in 1500, he was able to claim it for Portugal.
By the time Cabral made landfall in Brazil in 1500, Portuguese sailors had already rounded the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of southern Africa and sailed up that continent’s eastern coast and on to India. Hoping to lay claim to the riches of Asia, Spain then argued that the line dividing the Atlantic continued to the other side of the globe, bisecting the Pacific and giving the Spanish the right to territories in Asia as well. Portugal objected and turned to the Vatican again for help. In 1514, Pope Leo X declared that the line described in the Treaty of Tordesillas allocated territories in the Atlantic but not the Pacific. Spain had no claim to the lands of Asia.
Spain renewed its argument in 1522 when an expeditionary fleet that had been captained by Ferdinand Magellan returned to Europe after circumnavigating the globe. Magellan had been in the employ of Spain when he found a means of reaching Asia by sailing around the southern tip of South America. The expedition had reached the Maluku Islands (or the Moluccas, in modern Indonesia), the source of valuable spices, and Spain wished to claim this territory, which Portugal had already explored in 1512. To settle their claims to the islands, in 1529 Portugal and Spain signed the Treaty of Zaragoza, dividing the Pacific Ocean between them. The treaty awarded the Maluku Islands to Portugal with the understanding that should Spain wish to claim them it could, but it would have to compensate Portugal for its loss. Spain did not have the money to do so, and this fact, along with a convenient marriage of the Spanish and Portuguese kings to one another’s sisters, led Spain to abandon its claim to the Malukus.
In the treaties of Zaragoza and Tordesillas, two of the world’s nations divided the globe between them, never questioning their right to do so and turning repeatedly to the pope to give God’s sanction to their claims. Unsurprisingly, however, the world’s other nations ignored both treaties. England and the Netherlands, which had become Protestant nations during the Reformation, felt no need to abide by papal decrees, nor did France, though it remained Roman Catholic. As the French king Francis I explained, “The sun shines for me as it does for others.” As the fortunes of Spain and Portugal declined in the seventeenth century, England, France, and the Netherlands claimed territory in Asia and the Americas and established their own trading posts on the African coast. Spain and Portugal also failed to acknowledge the rights of the Indigenous peoples in the lands they claimed. Indeed, many Europeans believed that by conquering the inhabitants of the Americas and giving them no choice but to convert to Christianity, they were saving their souls.
The Columbian Exchange
The impact of Portuguese and Spanish exploration and settlement went far beyond the political and economic implications. The so-called Columbian Exchange began with the first contact between native peoples and Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean in 1492. This phrase refers to the back-and-forth flow of plants, animals, and diseases between the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. Far more than physical products were traded, however. Ideas, religious practices, enslaved peoples, and cultural traditions also crossed the Atlantic to reshape, blend, and sometimes destroy various civilizations in the process.
The world into which Columbus stepped in 1492 was just as complex, diverse, and dangerous as the one he left behind. In the Americas, empires rose and fell, people married and raised families, individuals sought to better their lives by moving and innovating. But key differences shaped the collisions to come. One of the most fundamental was the perception of human nature and human origins. For Europeans, the world, its history, and its progression were linear. Just as the Christian Bible described, in the beginning there was darkness. Then God created light along with the world, and one day that world would come to an end. This belief influenced Europeans’ perception that time progressed in a straight line along which humans were always moving forward. All things had a beginning, a point or climax, and an ending.
But for many Indigenous peoples, the world was cyclical and infinite. The Aztecs, for example, believed that the world in which they lived was but the latest in a series of worlds that had been created and destroyed. Their world would continue to exist only so long as they fed the sun with the blood of sacrificial victims. In Indigenous concepts of the cosmos, no hard separations existed between humans and nature, or between spiritual and human realms. Many religious belief systems were animistic, meaning the spiritual world resided not just in humans but also in animals, plants, and even rocks. This belief was very different from monotheism, in which all spiritual power resided in one single divine being. Indigenous religions did not focus on sin or on the nature of good and evil. Instead, the spiritual world was a place full of power that humans could harness for either good or evil. Though their specific beliefs varied widely, all Indigenous groups in the Western Hemisphere held these basic views about their existence and their relationship to others and to the world.
