Did the positive effects of the Columbian Exchange outweigh the negative consequences of conquest?

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ecofan74 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The positive aspects of the Columbian Exchange did not outweigh the negative consequences brought about through the conquest of the indigenous peoples of the New World.  In the early contacts between European colonists and the tribes of the New World, the Native Americans generally fared much worse than the colonists.

In the Columbian Exchange, the colonists and the Native Americans exchanged food, livestock, and culture, with the intended result being the mutual benefit of both parties.  Europeans brought gunpowder, the horse, and the Catholic Church to the New World, whereas the Native Americans brought new foods, new forms of game, and tobacco into the European realm of experience.  Both the Europeans and the Native Americans benefited from the experience, though gunpowder and tobacco proved to have as many negative aspects as positive ones.

The truly negative aspects of the Columbian Exchange lay not in what was intentionally exchanged, but what also came about as a side-effect.  The most devastating effect of the Columbian Exchange was the introduction of unknown diseases, especially smallpox, into the Native American populations.  Because they had not had any experience with these diseases, Native Americans had no means with which to fight them.  The result was the decimation of certain Native American populations.

Another negative side-effect derives from how new ideas and products were introduced to the Native Americans.  When the Spaniards came to the New World, they imposed the Catholic Church on the indigenous peoples, feeling it was the only means by which to "civilize" them.  This attitude toward the indigenous people contributed to the destruction of indigenous cultures.  The Spaniards perceived Aztec rituals and practices as barbaric, so they imposed their culture on the Aztecs, killing Montezuma and destroying Tenochtitlan, only to build a new city on its ruins.

Ultimately, it is not what Europeans sought to exchange with the Native Americans that contributed to the negative aspects associated with the Columbian Exchange.  It is what their unintended consequences and the means by which they interacted with the indigenous peoples that made the negatives aspects outweigh the positive aspects.

rrteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are two problems with answering this question in the affirmative. The first is that the Columbian Exchange led directly to the deaths of millions of indigenous peoples in the Americas. This was in large part because European explorers and colonists brought diseases for which Native peoples had no immunity. So typhus, plague, measles, and especially smallpox raged through Indian populations, carrying off, by some estimates, 90 percent of the original population of the two continents within a few generations. It is difficult to say that any supposed benefits outweighed this catastrophe, which had the effect of making European conquest possible. Additionally, many things introduced to the "New World" were hardly beneficial; the hog, for example, unknown to Indian peoples, destroyed crops, and alcohol brought its own problems.

The second reason it is difficult to say that the Columbian Exchange was a net positive was that many of its so-called benefits, particularly the development of cash crops, also entailed an unspeakable human tragedy in the form of the Atlantic slave trade. Millions of African people (in addition to many enslaved Indians for a time) labored to produce items such as sugar and tobacco that were central to economic development in Europe. So, while the addition of New World crops like potatoes undoubtedly caused the European population to grow as better-fed people who lived longer, and many different foodstuffs augmented the European diet, these developments paled in comparison to what was lost.