Academic Paper: The Columbian Exchange

The Columbian Exchange


The word globalization is a pretty new construct, born in the age of technology coupled with the explosion of the information super-highway.  The word might have been coined less than 50 years ago, but the idea of sharing everything including food, and various ways of life began hundreds of years ago – this was globalization in its embryonic stages.


Globalization at the micro level is an ancient process.  Hundreds, or perhaps thousands of years ago, villagers all over the Americas criss-crossed territories and borders, rivers, lakes and even oceans to fish, hunt and forage.  In Africa much the same happened and in Europe, merchants went back and forth buying and selling wares from village to village and even from country to country via horses and carriages.  As these early pioneers met up with their neighbors, they not only exchanged commodities, they exchanged ideas about farming, weaponry, and tools as well as how to successfully treat ailments in both man and beast. 


As these exchanges continued, old ways were left behind as newer, more efficient methods were introduced.  I would imagine that these micro-exchanges of information, seeds, plants and animals caused no harm as people were dealing at the local level and caused little or no harm to the balance of nature.  Therefore, plants and animals exchanged between Germany and Austria would not have caused any big shift in organisms or a big eco-shakeup.


The Columbian Exchange

           The Columbian Exchange is used to describe the wholesale exchange of plants, animals of varying kinds and species which crossed the Atlantic Oceans with European settlers into the Americas.   Species endemic to the Americas were also taken back to Europe.  The exchange included agricultural crops, domestic animals such as horses, pigs and poultry.  The exchange also unwittingly carried micro-organisms, pests and disease causing agents.  The Columbian Exchange started with Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the new world in 1492. 


            Author and historian Alfred Crosby coined the term the Columbian Exchange back in the in the 1970s.  His book of the same name explored the environmental impact that the Columbian Exchange had on the environment.  His book came at a time when environmental stewardship was not as hip as it is in 2012.   Crosby’s book gave post 1492 events a name and forced others to look at both sides of the events that changed the diversity, way of life and diets of people on both the Old and New Worlds. 


            Of course there were some benefits in this exchange.  The Americas benefitted by adding variety and diversity of fruits, vegetables and animals for food.  The tools introduced to the new world made work easier for natives.  However, with the animals came diseases such as small pox, Mumps, Measles and Influenza which served to wipe out the native populations.  The big question the is; what would have happened if the Columbian Exchange did not upset the balance of nature?

Therefore, depending on where you are sitting, Christopher Columbus’ 1492 Voyage could be described as the best thing to happen the idea of food security or the most catastrophic, planet altering event in modern history.  If this is so, then the Columbian Exchange ranks right up there with that meteorite which wiped out the pre-historic world. 


Crosby himself seemed to think so when he described the Columbian Exchange as “a grunting, lowing, neighing, crowing, chirping, snarling, buzzing, self-replicating and world-altering avalanche.”   As inelegant as this description is, it aptly described how the Columbian Exchange turned the eco-system the New World its head, and wiped out millions of lives with the importations of diseases, not only the diseases that wiped out the natives, but there must have been some kind of impact on native plants, produce and animals.



The events of the Columbian Exchange were an attempt by Europe to stamp their identity upon the Americas.  Let us plunder, take what we want, let us also make everything as familiar to us as we have it back home.  Here was a new land, let us take it over, let us make it our home away from home.  “..the exchange ..was part of a broader process of trade, migration, investment, colonization and exchange of ideas” (Green).  This is evidence that the Columbian Exchange was the start of globalization at the macro level.


One of the crops introduced to the Americas was sugar cane.  The plant favored warmer climate and became an economic driver for Europe.  Sugar replaced honey as the main sweetener in Europe and was the major cause of enslavement of Africans who were needed to work on sugar plantations.



The Eco-system

It is a well known fact that the introduction of new plant species into any area can create havoc for native species.  I would imagine the introduction seeds, seedlings, herbs, shrubbery etc, changes the landscape in the New World for good. 

