The Columbian Exchange

Typically the process of European colonization and conquest of the Americas is understood in political or military terms. But perhaps the most significant change of all was ecological. The natural environment of the pre-Columbian Americas would have been radically different than the natural environment we know today.

Colonization brought about a wholesale transformation of the environment. This change hinges upon the exchange of domesticated plants and animals between the Old World (Europe, Africa, and Asia) and the Americas. The information collected in this blog post comes from a book The Columbian Exchange, by Alfred Crosby. It is, admittedly, a rather dry book, but its an important work of history. If you’re the kind of person who can make through a really dry history book, The Columbian Exchange is very rewarding and comes to you highly recommended.

Potatoes are a domesticated plant indigenous to the Americas

The importance of familiar food
Europeans were only successful in colonizing the Americans once they started to transform the environment to more closely resemble the natural landscape of Europe. Domesticated plants and animals from the Old World allowed Europeans to change the natural environment of the Americas to suit themselves. Over the course of centuries the whole ecology of the continents was turned to their favor.

At first Europeans were forced to adapt to Indian foods, but they did not know which wild plants were safe to eat, how to cultivate American soil, or which plants to grow and when. On top of this eating wild foods was deemed uncivilized. How can a Catholic Spaniard take communion if there is no wheat to make bread or grapes to make wine? Moreover, the Spanish culture is Mediterranean. They needed olives for olive oil the way Chinese need rice. It is the most basic, essential component of their diet.

Thus Europeans began importing familiar plants and animals. Only with a dependable supply of familiar food was it possible to sustain large European communities in the Americas. This plan was so successful that by the year 1600 AD, or approximately one hundred years from first contact, all the most important plants of the Old World were being grown in the Americas including wheat, olives, and grapes.

Cash cropping
Colonization was essentially a capital-intensive business proposition aimed at generating a profit and as such it was driven by economic factors, supply and demand. Principally this market role was satisfied by acquiring raw materials for export. This was accomplished by cash cropping, the mass production of animal hides, mining, and outright plunder of native peoples.

Cash cropping introduced an entirely new way of relating to the land relative to how the native people utilized it. This represents a whole new mode of production. Whereas native peoples had a subsistence relationship to the land, they produced their food through agriculture, cash cropping is a kind of capitalism. You use the land to produce commodities that you sell on the global market in order to gain a profit. Wages earned from that exchange may be used to purchase food and other things as well. From an ecological standpoint, the story of colonization is the story of one mode of production displacing another.

One of the first cash crops to be grown in the New World was sugar. First the Spanish introduced it in the Caribbean, Mexico, and Peru. Then Portugal expanded from Africa to South America, making Brazil the world’s largest sugar supplier. Not to be outdone France and England began growing their own in the Caribbean. Of course distilling fermented sugar results in rum (which when taken with lime prevents scurvy). Rum is a cornerstone of the maritime culture such as England’s in the colonial era.

This is just one example – tobacco, cotton, and coffee were all grown for export on plantations using slave labor or indentured servants. Intensive agricultural production of nonfood items for sale in overseas markets was a completely new economic arrangement for the Americas. And it was one that was only possible through the transformation of the natural environment.

Cash crops sold to a foreign market provide income, but they don’t provide sustenance. To really support a large population you need intensive agriculture of staple foods. So how was it possible for the Spanish to vanquish the Aztec in Mexico and the Inca in Peru with such long supply lines? It would have been impossible if they had to import their food from Europe!

Invasive Species
An army marches on its stomach, the Spanish needed near supply lines for their soldiers in the Valley of Mexico and the Andean highlands. The Caribbean acted as a base camp and testing grounds for the cultivation of European crops. Hogs and goats were some of the most successful early imports from Europe.

Pigs were especially easy to cultivate in the tropics because they required little care. Typically they were simply turned loose on an island to forage for themselves and allowed to reproduce naturally. Later when a ship needed food, they only had to stop by the island and hunt a boar. Of course we now know wild boar to be one of the most destructive of invasive species because they trample undergrowth and uproot plants causing erosion of top soil. In the Appalachians it is wild boar season 365 days a year because they are considered a nuisance and threat to the well being of the environment.

