Essay: Colombian exchange

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  • Colombian exchange
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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%.

While this is in itself a terrible situation, the indirect result of it was arguably just as bad if not worse. The massive loss of life meant that there were no natives left to work on the land which had been recently acquired by the Old-World settlers. The answer to the labour shortage was slavery, and therefore led to the forced migration of over 12 million African slaves to the Americas between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries – the largest forced migration in history. The slave trade continued until the abolition acts of 1807, which limited the movement of people to British colonies, and 1837, which totally abolished the slave trade. However, the end of slavery only ushered in a new age of indentured labour in the New-World. Although these people migrated wilfully, they were still treated poorly and were not afforded the same rights as a regular citizen. Moreover, the journeys were often treacherous, and many would die in transit. These workers came from across the globe, with the majority hailing from India and China. In this way, the diseases brought by the settlers not only destroyed native populations through attacking the New-World people with poor immune systems, but also indirectly led to the abduction and enslavement of twelve million people across the world. There can be little doubt that the transfer of disease during the Columbian exchange had worldwide implications and effects.

In 2000 Putterman and Weil constructed data to establish the proportion of New-World populations which now have Old-World ancestry. They discovered that populations were so destroyed by disease and migration that the percentages varied from 26% Old-World ancestry in Guatemala to 100% Old-World ancestry in Jamaica, Haiti and Trinidad and Tobago. The majority of the 27 New-World countries are now either majority European or African descent, showing the impact of the disease both through the original destruction of the populations and how the make-up of the populations in the area have changed due to the migration from around the world.

The transfer of disease was not purely a one-way transition however. Diseases travelled from the New-World to the Old as the explorers and conquerors returned to their homelands. None were more important nor widespread than Syphilis. Within five years of its arrival, the disease was epidemic in Europe. Syphilis reached Hungary and Russia by 1497; Africa, the Middle East, and India by 1498; China by 1505; Australia by 1515; and Japan by 1569. The disease was truly worldwide and is still a widespread disease in modern times. However, unlike much of the Columbian Exchange transfers, the origins of Syphilis in the Old-World are somewhat debated. This debate is covered well by Crosby in his book “The Columbian Exchange”. There are regularly three schools of thought: the Columbian theory which asserts that the disease was brought to Europe around 1493 when Columbus and his crews returned from the New-World; the non-Columbian theory, which suggests that Syphilis had existed in this form before 1492 in both the Old and New world; and a third Unitarian theory suggesting that the disease had existed in the Old-World before Columbus returned, but in a lesser form which then evolved after being exposed to the New-World strain. The third of these theories is rather strenuous and is difficult to either prove or disprove with the information currently available, therefore I will focus on the Columbian or non-Columbian theories – essentially deciding whether Syphilis became a worldwide disease because of the Columbian Exchange, or not.

Strong evidence for the Columbian theory exists in the form of Old-World documentary evidence pre-1492. No documentation makes reference to syphilis, with any references which could be the pox more than likely relating to other similar diseases which did exist at the time. Although it could be argued that they were simply wrong and missed the symptoms, Spaniards, Germans, Italians, Egyptians, Persians, Indians, Chinese, and Japanese all agreed that they had never seen the pox before, and it is massively unlikely if not impossible that physicians from all these countries could be incorrect at the same time. Furthermore, the naming of the disease across the world suggests that the Columbian theory is more likely correct. The names given to Syphilis across Europe also lend themselves to the notion that it was a foreign disease. The most popular name for the disease was ‘French disease’ – commonly used in England, Italy and other European countries. However, it was also known as ‘German disease’, ‘Spanish disease’, ‘Polish disease’ and many others. Essentially, they were named after their neighbours, as that was how the disease would have travelled. However, this notion was not only held in Europe but across the wider world. Middle Easterners referred to it as the Franks disease; Indians called it European pustules; the Chinese called it the ulcer of Canton, that port being their chief point of contact with the west. The Japanese called it Tang sore, Tang referring to China; or, more to the point, the disease of the Portuguese. The naming of the disease across all these countries suggests that the disease was new in these countries and moreover assumed to have travelled from Europe. Therefore, it cannot be regarded as a coincidence that the spread and naming of the disease throughout Europe coincided with Columbus’ return to Europe.