Like humans, animals, and plants, the earth possessed sacred power; therefore, it could not be owned. The concept of owning land seemed nonsensical to many Indigenous groups, and their corresponding lack of emphasis on private property was one reason Europeans sometimes found it easy to lay claim to lands inhabited by native peoples.
Indigenous Americans also differed from Europeans of the 1400s in their approach to gender. While Indigenous women did complete some of the same tasks as European women, such as cooking, making clothing, and raising children, they also took part in activities that Europeans believed should be done by men and that in Europe usually were. For example, in many Indigenous societies, women were the principal farmers and built the family’s dwelling. In many groups, women were revered as imbued with sacred powers to heal and to create. This power also gave them a strong voice in the leadership of their communities, and in some of these, women sat on tribal councils. Among the Iroquois of North America, for example, women often attended tribal councils to advise male clan representatives, and women chose the tribe’s male leaders. Among the Wampanoag of southern New England, women could serve as tribal leaders.
In many tribes, individuals who did not accept the roles traditionally assigned to people of their sex had far more freedom to live as they desired than did such people in Europe. Women who wished to live as men and men who wished to live and dress as women did not necessarily face punishment or maltreatment as long as they contributed to society in other ways. For example, in some societies, women became hunters and warriors. In many societies, men who felt they had been born with the souls of women dressed as women, pursued women’s occupations, and became the second or third wives of other men. Such men were often regarded as possessing great spiritual power and were treated with respect.
When Columbus arrived, the Indigenous population of the entire Western Hemisphere likely numbered around seventy-five million (compared to Europe’s population of probably around seventy million), although historians’ estimates vary greatly. Indigenous peoples made up more than six hundred groups or tribes in North America alone. Some, such as the Inuit and the Dene, were mostly hunter-gatherers in cold climates inhospitable to farming. Others farther south, such as the Puebloans and the Creek, farmed extensively, growing maize as the staple of their food economies. These groups often adopted political organizations practical for their environment. Hunter-gatherers such as the Apache lived as small bands of unified family units with a designated leader. Among township societies such as the Iroquois, groups of towns joined to form political confederacies. In the Aztec and Inca empires, large urban populations were ruled by monarchs.
As part of the Columbian Exchange, Europeans introduced to the Americas the crops they were familiar with at home, including wheat; the Vitis vinifera species of grape; fruits such as pears, peaches, and many varieties of apples; and vegetables such as onions and garlic. The first two were especially important for the Spanish and Portuguese. Wheat was needed to make the communion wafers that were a necessary part of the Roman Catholic mass, and European grapes were needed to make wine for the same ceremony. For the most part, Native Americans had little interest in adopting European foods, but the arrival of nonedible resources created an immediate impact. Metal cookware and metal weaponry gave great power to those who chose to adopt them.
European, Asian, and African societies also changed as new plant life was brought eastward across the Atlantic. Indigenous peoples in North America had relied on maize (corn) for thousands of years, and varieties of potatoes, including sweet potatoes, had long been staples among Indigenous peoples in South America. Along with these foods, tomatoes, chili peppers, vanilla, manioc, pineapples, and peanuts were introduced to and became culinary staples of nations in Europe, Africa, and Asia. Chocolate, which had been consumed in liquid form by the Aztec and the Maya, and tobacco, another product from the Americas, became especially popular in Europe (Figure 5.14).
Read “How the Chili Pepper Conquered China” to learn about the far-reaching effects on China of the introduction of chilies from the Americas.
Coffee and sugar cane, introduced to the Americas by Europeans, grew exceedingly well in the tropical climates of the Caribbean, Central America, South America, and the southernmost portions of North America. The widespread adoption of these foods in the rest of the world began a chain reaction of increased demand for them and for agricultural labor. This need for labor eventually led to the plantation-style slavery that took hold in parts of the United States, islands in the Caribbean, and areas of South America such as Brazil.
