Christopher Columbus Set out on a Journey

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In 1492, Christopher Columbus set out on a journey to explore and in his travels, he gained an immense knowledge centered around different animals, plants, and so many resources that most people had no idea existed. He was amazed by the new world and often referred to the places he went as islands. Like many of these islands, the New World was an opportunity to gain knowledge and also expand in the name of the King. And many Europeans had the outlook to use the land to their advantage even though the land was very beautiful and distinguished by a diversity of scenery (Columbus, 1978).

This growth only grew with time, as the Columbian Exchange became known as one of the most influential events of the New World and within environmental history. It became an exchange of many ideas and led to so many changes within food production and the ways that the environment was utilized. Unfortunately, food and ideas were not the only thing that was traded between the Old and New, there were also diseases. This paper looks to examine the effects of the Columbian Exchange on the environment, the people, and its place within the field of environmental history. In particular, the effect of the exchange of food, diseases, and ideas between the Old and New World had on the people and their environment. This narrowed idea within the broad event known as the Columbian Exchange still highlights its' standing within history and how it just might be one of the most important events within environmental history (Crosby,2003).

The Columbian exchange became a beacon of global trade as the goods between the western part of the world and the eastern were traded more than ever before. This had positive effects for the new world as new animals, plants, and ideas allowed from positive growth within many societies around the world. Animals were brought to new parts of the world that helped feed populations and created new ways of transportation, like the integration of horses within the native's culture. The Europeans changed the culture of the natives through the introduction of not only theirs but the cultures of other worlds. It began with plants like maize, sugarcane, and tobacco. It is truly interesting to think about and gather how much came from other parts of the world, later to become indigenous to a new thriving world, as things like potatoes tomatoes, coffee, chocolate, and even oranges were brought over into the New World.

An incredible thing happened with the exchange of new foods as it changed and influenced cultures and the Columbian Exchange fronted global trade between the New World and other cultures from all over. Unfortunately, food and ideas”though good for the people and economy of growing places”were not the only things to be traded amongst people. Eventually diseases like smallpox, syphilis, and malaria would run rampant amongst people. The creation of social conflict would occur as the world begins a darker trade of trading human beings amongst each other as a form of forced labor. As the most significant effect of the exchanging of diseases and food, was the immense impact within not only the way the environment was treated in the Old World but the people in general including the influence on slavery within the New World (Crosby, 2003).

Diseases within the New World

When Columbus set foot on the New World, it began an immense change between people as cultures whom had never interacted began interacting. This led to much good, but it also led to some bad consequences along the way. A major negative impact of the Columbian Exchange was the exchanging of disease amongst cultures, in particular between the Old and the New World. There were many diseases that the natives in the New World had never known to exist and it led to much death amongst the native population. Their immune systems were not prepared for Old World illnesses like malaria and syphilis.

This is not to say that they had not dealt with sickness, but the Exchange brought a whole new band of germs and viruses from foreign lands. And it was because of many of these diseases that the populations of the native people within many cultures dwindled or became virtually extinct. Regrettably, in the end, the regions least affected lost 80 percent of their populations; those most affected lost their full populations; and a typical society lost 90 percent of its population (Nunn, 2010, pg. 165). There was a negative to be seen in the spread of diseases, however, another influential imported article was food. This importation of different foods impacted cultures positively and negatively.

The Importation of Food in the New World

Food is something that is essential to life in the world. Food is something that has become a defining factor within many cultures. Examples like oranges in Florida, tomatoes in Italy, and even potatoes in Ireland come to mind as these items have become staples within their very way of life. Potatoes became so important to the Irish culture that when the crops failed it caused one of the greatest famines in history. Tomatoes became a primary source of nutrition and greatly altered the cuisine that was once seen within the Italian cultures. And places during the current era like Florida would not be known for their oranges.

The point is that the Columbian Exchange effected so much more than previously thought. This transfer or crops and other food items across the seas between the New and Old World had many significances within not just world history between many cultures, the environmental history within them and even the Industrial Revolution (Nunn, 2010). Diets within the New World and even within the Old World became greatly altered. And overall, the Columbian Exchange remains to be what has indubitably changed what people eat and constitutes an early example of globalization that continues into the present day (Pitchler, 2017, pg. 352).

This globalization set apart many other movements as it allowed for the oceans to no longer be used as a barrier but a vessel for global trade. It played a large part in the creation of identity in new social frameworks. As many cultures' identities were reframed to fit the newly introduced crops, they had become infatuated with. Therefore, altering and transforming not just their ways of life but many agricultural practices (Boivin, 2012).

