The above picture shows a world map created by the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller in 1507 CE. If you look towards the left of the map, you will see a narrow strip where the Americas are located. This is an important development because this map was created in just two decades after Christopher Columbus reached the New World and previous maps did not contain this land. This discovery of the Americas had a major impact on global trade and the Columbian Exchange changed the balance of global forces across the world.
Few years after Columbus failed in his mission to find the Indies, Vasco da Gama reached the Malabar coast. To impress the Zamorin, he took out the gifts he had bought and the people from the court who had come to examine them burst into laughter. These trinkets, they explained, were not the gifts suitable for a rich king. Even the poor merchants from Mecca or India gave better gifts. Did the Captain-Major have any gold, they asked. According to the accounts, Gama’s face fell.
This episode symbolizes the trade equation between the East and West during the 15th century. Asia produced spices, silk, porcelain and tea which the Europeans badly wanted, but there was nothing Europe produced that the Asians needed. Asia needed gold and silver and Europe did not have sufficient quantity of it.
But with the discovery of the Americas, the Spaniards ended up with a mother-lode of wealth. The image on the side shows a 1553 CE map of the city of Potosí in Bolivia. This was one of the sites of a major silver mine which the Spaniards reached after they had done looting the native coffers. Between 1560 and 1685 CE, Spanish America sent between 25,000 to 35, 000 tons of silver to Spain and in the century following that the amount doubled. In fact around 85% of the world’s silver supplies came from the Americas. This was extracted from 30 such mines.To compare it to modern times, it was like Saudi Arabia discovering oil.
Once they had access to the wealth, the first thing that changed was the shipbuilding industry as ships became cheaper and easier to build. Using Brazilwood, the Europeans built a large number of ships which were capable of transporting both goods and people on a large scale. These ships helped in further conquests, trade and colonization.
This brings to the second point regarding how the Columbian exchange affected the balance of global forces across the world. To mine the silver and gold, large manpower was required. But there were not many natives left to mine for these precious metals. Europeans brought with them epidemics like smallpox, measles and typhoid. Around 14 such epidemics helped in wiping out the native population from 120 million to 20 million within a century of Columbus setting foot in the region.
To replace the natives, Africans were imported into Brazil, the Caribbean and the East Coast of United States. These Africans were involuntarily brought in slave ships where they were packed like sardines. Many died of diseases along the way. Colonies were established all over the New World and the slaves died due to the miserable working conditions in these colonies. Due to the Columbian exchange, the native population of the New World was decimated, the African population was displaced and there was a population explosion in Europe.
The Columbian Exchange also helped in altering the flora and fauna in the world. While cotton, indigo, bananas and sugar reached the New World, tomato, maize, potato and cocoa reached Europe and then the rest of the world. Horses, cattle, sheep and pigs also spread in the colonies. Sugar emerged as one of the most valuable exports from the Americas. Though sugarcane cultivation originated in India, the Americas became a major exporter of the product. Also, the tomato reached Europe for the first time; till then the Italians cooked without tomato.
Now with the silver from the mines and the goods produced by the slave population, Europeans had products which they could sell in the global trading system. With access to cheap source of food and precious metals, Europeans entered the global trading system which was dominated by the silks from China and spices from India and changed the trade imbalance. Columbian exchange gave Europe sufficient wealth and goods to become a dominant trading system. It affected the lives of people — the natives, the conquerors and the Africans — in a profound way. It also affected the foods that people ate and the animals that they used for food and warfare.
(This was one of my assignments in a history course I am doing now)
- Tignor, Robert, Jeremy Adelman, Stephen Aron, Stephen Kotkin, Suzanne Marchand, Gyan Prakash, and Michael Tsin. Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: A History of the World: From 1000 CE to the Present (Third Edition). Third ed. W. W. Norton & Company, 2010