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“The Columbian Exchange” – A Term You Should Know.

Posted on | April 4, 2022 | 2 Comments

Mike Magee

As a Medical Historian at President’s College at the University of Hartford, I focus on a single topic each year, in search of unique hidden stories that reveal and enlighten. Each year is a separate and distinct journey, and the transition from one year to the next can be abrupt. For example, here are the last four themes I have covered:

2018 – The 25th Amendment and Presidential Health.
2019 – Courageous Women  in Public Health.
2020 – The Right to Health Care and The U.S. Constitution.
2021 – The History of Epidemics in America.

My own deep dive precedes each years output by 6 to 8 months, and generates a series of lectures (virtual and in-person), topical interviews, Health Commentary editorials, and open-source print publications.

The joy for me is in the discovery. For example, the work on epidemics entered well-known trade routes familiar to all as “The Silk Road.” But resources like Yale historian Frank Snowden’s “Epidemics and Society” also dialed in “The Columbian Exchange” and its offspring.

Until late in the 15th century, the Americas were virgin territory when it came to widespread epidemics. Not so, of course, of Eurasia which suffered three waves of pestilence driven plague, carried by fleas embedded in the fur of black ship rats sometimes domesticated as pets. Humans, rats, fleas and plague bacteria traveled together along Mediterranean trade routes. Other bacteria and viruses were chronically embedded in a range of European domestic farm animals including horses, cows, pigs and goats.

The “Columbian Exchange”, labeled by University of Texas historian, the late Alfred Crosby, in 1972, arguably deserves top ten status in historic events that determined the course of our American history.

European monarchs in the 15th century supported oceanic exploration as an extension of their power bases. New trade routes and territories carried the promise of the “three G’s” – gold, glory and God. The monarchs allied with merchants and explorers, and the Catholic Church willingly opened its coffers seeing the potential to spread Christianity to new lands.

Technologic advances like the astrolabe, the magnetic compass and sea worthy vessels made these ventures still dangerous, but feasible. The death and destruction of the indigenous people followed close behind their arrival. As Crosby documented, “Indigenous peoples suffered from white brutality, alcoholism, the killing and driving off of game, and the expropriation of farmland, but all these together are insufficient to explain the degree of defeat. The crucial factor was not people, plants or animals, but germs.”

Consider Columbus’s arrival on the island of Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti) in 1492. Documents suggest that he was greeted peacefully by the native Taino tribe that numbered some 60,000. By 1548, the numbers had plummeted with less than 500 of the indigenous tribe surviving. What had happened?

The arrival of Columbus and others, and their subsequent movement back and forth between the Old World and the New World led to an unprecedented exchange of plants, manufactured goods and raw materials, tools and technologies, ideas, and microbes.

In the pursuit of wealth, traders and merchants, with financial inducements by their governments, clear-cut and developed large plantation farming of cash crops like sugar, tobacco and wheat for export. These crops demand huge workforces for planting and harvesting under brutal and dangerous conditions. The plan initially was to enslave the natives they encountered and maintain a system of forced labor. To assist the effort, they also imported large numbers of domesticated animals from Europe including horses, cows, pigs, goats and sheep. At the time, the only domestic animals on the island were llamas and alpaca.

But the animals carried with them a wide range of infectious diseases including smallpox, chickenpox, measles, mumps and typhus. Over hundreds of years, the Europeans had developed immunities to these diseases. But the indigenous peoples of the Americas were immunologically naïve. By some estimates, 90% of their population in South and North America perished. Beyond the human tragedy, their demise created an enormous shortage of labor on the plantations. The solution chosen by the English, Spanish, Portuguese and French conquerors was to begin large scale importation of African slaves.

As journalist Charles Mann outlined in his book “1493: Uncovering the world that Columbus created”, “The scale of the trade was staggering. Between 1492, when Columbus landed, and the early 1800s, more than 2 out of every 3 people who came to the Americas were enslaved Africans. At the time, this human wing of the Columbian Exchange was the biggest migration in history.” Over 10 million enslaved Africans overall were transported to America, with an additional 1.5 million dying in transit.

The full story of the “The History of Epidemics in America” will be available to you on May 10th, at noon, in a FREE live online luncheon lecture sponsored by my Jesuit alma mater, Le Moyne College, from Syracuse, NY. Registration links will follow, but mark your calendars now.

Comments

2 Responses to ““The Columbian Exchange” – A Term You Should Know.”

  1. Is Fibromyalgia A Disability
    April 21st, 2022 @ 7:12 am

    Truth be told, a superior name for it very well may be the Columbian Extraction. The hundreds of years following Columbus’ revelation of the New World for Spain revamped the whole financial world. First Spain, then, at that point, Portugal, France, England, and Holland, laid out provinces in the Americas.

  2. Mike Magee
    April 21st, 2022 @ 3:49 pm

    Thanks for your insights!

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