Study Guide

The Columbian Exchange

The Columbian Exchange Introduction

Have you ever heard the expression, "There's no such thing as a free lunch?" Well, if you were a conquering nation that just took over huge tracts of foreign land, there was definitely such a thing as a very, very cheap lunch.

It went something like this:

"Okay Americas, you give me all your money, food, and resources, and I'll give you a religion you don't want and an incurable illness. Oh, and I'll even throw in some new crops you can grow for me."

There you pretty much have the essence of the Columbian Exchange. A phrase coined by historian Alfred Crosby, the "Columbian Exchange" describes the interchange of plants, animals, and diseases between the Old World and the Americas following Columbus' arrival in the Caribbean in 1492. 

New World meets Old World for the first time since Pangaea split a gazillion years ago. What could go wrong? 

For a lot of science-y reasons, it was generally great for Afro-Eurasia and terrible for the Americas.

In a nutshell, these science-y reasons are:

  • The population of Africa, Asia, and Europe combined was much higher than that of North and South America. More people means more diseases.
  • The people of Africa, Asia, and Europe kept a lot of domestic animals around like cows, pigs, sheep, dogs, etc. By contrast, only a few societies in the Americas kept any animals at all. This meant that more diseases had made the jump from animals to humans in Afro-Eurasia than in the Americas.
  • The first time a group of people is exposed to a disease is always the worst. Humans who survive a disease pass resistance on to their kids. Because Afro-Eurasia had so much more disease, they also had more disease resistances. When all the diseases mixed together, the Americas suffered a lot worse than the Afro-Europeans.
  • While they weren't so good at avoiding diseases, the large settled states of the Americas were excellent at farming. Both the Aztec and the Inca Empires had developed crops that produced super-healthy, balanced vegetarian diets. These crops were brought to Afro-Eurasia and made the already disease-resistant people there even healthier and more disease resistant.

Even though the Americas didn't have silk and the other cool stuff, the Europeans originally wanted from Asia, they did have goods that the Europeans wanted.

The Native Americans totally got the short end of the stick, though. Even some of the "good" things they got out of the exchange, like coffee, sugar cane, and bananas, required a lot of hard labor to grow, leading to their enslavement and forced labor. Sadly, the fact that Africans had immunities that Native Americans didn't have is why the African slave trade grew as big as it did—Europeans needed people to do the work that Native Americans were dying too much to do.

TL;DR: For reasons beyond human control, rooted deep in the divergent evolutionary histories of the continents, the Columbian Exchange massively benefited the people of Europe and its colonies while bringing catastrophic crumminess to Native Americans.

What is The Columbian Exchange About and Why Should I Care?

The Columbian Exchange: It's a relatively obscure concept, developed by a relatively obscure historian. Most people have never even heard of it. Its definition—the transmission of non-native plants, animals, and diseases from Europe to the Americas, and vice versa, after 1492—doesn't sound very sexy. 

And yet the Columbian Exchange just may be the single most important event in the modern history of the world.

The Columbian Exchange explains why Indian nations collapsed and European colonies thrived after Columbus' arrival in the New World in 1492. It explains why European nations quickly became the wealthiest and most powerful in the world. It explains why Africans were sold into slavery on the far side of the ocean to toil in fields of tobacco, sugar, and cotton.

The Columbian Exchange even explains why pasta marinara has tomato sauce.

If you don't understand the Columbian Exchange, you can't truly understand the forces that shape the world we live in today. You can't understand why you speak the language you speak, why you live in the nation you live in, or even why you eat the food you eat.

If you don't understand the Columbian Exchange, much of what you think you know about the history of the Americas may be wrong. Spanish soldiers did less to defeat the Incas and Aztecs than smallpox did. Divine Providence did less to bless the Puritan settlers of the Mayflower with good health and fortune than the Pilgrims' own immune systems did.

In the Columbian Exchange, ecology became destiny. Powerful environmental forces, understood by no one alive at the time and by very few people even today, determined who'd thrive and who'd die. And that may be the most shocking truth revealed to those who take the time to understand the Columbian Exchange: we, as humans, cannot always control our own destinies.

The most important historical actors in this story aren't Christopher Columbus or Moctezuma or Hernán Cortés. They're the smallpox virus, the pig, the potato, and the kernel of corn.

The Columbian Exchange Resources

Books

Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (2005)
A fun read, Mann's 1491 challenges timeworn assumptions about the indigenous people of the Americas and the environments they inhabited. Mann reviews recent scholarship in environmental history, ethnography, and archaeology to make a convincing revisionist case.

