Columbian Exchange: Europe and the Americas

Last Updated: 23 Mar 2023
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The Columbian Exchange was an impactful spread of culture, food and even frightening diseases between the Old World and the New World. This great exchange started after the accidental discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus. Originally, Columbus and his crew set on a journey to find a western sea route to China, India and the spice islands of Asia. Instead, he found a whole new world in the western hemisphere that was eventually named “The New World”. The Columbian Exchange had lasting effects on both the Old World as well as the New World.

The Columbian Exchange had several positive impacts, one of which was the introduction of new staple crops such as maize and potatoes to Europe. These staple crops and even some additional new foods such as capsicum pepper, plain vanilla and coca provided nutrients that the indigenous crops didn’t have. Europe also received quinine which was a medicine that helped deal with malaria. The Columbian Exchange also had a few negative impacts; the most devastating was the spread of diseases in the Americas that were brought from Europe. Diseases like smallpox, tuberculosis, and bubonic plague quickly transfused across the New World.

Overall the Columbian Exchange had a more negative impact on the New World and a more positive influence on the Old World. One lasting impression the New World had on the Old World was the introduction of new crops and foods. One staple food that the Europeans brought back was maize. Maize was a success in Europe because it produces well in a variety of climates. Maize prospers in areas too dry for rice and too wet for wheat making it ideal to grow in many different climates (Crosby W. Alfred 2003). For this reason maize was very popular and adopted quickly. The potato also had a huge effect on the Old World.

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The potato contains large amounts of calories and nutrients due to the starch in it. The potato is able to sustain life better than any other food that is consumed (Davidson and Passmore, 1965, p. 285). Like maize, the potato can also be cultivated in a variety of climates making it ideal for Europeans to use (Crosby W. Alfred 2003). The first place the potato reached was Ireland. In fact the potato spurred a population growth in Ireland (Nunn and Qian 2009). The reason the potato became popular in Europe was because of the abundance of nutrients that it contains and because it can sustain lives all by itself which other crops cannot do.

Even though potatoes and maize had a big impact on Europe, many other foods like capsicum peppers also had a positive impact on the Old World. Capsicum Peppers originated in Bolivia and southern Brazil. When the Europeans came to the Americas, the pepper migrated to Mesoamerica and the Caribbean (Andrews, 1992, 82-83). The capsicum peppers had reached Spain and Africa by 1453. It had also reached the East Indies by 1540 and India by 1542 (Andrews, 1992, 82-83). The capsicum pepper has also impacted many other countries. In Southeast Asia the capsicum pepper has been used in cuisines.

Capsicum peppers are also very nutritious. They contain a good amount of vitamin A, vitamin B, and vitamin C. They also contain large amounts of iron and magnesium. Magnesium is essential because it spurs energy production and iron is important because it speeds up metabolism (Greger 1994). This shows how capsicum peppers that originated in the Americas came to big use in Europe making a positive impact on their society. Another food that had a positive impact on Europe was plain vanilla. Plain vanilla originated in Mexico, Central America, and South America. Plain vanilla comes from the plant Vanilla planifolia.

The vanilla pods need to be fermented and it creates the chemical vanillin. The vanillin is the chemical that gives plain vanilla its scent and its distinct flavor (Rain, 1992, p. 37). Plain vanilla was first brought back to Spain when Cortez came to the Americas. It became very popular in a very short amount of time in Europe because factories were using the vanilla to flavor the chocolate. Like chocolate, vanilla too became a luxury that only the aristocrats could afford (Rain, 1992, p. 40). Vanilla was not only used for flavoring, it was also used for scents in perfumes and tobacco (Bruman, 1948, pp. 71-372). This is why plain vanilla grew so popular in the Old World. It’s great taste and smell made it appealing to many countries. Coca was another crop that benefited Europe. People of the Inca Empire first used coca leaves, where they chewed them during religious activities. The first Spanish settlers adopted this idea and brought back to Europe where it became popular. A well-known psychologist by the name of Sigmund Freud started chewing coca after he found out that coca increases stamina, creativity, and it decreases hunger (Hobhouse, 2005, pp. 10-313). After this was discovered, coca became extremely popular in Europe and it began to spread throughout the world. Foods were not the only positive things that helped the Europeans. A gift that the New World gave to the Old World was quinine. Quinine contains anti-malarial alkaloids, which come from the barks of cinchona trees. These trees grow in Columbia, Ecuador, and Peru (Brockway, 1979, p. 108). This medicine was helpful to the Europeans because it let them travel across the world and conquer lands without worrying about the threat of malaria.

