Columbian Exchange for APUSH
In 1492, Columbus sails the ocean blue and establishes contact between two worlds, the New World and the Old World, and this contact would change things forever. This is the Columbian Exchange.
Now, the Old World of Europe, they introduced the New World to things like sugar cane, oranges, bananas, grapes, and coffee, along with horses, and cattle, and pigs. And the New World introduces the Old World to things like tobacco, squashes, pumpkins, and tomatoes.
New World to Old World
Now, both the New and the Old World were changed in ways no one could’ve imagined in 1492 by this new exchange. One example is the introduction of the potato from the Americas to Europe. The potato’s highly caloric, and it allows farmers to get more produce out of a smaller portion of land. So this allowed European farmers to feed their families easier and more plentifully with less land and less work. This offered more time for education and the use of their current land for other items because they didn’t have to use so much just for sustaining. It is because of these new foods like the potato and other highly-caloric foods that after the Columbian Exchange is established, there’s a huge population boom in Europe.
Now another thing the New World of the Americas introduced to the Old World is tobacco, and when you introduce a highly-addictive substance into a general population, demand not only grows, but it grows quickly. So the demand for tobacco in Europe encouraged colonization, especially in North America, where tobacco really flourishes. And this growth of tobacco in North America, specifically in the Chesapeake Bay area, would allow Jamestown to become profitable and encourage further English colonization in the 17th century. So the introduction of tobacco is very important to the establishment of the United States.
Old World to New World
Now also, you got the Old World introducing a lot of new goods to the New World, one of which is sugar cane. And sugar cane grows very well in the Caribbean Islands, but it is also very difficult to grow and requires a lot of labor. This creates a demand for a lot of chearp labor. Now this demand for cheap labor began to fuel the slave trade between Africa and the Caribbeans, so much so that the Caribbean Islands received 90% of the enslaved people coming over from Africa. The population of the Caribbean Islands quickly transitioned from indigenous peoples to Europe and African populations.
The importation of European diseases decimates the indigenous populations, but the cultivation of sugar cane still requires a lot of labor. And so the demand for that labor being fulfilled through the African slave trade resulted in the population demographics of the Caribbean Island going from indigenous to European and African. And those demographics have lasted and still have an impact to this day.
The introduction of livestock to North America had a huge impact as well, especially on agriculture. When you put a plow on the back of an ox, you can plow a lot more land than you can if you just try to plow it by hand. So now, farmers can cultivate more land with less time, and also, when that ox dies, they can eat the ox. And so for the first time, you have this influx of beef and pork being eaten and consumed in North America. And the ability to consume more meat, combined with the other highly-caloric vegetables in North America, led to a huge nutritional gap between the New World and the Old World. This can be seen that the British colonists, at the time of the Revolutionary War, were, on average, two inches taller than their British counterparts.
Now let’s talk about the most impactful, important, and lasting transfer of goods, that of European diseases. It turns out war and political instability wasn’t the most dangerous thing that these new European explorers brought over, it was their diseases. You see, Europeans had been living in close proximity to each other and to livestock for centuries. And this close population density allowed the Europeans to build up immunities to things like small pox, and malaria, and diphtheria, but the indigenous peoples in the Americas, they didn’t have those immunities. So when the Europeans came over with their European diseases and they started to spread it through coughing and other means, it had a massive impact on the indigenous population, so much so that it’s estimated between 50% and 90% of the indigenous populations in the Americas died due to European diseases. And the European explorers, they had no idea about germ theory and the impact that their diseases would have on the New World. This was not a purposeful genocide of an entire population, it was the result of just the mere explorers’ contacting the natives.
The Columbian Exchange was incredibly transformative for both the New World and the Old World, neither of which would be the same after 1492. So here are some historical thinking questions. How did the introduction of sugar cane to the Caribbean Islands impact that region both in agriculture and in population demographic? Another historical thinking question is what was the impact of the introduction of tobacco in Europe, and how did that influence the development of the United States? Do you have any thoughts about the Columbian Exchange or do you have any historical thinking questions you would like to share? Please share them in the comments below.