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The Columbian Exchange

What does celebrity chef Chuck Hughes have
to do with the
Columbian Exchange?
The Great Columbian Exchange



The Columbian Exchange has to be the most underrated event in world history. Columbus and his crew might not have even realized it but their discovery of the New World set in motion changes that no one could have ever imagined. As new plants, animals, people and diseases were being shuttled back and forth across the High Seas the very face of our planet’s geography forever was being radically altered. Once the dust settled 40 million people would be dead and the ingredients for a perfect slice of pizza would be brought together. (author's note: we are not suggesting that pizza is the cause of genocide) Think we're being overly dramatic? Read on.


When Christopher Columbus accidentally landed six thousand miles west of his original target-- Asia, he was on a quest for gold and glory. What he encountered instead were a band of naked Arawaks with a few shiny trinkets and feathers. Columbus was not pleased  to say the least. But with a little “persuasion” (at the end of a sword) the friendly islanders pointed Columbus to the gold and it wasn’t long afterward that all of Europe was infected with gold fever. Fifty years after Columbus’s arrival in the Caribbean, 90% of the Arawak Indians were dead from smallpox and two of the New World’s biggest empires—the Inca and Aztec— had been reduced to Spanish colonies.


New Spain, Portuguese Brazil, French Haiti, the British Thirteen; the story of colonization and the Columbian Exchange happened the same way regardless of what mother country you look at. The governments of those countries were eager to send colonists over to the New World to exploit a continent choked full of natural resources. Rich and poor alike were lured by the promise of cheap land.


To the Europeans of the 16th Century land  equaled wealth. Think of it as the colonial version of winning the lottery. The majority of settlers were poor slobs whose life back in Europe, well, let’s be honest— sucked. Most of Europe’s poor owned little to no land and died the same way they came, in wretched poverty. Given such a bleak existence the risks of starving to death in an alien world didn’t outweigh the chance of a better life. Millions of colonists brought with them all the trappings of civilized European life that could fit into their trunks. Farm tools, horses, cows, chickens, pigs, wheat and apple seeds (it was big trunk). Of course, the colonists were doing what any immigrant does. They probably never realized that they were secret agents of one of the greatest episode of cultural diffusion in world history.



Filthy Rich and Rotting Teeth


If you were a colonists with big dreams of becoming filthy rich forget about planting potatoes and instead put your money on those rare crops that Europeans couldn’t grow themselves. Exotic crops from Asia like sugar cane, rice, indigo (a plant used to make a blue dye) and coffee grew well in the warm subtropical climates of the Caribbean and Southern parts of America. Until 1800, when the cotton gin was invented, sugar was the king of the Caribbean. Every Caribbean island was converted into a huge sugar plantation populated by African slaves. It may come as a surprise that the sweet stuff is a grass that originated in the tropics of southern India, Southeast Asia, and New Guinea. Ancient Indians wrote recipes for drying sugar syrup into Khanda— which is where we get the word ‘candy’. The Chinese established the world’s first sugar plantation in the 600s. In 1492, Columbus brought a cutting of sugar cane with him on his first voyage to the West Indies. But to Europeans, sugar was an expensive luxury reserved for making Christmas cookies. Housewives kept their sugar supply under lock and key. But in the 17th century, sugarcane was found to thrive in the tropics of the Caribbean and it wasn’t long before millions of slaves were being hauled off to the Americas and millions of pounds of crystallized sugar and rum (which is made from sugar cane) were being exported back to Europe. These plantations were producing 80-90% of the sugar consumed in Western Europe. By the 19th Century sugar cane plantations were booming and sugar had become something that everyone could afford. Children’s teeth would never be the same.


How Tobacco Created America

The English colony of Jamestown was literally saved with the introduction of tobacco from the Powahatan Indians.  Tobacco was used by the Indians to seal new friendships or create treaties between tribes (peace pipes). The Indians saw tobacco as a gift from the Creator and even children smoked it during important events. The Spanish got the word ‘tobacco’ from the Arawak Indians. But it was John Rolfe who turned the” stinking weed” into an instant money-maker.  Before long cigar factories began to pop up in Europe to cash in on the smoking craze. Ironically, Europeans believed that tobacco had healing properties and could cure anything from bad breath to cancer. In the 1600s, tobacco became so valuable that for a time it was used as money. Green gold sparked a mass migration to the southern colonies so that the population of Virginia jumped from 2,500 in 1620 to 20,000 in 1650.


Tobacco plantations sprung up all over the southern coastline and African slaves were brought into the supply the cheap labor. By 1703, Americans were exporting 23 million pounds of the stuff back to Europe. Legendary Americans like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson made their wealth from tobacco and slaves.  George Washington was the richest man in America when he became general of the Continental Army (most of that was his wife’s money, but that’s another story). Tobacco also paid for America’s revolution. That’s right; American Independence was paid for in tobacco leaves. Not having much cash of our own, tobacco was used as collateral to buy French supplies and weapons. Some might even say that tobacco saved America –twice!

Cow's Milk and Black Magic


When you look at the numbers it just doesn’t make sense that a few thousand European colonists could have conquered two continents populated with 50 million (historians are still arguing over the numbers) people. The Europeans might have had guns to the Indians’ arrows but outnumbered 1000 to 1, the Native Americans should have been able to wipe the floor with those European land grabbers.