Invasive European domesticated animals posed an ecological threat to Indians too. They consumed the local plants and animals Indians depended upon. They spread Old World diseases throughout the Americas. They were frequently left unattended to feed freely on the land that Indians utilized as a source of wild foods. In sum as the number of domesticated European animals increased the population of Indians decreased.

Cowboy Culture
Perhaps no animal in the Americas was more successful as rapidly as the horse. The horse was already a prominent feature of Spanish culture dating back to before the Renascence. Not only was the horse necessary for covering long distances quickly, but it worked as a beast of burden and weapon of war.

From an economic standpoint, horses made large scale cattle ranching possible. The first cattle were brought to the Americas primarily as a way to provide hides for export to Europe (think Spanish leather). The production of meat was secondary. In colonial Argentina, cattle hides were produced at such a rate that the beef was simply thrown away. The people couldn’t eat it all!

In the Americas the horse population exploded in a matter of just a few years after their introduction. Great herds of wild horses stampeded across the plains and pampas. The spread of horses was so great in South America that when the earliest permanent settlers arrived in Argentina there were already herds of horses. This means that in some places domesticated European animals preceded the arrival of Europeans themselves.

Many of these horses were put to work in the ranching business. If you have workers or slaves tending your sugar plantations, or mining for silver and gold, you’re going to need to feed them. Ranching was an important component of colonial economies by providing food for laborers in specialized occupations where they did not produce their own food.

The horse was one of the European species Indians were quick to adopt. As was mentioned in the lecture on New World civilizations, a primary difference relative to Old World civilization is a relative de-emphasis on domesticated animals. And with no beast of burden (aside from the dog and, in the Andes, the llama) there was an accompanying de-emphasis on the wheel. Horses allowed hunters to kill more animals than needed. The surplus could then be used for trade in order to acquire European commodities. Indians could now cover much greater distances in shorter periods of time. And the horse greatly increased the ability of Indians to resist European encroachment into the interiors of North and South America.

What we consider to be the “natural world” today, what is preserved in national parks and the like, is actually radically different than what the Americas looked like prior to the arrival of the Europeans. From an economic standpoint European colonization of the Americas was a success, but this was only possible by the importation of Old World domesticates, both plants and animals. In a matter of centuries the entire ecology of the continents was changed and it was this newly engineered natural environment that truly gave Europeans the upper hand.

Crosby, in his book The Columbian Exchange, remarks that the colonization of the Americas was the single most momentous ecological event in modern human history. Nothing like it will ever come again, he says, until extraterrestrial life comes to planet Earth. If you’re still wondering how Homo Sapiens would fare in such an encounter, reread this blog post.


About Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is a project cataloger at The Mariners' Museum library. He has a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill and was formerly a professor at ODU. You can find him on Twitter @m4ttTh0mps0n.
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23 Responses to The Columbian Exchange

  1. Ashley Short says:

    I never realized just how many things were imported to the “new world” from Europe. Normally, when I think of the Columbian exchange I think of the number of exports that left the Americas, never the imports. I found the importing of pigs to be particularly interesting. I’ve heard about the wild boars being nuisances, and how it was legal to kill them at anytime, but I never knew that it is because they aren’t native to the Americas. It makes sense, even though when people think of pigs their first thought is domesticated animal, not invasive species.

  2. Shanice Williams says:

    I agree that the Columbian exchange brought a lot of good to the old world and the new world. It was very essential to many countries. I think about Ireland during the 1840s and how they strictly relied on the potato crop because it is a hardy crop. Well the potato originated in the old world so without the Columbian exchange countries that thrive on certain foods or animals, I wonder where they would be.

  3. Sarah Woodruff says:

    I definitely agree that the Columbian Exchange brought multiple food sources, animals, and plants around the world that helped the people on the land. I didn’t know, however, that the reason Europeans started to import things is because the people weren’t able to live without them. I thought that when the people came from Europe, the food they ate came with them. I learned that since they couldn’t live without “olives”, they demanded them be imported to them.

    Also, I never knew that horses gave us so much. Without them, it would have been extremely hard to raise cattle and in turn, only a small herd could be raised instead of hundreds at a time. Moreover, it would be interesting to see what America looked like before the arrival of Europeans. I never thought about how the import of animals and plants impacted the land and changing the way it looks. How different would America look if we didn’t import as much plants/animals…or at all?

