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Worlds Colliding: The Columbian Exchange, Research Paper Example

Pages: 4

Words: 1168

Research Paper

Introduction

In terms of historical record, the Columbian Exchange refers to the immense transfer of ideologies, agriculture, commercial interests, populations, and disease precipitated by the opening of the Americas by Columbus.  The word “exchange” indicates equality of a kind, yet the Columbian was significantly unequal, and in a variety of striking ways.  While the European explorers and settlers brought a wide range of new animals and crops to the Americas, they also carried with them disease.   This alone would completely reshape the formation of the New World, as devastated native populations were overcome by Europeans resistant to the illnesses they transmitted.  As will be examined in the following, the Columbian Exchange was an enormously impactful event in the history of human and societal development, and one marked by a significantly more powerful influence on one side.

The Course of the Exchange

It is inevitable that any introduction of one, massive culture to another will result in a transferring of crops, livestock, technologies, and virtually everything else that a society requires to function.  Each partner in the Columbian Exchange had developed modes of living based upon its particular terrain, and consequently alien to the other.  In some ways, then, the Columbian Exchange provided extraordinary opportunities for each concerned party to benefit.  Long centuries of agricultural development had equipped both the Old and the New World with a vast array of unique items, and the exchanging of these staples of existence immeasurably altered modes of living for all concerned.  Europeans brought to the islands and the Americas livestock in the form of horses, sheep, chickens, and swine.  Crops unknown to the New World were wheat, sugar cane, coffee, and an array of fruits and vegetables.  Similarly, the indigenous Americans had corn, sweet potatoes, varieties of beans, tomatoes, squashes, pumpkins, peanuts, tobacco, and turkeys to offer (Boyer, Clark, Hawley, Kett, & Rieser 2009, 29). This constituted revolutionary changes in the cultures of the New World, apart from conquest and colonial ambitions.

It was not, however, entirely beneficial by any means.  On one level, weeds crossed the ocean with the crops, and this introduction severely impacted on native agriculture.  Both the weeds and the new livestock, particularly in the form of grazing cattle and sheep, wiped out the domestic agriculture in place.  By 1700, it is estimated that herds of wild horses and cattle exceeded 50 million.  Then, these new animals faced no natural predators, so the proliferation was unimpeded and vast tracts of South American land were exhausted by them (Bulliet, Crossley, Headrick, Hirsch, & Johnson 2010, 422).  At the same time, and despite the understandable concerns of the Native Americans, new ways of life emerged from the changes.  If Natives were suddenly deprived of traditional crops, they soon adapted to raising livestock.  Beef became a new diet staple, as horses enabled new means of hunting and attending to larger farming arenas.  Worlds were colliding in every aspect related to culture, and at such a level that the effects were literally revolutionary in reforming societies.

There were other enormous, and equally devastating, effects to the Columbian Exchange.  As the cultures of the Americas had developed in isolation, there was little resistance to the diseases and germs long present in the Old World, and this “exchange” began nearly as soon as contact was established.   In 1518, for example, smallpox came across the Atlantic, and this first wave of the disease decimated approximately 50 percent of the native populations of Central America and the Caribbean.  South America was soon after infected, and with similar consequences.  By the 1530s, other infections were arriving by ship, including measles, typhoid, diphtheria, and influenza (Bulliet et al 2010, 421).  Later years would bring new forms of virus and disease.  The warmer climates of South America were a perfect breeding ground for malaria and yellow fever, brought in from Africa with the mid-16th century slave trade (Bulliet et al 2010, 422). Europeans had experience with many of these diseases, and some immunity had developed naturally in their systems.  For the natives of the New World, the consequences were epidemics of death.  There is little evidence that the settlers deliberately exploited contagion as a means of exerting control, but it also appears that there was no need for such an effort; in 1616 and 1617, for example, disease very nearly wiped out the entire indigenous populations of the New England settlements (Bulliet et al 2010,  422).  If the New World was shifting in directions that would prove valuable over time, the cost was equally high.

The other impact from the Columbian Exchange was, not unexpectedly, a mingling of peoples and races virtually unprecedented in human history.  Not only did nearly a third of a million Spanish emigrate to the Americas in the 16th century, but the vast majority were male.  Racial intermingling then occurred on a grand scale, and typically through settler contact with the rising slave trades from Africa and the Caribbean, as well as the native people themselves  (Boyer et al 2009, 29).   Linked to this was the inevitable dominance of the Old World, in that the resources of the New attracted Europeans eager to take advantage of the opportunities for wealth and subjugation of the natives.   In New England and Canada, English and French settlers imposed the European models of culture they had known onto the new lands, just as the Spanish and Portuguese did the same in the Southern regions.  The indigenous peoples most certainly had an effect on these newcomers, but their efforts largely were reactive, and in place to secure as much of their rights as possible (Bulliet et al 2010,  423).  Essentially, and even as they sought to forge new societies using the crops and livestock brought in from the Old World, the Columbian Exchange was more an inundation than any sort of transfer based on equality.

Conclusion

To note that, beginning with Columbus’ legendary discovery of the New World in the late 15th century, an exchange of cultural basics occurred between Europeans and Native Americans greatly minimizes the impact of this lengthy, international scenario.  It is certainly true that Europeans introduced an enormous range of crops and animals to the Americas, just as they enjoyed acquiring those of Native farming.  The Columbian Exchange, however, was never an affair mutually sought after; rather, it was the result of relentless expansion and conquest efforts on the part of the Old World.  If the Americas benefited by it, it was only at the cost of disease that nearly eliminated entire native populations, and also at the expense of independence.  The Columbian Exchange was indisputably a vastly significant period  in the history of human and societal development, yet it was one enabled and conducted with a significantly more powerful influence on one side.

Bibliography

Boyer, Paul S., Clark, Clifford, Hawley, Sandra, Kett, Joseph S., & Rieser, Andrew. 2009. The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People, Vol. I.  Boston: Wadsworth.

Bulliet, Richard, Crossley, Pamela, Headrick, Daniel, Hirsch, Steven, & Johnson, Lyman.  2010. The Earth and Its Peoples: A Global History.  Belmont: Cengage Learning.

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