(c) 1991, U.S. News & World Report.
THE COLUMBIAN EXCHANGE
by Jeff Glick with Celeste Schaefer Forget 1492. The year that Columbus changed the world was 1493, when he took 17 ships to America, hauling 1,200 immigrants and such alien creatures as horses, cows, pigs and sheep.
His voyage started the Columbian Exchange, a hemispherical swap of peoples, plants, animals and diseases that transformed not only the new world that he discovered but also the old one he left.
The new world
Potato--With 4,000 years of experience, the Indians of the Andes knew their potatoes. When the Spanish arrived in Peru a few years after Columbus's landfall, Incan farmers were growing 3,000 varieties. The conquistadors, looking for gold and silver, were unimpressed, but a few tubers wound up on ships and sprouted in sailors' gardens on the Spanish coast. One 16th-century writer praised the potato as a love potion, but most Europeans greeted it with disdain. They didn't find roots particularly appetizing.
But the potato proved to be ideal for northern Europe's soil and climate. The vegetable saved the Irish from starvation after Oliver Cromwell's Roundheads pushed Ireland's natives into barren Connacht province. Packing more calories per acre than any European grain, the potato eventually became the dominant food of northern Europe's working class and facilitated Germany's rise to industrial power. Two results, says historian William McNeill, were World War I and World War II.
Tobacco--Columbus provided the first account of what would become a global habit. The Indians, he reported, strolled along with "a firebrand in the hand, and herbs to drink the smoke thereof." What Columbus saw in the Caribbean were cigars. Indians on the mainland puffed pipes, a practice soon copied from England to Japan. During the 16th century, when snuff sniffing caught on among the gentry, tobacco became more popular than tea.
King James I loathed tobacco as a "stinking weed...harmfull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs," but his addicted subjects made it the No. 1 product of England's American colonies. George Washington grew the leaf, as did an unenthusiastic Thomas Jefferson, who called it "a culture productive of infinite wretchedness." Tobacco, he noted, exhausted land as well as people. By 1800, tens of thousands of farmers were abandoning the sterile and gullied soil of Virginia and Maryland and heading across the Appalachians. A young nation's westward movement was underway.
Quinine--For thousands of years, malaria was as destructive as any plague. Blacks in West Africa had built an immunity, but Europeans who ventured into warm, swampy areas infested with mosquitoes courted death. Yet the New World remained malaria- free--until American mosquitoes tasted infected Europeans and became carriers.
The disease killed huge numbers of Americans--Indians and whites alike--before Indian medicine men found a cure in the 17th century. It was quinine, derived from the bark of the cinchona tree that dotted the slopes of the Peruvian Andes.
Quinine, says British author Henry Hobhouse, enabled Europeans to colonize the tropics and develop empires in Asia and Africa in the 19th century. The Indians' cure even helped Abraham Lincoln win the Civil War. Union troops had plentiful supplies of quinine, but the Confederacy, deprived of the wonder drug by a Union blockade, lost divisions' worth of men to malarial fevers.
The old world
Sugar cane--Most of the first people who settled the New World didn't want to come. They were slaves from Africa, brought to America because Europeans wanted to sweeten their coffee and tea.
Before Columbus carried a few pieces of sugar cane to the Caribbean, sugar was a luxury. Most Europeans got it from their apothecaries to help make medicine taste better. But by the middle of the 16th century, tropical American forests were giving way to vast colonies of cane-growing plantations. Europe was hooked on sugar.
Scholars estimate that each ton of sugar cost the life of one worker in the New World. As Indians perished, African slaves were ferried in. Though many died, others took their place, soon outnumbering whites on some islands 20 to 1. The slave-based plantation system that sugar started spread to the Carolinas and Georgia to raise rice, indigo and cotton. Over nearly four centuries, almost 12 million Africans were enslaved. Nearly 10 million reached the New World. Most of the others died en route.
Pig--Columbus never kept track of the eight pigs he took to the Caribbean settlement of Hispaniola in 1493. But Diego Velazquez de Cuellar saw what happened to the two dozen he unloaded on Cuba in 1498. Within 16 years, they had increased to 30,000. Hogs were "seeded" on nearly every island. Reproducing at an average rate of three big litters a year, they guaranteed a steady supply of protein for Old World immigrants. They also fundamentally altered the ecology of the Caribbean.
Omnivorous swine gobbled roots, snakes, grasses, lizards, fruit and baby birds and probably contributed to the extinction of hundreds of plants and animals never even recorded. Much of the Caribbean's new flora, like the fauna, came from the Old World.
Hernando DeSoto brought pigs to what is now the United States. The 13 hogs that landed in Florida with him in 1539 multiplied to 700 in the three years he crisscrossed the South. Descendants of DeSoto's swine are still devouring wild plants and animals in the Arkansas Ozarks, they are "razorbacks." In Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp, they are called "piney woods rooters."