Many of the foods that have become common knowledge and are seemingly indigenous within many cultures were foreign at one point. In the New World, many of the foods brought over included tomatoes, potatoes, maize, sugarcane, coffee, oranges and so much more. These had lasting effects on the natives within the New World. Tobacco was something else that was imported but this was something that had already been grown for medicinal purposes for centuries by the native culture. The Europeans changed the way that this crop was viewed in many ways as it was used for different purposes by them. The Europeans were drawn to the New World because of its vast and rich but untouched soil, the land was a breeding ground for many crops that were in high demand by the people within the Old World. Some of the most influential and important to the New World were maize, tobacco, and sugarcane (Nunn, 2010).


The exchange between the hemispheres presented a variety of new foods, among them were maize and potatoes. These were important because they were two of the crops that were introduced to the Old World from the New World. The soil in the New World was practically made to grow certain plants and crops that would not be easily grown within other places. They are the plants that like many herbs prefer there as well as in their proper soil and also of such others will not grow there at all (Josselyn, 1675, pg. 141). They were also very calorically rich and easily grow for the fast-growing population as more and more people made their way into the New World. It was a great benefit of the adoption of using these new crops. It was unique because while many foods and crops were given to the natives as new, this was a staple for their culture and it was new to the Europeans.

The Europeans looked to these foods and they became relatively popular within many Old-World countries. Maize became a food that quickly spread to other places. It allowed for easy calories for some countries like Lesotho up to a 1500 caloric intake a day just on maize (Nunn, 2010). However, this proved to be a problem for some because though the product was brought back there was knowledge that was not given. This led to some individuals to get pellagra. Pellagra is a disease that is caused through eating too much maize that has not been nixtamalized. This process involves basically cleaning the corn in an alkaline solution, during these times it was seen to be soaked in water that had lime in it (Pitchler, 2017). Maize became popular fast within many parts of the world, primarily maintaining its importance within the African culture. In Europe, it became a food that was often used as a foodstuff much like the Aztec civilizations, but they also used it in the conception of new creations like alcohol and oils. A more important factor was its influence within the slave trade. It was originally the Portuguese to bring corn to Africa. It was then that it made its way into being a main food to provide within the slave trade. Somewhat satirical and heartbreaking, corn was used to strengthen a population that would find themselves imprisoned and treated horribly in the New World (Salvaggio,1992).


Christopher Columbus first came across this plant in 1492, it was something that was held to great esteem. This is because tobacco was used medicinally and within religious ceremonies. When Columbus landed her marveled that the natives would bring him parrots, balls of cotton, threads, spears, and many other things, including a kind of dry leaf that they hold in great esteem (Salvaggio, 1992, pg. 339). Interestingly enough, tobacco would become so in demand and important that many places would adopt it as a substitute for currency. It was used to pay for marriage licenses and more diplomatically during the American Revolution as collateral to France. In many parts of the world it was still used medicinally as well but it would become more and more common to smoke the substance turning into a global habit that we even see today. Moreover, tobacco is one crop that continues to impact the current world negatively through the way that it is used. In the twentieth century, with the creation of cigarettes smoking became more accessible and easier than ever. It is interesting that so many people that saw tobacco as negative in the way it was used recreationally were in a place of power and yet did nothing to stop the cultivation. King James the first and Thomas Jefferson both opposed the plant, going as far as to find it hurtful to the land and the body and yet they still grew and sold it. But it would go on to become the most distributed of any of the plants cultivated during the Columbian Exchange (Salvaggio, 1992). And though it was evident to both populations during this time, the negative impacts would not be proven until the late 1950's but even then, the people would continue within the addiction of recreational smoking and consumption of tobacco products. It became even more in demand and that is when another creation of the cash crop was born. Tobacco became a staple within slavery as well, as it became a cash crop and needed to be produced in bulk. Slaves were often imported to meet labor needs and as the demand for certain crops increased like tobacco or even sugarcane, they needed to meet those demands (Crosby, 2003).

Sugar Cane

Another and probably one of the most important crops that was cultivated during this time was sugarcane. Sugar was a luxury and flourished rather quickly in the Old and New World. Just like for other crops and plants, sugar was something that grew the best in the Americas. And this is why most of the plantations were in the New World. It dominated it and became something that enwrapped other cultures. As a cash crop it was powerful. And it also became the first crop to be so highly produced that there was enough to be sold even to those of the poorest conditions. It was a source of easy calories and could be consumed in tea, made into jams, or used in canning fruits and vegetables. However, as it began to be used in everything, the health effects were also shown. It was not realized then, but sugar is an empty calorie. It was versatile and that is one reason it was in such high demand. The demand for the crops led to a demand for slaves and that continued to intensify. But even when sugarcane made its way to North America, cotton and tobacco still succeeded sugar as a plantation grown crop. But nevertheless, a harsh and vicious cycle was established were more and more slaves were imported for the purpose of labor needs. As sugar was used with maize and wheat to produce alcohol and distilled to produce rum, the demand again surpassed the amount of people working. The more the demand for more cash crops like sugarcane or tobacco and the great the demand to import more African slaves to do the work (Salvaggio, 1992).


