The discovery of the New World by European explorers during the 15th century brought about an ongoing transatlantic exchange of disease, tangible goods, ideas, and ethnic groups and their respective cultures. The Atlantic Ocean became a vehicle for the constant interchange between the Old World and the New World, most often referred to as the Columbian Exchange. The Columbian Exchange heavily impacted the populations of the Native Americans, the African slaves, and the Europeans at home and abroad. Environments were transformed forever, the transmitting of microorganisms caused epidemics with the potential to decimate entire native populations, and diets were altered by the introduction of new crop staples.
Prior to the Columbian Exchange, the Native Americans lived in relatively isolated communities. The harsh demographic changes brought about by the exchange had an unimaginable consequence in terms of the lives of the native population. The transmission of disease was devastating in both the short and long terms. The native people of the New World had never come in contact with Old World diseases and, therefore, lacked immunity. Most Europeans had, by this time, developed some level of tolerance or resistance to many of these diseases while their New World counterparts had not. Smallpox, measles, and influenza infected the native populations, wiping their people by the thousands. Smallpox was one of the worst diseases brought over by the Europeans; in its first wave alone, it killed half of the native populations in Mexico and Central America. In the long run, the dominant population of the New World was transformed from descendants of Asians to the descendants of the Europeans and the Africans.
The African influence on the development of the New World is very important as it impacted the supply of labor and the development of agriculture. The Europeans began to see Africa as a source of unlimited, cheap labor and used slave ships to force at least eleven million Africans to migrate to the Americas to work. The significance of this forced immigration should not be overlooked as it played an important role in shaping the New World’s agriculture and dietary practices. In attempt to improve the survival rate of the Africans traveling aboard the slave ships, the Europeans purchased large quantities of African dietary staples for the purpose of feeding the slaves (Carney, 384). The rice, yams, nuts, and seeds (among other foods) that were put aboard the ships eventually promoted the planting and growing of these crops on New World soil. Once the slaves arrived in the New World to work on plantations, they began to trade and grow these African crops in order to fulfill their desires for their native foods. This practice and the spread of seeds and agricultural knowledge allowed the crops to be grown and spread throughout different environments across the New World. Without this occurring, the modern Western diet would be much different.
Although the Columbian Exchange was an exchange in both directions, the European population was the benefitted the most and received the upper hand in the ordeal. The Europeans who visited the New World brought with them highly developed technology, animals, and diseases that the Native American populations had never been exposed to. They were taken aback by the unfamiliarity of the Native American civilizations, and this reaffirmed their idea of European superiority. However, it is important to note the importance of the agricultural exchange from the New World to the Old World. “…Potatoes, maize, and cassava… resulted in caloric and nutritional improvements over previously existing [Old World] staples” (Nunn, 167). These crops revolutionized the European diet, adding improved tastes and providing new sources of vitamins. Tobacco was also introduced to the Europeans during this time period, increasing its popularity and economical demand. While the Columbian Exchange did not cause an endemic of plague-like diseases in the Old World, the Europeans did not completely escape the mass transmission of new diseases. Europeans who had sexual encounters with Native Americans in the New World commonly contracted syphilis. Upon returning home, the infected European men were unknowingly able to transmit the disease among their own native populations (Roark, 46). During this time period, syphilis was incurable and had many painful symptoms that most often resulted in death.
Overall, the transatlantic exchange of goods, people, and ideas changed the world forever. The interactions between the Native Americans, Africans, and Europeans began to shape the colonial era. The demand for slaves increased, diets were improved and expanded, and the demographics of the Americas were changed irreversibly. The relationships derived from the transatlantic exchange were symbiotic in nature, providing both positive and negative consequences that continue to influence the world today.