The Columbian Exchange

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What were the positive and negative effects of the Columbian exchange?  

A positive effect of the Columbian exchange was the introduction of New World crops, such as potatoes and corn, to the Old World. A significant negative effect was the enslavement of African populations and the exchange of diseases between the Old and New Worlds.

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The Columbian Exchange refers to the transfer of plants, animals, diseases, culture, and human populations across the Atlantic from the so-called Old World to the New World and vice-versa. The term was first coined in 1972 by Alfred W. Crosby in his book The Columbian Exchange. The title refers to Christopher Columbus, the explorer who initiated the exchange.

Among the positive effects of the Columbian Exchange were the many crops brought to the Old World from the New World. Some of these eventually became staples in cuisines around the world. These included potatoes, tomatoes, maize, sweet potatoes, cassava, and cacao, which is used to make chocolate. Crops brought from Europe and other parts of the globe that thrived in the New World included sugar, coffee, bananas, grapes, and citrus fruits. Tobacco was also brought from the New World to Europe; it became a booming industry, but it would have to be considered a negative effect because of its detrimental influence on health.

It was also advantageous that Columbus and other Europeans brought domesticated animals such as cows, pigs, chickens, sheep, goats, donkeys, and horses to the New World. Horses in particular became highly prized by Native Americans for hunting and warfare. Other animals were primarily used for food.

On the negative side, Europeans brought many disease-causing microbes to the New World. Large percentages of native populations fell to diseases such as smallpox, chickenpox, cholera, influenza, scarlet fever, typhoid fever, measles, and mumps. Traveling in the other direction, from the New World to the Old, was the deadly sexually-transmitted disease of syphilis.

One of the most evil facets of the Columbian Exchange was the Atlantic slave trade, through which Africans were taken by force from their homelands to be placed into servitude in the New World.

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The Columbian Exchange had both negative and positive effects. Some of the positive effects include the exchange of technology. The introduction of the plow transformed farming because it increased cultivation and food production to the benefit of both Native Americans and the Europeans.  Introduction of weapons and other tools made from steel facilitated the Native Americans’ hunting activities. The Native Americans adopted the architectural style of the Europeans, and it enabled them to build stronger, more durable structures.

Exchange of plants was also one of the positive effects of the Columbian exchange. The Europeans introduced sugarcane to the new world, and the sweetener enhanced taste for the Native Americans. Similarly, the introduction of maize and potatoes to the Old World was much welcomed. Maize, unlike wheat, could grow in vast regions and had a long shelf life when dried. Potatoes, naturally, became part of the European diet.

The introduction of certain animals from the Old World such as horses, oxen, and asses transformed labor by powering cultivation in combination with the plow. These animals also transformed transportation.

The most notable negative effect of the Columbian Exchange was the transfer of diseases. Diseases were transferred from the Old to the New World and vice versa. Some of the New World diseases transferred to the Old World included syphilis, polio, and hepatitis. On the other hand, Old World diseases transferred to the New World included smallpox, malaria, influenza, yellow fever, and measles. Of those, smallpox was the most devastating because it caused the highest number of deaths.

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The primary positive effect of the Columbian exchange was increased food supply and nutrients to the populations of both areas. Europe probably benefited more than the Americas with the introduction of potatoes and maize (corn) to that continent. The end result was a decided improvement in the diet of most Europeans as well as a decline in the overall cost of food. Europeans tended to live longer after the exchange, fewer children died in infancy, and there was a resultant explosion in the population. This exponential population growth was a substantial factor in the advent of the Industrial Revolution.

Just as Europe benefited from the exchange, so the Americas suffered. Although many useful crops such as wheat, barley and rye and livestock such as cattle and swine were introduced, so also were infectious diseases such as measles and smallpox to which the native population had no immunity. Fully 90 per cent of the pre-Columbian population of the Americas had disappeared within 100 years of Columbus' landing. Conversely, it is widely believed by historians that Spanish conquistadores returning to Europe were infected with the Syphillis baccilus in the Americas. Just as the people of the Americas had no immunity to European diseases; so Europeans had no immunity to this sexually transmitted disease. A virtual epidemic resulted which caused thousands of deaths. The exchange was therefore beneficial and harmful to both; yet much more disastrous to the Americas than to Europe.

A decidedly mixed result was the introduction of black slavery into the Americas. Slavery itself was an unmitigated holocaust, resulting in the death and cruel mistreatment of untold numbers of human beings. However, it was through this sad chapter that black culture was introduced to the Americas which has enriched its cultural flavor over time.

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