There is proof that introduced species wreak havoc on native species, for example, in my native Jamaica, on a tour of the Blue Mountains and John Crow Mountain National Parks – Jamaica’s highest mountain range, I learned that there were approximately 500 endemic species of plants growing along the mountain range.  The tour was conducted by a group of ecologists who were at pains to point out how the spread of introduced species, including ornamental flowers, were threatening the forest by crowding out and suffocating native species.  As beautiful as the Ginger Lilies were, they were a source of great heartache for these ecologists who saw them as a nuisance. 

The ginger lilies self replicated at a fast pace, sending out new shoots ever so often.  One plant can in a matter of months spawn dozens of new shoots.  The ginger lilies were hardy and withstood any weather, they did not need a lot of soil to thrive, they had a shallow root system which as they spread overwhelmed and crowded out other plants which eventually died.

 The lilies were also, bad substitutes for the plants which they killed; as their root systems did not go far enough to hold the soil together, therefore, in times of adverse weather the ginger lilies indirectly caused landslides and hardships for human mountain dwellers who are marooned on these mountains, sometimes for weeks before there is help.


            The ginger lily is just an example of what one plant can do to an eco-system.  Imagine then, the hundreds of species introduced to the Americas and how these species altered the eco-systems of the places where they were introduced.



Much of our current diet in the Americas is based largely upon items that were introduced to this hemisphere by Europeans.  It’s been hundreds of years since milk, eggs, butter and cheese poultry, beef and other things have become staple items in our diets.  Consider an American diet without pizza, hamburger, hot dogs and fried chicken.


Not only is Columbus responsible for the above, he also has an impact on fruits and vegetables as well.  On the island of Jamaica the national dish is ackee with cod fish and roasted breadfruit.  Both had been brought to Jamaica by Europeans and have since flourished.  Now there are millions of trees, bearing enough fruit for domestic use and forming the basis of a processing industry which keeps the Jamaican Diaspora supplied.


I fondly remember guava and mango soaked summers of my childhood where my friends and I ate mangos all day.   Mangos are a favorite fruit all over the Americas and a big source of foreign income for countries such as Mexico, however, prior to 1492, there were no Mangos on any of the islands in the Caribbean.  There were however lots of avocados, beans, peppers, peanuts, pineapples, potatoes and pumpkins which are some of the items that the America’s contributes to the Columbian Exchange.  On one hand the Americas might want to thank the Europeans for these gifts. But what of the food items already in existence in the Americas?  Does anyone really know what was available and what became of it?



The use of animals for transportation and labor is also Columbian introduction.  Prior to Columbus visit, there were not horse, donkeys, cattle, poultry etc.  The introduction of horses meant travel was quicker and there were more efficient means by which to carry out agricultural tasks such as using horses and oxen to prepare land for planted. 



Natives of the Americas had not close interaction with animals and had not built up the kinds of immunities that the Europeans had.  The Americas were free of certain diseases and therefore, natives had no antibodies to fight off these diseases.  Therefore diseases such as chicken pox, small pox, malaria, mumps, measles and cholera were fatal additions to the Americas.   Europeans introduced dozens of diseases to the Americas; however, it is believed that the Americas contributed Syphilis to Europeans.


Modern fail safe

In today’s world, countries have various restrictions preventing the import or export of plants, animals, soil and various disease agents including human vaccines to prevent the spread of both plant, animal and human diseases, the importation of which would alter the ecology, and be devastating to agriculture, and cause devastating loss of life in others. 


Whenever I enter a city in the United States from my native Jamaica, I have to fill out a customs declaration form that certifies that I am not in possession of any disease bearing agents such as plants, seeds, fruits and vegetables, meats or wildlife, cell cultures or have been on a farm with livestock prior to coming into the country.  At most ports, my luggage is subjected to an electronic scan which looks for any contraband. Conversely, on my trip back to Jamaica, custom officers do a manual search of my possessions. 


These measures are taken to prevent the entry of alien species which may be dangerous to an area’s ecological balance.  There were no such checks and balances in 1492, therefore, plants and animals of all genres and species criss-crossed the Atlantic and altered the balance of nature.



Works Cited


Gambino, Megan. 2011. October 05, 2011. Alfred W. Crosby on the Columbian Exchange. Retrieved October 20, 2012.


Green, Thomas.  2007.  The Columbian Exchange and the Reversal of Fortune.  The CATA Journal, Vol. 27, No. 1 Winter 2007.



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