Disease--Early Americans suffered their share of ailments before Columbus arrived, including tuberculosis, parasitism and dysentery. But the Indians had never known such Old World diseases as smallpox, measles and diphtheria. What had been childhood illnesses in Europe turned into mass killers in the Americas. Up and down the Western Hemisphere, native communities lost between 50 percent and 90 percent of their people. Most Indians died from the white man's germs without ever seeing a white man.
The exporting of infection was not completely one-sided. Syphilis showed up in Spain shortly after Columbus's men returned, and a lethal epidemic swept Europe within five years. Some scholars believe a mild form of syphilis had existed for centuries in the Old World and mutated into a virulent form with the arrival of the American strain. But whatever its pathology, syphilis wreaked what some called "the vengeance of the vanquished."
New world portrait
- Population: Perhaps 40 million throughout the Western Hemisphere, including 10 million to 12 million in central Mexico, 9 million in Peru and 2 million in the U.S. and Canada.
- Work: Men hunted and fished. Women made clothes and pottery, cooked and did much of the farming.
- Play: Thirty-mile footraces were popular in the Southwest. Choctaws played lacrosse with a deerskin ball.
- Religion: Belief in a personally acquirable magic power was common. Many Indians sought the help of spirits in the green corn ceremony of the forests and the buffalo dances of the plains.
- Language: Most Indian languages had at least 20,000 words.
- Housing: Adobe apartments were common in the Southwest. New York's Iroquois occupied elm-bark log houses, with up to 20 families and their dogs in a single smoky room 50 to 100 feet long.
- Property: Women owned the houses in many villages, but land was deemed the property of everyone in the tribe.
- Food: In New England, corn and lima beans formed succotash. In the Carolinas, corn and squirrel meat became brunswick stew. Fattened bear cubs were a California delicacy, along with boiled caterpillars.
- Infant mortality: High, like Europe's.
- Life expectancy: Around 35, roughly the same as in Europe.
- Cures: Herbal remedies included willow bark, which contains salicin, the drug now used in synthetic form in aspirin.
- Power: Dogs were the only beasts of burden. Windmills and water wheels, common in Europe, were still unknown.
- Rivals: The Arawaks were friendly to Columbus but feared the man-eating Caribs. The Crows fought the Blackfeet, who fought the Sioux, who fought the Chippewas. The Apaches got their name from the oft-raided Zunis, who called them "Apachu," or "enemy."
Old world portrait
- Population: Probably 60 million to 70 million. Roughly 9 of 10 were peasants.
- Literacy: Barely 1 person in 20 could read.
- Health: Poor grain harvests caused frequent famines. Rat-transmitted plagues were chronic. One in seven persons died of smallpox. Half of the newborn never reached the age of 15.
- Medicine: Barely changed from the Roman era. Bloodletting was a common treatment.
- Food: Peasants ate bread, salt pork and a watery porridge called gruel. The rich feasted on mounds of beef, pork, mutton and poultry.
- Manners: Rich and poor alike ate with their fingers.
- Housing: A wooden hut with a thatched roof and one smoky room was the usual peasant's quarters. Even in cities, most houses were made of wood.
- Possessions: The average person had a few old clothes, a pot, a pan and a few sacks of straw. Some peasants owned a table and a straw-covered plank bed, but many ate and slept on the floor.
- Luxuries: Some peasants had a bench or a stool, but chairs remained rare even among the well-to-do.
- Industry: Agriculture ranked No. 1, but an interest in fashion among the nobility and the bourgeoisie created a boom in textiles.
- Buildings: Cathedrals at Chartres, Winchester and Bourges had stood for centuries, but Seville Cathedral was new and King's College chapel in Cambridge was still under construction.
- Religion: With Martin Luther only 8 years old, all of Western Europe remained Roman Catholic.
- Most significant trend: The Renaissance, which stretched from 1300 to 1600. Leonardo da Vinci was 40 years old in 1492; Michelangelo, a teenager.
Why he went
Columbus never tried to show that the Earth wasn't flat. Educated people already knew it was round. The question Columbus sought to answer with three of his four voyages was how long it would take to reach Asia by sailing west. In 1492, he discovered in the Caribbean what he thought was the Indies below China and Japan. In 1493, he brought over boatloads of men and animals to start a colony. In 1498, he resumed his search for Asia--and found Venezuela, which he was convinced lay only a short distance southeast of China. He looked again in 1502--and hit Honduras. He died in 1506 never knowing he had discovered America.
Columbus's largest ship was approximately 75 feet long--the equivalent of five canoes set end to end.