The Columbian Exchange

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The Columbian Exchange

Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) was a navigator and explorer whose famous 1492 voyage from Spain to the West Indies marked the beginning of successful European colonization of the Americas. On 12 October 1492, Columbus and his crews aboard the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria made landfall in the Bahamas. Upon his return to Spain, news of the explorer's discoveries captivated Europe. Though Columbus was not the first European to discover the Americas, his four voyages helped open trans-Atlantic navigation and facilitated European conquest of the New World. He made three subsequent journeys to the New World, "discovering" many islands in the Caribbean and mapping the coast of Central and South America.

Columbus was the initiator and namesake of the Columbian Exchange—the rapid exchange of plants, animals, and diseases between the Old and New Worlds that began with Columbus's journeys. The uneven biological and ecological impacts of the Columbian Exchange largely accounted for the divergent fates of Indians, Europeans, and even Africans after 1492. Thus, the impact of Columbus extended far beyond his "discoveries" of new lands.


  It is not known how long humans have wandered the expanse of land that came to be known as America.  The earliest identified inhabitants, those now recognized as American Indians, are believed to have entered the North American continent through an icy Siberian passageway that once existed between northeastern Asia and the region now called Alaska. Many archeologists believe Viking ships explored the far northeastern coast of North America around the year 1000 A.D.  In terms of recorded history, the story of the American nation and its culture begins with the 1492 discovery of the New World by Italian explorer Christopher Columbus.

    Columbus was a mapmaker who believed that Europeans could reach the Orient more efficiently by ocean travel than across land.  Two hundred years earlier, another Italian explorer, Marco Polo, had taken the eastward, overland route to Asia, returning with spices and other exotic items.  At the time, spices were highly valued, as they were the only means of hindering bacterial spoilage in food during warm seasons.  The Turkish city of Constantinople was the primary supplier of spices, rice, fruits, and silk fabrics to such Italian city-states such as Marco Polo’s home of Venice and Columbus’ home of Genoa.christopher columbus

    By the mid-to-late 1400’s, Europeans began to build sturdier ships than before, and Portugal’s Henry the Navigator was among the first to apply the direction-finding principles of Ptolemy, the ancient astronomer, to long-distance sea voyages.   While there remained a number of potential dangers to such excursions over water, Christopher Columbus believed that God directed him to set forth on a westward journey across the Atlantic Ocean.  In a journal, he wrote, “It was the Lord who put into my mind (I could feel His hand upon me) the fact that it would be possible to sail from here to the Indies.…There is no question that the inspiration was from the Holy Spirit, because he comforted me with rays of marvelous illumination from the Holy Scriptures.”  Columbus’ personal vision was limited to finding a water-route to India. The actual outcome had far greater impact on mankind than he could ever imagine. 

    As a prominent seafaring nation, Portugal initially appeared to be the best possible site where Columbus could raise money for shipbuilding.  It took a decade of rejections, broken promises and failed deals to compel him to move onward to Spain, where his proposal drew the interest of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.   Though the Spanish monarchs were skeptical, they yearned to break Italy’s trade monopoly with Asia.  After a four-year period of deliberation, Queen Isabella consented to support the venture.

    On August 3rd, 1492, Christopher Columbus’ fleet of three ships set sail from the Spanish port of Palos.  Eighty-seven men onboard the Santa Maria, the Pinta, and the Santa Clara — nicknamed the Nina—traveled for more than two months across a seemingly endless Atlantic Ocean.  At a point where hope of success had virtually vanished, and with the crew threatening mutiny, land was finally sighted.  On October 12th, 1492, Christopher Columbus set foot upon the beach of a Caribbean island in what was later known as the Bahamas.  Planting a cross in the soil, he christened the island San Salvador, meaning “Holy Savior.”  Because Columbus was convinced he had reached the Indies, he referred to the island’s brown-skinned inhabitants as Indians. christopher columbus at san salvador

    At the time, it was common for seafaring crews to be comprised of unscrupulous adventurers, fugitives from justice, and societal rejects.  Columbus was therefore stern in ordering his men to behave kindly and respectfully to the natives.  His goal was to exemplify the Christian faith through demonstrations of friendship and trust.

