Columbian Exchange
New World native plants. Clockwise, from top left: 1. Maize (Zea mays) 2. Tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) 3. Potato (Solanum tuberosum) 4. Vanilla (Vanilla) 5. Pará rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis) 6. Cacao (Theobroma cacao) 7. Tobacco (Nicotiana rustica)
Old World native plants. Clockwise, from top left: 1. Citrus (Rutaceae); 2. Apple (Malus domestica); 3. Banana (Musa); 4. Mango (Mangifera); 5. Onion (Allium); 6. Coffee (Coffea); 7. Wheat (Triticum spp.); 8. Rice (Oryza sativa)

The Columbian Exchange was the widespread transfer of plants, animals, culture, human populations, technology, and ideas between the Americas and the Old World in the 15th and 16th centuries, related to European colonization and trade after Christopher Columbus's 1492 voyage.[1]Invasive species, including communicable diseases, were a byproduct of the Exchange. The changes in agriculture significantly altered and changed global populations. However, the most significant immediate impact of the Columbian Exchange was the cultural exchanges and the transfer of people between continents. Furthermore, a byproduct of the Columbian Exchange was the Atlantic slave trade, where as many as 12.5 million enslaved African people were forcibly transferred as a labor source to other regions. [2]

The new contact between the global population circulated a wide variety of crops and livestock, which supported increases in population in both hemispheres, although diseases initially caused precipitous declines in the numbers of indigenous peoples of the Americas. Traders returned to Europe with maize, potatoes, and tomatoes, which became very important crops in Europe by the 18th century.

The term was first used in 1972 by American historian Alfred W. Crosby in his environmental history book The Columbian Exchange.[3] It was rapidly adopted by other historians and journalists and has become widely known.

Origin of the term

In 1972 Alfred W. Crosby, an American historian at the University of Texas at Austin, published The Columbian Exchange.[3] This book covers the environmental impact of Columbus' landing in the new world.[4]

The term has become popular among historians and journalists, such as Charles C. Mann, whose book 1493 expands and updates Crosby's original research.[5]


Inca-era terraces on Taquile are used to grow traditional Andean staples such as quinoa and potatoes, alongside wheat, a European introduction.


Portuguese trading animals in Japan; detail of Nanban panel (1570-1616)

Before 1500, potatoes were not grown outside of South America. By the 1840s, Ireland was so dependent on the potato that the proximate cause of the Great Famine was a potato disease.[6] Potatoes eventually became an important staple of the diet in much of Europe. Many European rulers, including Frederick the Great of Prussia and Catherine the Great of Russia, encouraged the cultivation of the potato.[7]

Maize and cassava, introduced to the Portuguese from South America in the 16th century,[8] have replaced sorghum and millet as Africa's most important food crops.[9] 16th-century Spanish colonizers introduced new staple crops to Asia from the Americas, including maize and sweet potatoes, and thereby contributed to population growth in Asia.[10]

Tomatoes, which came to Europe from the New World via Spain, were initially prized in Italy mainly for their ornamental value (see below). From the 19th century tomato sauces became typical of Neapolitan cuisine and, ultimately, Italian cuisine in general.[11]Coffee (introduced in the Americas circa 1720) from Africa and the Middle East and sugarcane (introduced from South Asia) from the Spanish West Indies became the main export commodity crops of extensive Latin American plantations. Introduced to India by the Portuguese, chili and potatoes from South America have become an integral part of Indian cuisine.[12]

Before the Columbian Exchange, there were no oranges in Florida, no bananas in Ecuador, no paprika in Hungary, no potatoes in Ireland, no coffee in Colombia, no pineapples in Hawaii, no rubber trees in Africa, no chili peppers in Thailand, no tomatoes in Italy, and no chocolate in Switzerland.