More important to the theory is the literary evidence which suggests Columbus was the originator of the disease. The two most important historians of the early Spanish empire, Bartolomé de Las Casas and Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, both state that Columbus brought syphilis back from America to Europe. Las Casas claims to have asked personally of the New World natives if they had experienced and suffered from syphilis prior to contact with the Europeans and they all suggest that they had “beyond all memory”. While both historians site the medical observation that the Indians were far less susceptible to contracting the disease than the Spanish – an expected contrast if the Indians had been exposed to the disease for far longer than the Spanish. This evidence further highlights the likelihood that the Spanish had first encountered syphilis in the New-World and, in one way or another, had carried it back to the Old on their return.

Evidence on the contrary largely relies on the lack of literary evidence from Columbus and his crew’s reports in relation to syphilis. The first accounts of the disease and its symptoms come from Italy and France in 1494 and 1495, once the disease had already started to spread rapidly. Nowhere in their initial reports are descriptions of the disease or its symptoms being exhibited among the crew. This has led to doubts that the disease travelled back with them, as the symptoms would have certainly manifested over such a long journey. However, there are several reasons why the lack of documentation among the crews does not necessarily prove it did not exist. There were many people – some of whom in influential positions – who would have benefited from Columbus’ crews suppressing any negative news on the New-World. Additionally, the crew returned with many natives from the New-World, and there is no information on their condition. It is perfectly possible that it was they who carried the disease to the Old-World. Furthermore, and even more simply, a huge amount of records are lost from that period and many more remain unstudied in various European archives. Essentially, the lack of mentions of syphilitic symptoms in Columbus’ reports is not evidence enough to say that syphilis did not travel to the New-World with him. For these reasons it must be asserted that syphilis is a result of the Columbian Exchange.

For all the devastating events and discoveries relating to disease, there was a major positive salvaged from Columbus’ voyages to the Americas. The discovery of Quinine in the bark of cinchona trees is widely accepted to have been a vital tool to the Empire in their expansion into Africa. Quinine was an early counter-measure to the effects of Malaria, which had been discovered by the indigenous Americans. The standard historiographical view is that Quinine was vital in European conquest into areas where Malaria was present, and moreover that progress into Africa would not have been possible without the discovery of Quinine. Empire building was so important in the centuries to follow that it is difficult to argue that the discovery of Quinine was not at least part of a global process.

Overall it is evident that the Columbian exchange resulted in change across the world, and to that end was a global phenomenon. Whether this change came in the form of new cuisine, improved diet, increased population, or even the emergence of an epidemic disease, it cannot be doubted that the Columbian Exchange had a world-wide impact. It can be argued that the Columbian exchange was not as equally important or influential in all parts of the world. While it could never be the case that all regions and countries were effected equally by the transfers between Old and New World, that is not evidence enough to claim that the Columbian Exchange was not a global phenomenon. Europeans, as the early agents of the Exchange were always likely to be the first to meet the consequences -both positive and negative – of the Exchange, but the effects certainly dispersed to the rest of the world – shown most notably in the case of syphilis and rubber. The introduction of new carbohydrates into the Old-World can certainly be argued as a major contributing factor to today’s balance of power. The boost in populations in Western Europe and beyond were drastically important in driving industrial revolutions and similar ventures which shape the modern economy. The effects of something do not necessarily have to be felt totally equally worldwide but that thing to be considered a global phenomenon, and the Columbian Exchange is an example of such a process. The effects of the Exchange were felt across the globe and still are today, making the Columbian Exchange, beyond doubt, a global phenomenon.

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