    Venturing onward to explore other islands (and wrecking the Santa Maria in the process) Christopher Columbus returned to a hero’s welcome in Spain during April of 1493.  Enthralled with the Caribbean gold set before them, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella claimed permanent possession of the lands Columbus discovered.  To encourage Portuguese explorers to respect the claim, the Spanish monarchs entered an agreement with Portugal called the Treaty of Tordesillas.  Pope Alexander the Sixth was commissioned to draw a line of demarcation, dividing the known non-European world.  Portugal’s half consisted mainly of Africa’s northern and western coastlines, while the region of Columbus’ discovery went to Spain.  Since the enormous geographical expanse of the New World had yet to be discovered, no one at the time realized the treaty’s favorable ramifications for Spain.

    Whereas the first voyage of Columbus was a profound event that changed the world, his next two expeditions ended disastrously.  Preoccupied with dreams of finding enough gold to finance a Catholic takeover of Jerusalem, Columbus continued to explore the Caribbean, leaving fellow Spaniards behind to govern the claimed islands.  Many of these men raped island women and robbed native inhabitants of gold ornaments.  Death came quickly to those islanders who resisted the well-armed Europeans.  When Columbus hanged several of the culprits at Hispaniola in 1498, fellow Spaniards rebelled, returning him to Spain in chains.  Respecting his previous accomplishments, the King and Queen allowed Columbus to embark on a fourth expedition in 1502.  Though he discovered vast gold deposits in what is now known as Central America, severe storms caused a temporary stranding and cargo loss.  In November of 1504, Columbus returned to Spain in poor health, never to sail again.  At the time of his death in 1506, his popularity in Europe had waned.

    Christopher Columbus never realized that the land he discovered was not Asia.  In the end, the New World would not bear his name.  That honor went to an Italian adventurer, Amerigo Vespucci, who enthralled Europeans with broadly embellished tales of his own travels to the New World in 1497.  Vespucci was first to assert that the New World was not Asia, but rather an entirely different continent altogether.  In the decade that followed, other explorations substantiated his claim, and in honor of Amerigo Vespucci, German map-maker Martin Waldseemuller named the region “America.”  1479 voyage of john cabot

    Like Christopher Columbus, Giovanni Caboto—better known as John Cabot—was born in Genoa, Italy, yet made his voyage to the New World on behalf of another country.  In the service of England, Cabot made the 1497 discovery of the large North Atlantic island that came to be known as Newfoundland. 

    The first landing on the actual mainland of North America was made by Juan Ponce de Leon, who explored the eastern coastline of the Florida peninsula in 1513.  That same year, Vasco Nunez Balboa arrived at what is now Panama, crossing the Central American isthmus on foot to make the first European sighting of the Pacific Ocean.  By this time, it was apparent that the earth was larger than previously imagined.

    A more complete assessment of the earth’s expanse was gained through the first around-the-world voyage, launched by Ferdinand Magellan in 1519, and completed by Juan Sebastian in 1522, after Magellan was killed in the Philippines.

Columbus Day, 2008
A Proclamation by the President of the United States of America

Christopher Columbus' bold voyage across the Atlantic changed the world forever. On Columbus Day, we remember this Italian explorer's courage in traveling to the unknown and celebrate his landmark achievements and lasting legacy.

History holds remarkable examples of heroism and adventure, and the journey of the navigator from Genoa in 1492 is one of history's great stories of daring and bravery. Columbus' expedition became an epic of discovery and opened up the New World for future generations. His journey will forever stand as a testament to his intrepid spirit and persistence. Today, his legacy of discovery and determination is an example for innovators and dreamers as they pursue broader understanding and use their talents to benefit humanity.

Columbus Day is also an opportunity to reaffirm the close ties between the United States and Italy. Our two countries will continue to work together to advance liberty, peace, and prosperity around the globe. Our Nation recognizes the many inspiring contributions made by Americans of Italian descent. We also honor the dedication and sacrifice of Italian Americans who are serving in our country's Armed Forces. In commemoration of Columbus' journey, the Congress has requested (36 U.S.C. 107) that the President proclaim the second Monday of October of each year as "Columbus Day."

