Essay: Colombian exchange

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  • Subject area(s): Economics essays
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  • Published on: January 22, 2019
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It is difficult to overstate the importance of the Columbian exchange and its effects are still evident to see today. The exchange of organic produce, livestock and disease from 1492 onwards have shaped cultures around the world. The traditional agents of the Exchange have been viewed as Europe and the Americas, however Nunn and Qian write that “it also had large … impacts on Africa and Asia.” In this essay I will give evidence to suggest that the Columbian exchange had effects across the globe. To do this I shall assess the major factors of the Columbian Exchange in turn. Firstly, I shall look at the transfer of organic produce, both edible produce and that with other uses, then I shall look at the importance of the transfer of animals, before finally viewing the vast impact which the sharing of new diseases had on populations in both the Old and New Worlds. Throughout my essay I shall also try to determine whether or not the benefits of the Columbian Exchange were purely centred on the Europeans. Of course, the earliest initiators of the exchange were European explorers, but that is not to say that the benefits and other changes were also centred in Europe. The exchange held worldwide implications in both the short term and the long term, and examples of such implications prove that the Columbian exchange was certainly a global process, and I will end my essay by concluding that the Columbian Exchange was a global phenomenon, not purely limited to Europe and the Americas.
The part played by the exchange of produce was important for two reasons. Firstly, produce which is now key to the diet of most people in the Old-World was introduced and secondly the New-World provided extra land to cultivate Old-World crops such as sugar and coffee which cultivated these crops more efficiently than in the Old-World.

The most important food introduced into the Old-World was undoubtedly the potato. The potato provides nutrients and calories on such a scale that it can provide sustenance as the sole article in a diet better than any other food. So nutritious are potatoes that it is possible to subsist purely off a diet of potatoes supplemented with milk or butter – as was the staple diet in Ireland. In 1500 potatoes had never been grown outside of South America, yet by the 1840s the diet in Ireland was so dependent on potatoes that when late blight effected the harvest a huge famine hit the country leading to, through death or migration, the Irish population falling by up to 25%. The potato was so important for the Old-World that the rapid population growth which occurred worldwide in the centuries following Columbus’ contact with the New-World can at least partly be attributed to the adoption of the potato into the Old-World diet. Nunn and Qian estimate that the introduction of the potato explains 12% of the growth to average population sizes worldwide following the introduction of the potato. Not only does the introduction of the potato explain an increase in population but also an increase in urbanisation. In this case the potato is even more important, accounting for 47% of the post-adoption increase to urbanisation. The eating of potatoes gave so many calories, and therefore energy, that productivity increased, and in turn farming improved. As farming improved there was less need for labour to farm, freeing up a workforce to move to cities. The introduction of the potato can arguably be seen as a long-term cause of the Industrial revolutions across Europe at the end of the 18th century and throughout the 19th.

As important as potatoes were, they were not the only highly calorific food which was brought to the Old-World from the New. Maize, cassava and sweet potato also arrived from the New-World as calorie-intensive alternatives to the potato. Cassava was adopted primarily in Africa where it became a staple food of the diet, replacing sorghum and millet. Cassava is so important to the Old-World that the top ten consumers of Cassava are all Old-World countries. Maize is popular around the world, adopted by many African countries such as Malawi, Zambia and Lesotho – where the average person consumes 1500 calories a day from Maize . Spanish colonialists introduced the sweet potato and maize into Asia as they travelled East. The sweet potato is now mainly consumed in China, Uganda and Burundi. The calorific content of these foods led to population growth similar to that of the potato, although these carbohydrates were not as impactful as the potato. It is completely fair to argue that the world’s population would not have seen growth on anything like the scale it had was it not for the introduction of these New-World calorie-intensive foods into the Old-World. They certainly had worldwide, long-term consequences and as such are an example of the Columbian exchange being a global process.

It is not only calorie-intensive foods that were introduced across the Old-World during the Columbian exchange. Many countries and cultures had their cuisine defined by the introduction of produce previously exclusive to the New-World, and many cuisines and flavours which we now think of as typical of that country or culture only came into being following the Columbian exchange. Before the Columbian Exchange, there were no oranges in Florida, no bananas in Ecuador, no paprika in Hungary, no potatoes in Ireland, no coffee in Colombia, no pineapples in Hawaii, no chili peppers in Thailand, no tomatoes in Italy, and no chocolate in Switzerland. Notable examples such as the paprika in Hungary – used famously in goulash soup – or the spice used for curry sauces in India, both derive from the capsicum pepper which itself originated in Bolivia and Brazil. The pepper is the ancestor of other peppers now regularly consumed such as bell peppers and jalapeno peppers, and also offers good nutrition in the way of vitamin A. Tomatoes, which are used so readily in Italian cuisine for pasta sauces and similar, are another New-World food. More interesting is the fact that it took almost 300 years from their introduction for tomatoes to be seen as food rather than just decoration in Italy. It was not until the 19th century that the pasta sauces which are synonymous with Italian food became common place. They were taken to Asia by the Spanish, and were cultivated in Northern Africa – they also made it to China, yet were only cultivated in large quantities in the 20th century, as they were originally seen as the food of “southern barbarians”. So important is the tomato to food around the world that it provides people in total with more nutrients and vitamins than any other fruit or vegetable. Other exotic produce from the New-World includes cacao and vanilla which, despite originally being used mostly as luxuries are now commonplace worldwide. The Columbian exchange revolutionised world food both in terms of taste and nutrition, and in this aspect it is clear that the Columbian Exchange was not Eurocentric, with examples of produce being transferred wide across the globe.