  4. Matt Marquand says:

    The Columbian Exchange had a negative impact on the New World and a positive impact on the Old World. It brought great profit, a work force and new products to the Old World. The benefits outweighted the costs and brought enormous revenue to European countries. The New World had a much different experiance with colonization. Disease ravaged through villages and indigious people were forced into slavery.
    The potato became a very important crop in Ireland and the entire agricultural system relied on it. When the potato famine hit Ireland, it was detrimental to the economy. Thousands of people starved to death and couldn’t feed their families. I didn’t know the potato was native to the Americas and was brought back to Europe. The thought of potatoes never been introduced in Ireland is astonishing. The entire agricultural structure could have been different. Potatoes were such a large part of the diet and culture. The notion they could have never been brought to Europe is mind boggling.

  5. Chelsea Henderson says:

    It is so interesting to look at the chain of events that contributed to the evolution of the way people in the world behave. Dating these exchanges back in a cause and effect type framework really causes modern America to make sense. It makes me think about the customs and traditions we have today and the resources we use to accomplish work. Horses are used largely for sports, but they still play a role in farming, and I cannot imagine throwing out beef today because of a surplus. Sort of like, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” I see how largely the Columbian Exchange influenced culture across the world and the way it was the beginning and set the stage for the mode of operation utilized by the world as a whole.

  6. Caitlin Blalock says:

    I never realized how the importation from the old world to the new world heavily affected the new world’s growth. If the new world was not able to trade, or the old world was not willing to trade, what would our America be like today? Would our earlier ancestors from Europe have no choice but adapt to Native American culture? If this is true, would our society be rooted in American Indian culture? Its interesting to see how this exchange evolved America and allowed America to adapt to its environment.

  7. Andrea King says:

    It is interesting to think of the Columbian Exchange as being from the past. However, there are just as many things that are being imported today as well. People feel like they cannot live without certain foods today just as in the past and import them. With so much of the food source in the United States and around the world being imported and water being privatized I believe that we will soon see many conflicts occurring because of this. It is not just food that I think we will start seeing disputes over, many common household items will also start being disputed over as well. People should start thinking about how things are run in this country because with us importing so many things from around the world we are making ourselves vulnerable to the whims of others.

  8. Gail Martin says:

    I agree the Colombian exchange benefited the Old World and the colonizers at the expense of the Native peoples. The Europeans had an arrogant view that things from Europe were intrinsically better. Therefore the Natives religion, foods items, housing etc should be replaced by there own. This attitude disrupted the native food chain and drastically changed the lives of the native populations.

  9. grace valentine says:

    It is amazing how much the Columbian Exchange effected the world today, because it seems as though the concept of importation and domesticating plants and animals has not gone away. The Columbian Exchange was just the beginning of what would be a way of life for most people. To think where we would be today without domesticated plants as well as animals is baffling. The exchnage has really been quite a success for many people and has made a huge impact on the way we still live our lives today, I think that is fascinating.

  10. Christine Wielkopolski says:

    It never realized how dependent the New World was on plants and animals of the Old World. The Columbian Exchange played a significant role in the development of the New World’s culture and future. It was interesting to me about how significant of an impact horses made on war, hunting, etc. I have been a horseback rider since I was a little girl and it never really occurred to me just useful a horse can be.
    The Columbian Exchange is a fascinating concept and I believe that in this day and age, the effects of it can still be seen.

  11. Sarah Smith says:

    Introducing all of the news crops, animals, and the idea of civilization was “alien” to the native people. I mean civilization as in the idea that the way natives were living was uncivilized. Natives did not know there was any other system until they were conquered by the Europeans. In a way they were enlightened by colonization and the impact of colonization of America is lasting. Even some social aspects of our culture result from Europeans conquering natives. Europeans created social status in America; the fact the Europeans had the “upper hand” in agriculture and new innovations put them at a higher level than the natives. I agree with Crosby that colonization was a very important event in modern human history. I believe it has a social, political, and ecological impact that has helped to create the society we live in today.

  12. Candice Zollars says:

    The Columbian Exchange has impacted the new world greatly! The horse alone helped with the gathering of cattle and with the hunting of large amounts of food. With the ability to hunt large amounts of food, people were able to trade what they did not need, which in turn, gave them more opportunities for things they did need. It’s amazing how one creature can impact us so greatly!

