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AP World History: The Columbian Exchange

⏱️  5 min read

written by

Dylan Black

dylan black

August 4, 2020


Between 1450 and 1750, globalization and the connection between Europe and the Americas was a key focal point in the development of the world economy and brought together two previously isolated continents. So, what caused the Columbian Exchange and what did it cause?

⚡Live Stream Replay:  🎥 Columbian Exchange

🌍 European Motivations in the New World 🌎

Here is a simple way to remember the 3 main motivations for European exploration and colonization in the New World:

The Three G's☝🏼☝🏼☝🏼

God ⛪️

  • Major Catholic nations such as Spain and Portugal were eager to expand the outreach of the Church.
  • Increasing the number of Catholics would strengthen the Church and each respective monarchy's power independently.

Gold💰

  • European nations all heavily sought after gold and riches.
  • The emergence of the Ottoman empire put a wrench in European access to Asia as well as overtook many sources of gold in Western Asia, so European nations were eager to find an alternative.

Glory 🤩

  • Military success and growing nationalism made European monarchs ambitious and confident in pursuing exploration.
  • Nations grew competitive, and each one wanted to reap the most benefits and have the most success in the New World.

Read more about the Columbian Exchange in this Study Guide

Consequences of the Columbian Exchange

1. Spread of Disease 💀

Disease had profound consequences on native populations. Due to the denser populations of Afro-Eurasia, its frequent lack of hygienic conditions at the time, and its close relations to livestock, deadly and infectious diseases from animals were able to transfer to humans. However, they were able to gradually build immunity and pass it on to future generations.

Unfortunately, native populations did not have this immunity as they were geographically isolated and never faced these diseases. This allowed extraordinarily fatal illnesses to transfer and spread among them.

Even after Columbus’ initial voyage, he and his crew infected natives in Hispaniola, ultimately killing over 94% of the people who lived there. Diseases that were transferred to the native population include smallpox, measles, bird flu, typhus, and malaria.

These diseases had devastating effects on native populations, leading from somewhere between 8-30 million deaths or up to 90% of the entire native population. Not only did this have major demographic effects on natives, but it also gravely weakened them and left them more vulnerable to European attacks.

2. Transferring of Native Species 🌽

Many crops and animals were also transferred to and from the Americas. For instance, sugar, rice, cotton, horses, cattle, and sheep were transferred to the New World. 🐑🐮

This allowed Europeans to cultivate crops and send them back to Europe for trade and consumption. In fact, this would lead to the creation of plantations, powering entire economies and driving the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

Species were also sent from the Americas to Afro-Eurasia, including maize, potatoes, manioc, turkeys, llamas, and guinea pigs. These new crops became a major source of food for the Old World as they grew well in the climate, causing an immense increase in population growth and cementing themselves as vital staple foods. One instance is the significance of potatoes in Ireland, to the point where a fungus that destroyed the crop in the 19th century caused famine and mass migrations. 🇮🇪🥔

It also caused tobacco to grow in demand in the Old World and ignited thriving industry as well, leading to a greater need for plantations in the New World.

⚡Live Stream Relay: 🎥 Transoceanic Connections

3. Decimation of Native Americans 🗡️

With the vast population decline caused by the spread of disease, Native Americans were unable to effectively defend against Europeans. Conquistadors were able to take control of large stretches of territory, such as how Francisco Pizzaro conquered the Inca Empire and Hernan Cortés conquered the Aztec Empire.

Portugal and Spain dominated Central and South America, while the English, French, and Dutch fought for North America. 🇵🇹 🇪🇸 🏴 🇫🇷 🇳🇱

Native Americans were also coerced into providing labor through the Encomienda and Mita systems, which were based on feudalism.

In Encomienda, the Spanish managed land and demanded tribute from the natives who lived there and could be selected to work in a mine or plantation in return for protection. They were often abused and overworked, which culminated into fatal consequences.

⚡Live Stream Replay: 🎥 Labor Systems CCOT 

In Mita, natives were forced to work for conquerors in rotating shifts under dangerous conditions, primarily in silver mines and mills, in exchange for low wages.

4. Mass Immigration to the Americas ⛓️

A large number of Europeans also immigrated to the Americas. These included Puritans who were persecuted in Great Britain and came to the New World in search of religious freedom. Impoverished immigrants who aimed to start a new life also arrived with some entering as indentured servants who worked to repay the debt of the voyage. 💸

Many African immigrants were also unwillingly transferred through the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade to provide labor in plantations throughout South America, the Caribbean, and parts of North America suitable for agriculture.

This, in conjunction with the decline in native populations, led to a massive demographic shift as these new groups quickly outgrew the population of the Native Americans and led to the establishment of European-dominated territories.

5. Cultural Exchanges ✝️

Culture was also exchanged between Native Americans and European settlers. For instance, Europeans introduced them to Christianity as many missionaries attempted to convert the natives despite facing stiff resistance.

⚡Live Stream Replay: 🎥 Columbus and the Legacy of Exploration

Even so, the religion syncretized with the natives’ beliefs and created a new variation of it, such as the belief in the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Natives also adopted the horses, creating entirely new tribes such as the Comanche. 🐎

Meanwhile, Europeans adopted some aspects of native culture as well. For instance, the demand for beaver pelts to create clothing skyrocketed in Europe, leading to a major decline in beavers in the Americas. It even caused conflict between tribes as they fought for land to hunt for beavers and trade with Europeans, especially through the Iroquois Confederacy.

Overall, the Columbian Exchange had an enormous impact throughout the entire world in several different ways. It spread disease, agriculture, and animals to and from the hemispheres and led to large changes in populations.

📚Slide Deck: Columbian Exchange

This would eventually make way for the formation of modern nations and cultures in the Americas as migrants immigrated to the New World and the native populations declined. Thus, the Columbian Exchange is a fundamental part of history and must be well understood for the AP World History Modern exam.

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