Following the voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492, exploration and economic demand was accelerated at the dawn of a new era of transoceanic interactions, prompting permanent and widespread changes on a global scale. Known as the Columbian exchange, this process of trade and diffusion signified a momentous leap in advancement for some and a devastating setback for others. Between the Old and New World, the Columbian exchange — the movement of commodities, people, and diseases across the Atlantic Ocean — would prove to have varied, lasting, and irrevocable effects.
Several positive effects of the Columbian exchange were observed in both Europe and the Americas in response to the transfer of agricultural products. Europe was introduced to the energy efficient crops of potatoes and maize. In the Americas, crops such as wheat, barley, and rye were introduced alongside livestock such as cattle, pigs, and chickens. Each of these regions benefited due to an increased food supply and a higher availability of nutrients. Life expectancy and child mortality rates improved during the following years in response to these conditions, allowing the populations to grow rapidly. In this way, the diets of both continents improved as food became cheaper and more plentiful — a highly impactful and beneficial result of the Columbian exchange.
Just as agricultural products were introduced to Europe, so too were other commodities. Tobacco was discovered by Native Americans, and although unpopular at first, eventually became one of the most important European commodities. Europeans came to associate the plant with powerful healing properties, and they facilitated its growth and sale worldwide. Likewise, cacao seeds, prized within Aztec culture, became a highly valuable resource and were popularized by Europeans. As a result of cacao and tobacco’s unique and valuable properties and American origin, both plants proved to be immensely influential commodities in Europe.
The diffusion of cacao and tobacco into the Old World reflects a broader, more subtle alteration of culture and behavior prompted by the Columbian exchange which also took place in a different form in the Americas. After the introduction and diffusion of horses from Europe into the New World, many Native Americans utilized the animals to improve upon their methods of obtaining food. This development had lasting effects on the native lifestyle and culture. At the same time, the Transatlantic Slave Trade was a major component of the Columbian Exchange which had mixed results, introducing African American slavery to the Americas. The scope of slavery matched its cruelty and atrocity; its legacy is shameful and disturbing. However, it was the intermingling of African culture and later the development of a uniquely African American culture which would go on to strengthen the American identity as one of diversity and resilience in the face of adversity. In this way, the irreversible contacts of the Columbian exchange greatly impacted behavior and identity while initiating a sweeping shift of culture in both the New and Old Worlds.
Although beneficial in many aspects, the Columbian exchange fostered the introduction of deadly, foreign pathogens between the New and Old Worlds which rapidly devastated human life. Infectious diseases such as smallpox, chickenpox, measles, and mumps destroyed Native populations in the Americas; even minute exposure was lethal as the natives had no acquired immunity to the microbes. The effects of such sudden population loss were widespread and overwhelming. Fully 90 per cent of the pre-Columbian population of the Americas had disappeared within 100 years of Columbus’ landing, crippling the peoples’ ability to defend themselves and their traditions from outsiders. Although significantly more detrimental to the natives than to the Europeans, some disease was also introduced to Europe. For example, the lethal STD known as syphilis killed thousands also due to it being their initial exposure. As a result of a lack of immunity during the Columbian exchange, pathogens proved to be a deadly and rampant force in Europe and especially in the Americas.
The Columbian exchange marked an exciting, groundbreaking development for some and a devastation to life and progress for others. The primary positive effect of the Columbian exchange for the Old World was the introduction of New World crops, which impelled population growth and would contribute to the later emergence of the Industrial Revolution. The crops which diffused to the New World, such as wheat, which currently is grown on more land area worldwide than any other food crop, would also evidently become global staples in later years. The most significant negative effects of the exchange was the escalation of the slave trade and the transmission of diseases between the Old and New World. The Columbian Exchange embodies both the positive and negative results of the movement of commodities, people, and diseases across the Atlantic Ocean which completely transformed the world and left a powerful, lasting legacy into the modern day.
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