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Columbian Exchange

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“Columbian exchange” is a term introduced by an American historian Alfred W. Crosby, in 1972. The term implies a process of extensive interchange of cultural and environmental commodities, and communicable diseases, which occurred between the Old World, including the entire Eastern Hemisphere, not just Europe alone, and the New World, represented by the continents of South and North America. This started in the XV century and involved transmission of extrinsic flora, fauna, and diseases from the Afro-Eurasian Hemisphere to the American continent, and vice versa. It had a crucial impact on the transformations, which took place in both biological and ecological spheres of life in the Hemispheres.


Columbian Exchange began after the famous explorer and navigator Christopher Columbus and his crew aboard ships Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria arrived in the Caribbean and eventually washed ashore in the Bahamas, in 1942. The event initiated European conquest of the New World, starting with the Spanish establishment of colonies, and marked the beginning of the Grand Exchange.

Despite the divergent evolutionary histories of the Afro-Eurasian and the American continents, the Columbian Exchange came into opposite effects for the populations. It sufficiently benefited the European nations, simultaneously resulting in a complete disaster for indigenous peoples of the Americas. Subsequently, numerous Native American nations collapsed while European colonies thrived, developed, and flourished.

The explorers of America discovered not only new lands, but also vital crops like potatoes, tomatoes, and maize, which were previously unknown, but became truly essential in Eurasia by the XVIII century. Potatoes originally were not grown outside of South America. However, in the course of history, most European countries became dependent on this vegetable, to the point that, for instance, in Ireland, a diseased potato crop brought on a desolating famine. Furthermore, new staple crops introduced via Spanish colonizers resulted in dynamic population growth, in Asia, and the discovery of quinine resulted in finding the first effective treatment for malaria, which eventually devolved into the slave trade.

Meanwhile, the European explorers brought to the Americas a variety of domesticated animals, which was much larger in the Old World, than it was in the New. The introduction of horses changed the lives of many Native American tribes on the Great Plains and allowed them to adjust to a nomadic lifestyle.

Along with people, plants, and animals, numerous infectious diseases, from which the populations of Asia, Europe, and Africa deliberately suffered, migrated west, after 1492. Whereas Europeans and Asians throughout centuries of history acquired immunity to many diseases, the Native American populations did not have such natural immunity. New infections, which were brought from Europe, Asia, and Africa, had the most devastating impact on these peoples. Contemporary historian scientists argue that the diseases, which were introduced after the arrival of the first European explorers, eradicated about 90% of the indigenous population of the American continents, thus ravaging entire cultures and societies of the native citizens. Those who managed to survive were often simply unable to challenge European colonists.

The story of the Columbian Exchange is most starkly illustrated by the eloquent demographic statistics. Before 1492, the population of Europe population was about 60 million people. It is believed that the population of the New World at the intervening time has reached between 40 and 100 million population. Historians also believe that just before the arrival of Spanish colonists, the city of Tenochtitlan, which was the Aztec capital, was more inhabited, clean, and beautiful than contemporary Paris.

After three centuries of the Columbian Exchange, the population of Europe has grown to 150 million, whereas that of South and North America lessened to only 25 million, the majority of which was represented by European colonists’ descendants and African slaves.

The reason why European imperialism in the “New World” was so successful was first and foremost underwritten by the ecological and environmental factors. The impact, which Columbian Exchange has had on contemporary life, is hard to undervalue. It explains the collapse of Indian nations, the essence of the slave trade, and the reasons for which European nations suddenly became so wealthy and dominant in the international arena starting from the XV century. It is the outcome of the Columbian Exchange that oranges are nowadays so common in Florida, bananas – in Ecuador, potatoes – in Ireland. Italy owes the Columbian Exchange its traditional pasta marinara as well as Colombia owes its coffee or Switzerland – its famous chocolate. However, it is also a result of the Grand Exchange that such a prominent nation as the Aztecs has entirely disappeared from the globe.

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