It took three centuries after their introduction in Europe for tomatoes to become widely accepted. Of all the New World plants introduced to Italy, only the potato took as long as the tomato to gain acceptance. In large part this was due to 16th-century physicians believing that this native Mexican fruit was poisonous and the generator of "melancholic humours." In 1544, Pietro Andrea Mattioli, a Tuscan physician and botanist, suggested that tomatoes might be edible, but no record exists of anyone consuming them at this time. On October 31, 1548 the tomato was given its first name anywhere in Europe when a house steward of Cosimo I de' Medici, Duke of Florence, wrote to the De' Medici's private secretary that the basket of pomi d'oro "had arrived safely." At this time, the label pomi d'oro was also used to refer to figs, melons, and citrus fruits in treatises by scientists.[13]

In the early years, tomatoes were mainly grown as ornamentals in Italy. For example, the Florentine aristocrat Giovan Vettorio Soderini wrote how they "were to be sought only for their beauty" and were grown only in gardens or flower beds. Tomatoes were grown in elite town and country gardens in the fifty years or so following their arrival in Europe and were only occasionally depicted in works of art. However, in 1592 the head gardener at the botanical garden of Aranjuez near Madrid, under the patronage of Philip II of Spain wrote, "it is said [tomatoes] are good for sauces." Besides this account, tomatoes remained exotic plants grown for ornamental purposes, but rarely for culinary use. The combination of pasta with tomato sauce was developed only in the late nineteenth century. Today around 32,000 acres (12,950 ha) of tomatoes are cultivated in Italy, although there are still areas where relatively few tomatoes are grown and consumed.[13]


Initially, at least, the Columbian exchange of animals largely went through one route, from Europe to the New World, as the Eurasian regions had domesticated many more animals. Horses, donkeys, mules, pigs, cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, large dogs, cats and bees were rapidly adopted by native peoples for transport, food, and other uses.[14] One of the first European exports to the Americas, the horse, changed the lives of many Native American tribes in the mountains. They shifted to a nomadic lifestyle, as opposed to agriculture, based on hunting bison on horseback and moved down to the Great Plains. The existing Plains tribes expanded their territories with horses, and the animals were considered so valuable that horse herds became a measure of wealth.[15]

Still, the effects of the introduction of European livestock on the environments and peoples of the New World were not always positive. In the Caribbean, the proliferation of European animals had large effects on native fauna and undergrowth and damaged conucos, plots managed by indigenous peoples for subsistence.[16]


European exploration of tropical areas was aided by the New World discovery of quinine, the first effective treatment for malaria. Europeans suffered from this disease, but some indigenous populations had developed at least partial resistance to it. In Africa, resistance to malaria has been associated with other genetic changes among sub-Saharan Africans and their descendants, which can cause sickle-cell disease.[1]:164

Before regular communication had been established between the two hemispheres, the varieties of domesticated animals and infectious diseases that jumped to humans, such as smallpox, were substantially more numerous in the Old World than in the New due to more extensive long-distance trade networks. Many had migrated west across Eurasia with animals or people, or were brought by traders from Asia, so diseases of two continents were suffered by all occupants. While Europeans and Asians were affected by the Eurasian diseases, their endemic status in those continents over centuries resulted in many people gaining acquired immunity.

By contrast, "Old World" diseases had a devastating effect when introduced to Native American populations via European carriers, as the people in the Americas had no natural immunity to the new diseases. Measles caused many deaths. The smallpox epidemics are believed to have caused the largest death tolls among Native Americans, surpassing any wars[17] and far exceeding the comparative loss of life in Europe due to the Black Death.[1]:164 It is estimated that upwards of 80-95 percent of the Native American population died in these epidemics within the first 100-150 years following 1492. Many regions in the Americas lost 100%.[1]:165 The beginning of demographic collapse on the North American continent has typically been attributed to the spread of a well-documented smallpox epidemic from Hispaniola in December 1518.[16] At that point in time, approximately only 10,000 indigenous people were still alive in Hispaniola.[16]