  13. Hollie Reid says:

    I think it is funny that Catholics, a religious group that is known for their devotion, would neglect to plan ways to continue their practices when making such a huge transition. Communion is such a huge aspect of the Catholic faith that I feel like that making sure they would be able to continue that practice would be a main priority.

  14. Stephen Denuel says:

    The Columbian Exchange truly did play a huge role in the modern World. Its interesting to see how customs from long ago have transformed to the way they are today. I thought it was interesting learning all of the functions of horses and all of their uses, ranging from war to farming, and how they aren’t used as much as they should today.

  15. Laura Ott says:

    The Columbian Exchange has had a huge impact on how we live our lives in the present day. It affected how the New World developed into what it is today. I think it is very interesting how so many things evolved and changed and became what we see them as. I also never realized before just how important and useful horses were in the development of our country and its culture. I’ve been around horses since I could walk, and I guess it just never occurred to me. I definitely agree with Crosby, the colonization of the Americas is one of the most significant and important events in modern human history. It will also continue as this since American culture is so influential and widespread to all the other cultures around the world.

  16. Steele Driskill says:

    The Colombian exchange allowed for a plethora of ways for growth to occur in the New World. Domesticated plants and animals allowed European’s to shape the living environments in the America’s in a positive way, which in turn, created a domino affect on the success of New World operations. Main cash crops, such as wheat, olives, and grapes became an essential component of the New World. Cash crops, such as sugar, revitalized the New World and directly impacted the enormity of growth in regards to the economy. An abundance of factors from the Old World contributed to the substantial increase in capital-intensive business generated from the New World. I find it rather intriguing how fast a particular area of the world can develop so quickly and become a vital component of the world trading system.

  17. Mercedes Chapa says:

    There were alot of Positive aspects that developed through the transfer along the Columbian Exchange from the old world to the new world. Plants, animals, crops, spices, fruit, vegetables, textiles were brought over from the old world and gave way to modernization and domestication. Yet many negative factors came from the exchange as well. There is a dark side to the exchange. When Europeans first came to the Americas they introduced a number of diseases such as measles, typhus, smallpox, tuberculosis and many more ailing diseases. Native Americans had little immunity to the important illnesses thus leading to hundreds of thousands of Native Americans died. Those Natives that did survive were driven out of their land and forced to live on reservations. Slaves were also transferred along the Columbian exchange sent to America for cheap labor in exchange for shelter and food. Slaves were transported from Africa to Europe and the Americas on large cargo ships forced to stay in filthy, inhumane conditions; thousands died along the journey from disease and malnutrition. It is crazy to think how far we have come as a society and culture since the Columbian Exchange, and how much of the old world still surrounds us in the present.

  18. Candice Wilson says:

    It’s amazing to know that some animals and flowers were actually imported from other countries to the US and other places. It makes you think why some parts of the world had different things and why some others did not.

  19. Sarah Logan Wright says:

    The remark regarding domesticated horses arriving before Europeans is very interesting. Does this mean that there were previous ranchers, herders, farmers or warrior horses from tribes? Or could it possibly be settlers from long ago that could not weather the new environment and died out. How do they know that the horses came from Europeans? It is fascinating how so much of our early life was dependent on animals and how we can tell much of our history based on the animals we see in one’s environment.

  20. David Cujas Jr says:

    I gained some insight from the entirety of the blog, but I honestly thought the most interesting comment was the last one…….how humans would fair if and when extra-terrestrials visit earth. It would be foolish to argue that the results of such an encounter would not be identical to the interactions between Native Americans and Europeans. At least there’s 12 1/2 months until the end of 2012!

  21. Richard C says:

    Should mention that that the diseases brought by the explorers (mainly smallpox) wiped out 95% of the native American population by some estimates, collapsing their social structure. Imported disease has also impacted European society. The black death, which wiped about a third of the population of Europe in the middle ages, came from Asia by trade over the Silk Road.
    It seems that humans evolve a resistance to local diseases but are very vulnerable to strange ones.

  22. It is interesting to think of how different both the old and new world would be if these items had not been transported across the ocean. Not only the items themselves, but their uses aswell. I wonder how they would be called today, as opposed to the spanish words given to them at the time.

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