The Columbian Exchange is entwined with the history of slavery. The sad fact is that food, ideas, animals, and diseases were not the only entities to be sold and traded. The Columbian Exchange would also prove as a dark time when immorally it would be seen as okay to sell and trade people across the seas as well. Thus, it is intertwined through the behavior of fellow man against their own and the impact that had within the environment that they lived on. The cultivation of many different crops had an impact on the environment through the new agricultural practices and the over-use of the land around them. However, something that had an even greater impact within the environment were the conflicts caused by the way the people treated each other.

These social conflicts brewed as soon as Columbus set foot on a new world. It brewed because this was when the attitude most Europeans has against indigenous people and a negative attitude towards an untamed environment was sustained. Bartolome de Las Casas, accounts to these attitudes towards other folk through the enslavement of natives during the escapades of the Spanish into other cultures. He spoke of the kindness of the native folk and sadly their na??ve nature. It was their undoing and that the Spanish and Europeans had not learned the harm in their ways. That they were still like ravening beasts, killing, terrorizing, afflicting, torturing, and destroying the native peoples (Casas, 1566).

The sugar plantations have become an example of oppression of the enslaved. As those that were deemed worthy of work but lesser than the people who sold or owned them were forced to work. The trade was fueled by this need for more labor to harvest and tend to the only growing plantation and fields of new and flourishing crops (Nunn,2010). Figure 1, an original picture depicting the slave trade. It is powerful, showing the slaves working hard and the males in the background with whips. These whips within the picture depict something much deeper.

Fig. 1. Photo of Sugar Cane Plantation. Retrieved from the Digital Public Library of America .
As it shows the growing disparity between two cultures, note the somber faces and the extended whip on the posterior of a slave in the back.
This forced movement of an entire culture of people set the world up for centuries of discontent, much of which is still being fought today. Columbus himself spoke of the selling of slaves comparing them to cattle and that they might be sold moderately or even used as payment. That they might be paid with slaves, wild people, fit for any work, well proportioned and very intelligent, and who, when they have got rid of cruel habits to which they have become accustomed, will be better than any other kind of slaves (Columbus, 1978, pg. 88). However, the slave trade led to equality movements and acts that helped to abolish the trading of people. This is seen in the British Slave Trade Act of 1807 and the British Slavery Abolition Act of 1837. This helped to abolish slavery, but indentured servants were still impacted. The lives of the natives and the Europeans were forever changed because of the Columbian Exchange both positively and negatively. Consequently “as the environment is impacted and influenced by almost everything that man does”the environment was also impacted (Nunn, 2010).

Environmental Impact

The Columbian exchange was more than a cultural matter and in fact there is a lot to learn from the environmental impacts and sociological effects. There were also many environmental impacts within such an influential even within American history. Crop globalization had a huge part to play in environmental impact. It is not surprising that crops were moved in the progression of immigration between the Old and the New World. However, that inducement had lasting impacts within the environment through not only over use of the soil and land but deforestation and over-grazing. As Europeans looked at the environment as something to be owned and benefited off of, when the land was needed for cash crops like tobacco and sugarcane it did not matter what was already there. Deforestation was frequently a consequence of land clearing for the new agricultural practices. Soil exhaustion was also common from these plantations that the trees were cleared for which happened after the soil is robbed of its nutrients when it is used for a crop repeatedly. The introduction of new plants or crops permanently altered the land as many New World species were replaced with Old (Crosby, 2003).


Water no longer served as a wall to keep all people away from each other and the Columbian Exchange marked a new era full of agricultural and trade innovation. This global trade that was opened up between the hemispheres proved to be both beneficial and harmful to the people and their environment”some of which we are still seeing today. Affecting almost every civilization, the Exchange is coined by the trading of many ideas, plants, and animals. Consequently, it has also become known for the shared diseases and crimes against morality through the trading of humans known as slavery. The Columbian Exchange changed environments permanently through deforestation, soil exhaustion, and through introducing new plants into other areas.

By introducing these crops and plants into different areas of the world and into the New World it changed the social context and identity of some cultures as they began to rely on new food sources. Slavery impacted the environment while exercising soil exhaustion and grew disparity among groups. Overall, there was an immense impact within not only the way the environment was treated in the Old World but the people in general including the influence on slavery within the New World. Highlighting that the people are just as much a part of land as the land is and they can have lasting effects on it. As Crosby mentions, that to understand man we must consider him a living organism that not only affects but is affected by his corresponding ones which includes the land, plants, animals, and even fellow man. They are all unified (Crosby, 2003).

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Christopher Columbus Set Out On A Journey. (2019, Jul 26). Retrieved December 1, 2023 , from

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