Similarly, yellow fever is thought to have been brought to the Americas from Africa via the Atlantic slave trade. Because it was endemic in Africa, many people there had acquired immunity. Europeans suffered higher rates of death than did African-descended persons when exposed to yellow fever in Africa and the Americas, where numerous epidemics swept the colonies beginning in the 17th century and continuing into the late 19th century. The disease caused widespread fatalities in the Caribbean during the heyday of slave-based sugar plantation.[16] The replacement of native forests by sugar plantations and factories facilitated its spread in the tropical area by reducing the number of potential natural predators.[16] Yet, the means of the transmission was unknown until 1881, when Carlos Finlay suggested that the disease was transmitted through mosquitoes, now known to be female mosquitoes of the species Aedes aegypti.[16]

The history of syphilis has been well-studied, but the exact origin of the disease is unknown and remains a subject of debate.[18] There are two primary hypotheses: one proposes that syphilis was carried to Europe from the Americas by the crew of Christopher Columbus in the early 1490s, while the other proposes that syphilis previously existed in Europe but went unrecognized.[19] These are referred to as the "Columbian" and "pre-Columbian" hypotheses.[19] The first written descriptions of the disease in the Old World came in 1493.[20] The first large outbreak of syphilis in Europe occurred in 1494/1495 in Naples, Italy, among the army of Charles VIII, during their invasion of Naples.[19][21][22][23]

Columbian Exchange and the trans-Atlantic slave trade

Context and relevant history

Prior to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Columbus directly participated in and championed the slave trade. Upon landing in what is now known and assumed to be San Salvador Island, Columbus encountered the Taíno. In his journal of 1492, Columbus noted that

It appears to me, that the people are ingenious and would be good servants and I am of opinion that they would very readily become Christians, as they appear to have no religion. They very quickly learn such words as are spoken to them. If it please our Lord, I intend at my return to carry home six of them to your Highnesses, that they may learn our language.[24]

The idea of enslaving the Tainos had instantly struck Columbus as plausible, even desirable. "They ought to be good servants," he continued, "and of good skill, for I see they repeat very quickly whatever was said to them."[25] As part of his journey,

Columbus had planned to inaugurate a regular slave trade between the Indies and Spain. With gold in short supply, the slave trade gradually took on greater urgency. Portugal and Genoa had their slave trade, why not Spain? Columbus set about establishing a slave trade including both Caribs and Tainos.[26]

However, it was not until the colonized lands emerged as profitable plantation lands that the use of West African people as slaves transformed the globe.

Following Columbus were a series of Spaniards seeking to expand the Spanish empire while at the same time increasing their own power and wealth. Such an example was explorer Hernán Cortés. Cortés was interested in expanding the Spanish-controlled lands and often disobeyed his rulers in the process. However, the Spanish royalty was struggling to accurately define the policy related to the enslavement of the Taínos and other Caribbean people. Mann notes that "obtaining the wealth of the Americas would involve subjugating people who had committed no offense against Spain".[27] Like Cortez, Columbus angered the Spanish royalty through subjugating and enslaving the native people. For example, Columbus sent 550 Taíno to Seville in 1495.[28] The parade of enslaved Taíno in Seville angered Queen Isabella to the point that she ordered the Spanish to send the enslaved people back to the Americas.[] By 1503, the Spanish solidified their policy through the implementation of the encomienda system. This system was supposed to ensure the safety and freedom of the Taíno and other indigenous populations, while also converting them to Christianity. To achieve these goals, Spaniards were appointed as trustees who oversaw the religious instruction and treatment of the people. However, the trustees did not like working with the Taíno, and the Taíno resisted the efforts of the Spaniards. For the Taíno, this system represented a "legal justification for slavery" and the Spaniards justified the enslavement of the people through arguing that the Taíno were "less human than Europeans".[29]

These earlier forays into the enslavement of people laid the foundation for the future trans-Atlantic slave trade. Like other enslaved people, the Taíno and other enslaved Indians had periods of rebellion. Indigenous peoples in what is now known as New Mexico resisted early Spanish colonization and enslavement, resulting in the Acoma Massacre under Juan de Oñate at Acoma Pueblo. In recounting this event, it was said,

[W]hat had happened was that the Indians, as soon as they saw that the forces were divided, began to attack and kill. So this witness fell back immediately with his soldiers to rejoin the maese de campo, followed by the Indians who had hitherto accompanied this witness. They paused the Spaniards in large groups, and began to hurl countless stones, arrows, and clubs, not only from the ground but from the terraces, both men and women participating in the attack.[30]

When the colonized lands emerged as profitable plantation lands, the Spanish and other colonizers increased the importation of Africans as enslaved laborers, altering global demographics.

