The Columbian Exchange occurred when Christopher Columbus introduced concepts of mercantilism to the New World. When he sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, he brought along horses, sugar plants, and other “modern” products. The goal was to return potatoes, chocolate, tobacco, and sugar to the home market.
He also introduced disease to the New World as part of the exchange, negating some of the advantages which came along with the trade.
When two previously unknown cultures meet one another, the outcome of the event is unpredictable. We have historical hindsight to help with the pros and cons of the Columbian Exchange. In 1492, Christopher Columbus had no such luxury.
List of the Pros of the Columbian Exchange
1. Columbus introduced new technologies from the Old World.
Two of the most essential tools introduced to the New World from the voyages of Christopher Columbus were the compass and the navigational map. These devices helped him find the quickest possible routes when visiting locations away from home. This process could then be used by the native tribes to navigate more effectively while on land. Everyone involved could be certain that they were headed in the correct direction.
2. Livestock was introduced through the Columbian Exchange.
The tribes in the New World were primarily hunters and gathers. Eating protein either came from plant sources, such as legumes, or what the tribes were able to gather with their hunting activities. When the Old World arrived on their doorstep, they brought various livestock options that the tribes could farm on their own. Cattle, pigs, sheep, and horses all were adopted into tribal life over the century after Columbus visited. Grains like barley were also introduced, helping to reduce food insecurity issues.
3. The Exchange helped to produce new commodities from the useless ground.
During the first days of the New World, before European colonies began settling in the Americas, much of the fields were native grasses. Growing food items took plenty of extra energy. By providing cattle and other livestock, the tribes could turn those fields into pastures for milk and meat production.
The animals traded in the Exchange were also used for hides and tallow, with the products fetching high prices when exported back to Europe. Despite the challenges involved, the standard of living for the local tribes began increasing with these trades, which is why they were gladly accepted during the Columbus years.
4. Food supplies in Europe benefitted from the exchange.
Because of the Columbian Exchange, the potatoes and corn grown in the Americas offered better food supplies to the European continent. This resulted in an improvement in the average diet for people, including a lower cost for food. After the first years of the exchange, the average life expectancy in Europe grew quickly, fewer children were dying before reaching their first birthday, and population growth eventually helped to encourage the colonization efforts which led to the formation of the United States.
5. Crops brought by the Columbian Exchange are still commodities being grown.
When Columbus introduced the Old World to New World Exchange in the late 15th century, he brought with him sugar cane and bananas that could be grown in the tropical climates of the Caribbean. The plantations grew rapidly, providing better food access in the short-term perspective.
From a long-term perspective, many of these crops are still being grown as cash-earning commodities. Even potatoes grown in the New World were seen as being a healthy alternative than those grown in Europe at the time.
List of the Cons of the Columbian Exchange
1. The diseases spread by Columbus decimated the New World.
Although Christopher Columbus didn’t always have the intent to spread disease with his exchange platform (doing so would threaten his profits), germ warfare doesn’t care about personal intent. The diseases which were common in Europe were uncommon in North America and the Caribbean. Basic human contact between the two groups caused smallpox and other diseases to spread quickly.
One example of this issue involves the Taino tribe. When Columbus visited in 1492, there were 250,000 people. By 1517, there were only 14,000 survivors remaining. Up to 90% of the native populations were killed by the diseases which spread.
2. The native tribes spread diseases to the Europeans too.
History often remembers the diseases shared by Columbus and the Europeans, but it was a two-way street. When visiting the New World, the crews were exposed to syphilis, tuberculosis, and several other extremely virulent diseases. These were then brought back to the Old World, where they spread just as quickly as smallpox and others did across the ocean. As Dr. Stephen Prescott of OMRF puts it, “Whether or not we celebrate Columbus Day, we should all celebrate how far our immune systems have come.”
3. Columbus had a nefarious first thought: slavery.
After meeting the Arawak people in the Bahamas in 1492, Columbus made several observations in his diary about the encounter. He noted that they were willing to trade everything they owned. He spoke about how they were built with good bodies and had fine features. “With 50 men,” Columbus wrote, “we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.” He even admitted to forcing some tribespeople into slavery to help him learn more about that part of the world.
In 1495, Columbus would return to round up 1,500 people to bring them back as slaves to Spain. About 200 people died during the journey, and it was all done under the guise that God ordained the actions.
4. The Columbus Exchange had harsh consequences for people who disobeyed.
Gold was a primary need for Columbus when visiting the New World. It helped to fund his business activities, putting him in the good graces of the royalty. Believing that there were vast gold fields in Haiti, he and his crew ordered all men 14 years or older to collect a specific ration of gold every quarter. If they failed to meet their quota, then Columbus had their hands cut off. Since there was little gold there, most of the natives were hunted down and killed by the crews.
5. Humans weren’t the only creatures affected by diseases.
Animals were impacted by the sharing of germs during the Columbian Exchange too. The livestock brought over by Christopher Columbus notably attacked the alpacas and llamas which were extensively used in the Americas. Rats would catch rides on the ships coming over, infesting the Caribbean islands with each visit, impacting the local food supplies. Even chiggers were introduced during the Exchange, creating a new threat of an insect which could create a serious infection.
6. Native populations were forcibly indoctrinated.
Even if the native tribespeople were lucky enough to escape the slavery purges that took thousands of people to Europe, they were still kept in bondage at home. The Spanish set up a system called “encomienda.” This granted Europeans a responsibility for a specific number of natives. They were forced to teach the natives how to speak the Spanish language and elements of the Catholic Christian faith to maintain the grant they’d received. To maintain this relationship, the native tribespeople were forced to offer tribute, often in labor or gold.
7. Invasive organisms made their way to the New World.
The Columbian Exchange is notable for the rats that came across, but it must also be remembered for the grasses and weeds which were introduced. These plants quickly took over fields, crops, and forests to create environmental problems in the New World. The Old World didn’t escape this issue either, having gray squirrels stow away on ships while bringing a new potato fungus to devastate European crops.
The pros and cons of the Columbian Exchange are essential to remember for three specific reasons: it set the stage for the modern shape of the world; it was a brutal time for the local populations; and history tends to be written through the eyes of the victors. Remember the lessons learned from these encounters to prevent them from happening once again.