Even though the Columbian Exchange had an overall positive effect on Europe, it had a negative influence on the Americas. One disease that was brought to the New World was Smallpox. The smallpox virus is caused by Variola, which is closely related to cowpox and monkeypox (Patterson 2002). The infection causes skin rashes and causes mucus membranes to emerge. These rashes stay for about 12 days then the person infected then experiences 104 degree Fahrenheit fever, back pain, and vomiting. Three days later the rash will spread to the nose, mouth, forearms, throat, hands, and face (Ngan, 2011).

Smallpox easily spreads through close contact. “Estimates of death rates resulting from smallpox epidemics range between 39% for the Aztecs, 50% for the Piegan, Huron, Catawba, Cherokee, and Iroquois, 66% for the Omaha and Blackfeet, 90% for the Mandan, and 100% for the Taino... ” (Halverson, 2007). Smallpox epidemics affected the life of many Native American tribes for hundreds of years. This is only one disease that had an awful effect on the Native Americans. Tuberculosis is also another disease that spread from the Old World to the New World. Tuberculosis, is caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Paulsen 1987).

The bacteria can attack any part of the body, but most frequently attacks the lungs. Tuberculosis of the lungs and throat is infectious. When a person with Tuberculosis coughs or sneezes, the bacteria spread into the air. People nearby may breathe in these bacteria and become infected. When a person breathes in the bacteria, the bacteria settle in the lungs and begin to grow. The first major outbreaks of Tuberculosis among the native people of North America began in the 1880’s after they were settled on reservations. When Native Americans were required to live in small fixed huts, an epidemic began.

As Native Americans were living to reservations their death rates from Tuberculosis increased rapidly. Bates and Stead give the death rates of Native Americans. “By 1886 the Tuberculosis death rate reached 9000 per 100,000 people. These rates are much higher than ever observed in Europe because the Native Americans lacked immunity to Tuberculosis and were weak in fighting off the bacteria” (Bates & Stead, 1993). The Native Americans were being hit by disease after disease with the Europeans coming over and settling. Another disease that devastated them was the Bubonic Plague. The Bubonic Plague is also known as the Black Death.

Bubonic plague painfully causes swollen lymph nodes that appear around the groin, armpit, or neck (Halverson, 2007). The Bubonic plague had already devastated Europe by killing millions and after Europeans came to the Americas, the Black Death killed millions of Native Americans. The Columbian Exchange was a time when European nations sent explorers to the Americas after Christopher Columbus discovered the “New World”. The Americas were filled with new crops and foods that turned out to be very beneficial to the Europeans. The Europeans brought back staple crops like maize and potato that contain a large amount of nutrients.

Other crops include capsicum pepper, plain vanilla, and coca. Each had their own way of helping the Europeans. A medicine that the Europeans took from the Americas was quinine. Quinine fought off malaria, which enormously benefited the Europeans because they were able to conquer lands that have malaria but not die from the disease. The Columbian Exchange benefited the Europeans, but it did not benefit the Americas. The Columbian Exchange brought many Europeans to the Americas. With many Europeans traveling to the New World, many diseases also came along.

Diseases like smallpox, tuberculosis, and the bubonic plague resulted in the death of millions of Native Americans. These diseases even killed off many tribes completely. The Columbian Exchange proved to be beneficial to the Old World while devastating a lot of the New World.


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