The beginning of the trans-Atlantic slave trade

The trans-Atlantic Slave Trade represents the largest migration in human history. While many Europeans migrated to the Americas, it was enslaved Africans that dominated the North and South American continents. The Columbian Exchange saw the rise of luxury goods which necessitated cheap or free labor to produce the largest potential profit. One of these luxury goods was sugar. In the early history of Sugar, Islamic and European-owned plantations paid relatively high wages for this labor intensive and profitable crop. However, as time progressed the European-sugar plantation owners reconsidered the use of highly paid labor and made the transition to the exploitation of people to meet the growing global sugar demand.[31] In the 1440s, the Portuguese discovered that the Madeira Islands were suited not to the growth of wheat but rather sugarcane. It was in Madeira that the early system of Iberian slavery was transformed. Originally, the enslaved people who worked on the Madeira sugarcane plantations were convicts, Guanches (persons from the Canary Islands), Berbers (individuals from Northwest Africa), and Conversos (Iberian Jewish people). As time passed, these early enslaved people were replaced by enslaved Africans from the West-Central African regions [32]). Eventually, by the 1560s and 1570s sugarcane plantations in Brazil dominated the sugar industry and Madeira switched from sugarcane production to wine.

The use of slave labor was not regulated to only the sugarcane plantations. Rather, slave labor was used in coffee, tobacco and even grains such as rice. In these systems, the enslaved people had little power, however, they did have some influence in agricultural methods. For example, in the rice production there is some evidence that slaves from Africa utilized traditional methods in the production of rice. Furthermore, enslaved Africans were responsible for growing their own food. In these cases, the enslaved people preferred rice that was part of their culture as opposed to the European preference for Carolina rice. However, in a system of power and control the slaves were eventually banned from using their preferred rice [33] Therefore, the system of slavery transmitted not only the people but also their cultures to new regions.

Cultural exchanges

One of the influences related to the migration of people were cultural exchanges. For example, in the article "The Myth of Early Globalization: The Atlantic Economy, 1500-1800" Pieter Remmer makes the point that "from 1500 onward, a 'clash of cultures' had begun in the Atlantic".[34] This clash of culture transferred European values to indigenous cultures. For example, the emergence of private property in regions where there were little to no rights to lands, the concepts of monogamy and the nuclear family, the role of women and children in the family system, and the "superiority of free labor".[35] An example of this type of cultural exchange occurred during the 1500s in North America. When these early European colonizers first entered North America, they encountered fence-less lands which indicated to them that this land was unimproved. For these Europeans, they were seeking economic opportunities, therefore, land and resources were important for the success of the mission. When these colonizers entered North America they encountered a fully established culture of people called the Powhatan. The Powhatan farmers in Virginia scattered their farm plots within larger cleared areas. These larger cleared areas were a communal place for naturally growing and useful plants. As the Europeans viewed fences as "hallmarks of civilization" they set about transforming "the land into something more suitable for themselves".[36] It must be noted that in implementing their practices, the Europeans enslaved, murdered, and exploited indigenous populations. Furthermore, in cases of enslaved peoples (and in particular, enslaved Africans) the Europeans simultaneously implemented their value system while at the same time justifying enslaving people through a philosophy which reduced the enslaved people to property. Thus, the slave traders and some of the plantation owners used the concept of family to exploit and control the enslaved people. In other subtle ways, which had a large impact the cultural exchanges involved sharing practices and traditions. An example of this can be found in the Tobacco industry.