But that’s not what happened. In fact, within a few decades of contact with Europeans most native settlements were reduced by 90%, some villages were killed off entirely. We’ve all heard the story of the first Thanksgiving where the helpful Indian Squanto showed the Pilgrims how to plant corn and everyone had a big feast to celebrate. It’s true. The Pilgrims and Indians of Massachusetts Bay got along like BFF’s at first. But that might have been a different story if European fisherman hadn’t spread diseases to the local people ten years before the Pilgrims arrived. Once the Mayflower landed, all that was left were abandoned villages for miles. 

Something mysterious was at work here. That something wouldn’t be discovered until 1864 when French scientist Louis Pasteur came up with his theory of germs. Hidden away in the bodies of the colonists were genetic mutations— we call them immunities today—which allowed the colonists to pass on their nasty viruses such as influenza, small pox and measles to an unsuspecting and totally unprepared native population.


Contrary to the plot of Harry Potter novel, Europeans are not magical creatures-- although some Indians thought they possessed strange dark magic.


The truth was a lot more boring than black  magic. Europeans had been in close contact with the people and animals of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. All of our diseases come from animals that we depend on. From cows we got milk…and tuberculosis, from horses and pigs we got influenza, and the small pox virus traveled from Africa around 3000 years ago causing havoc in India, China, and eventually making its way to Europe.  


These viruses were no less deadly to Europeans or Asians than they were to Native Americans. Science not magic. The big difference is that Euroasians had time to figure out a way to build up their immunities against the disease and the Native Americans did not. As far back as 1000 CE, Buddhist nuns were practicing variolation which is an early version of immune booster shot. Variolation works by exposing a healthy person to a diseased person and hoping that everything works out okay. Over time the gamble paid off.


Fast forward to the 1600s, and Europeans, their animals, and their diseases were literally changing the face of the American continent. Escaped horses from Mexico made their way north and eventually the Indians of the Great Plains learned to ride them which was a big improvement over hunting buffalo on foot. Cattle turned Texas, Wyoming, and Argentina into beef country complete with Dude Ranches and cowboys. Of course what would Thanksgiving dinner be without turkey, mashed potatoes, and bread rolls. The Columbian Exchange in action.  

The same story about how Europeans came to rule the Americas would play out like a broken record for the next 400 years. Sure the Europeans had horses and thunder sticks (guns) which scared the feathers off the Indians. Columbus even used his knowledge of the moon cycles to trick the Indians into giving him food. One story tells of Columbus and his men stranded in a Caribbean Island with hostile Indians who refused to trade with him (Columbus had a difficult time making friends). Armed with an almanac, he told the Indians that unless they traded with him, he would block out the moon. A lunar eclipse was scheduled to arrive in a few days, and the trick worked!


None of their strange weapons would have saved the Spanish conquerors for long. After all, they were outnumbered 1,000 to 1 and sometimes even a million to 1! What saved them was that within a few weeks of their arrival, many Indians got sick and died from a disease that left horrible welts (pox) all over their bodies. Soon after, they would a fever would break and death was not far along.


The tales of Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pissarro show us how so many American Indians were conquered by so few. The year was 1519. Spanish colonists and adventure seekers were flocking to colonies like Cuba and Hispaniola for ‘God, glory, and gold’. Millions of Native Americans were dead from disease and enslavement, leaving only 10% of the original population that lived here in 1491.

The Big Idea


By now you get the picture of just how important the Columbian Exchange really was. Europeans literally rewrote the story of the planet when they brought Old World crops and animals (and diseases) like cows and wheat to the New World. It took tens of thousands of years for different species to evolve, the rattlesnake in America and the Viper in Euroasia for example. But it would only take a few hundred years for humans to turn the Americas into a unique version of the Old World. When you think of wheat and corn fields you might think of Iowa or Alberta.



The Columbian Exchange set into motion the greatest trade work the world has ever seen. For the first time in human history the entire world was introduced to cheap sugar, turkey dinners, potato salad, corn on the cob, hot cocoa and Cuban cigars.

But the Columbian Exchnage Europeans became the conquerors who  transplant their culture and languages around the world for the next 500 years.


Europeans had a big advantage over the Indians not just becauise of the diseases they unknowingly spread, but also because of their huge work animals that transformed the New World forests into vast plantations and cities.


The only domesticated animals in the Americas were turkeys, guinea pigs, and llamas. The first two are not great for farm work. But don’t take our word for it. Try hooking up a steel plow to a pack of Guinea Pigs and let us know how it turns out. The only large animal that might have done the job was the llama but they are temperamental and not good for riding but they can carry a heavy load on their backs when you need them to.


European domesticated animals provided meat and milk as well as the labor for pulling a plow. You could also ride them into battle which gave Europeans the edge when it came to speed and psychological warfare (okay, we meant horses, not cows and chickens).


Is it any coincidence that the last groups of Indians to be conquered by whites were also the ones who had mastered horseback riding? We think not. Europeans might have had the advantage when it came to animals and disease, but when it came to plants the exchange between the New and Old Worlds was pretty evenly matched.

Descendants of African slaves, these Jamaican women in 1920 work a sugar cane plantation

Clip from Guns, Germs, and Steel

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