Plant life was not the only item exchanged across the Atlantic; a variety of animals accompanied Europeans as they journeyed across the ocean and back. Horses, cows, goats, sheep, pigs, and chickens all made the Atlantic crossing to the Americas. These animals transformed the life of many Indigenous communities. In North America, tribes such as the Lakota moved onto the Great Plains and created a way of life based on hunting bison following their adoption of the horse. The Navajo became sheep herders and expert weavers of woolen textiles. Tribes in Mexico and Central and South America began to raise chickens and goats, which provided valuable sources of protein.
Deadly pathogens also made the crossing to the Americas and caused one of the worst disease-based disasters in history. Given limited understanding of epidemic science, no one realized that native peoples had virtually none of the resistance and immunity Europeans had developed to infectious diseases, because the animals that originally spawned them (and from which they had jumped to humans) simply did not exist in the Americas (Figure 5.15). When these diseases were brought by Europeans and the enslaved Africans who often accompanied them, native peoples without natural immunity who contracted them experienced a death rate that some scholars estimate was as high as 95 percent.
Lack of exposure to European livestock or European diseases is not the sole reason the Indigenous peoples of the Americas died in such large numbers, however. Smallpox, typhus, measles, bubonic plague, influenza, salmonella, and other diseases took the lives of millions of people throughout the Americas because of the destruction wrought by Europeans. European settlers often allowed their livestock to roam loose, and these animals, especially hogs, wreaked havoc on the crops planted by Indigenous peoples. In places where the Spanish conducted slave raids, Indigenous people often went into hiding, refusing to venture out to farm, fish, or tend their fields for fear of being captured. The resulting malnutrition weakened their immune systems, making it harder for them to fight off infectious diseases, even those with which their bodies were familiar. In heavily settled, densely populated regions, infectious diseases spread rapidly. Bodies weakened by one disease easily succumbed to subsequent infections.
Other factors also contributed to depopulation across the Western continents. Groups intent on colonizing, such as the Spanish in New Spain, wanted to establish economies that exported wealth and materials to the home country. To that end, the infrastructure they built intentionally depleted local environments and deprived Indigenous peoples of the natural resources within their lands, including fertile soil, water, timber, and precious metals. When Indigenous populations did not accept these economic conditions, they were met with violence against themselves and their families.
Given violence, exile, enslavement, and a high death rate from disease, the original inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere experienced a cataclysm during the sixteenth century. They still resisted European incursions, however, beginning a centuries-long struggle with echoes in the present day. Within a few months of his exploring the Caribbean region, for example, Native leaders began directing Columbus to other islands, deflecting the negative consequences that followed the arrival of Europeans. Sometimes Indigenous groups chose violence to resist European violence.
Not all Indigenous peoples reacted with violence, however. During the often-brutal colonization of the Western Hemisphere, many systems of gender, religious beliefs, and societal organization that existed in the Americas did collapse, while others merged or changed, creating new hybrid societies across the American continents and the Caribbean islands. But many Indigenous groups chose to incorporate facets of European material culture, such as tools and weapons, into their own in ways that allowed for their survival. For example, the Comanche, a largely hunter-gatherer group, adopted the Spanish horses brought by the conquistadors (Figure 5.16). Within a few generations, the combination of horses and metal weaponry transformed the Comanche into an empire that negotiated as equals with the Spanish, the British, and the French.
Finally, not all Atlantic commerce and settlement flowed from east to west. Indigenous people also took advantage of the Columbian Exchange and traveled to Europe seeking ways to help themselves and their people. By the seventeenth century, dozens of Indigenous negotiators had gone to Europe to appeal directly to the monarchs for aid and for military and economic benefits. Their efforts reveal the ways in which Indigenous groups all over the Atlantic World hoped to shape their future on their own terms.