Columbian Exchange and the Ideas of the New World

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Turning Points in Modern History

By Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

The naming of the American continent in the Waldseemüller map became popular among the masses. And contact was established between the Old and New World. Why was it termed as the ‘Columbian Exchange’? And, why did it result into an environmental revolution in human history?

A chromolithograph showing Christopher Columbus off-shore with associates taking hold of the New World.
Interaction between Old and the New World via travels was a huge environmental turning point, which was known as Columbia Exchange. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

Mysterious Results of Waldseemüller

The Waldseemüller map was quite mysterious. It showed the outline of South America on the Pacific side, which had not yet been charted. The new map, published in 1507, was a blockbuster, and the name given to the continent, America, came into popular usage. After publishing that map, Waldseemüller had regrets about whether the choice of name for America was appropriate which he tried to rescind, but it was too late. Once in print, the idea and the name of America had taken hold.

Columbian Exchange

Painting of a sick native American lying on the floor with another man looking sad.
During the Columbian Exchange, native Americans were the worst hit by deadly diseases. (Image: Captain Samual Eastman/Public domain)

The physical fact of the meeting and travel between the Old and the New World was a huge environmental turning point, which was given the name of the ‘Columbian Exchange’, the mixing of people, deadly diseases that devastated Native American population, crops and animals, goods, and trade flows. The term ‘Columbian Exchange’ was coined by the historian, Alfred Crosby in a book by that name in 1972, subtitled Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492.

The result of that exchange amounted to an environmental revolution in human history. One of the first consequences was the sweeping through Native American populations of epidemics, diseases that Europeans had acquired immunities to, devastated the populations of the Americas with typhus, diphtheria, malaria, influenza, cholera, and especially smallpox. As Europeans traveled in lands new to them, epidemics preceded them, wiping out more than half the people.

Learn more about the massive Columbian Exchange of peoples, plants, and diseases.

The Secret to European Conquest

By 1650, 90 percent of the Native American population had died, producing a depopulation of millions that destroyed traditional societies, sapped their powers of resistance, and helped the Europeans conquest and eventually immigrate. The importing of illnesses was not intended by Columbus and other explorers though. 

Impact of a Phenomena

Another vast dimension of that phenomenon involved crops and animals, which went both ways. European crops and domesticated animals like horses, pigs, sheep, and cattle were introduced to America, along with weeds and pests, while American species like potatoes, tomatoes, and corn entered the European diet.

Learn more about what drives an explorer to take a risk and venture into the unknown?

Potato Element

Painting depicting a sad Irish family with potatoes blight in front of them.
Potato became a staple of European agriculture, especially in Ireland, until disaster struck it 1845, when the potato blight hit, creating a famine. (Image: Daniel MacDonald/Public domain)

The focus of the elements of that exchange was the potato. It was new and a very productive crop from the Andes. The potatoes were able to grow in soils that traditional European wheat could not thrive in, the potato became a staple of European agriculture, essentially doubling the European food supply, especially in places like Ireland, until disaster struck from 1845, when the potato blight hit, creating a famine.

The Irish potato blight was also a product of the Columbian exchange, transported to Europe by ships that brought guano, bird droppings essentially as fertilizer for European fields. As a result of the famine, two million Irish fled in desperation, many of them to the United States.

Columbus’s Inspiration for More Discoveries

Columbus’s American discoveries prompted further exploration, in an accelerating process of competition. The lure of expansion and treasure was great and grew stronger. In 1519, Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese mariner, employed in Spain, set out on an expedition that traveled around the globe by 1522, revealing the Pacific and the full extent of the territories in between.

Tragic Dimension of Slavery

The conquest and carving up of new lands also had a tragic dimension which was transatlantic slavery. As an ancient institution, slavery had a long history worldwide. Columbus on encountering the Indians already had surmises about enslaving them and took captives himself. Later, when the use of Native American slaves did not suffice, Africa was drawn in. The African slave trade, originally run by Africans and Arabs, was built up by the Portuguese, Dutch, and English, as they carried Africans in bondage across the Atlantic for plantation agriculture. The cruel trade, over the centuries until the mid-19th century, involved the forced movement between 12 and 15 million Africans.

Learn more about the idea of modernity and definition of turning point.

Seeking Help to Divide the World

As the contours of new discoveries came into sharper focus, the kingdoms of Portugal and Spain turned to the Pope to help divide the world among them. With papal mediation, a line was drawn across the Atlantic, extending on the other side, the Pacific, with Spain, assigned all the possessions to the west of the line and Portugal assigned newly claimed lands to the east. The Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494 drew the line west of the Azores islands. Later discoveries showed that part of South America bulged out beyond that line, which meant that the vast lands of Brazil fell to Portuguese rule by coincidence.

But times were already changing, and other European kingdoms did not passively accept that division of the globe, instead, a fierce competition broke out over the question of who was to control newly discovered territories?

Ideas of the New World

European ideas of the new world presented it as either better than the old, or inevitably debased and inferior. For some observers, that was essentially a new Eden, populated by noble savages, living in harmony with nature. For others, the Americas and Americans would never measure up, would always be second class, seen as uncultivated, barbarous, and cheap imitations of the Old World.

Undermining the Traditional Authority

The existence of the new world in some ways undermined the traditional authority of the ancients and of classical thought. The ancient authorities, supposed to be authoritative, had not even known about the Americas, incomplete in their knowledge. Their explanations of the world were not comprehensive and had to make room for new facts, like the sudden appearance of entirely new continents.

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Discovery of Serendipity

The discovery of Columbus became the lasting archetype of a stunning encounter which was not what Columbus had set out for. That was an example of serendipity, meaning finding something other than what someone is looking for. The origin of the poetic term ‘serendipity’ did lie in the mysterious East, Columbus was seeking. A Persian fairytale of three princes of ‘Serendip’ which was the Persian name for today’s Sri Lanka, at that point called Ceylon. 

Treaty of Tordesillas

Serendip or Ceylon lay in the Portuguese part of the world as carved up by the Treaty of Tordesillas with Spain, so that was in fact part of what the Iberian kingdoms were dividing among themselves. In the Persian fairytale, the three princes of Serendip always made unexpected discoveries, which was called serendipity. Columbus may not have reached the Asia of his dreams, but he did find serendipity.

Columbus was not the only one to be enchanted by dreams of the East. Continuing his yearning for the riches of Asia, a whole new group of merchant adventurers organized into the English East India Company likewise sought the East.

Common Questions about Columbus

Q: What was the Columbian Exchange and why is it important?

The travel between the Old and the New World was a huge environmental turning point, called the Columbian Exchange. It was important because it resulted in the mixing of people, deadly diseases that devastated the Native American population, crops, animals, goods, and trade flows. The result of that exchange amounted to an environmental revolution in human history.

Q: How did potatoes impact the world?

The Potato was new and a very productive crop from the Andes which became a staple of European agriculture, doubling its food supply. It impacted the world when disaster struck from 1845, with potato blight, creating a famine. As a result, two million Irish fled in desperation, many of them to the United States.

Q: Who brought the potato to Europe?

Americans bought potatoes to Europe, easier to grow in soils that traditional European wheat could not thrive in, the potato became a staple of European agriculture, essentially doubling the European food supply, especially in places like Ireland

Q: What did the Treaty of Tordesillas do?

The Treaty of Tordesillas with Spain, carved Serendip or Ceylon in the Portuguese part of the world.

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