NOW, THEREFORE, I, GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim October 13, 2008, as Columbus Day. I call upon the people of the United States to observe this day with appropriate ceremonies and activities. I also direct that the flag of the United States be displayed on all public buildings on the appointed day in honor of Christopher Columbus.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this tenth day of October, in the year of our Lord two thousand eight, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-third.


Columbus Day in United States

Officially, the people of the USA are invited to celebrate the anniversary of the discovery of their country with church services and other activities. In some towns and cities, special church services, parades and large events are held. Most celebrations are concentrated around the Italian-American community. The celebrations in New York and San Francisco are particularly noteworthy. In Hawaii Columbus Day is also known as Landing Day or Discoverer's Day.

Not all parts of the United States celebrate Columbus Day. It is not a public holiday in some states such as California, Oregon, Nevada and Hawaii. Moreover, Native Americans’ Day is celebrated in South Dakota, while Indigenous People’s Day is celebrated in Berkley, California. Public life

Columbus day is a public holiday in many parts of the United states, but is not observed or is not a holiday in some states. Government offices are generally closed, but businesses may be open. Schools are not required to close and may decide to remain open or closed. People are advised to check with their school districts on Columbus Day school holiday closures. It is a legal observance in Florida.

About Columbus Day

Christopher Columbus is often portrayed as the first European to sail to the Americas. He is sometimes portrayed as the discoverer of the New World. However, this is controversial on many counts. There is evidence that the first Europeans to sail across the Atlantic were Viking explorers from Scandinavia. In addition, the land was already populated by indigenous peoples, who had 'discovered' the Americas thousands of years before.

Columbus Day originated as a celebration of Italian-American heritage and was first held in San Francisco in 1869. The first state-wide celebration was held in Colorado in 1907. In 1937, Columbus Day become a holiday across the United States. Since 1971, it has been celebrated on the second Monday in October. The date on which Columbus arrived in the Americas is also celebrated as the Día de la Raza (Day of the Race) in Latin America and some Latino communities in the USA. However, it is a controversial holiday in some countries and has been re-named in others.

Columbus Day celebrations are controversial because the settlement of Europeans in the Americas led to the deaths of a very large proportion of the native people. It has been argued that this was a direct result of Columbus' actions. It is clear that the arrival of the European settlers led to the demise of a large proportion of the history and culture of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. It has also been argued that Columbus should not be honored for discovering North America, as he only went as far as some islands in the Caribbean and never got as far as mainland America.

Columbus' Confusion About the New World

The European discovery of America opened possibilities for those with eyes to see. But Columbus was not one of them

By Edmund S. Morgan

Smithsonian Magazine |
October 2009

In the year 1513, a group of men led by Vasco Núñez de Balboa marched across the Isthmus of Panama and discovered the Pacific Ocean. They had been looking for it—they knew it existed—and, familiar as they were with oceans, they had no difficulty in recognizing it when they saw it. On their way, however, they saw a good many things they had not been looking for and were not familiar with. When they returned to Spain to tell what they had seen, it was not a simple matter to find words for everything.

For example, they had killed a large and ferocious wild animal. They called it a tiger, although there were no tigers in Spain and none of the men had ever seen one before. Listening to their story was Peter Martyr, member of the King's Council of the Indies and possessor of an insatiable curiosity about the new land that Spain was uncovering in the west. How, the learned man asked them, did they know that the ferocious animal was a tiger? They answered "that they knewe it by the spottes, fiercenesse, agilitie, and such other markes and tokens whereby auncient writers have described the Tyger." It was a good answer. Men, confronted with things they do not recognize, turn to the writings of those who have had a wider experience. And in 1513 it was still assumed that the ancient writers had had a wider experience than those who came after them.

Columbus himself had made that assumption. His discoveries posed for him, as for others, a problem of identification. It seemed to be a question not so much of giving names to new lands as of finding the proper old names, and the same was true of the things that the new lands contained. Cruising through the Caribbean, enchanted by the beauty and variety of what he saw, Columbus assumed that the strange plants and trees were strange only because he was insufficiently versed in the writings of men who did know them. "I am the saddest man in the world," he wrote, "because I do not recognize them."

We need not deride Columbus' reluctance to give up the world that he knew from books. Only idiots escape entirely from the world that the past bequeaths. The discovery of America opened a new world, full of new things and new possibilities for those with eyes to see them. But the New World did not erase the Old. