The Columbian Exchange is a term used to denote the world-changing exchange of agricultural goods, slave labor, diseases, and ideas between the Eastern and Western Hemispheres that occurred after the year 1492 CE.
Everybody remembers that in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Most people remember that his discoveries were all islands in the Caribbean. Today, most people know that Columbus already knew the world was round – he was actually looking for a faster way to Asia in order to bring back spices and riches. They’ve also heard, usually, that he was really harsh to the natives he encountered.
‘Discovery’ of the Americas
We should really ask some other important questions about his ‘discovery,’ such as: How do you discover a place that is already populated? How do you discover a place for Europe when other Europeans have already been there?You see, as people come to know more about Cristobal Colon, or, as it is anglicized, Christopher Columbus, many begin to devalue his place in history.
It is true that the things many people learned in elementary school were incorrect. It is true that Columbus was out for profit and didn’t even know where he was. After all, he did believe that San Salvador in the Bahamas was Japan!It is true that there is strong evidence that multiple people ‘discovered’ the Americas long before Columbus did. There were the Vikings who had settlements in part of, what is today, Canada, and there are even some of the fringe people out there who believe remnants of the Knights Templar buried a treasure on Oak Island off the coast of Nova Scotia!Even before looking at all of these ideas, remember that Europeans and Asians first actually found their way to the Americas in the Stone Age. These people are the ancestors of Native Americans!The thing is, you cannot discount the importance of Columbus in history! For the good and the bad, his discovery lead to greater change in the world than any of his contemporaries could ever have imagined. These changes came about because of the Columbian Exchange.
The Columbian Exchange
What is the Columbian Exchange? The Columbian Exchange is the term used to describe the flow of ideas, people, plants animals, technology, and disease that took place because of Columbus’ discovery of the New World.
The starting point of the Columbian Exchange is 1492.To give you an idea of the little details that people do not realize are affected by Columbus’ discovery, think of Thai food. Yeah… Thai food. Most people think of their love or fear of the heat from chilies first when they think of this cuisine.
Thailand has even produced some of the hottest chilies in existence. The current winner is the ghost pepper developed in Thailand; it’s a varietal of the habanero, which is from Mexico. Chilies are only called chili peppers in common terms because Columbus was looking for a pepper when he came to the New World!This seems like a silly little piece of trivia, but it illustrates the far-reaching effect of Columbus landing in the New World! The Columbian Exchange affected a lot more than cooking, but the fact that Italy would not have given us marinara sauce without the New World’s offering of tomatoes illustrates the cultural changes that were enacted!The Old World – Europe, Africa, and Asia – got plants, animals, gold, and, of course, colonies and lands.
Usually we only hear about the horrible things that happened to Native Americans due to the Columbian Exchange. It is true that 90% of some populations in the New World were wiped out by disease. This is horrible, but also remember that horses were introduced to the New World by Europeans. The tie of horses to many tribes of the North American plains is almost inseparable!Also remember that people were a part of the Columbian Exchange. I do not only mean those who chose to relocate.
Many were forcibly removed from their homes in the west of Africa and made slaves in the New World.
The Importance of Columbus
For all the bad and for all of the good, the world we know today would not exist as we know it without Columbus’ discovery. I’m sure someone else would have started the exchange… maybe a year later, a decade, or even a century or two, but it was Christopher Columbus who has lent his name to the Columbian Exchange, and without this exchange of agricultural goods, people, diseases, and ideas, we would have a very different world.
Once you complete this lesson you’ll be able to:
- Explain the problems with the idea that Columbus discovered the Americas
- Understand the Columbian Exchange and how it affected the world
- Comprehend the far reaching influence and importance of Christopher Columbus’ voyage