Columbian Exchange Yields Both Positive and Negative Effects

Columbus Day is the well-known American holiday which commemorates Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World on October 12, 1492. On this day, Americans, both at home and abroad, pause to reflect upon their roots and heritage, on that fateful day that forever changed the course of world history. This discovery of the Americas by Columbus has traditionally been viewed in a positive light, since it marked the widespread exchange of foods, peoples, animals, plants, and goods between the New World and the Old World. This exchange, often referred to as the Columbian Exchange, also later expanded the global trading network and eventually led to great economic prosperity and the spread of civilizations throughout the world. While the opinion of Columbus as a heroic figure, and as the chief catalyst behind so many positive changes prevails today, others still view him more negatively, as a symbol of the oppression of the Native Americans, and as a herald for what would later lead to the African slave trade. In fact, the plight of these two groups of people has lead many opponents to despise the discovery of America and the Columbian Exchange altogether. This paper gives a summary of the pros of the Columbian Exchange, particularly the advantageous growth of the agriculture and livestock, as well as the cons that came too, including the exploitation of the both the Native American and African people.

To start with the pros, the Columbian Exchange yielded many positive effects on the world, mainly the growth of the agriculture and livestock trades. Agriculturally speaking, the arrival of different calorically-rich staple crops to the Old World from the Americas included many starchy vegetables such as the potato, the sweet potatoes, maize, and cassava, with the potato having the largest impact (Bergreen 2011, 223). Because the potato provides an abundant supply of calories and nutrients, it sustained life at that time better than any other food. Considering this fact, plus the relative ease of cultivating these staple crops in Old World climates, it is no wonder why there was a population explosion during the last two centuries. In many cases, the American crops didn’t compete with or replace Old World crops, but rather complemented them (Crosby 1972, 65).

The Columbian Exchange not only included an interchange of food crops, but also of livestock used for the purposes of food, clothing, and energy. The first horses, dogs, pigs, cattle, chickens, sheep, and goats arrived in the American continent with Columbus on his second voyage in 1493, and Native Americans gladly received these animals. The use of livestock in the Americas as a food source became particularly important in the enormous steppe and savannas regions, because the climate was not suitable for major crop cultivation (Crosby 1972, 117). The majority of the plant life in those regions was grass. Therefore, with the arrival of these herbivorous animals, which could now graze on all the grasses, came the benefit of having both meat and milk, some of the most nourishing of all foods. In addition, these new animals also provided the New World with an alternate source of power. In Pre-Columbian America, the main source of extra-human energy was the dog, which was incapable of carrying loads any heavier than about a hundred pounds. The importation of the horse, ass, and ox brought about a revolution in the quantity of power available to man in the New World (Zvi Dor-Ner, 1991, 252). One last example of the benefits that came due the exchange of livestock, was that cattle were killed not only to sustain life, but for their hides and tallow as well. Quite a large supply of hides was exported from the Americas to Europe. In fact, these hides became the chief source of wealth for Espanola, and for many other big islands as well (Crosby 1972, 91).

In contrast to the positive effects of the Columbian Exchange on the New and Old Worlds, was the inhumane treatment of the two groups of people New World, mainly the Native Americans and the African slaves, whose stories are linked together. Opponents rightly claim that, for the Native Americans, the European conquest following the discovery of the New World resulted in nothing but misery. Extremes in colonial exploitation of the Native Americans, together with the devastating spread of communicable Old World diseases (which nearly decimated the local population) have left many to lament the plight of these indigenous people (Zvi Dor-Ner, 1991, 280).

To begin, the list of infectious diseases that spread from the Old World to the New World included smallpox, chicken pox, measles, malaria, whooping cough, bubonic plague, and typhus (Bergreen 2011, 223). Because the indigenous populations had no previous contact with Old World diseases, they lived in a relatively disease-free environment and were immunologically defenseless. Before the arrival of Columbus, the Native Americans were not known to have suffered any outbreaks of any of these previously mentioned diseases. Also, because many of those diseases were contractible through air, the germs and viruses often traveled faster than the explorers themselves, with the outbreaks killing a significant portion of the native populations before direct contact was ever even made. Consequently, this depopulation of the Native Americans led to the huge demand for labor that gave rise to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The result was the forced movement of over twelve million slaves from Africa to the Americas, and cannot be said to be positive benefit in any sense of the matter (Royal 1992, 26).

In conclusion, the Columbian Exchange brought about the greatest interchange of different people, ideas, plants, and animals that has ever been known in the history of the world. Although many Americans still celebrate Columbus Day, it is widely argued as to whether or not there should be such a holiday, as the results of the Columbian Exchange could be considered both good and bad. Some positive effects, like the agricultural growth and use of the potato and other staple crops in the Old World enhanced people’s lives. The trading of livestock also greatly enhanced the opportunities for the settlers and Native Americans. Still, some results were negative, such as the exploitation of the Native Americans by European colonists, and their depopulation due to the communicable diseases of the Old World that came from across the ocean. The Columbian Exchange had a significantly negative impact on the African slaves. The most perplexing fact about the Columbian Exchange is that it cannot be truly described as completely positive or negative, but just that it happened. Whether Americans should celebrate or condemn Columbus Day remains a huge debate, and perhaps it will forever be that way.


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