The Columbian Exchange – A Toxic Relationship of Destined Worlds
In 1492, the Niña, the Santa Maria and the Pinta set sail towards the New World. Although Christopher Columbus hoped to create new sea routes, initiate trade and find spices in Asia, he managed to do so in the Bahamas instead. This first voyage has shown to be a milestone in shaping international trade and diversity, simultaneously causing devastation and degradation mainly to the native population of the New World, while the colonist profited.
In the decades that followed Columbus’ first voyage to the American continent, overseas trade was revolutionised and became the economic staple for many members of the New as well as the Old World. While the Americas sent cash crops such as corn, potatoes, squash and tobacco to Europe, they received different kinds of livestock, grains and fruits in return. Making the Columbian trade one of the most relevant trade systems, still influencing us and our everyday lives. The tobacco trade may not have been a life-sustaining matter in a survival sense as beans of tomatoes may have been. Nonetheless, it did become a question of utter importance for the economic rise of colonies such as Jamestown. After learning about tobacco and how it is meant to be consumed and cultivated by Natives, colonists made first attempts in trying to grow and sell their own. After the crop was introduced to the Old World and had made its way to middle-class England where the habit became popular, the economy in Virginia started to thrive. Not only did the economic awakening of the Columbian Exchange cause great wealth in the colonies, but it also pioneered a society that drifted towards capitalism. For the first time in the New World selling and investing was no longer limited to churches and governments but much rather allowed the expansion of a middle class with growing agricultural knowledge.
Apart from the joys of having horses and cattle in the Americas and tobacco in Europe, the Columbian Exchange also made way for disease. As many diseases that are deadly for humans can be traced back to livestock, more diseases were introduced to the New World rather than the other way around. A counterexample to that statement is Syphilis which originally came from the Americas. This disease may not be fatal anymore but at the time caused immense turmoil in the field of general health and transmission of STD’s. Within five years Syphilis had reached epidemic levels and was spreading throughout and beyond Europe to countries such as Hungary, Russia, the Middle East and even Australia. In the grand scheme of things, the impact of diseases spread by the Columbian Exchange was much greater in the New World. Illnesses such as measles, smallpox, influenza and diphtheria began to surface upon the arrival of colonists. The Natives who were, so to speak “immunologically defenceless” and therefore more susceptible to New World illnesses, fell prey to a multitude of epidemics and lost upward of 90 per cent of their populations. This knowledge among settlers and colonists created and a whole new dynamic in disease warfare implementing it in the relentless pursuit of accumulating land and control over natives to be used as labourers, all the while expanding colonies westward.
The Columbian Exchange did not only encompass the mingling of goods and illness but also diversified the colonies greatly. While firstly Europeans from various countries such as Spain, England, the Netherlands and France were closer than they had been in the Old World, the intercontinental clashing between Europe and the Americas was immense. As the male to female ratio was rather unbalanced, men making up 90 per cent of Spanish colonists in the 16th century, races began to blend cross-generationally essentially pioneering an interracial population. Although diversity generally harbours a positive connotation, which holds true for some, it is important to note that many of these unions were not consensual. Children deriving from mixed-race couples oftentimes had a social standing just as low as their ‘coloured’ ancestors. Parallel to the emerging of these hybrid cultures an asymmetrical power structure began to establish itself. This, in turn, led to colonialism and slavery, the aftermath of which we are still confronted with in our time.
It is not possible to characterise the Columbian exchange as solely positive or negative. Rather, one might say it was inevitable and that sooner or later the continents would drift back together in trade and globalisation as they once drifted apart geographically. The execution, however, although inconceivably flawed from a humanistic point of view, robbing homeland, dignity and basic human rights did make way for the diversification of the world in regard to food, language, culture and economic trade. Looking past the oversimplifying positive or negative, one can certainly agree that the effects of the Columbian Exchange have influenced each and every one of us and that neither the Old nor the New World would be remotely the same without it.