Tobacco was one of the luxury goods which was spread as a direct result of the Columbian Exchange. As is discussed in regard to the trans-Atlantic Slave trade, the Tobacco Industry resulted in increased demands for free labor and the spread of Tobacco worldwide. In discussing the widespread uses of tobacco, the Spanish physician Nicolas Monardes (1493-1588) noted that "The black people that have gone from these parts to the Indies, has taken the same manner and use of the Tobacco, that the Indians have".[37] As the European colonizers and enslaved Africans traveled the globe and came into contact with indigenous people they took the cultural practices related to tobacco, adopted them, and then spread them to additional regions. As such, there were growing demands for tobacco which were linked to the cultural exchanges and increased contact between people.

Organism examples

Post-Columbian transfers of native organisms with close ties to humans
Type of organism Old World to New World New World to Old World
Domesticated animals
Cultivated plants
Infectious diseases

Later history

Plants that arrived by land, sea, or air in the times before 1492 are called archaeophytes, and plants introduced to Europe after those times are called neophytes. Invasive species of plants and pathogens also were introduced by chance, including such weeds as tumbleweeds (Salsola spp.) and wild oats (Avena fatua). Some plants introduced intentionally, such as the kudzu vine introduced in 1894 from Japan to the United States to help control soil erosion, have since been found to be invasive pests in the new environment.

Fungi have also been transported, such as the one responsible for Dutch elm disease, killing American elms in North American forests and cities, where many had been planted as street trees. Some of the invasive species have become serious ecosystem and economic problems after establishing in the New World environments.[38][39] A beneficial, although probably unintentional, introduction is Saccharomyces eubayanus, the yeast responsible for lager beer now thought to have originated in Patagonia.[40]