Food was not the only organic product transported from the New-World to the Old. Rubber was a prime example of non-edible organic produce which had a massive impact on the wider world. The exporting of rubber seeds from Brazil was initially a capital offence, and it was not until the 18th century that rubber seeds were transported in large quantities across the Old-World. Rubber production became what it is today once rubber seeds reached Asian markets, as the climate there was far better suited to the cultivation of rubber trees than European climates. Hobhouse describes a boom in the rubber market from 1880-1910, regarding rubber as “the most important, most market-sensitive, most sought-after new commodity in the world.” His comment refers to a period where rubber was needed for insulation due to the popularisation of electricity and would also soon be needed for tyres – for both cars and bicycles. The exchange of rubber was so effective that in current day the six biggest producers of rubber are all Asian counties , despite rubber trees being exclusive to South America pre-Columbus. Unfortunately, the rubber trade was often associated with atrocity – especially once the production reached Africa. European colonists are known to have butchered and destroyed entire villages in efforts to force them to produce rubber for them. So bad were conditions in the Congo that is has been estimated that a life was lost for every ten kilograms of rubber produced. Due to its reach around the world and ongoing impacts on the worldwide economy it must be regarded a worldwide phenomenon as part of the Columbian Exchange.

However not all produce exports from the New-World were beneficial. Tobacco is the most controversial of the produce brought to the Old-World during the exchange. Tobacco became so valuable due to its popularity that it was often used as a currency. This was mainly in the Americas where, for example, the revolutionary government used tobacco as collateral to the French in return for their loans during the 1776 American Revolutionary War. Tobacco was thought to have medical benefits for hundreds of years, and it was not until 1950 that the health risks of tobacco consumption were revealed. Tobacco has spread so far around the world that tobacco consumption is the leading cause of preventable death according to the World Health Organisation , with one in ten adult deaths being linked to tobacco. Despite the public now being aware of the risks of tobacco, it continues to be ever popular and over thirty per cent of people smoke in many Old-World countries. The impact of tobacco is just as important as other produce which moved from the New-World, and still today has global implications.

While the transfer of produce was largely in the direction of the Old-World, the early transfer of livestock was more common in the opposite direction. The countries of the Old-World had domesticated far more large animals than that of the New-World. This was a large factor in the greater agricultural efficiency of the Old-World when compared with the New. The use of horses and other large farm animals was vital both in transporting goods and also in pulling large farming equipment such as ploughs. Pre-Columbus, the largest mammal in Southern America was the Tapir – which had no use in terms of aiding manual labour. The introduction of these animals into the New-World drastically increased their farming outputs. The improved farming methods allowed for the Europeans to utilise new land for their own crops. This was the secondary effect of the Columbian Exchange. As well as New-World crops being taken to the Old-World, staples of the Old-World diet were brought to the New to be farmed as the climate there benefitted them. Crops such as sugar, coffee, soybeans, oranges, and bananas were all introduced to the New World, and the Americas quickly became the main suppliers of these crops globally. Hersh and Voth examine the benefits that arose from the increase in land for cultivating the Old World crops coffee and sugar after 1492. They find that the increased availability of sugar increased English welfare by eight percent by 1850, while the greater availability of coffee increased welfare by 1.5 percent.

Horses were not only important to the Americans for farming purposes, however. They had been used effectively by the Europeans in the first place to conquer the indigenous peoples and were now used to redefine their lifestyles – especially in Northern America. Existing tribes used horses to enhance their nomadic lifestyle and expand their influence on the Grand Plains. Horses became the ultimate sign of wealth, due to the reliance which the Indians had on them for their lifestyle. The introduction of new animals could also have negative impacts on the areas. For example, the Caribbean suffered from the proliferation of new European animals, which decimated the local fauna. Introduction certainly had an impact on the areas on in which they were introduced, but the benefits were often reserved for the Europeans and other conquerors. Although the increased efficiency of farming would have been a benefit to the native peoples, it was the Europeans who truly benefitted from the new farm-land which they could utilise and exploit.

Unfortunately, the ships which ventured back and forth between the Old-World and the New did not only carry produce and livestock. Alongside the intended cargo came disease, carried by animals, the produce itself, and the people on the ships. Before the Columbian exchange, the lack of connections in the New-World had the benefit of making it harder for diseases to travel across cultures and civilisations. However, the wealth of connections in the Old-World had led to a widespread nature of disease there, and the people living there had developed immunity to common diseases as they had been exposed to them. The complete opposite was true of those living in the New World; “Among the major divisions of the species homo sapiens, with the possible exception of the Australian aborigine, the American Indian probably had the dangerous privilege of longest isolation from the rest of mankind”. Diseases such as smallpox, therefore, had far greater impact on them then someone who had been previously exposed. In fact, the settlers completely devastated the populations in the Americas with the diseases they brought; major killers include smallpox, measles, whooping cough, chicken pox, bubonic plague, typhus, and malaria. Populations were destroyed in unprecedented fashion. There is little exaggeration in the statement of a German missionary in 1699 that “the Indians die so easily that the bare look and smell of a Spaniard causes them to give up the ghost.” The island of Hispaniola had an estimated native population of between 60,000 and eight million when they first had contact from Columbus – within fifty years the island was virtually extinct. In fact Cook estimates that across the region, those areas who were least effected lost eighty per cent of their population, while the worst lost upwards of 95%.

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