Alfred Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (1972)
Crosby's examination of the exchange of organisms between the Old World and the New following Columbus remains a canonical work in environmental history decades after its publication. Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel) became a Pulitzer-winning bestseller in part by repackaging Crosby's analysis.

Alfred Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900 (1986)
In Ecological Imperialism, Crosby revisited the questions raised by The Columbian Exchange on a larger geographic scale, asking why European people, plants, and animals were so successful in replicating themselves in "Neo-Europes" from Canada to Argentina to South Africa to New Zealand.

Music

Various Artists, Panorama: Dances of the Renaissance (2001)
We suggest splurging on this two-disc compilation of vibrant dance tunes to liven up your next Renaissance-themed dinner party.

Various Artists, Offenbach: Christopher Columbus (1997)
Listen to salacious stories about Christopher Columbus in four fabulously funny acts inspired by Jacques Offenbach tunes.

Various Artists, Grand Tour: Music from 16th to 17th-Century Italy, Spain, and Germany (1996)
Giovanni Bassano, Dario Castello, and Johann Vierdanck are just a few of the accomplished composers represented on this eclectic compilation of orchestra music from the 16th and 17th centuries.

Shirley Rumsey, Music of the Spanish Renaissance (1994)
Classical musician Shirley Rumsey offers her illustrious interpretation of simple yet elegant compositions from 15th and 16th-century Spain.

Vangelis, 1492: Conquest of Paradise: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1992)
Composer Vangelis presents a rousing soundtrack to the Ridley Scott epic about Christopher Columbus' momentous voyage to the Americas.

Images

Smallpox vs. the Aztec
Aztec drawings of smallpox victims.

Prehistoric Bioengineering
Teosinte (on the left) was the inedible native grass which the people of central Mexico successfully bioengineered into edible primitive maize (on the right), one of the ancient world's greatest technological accomplishments.

Potato Eaters
Vincent Van Gogh intended his painting The Potato Eaters as a tribute to Dutch peasants, saying, "It speaks of manual labor, of how they have honestly earned their food." The food they honestly earned was the potato—native to South America—which provided the cheap calories needed to sustain Europe's working class for centuries.

Smallpox Virus
Smallpox, the greatest conquistador of all.

Pangaea
Pangaea, the original supercontinent. 180 million years ago, the Americas began drifting away, beginning a process of divergent evolution that would only be reversed through the intervention of humans after 1492.

Cortés
Hernán Cortés, conqueror of the Aztec.

Conquering the Inca
A 16th-century drawing by half-Spanish, half-Native American historian Waman Puma captured the violence of the Spanish conquest of the Inca.

Movies & TV

We All Fall Down (2005)
Set in 17th-century England, We All Fall Down is a thriller about the dark plague that swept through the country killing whole villages in its path. Will the wealthy Yates family escape?

1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)
French heartthrob Gérard Depardieu is Christopher Columbus in this Ridley Scott epic, which was released in 1992 to honor the quincentennial of the explorer's momentous voyage to the Americas.

Christopher Columbus: The Discovery (1992)
Released in 1992 to honor the 550th anniversary of Columbus' voyage to the Americas, this film starring Marlon Brando and Tom Selleck focuses on the many obstacles that nearly prevented the Genoan navigator from achieving his dream of discovering a new sea route to the Indies.

The Navigator: A Mediaeval Odyssey (1988)
Take a break from historical films about Columbus to embark on an entirely different journey. Watch as a young boy in Medieval England, desperate to help save his village from the Black Death, chooses a thoroughly unique passage to a distant land.

Christopher Columbus (1949)
Check out an early Hollywood interpretation of the grand adventure of Genoan navigator Christopher Columbus.

Websites

Alfred Crosby on the Columbian Exchange
Historian Alfred Crosby, who developed the concept of the Columbian Exchange, is interviewed by The Smithsonian Magazine and gives a great synopsis about the Columbian Exchange's place in history.

Environmental History Essays
The National Humanities Center has put together a nice collection of essays on "Nature Transformed: The Environment in American History."

Historical Documents

De Soto's Exploration of North America
The De Soto Chronicles: Expedition of Hernando de Soto to North America details de Soto's four-year journey through a once-thriving Mississippi Valley, but those Native Americans were consequently killed off by the diseases de Soto carried with him.

La Salle's Journey Down the Mississippi
The Journeys of Rene Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle describes the exploration of the Mississippi Valley as well. However, 140 years after de Soto had touched this land, La Salle found it desolate.