In addition to these, many animals were introduced to new habitats on the other side of the world either accidentally or incidentally. These include such animals as brown rats, earthworms (apparently absent from parts of the pre-Columbian New World), and zebra mussels, which arrived on ships.[41] Escaped and feral populations of non-indigenous animals have thrived in both the Old and New Worlds, often negatively impacting or displacing native species. In the New World, populations of feral European cats, pigs, horses and cattle are common, and Burmese pythons are considered problematic. In the Old World, Eastern gray squirrel have been particularly successful in colonising Great Britain and populations of raccoons can now be found in some regions of Germany, the Caucasus and Japan. Fur farm escapees such as coypu and American mink have extensive populations. Canada geese are also common.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d Nunn, Nathan; Qian, Nancy (2010). "The Columbian Exchange: A History of Disease, Food, and Ideas". Journal of Economic Perspectives. 24 (2): 163-188. JSTOR 25703506. doi:10.1257/jep.24.2.163. 
  2. ^ Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database (2013). Accessed June 29, 2017.
  3. ^ a b
  4. ^ Crosby, Alfred W. The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972
  5. ^ de Vorsey, Louis (2001). "The Tragedy of the Columbian Exchange". In McIlwraith, Thomas F; Muller, Edward K. North America: The Historical Geography of a Changing Continent. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. p. 27. Thanks to...Crosby's work, the term 'Columbian exchange' is now widely used... 
  6. ^ "The Impact of the Potato", History Magazine
  7. ^ Crosby, Alfred (2003). The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger. p. 184. 
  8. ^ "Super-Sized Cassava Plants May Help Fight Hunger In Africa" Archived December 8, 2013, at the Wayback Machine., The Ohio State University
  9. ^ "Maize Streak Virus-Resistant Transgenic Maize: an African solution to an African Problem", Scitizen, August 7, 2007
  10. ^ "China's Population: Readings and Maps", Columbia University, East Asian Curriculum Project
  11. ^ Riley, Gillian, ed. (2007). "Tomato". The Oxford Companion to Italian Food. Oxford University Press. pp. 529-530. ISBN 978-0-19-860617-8. 
  12. ^ Collingham, Lizzie (2006). "Vindaloo: the Portuguese and the chilli pepper". Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 47-73. ISBN 978-0-19-988381-3. 
  13. ^ a b A History of the Tomato in Italy Pomodoro!, David Gentilcore (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2010).
  14. ^ Michael Francis, John, ed. (2006). "Columbian Exchange--Livestock". Iberia and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History: a Multidisciplinary Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. pp. 303-308. ISBN 978-1-85109-421-9. 
  15. ^ This transfer reintroduced horses to the Americas, as the species had died out there prior to the development of the modern horse in Eurasia.
  16. ^ a b c d e f Palmié, Stephan (2011). The Caribbean: A History of the Region and Its Peoples. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226645087. 
  17. ^ "The Story Of... Smallpox - and other Deadly Eurasian Germs", Guns, Germs and Steel, PBS Archived 17 January 2010 at WebCite
  18. ^ Kent ME, Romanelli F (February 2008). "Reexamining syphilis: an update on epidemiology, clinical manifestations, and management". Ann Pharmacother. 42 (2): 226-36. PMID 18212261. doi:10.1345/aph.1K086. 
  19. ^ a b c Farhi, D; Dupin, N (Sep-Oct 2010). "Origins of syphilis and management in the immunocompetent patient: facts and controversies.". Clinics in dermatology. 28 (5): 533-8. PMID 20797514. doi:10.1016/j.clindermatol.2010.03.011. 
  20. ^ Smith, Tara C. (December 23, 2015). "Thanks Columbus! The true story of how syphilis spread to Europe". Quartz. Retrieved 2016. The first cases of the disease in the Old World were described in 1493. 
  21. ^ Franzen, C (December 2008). "Syphilis in composers and musicians--Mozart, Beethoven, Paganini, Schubert, Schumann, Smetana.". European Journal of Clinical Microbiology & Infectious Diseases. 27 (12): 1151-7. PMID 18592279. doi:10.1007/s10096-008-0571-x. 
  22. ^ A New Skeleton and an Old Debate About Syphilis; The Atlantic; Cari Romm; February 18, 2016
  23. ^ Choi, Charles Q. (December 27, 2011). "Case Closed? Columbus Introduced Syphilis to Europe". Scientific American. Retrieved 2016. 
  24. ^ Columbus, Christopher. "Journal of 1492." Fordham University. Accessed June 1, 2017., par. 28
  25. ^ Bergreen p. 14
  26. ^ Bergreen p. 196
  27. ^ Mann, loc. 5518
  28. ^ Thomas, Hugh (2005). Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, from Columbus to Magellan (2005 Random House Trade pbk. ed. ed.). New York: Random House Trade paperbacks. p. 155. ISBN 0812970551. Retrieved 2017. 
  29. ^ Mann, loc. 5553
  30. ^ Hammond, George P. and Agapito Rey (editors and translators). Don Juan de Oñate, Colonizer of New Mexico, 1595-1628. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1953). Volume 5, pages 428-479
  31. ^ Mann, Charles. 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. New York, New York: Vintage Books, 2011. loc. 5359)
  32. ^ Mann, Charles. 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. New York, New York: Vintage Books, 2011. 5407-54239)
  33. ^ Hawthorne, Walter "Labor Over 'Brown' Rice", in From Africa to Brazil, p. 137-72
  34. ^ Emmer, Pieter. "The Myth of Early Globalization: The Atlantic Economy, 1500-1800." European Review 11, no. 1. Feb. 2003. p. 45-46
  35. ^ Emmer, Pieter. "The Myth of Early Globalization: The Atlantic Economy, 1500-1800." European Review 11, no. 1. Feb. 2003. p. 46
  36. ^ Mann, Charles. 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. New York, New York: Vintage Books, 2011. loc. 1094 and 1050
  37. ^ Monardes, Nicholas. "Of the Tabaco and of his Greate Vertues." Frampton, John trans, Wolf, Michael, ed. Accessed June 1, 2017
  38. ^ Simberloff, Daniel (2000). "Introduced Species: The Threat to Biodiversity & What Can Be Done". American Institute of Biological Sciences: Bringing biology to informed decision making. 
  39. ^ Fernández Pérez, Joaquin and Ignacio González Tascón (eds.) (1991). La agricultura viajera. Barcelona, Spain: Lunwerg Editores, S. A.
  40. ^ Elusive Lager Yeast Found in Patagonia, Discovery News, August 23, 2011
  41. ^ Hoddle, M. S. "Quagga & Zebra Mussels". Center for Invasive Species Research, University of California, Riverside . Retrieved 2010. 

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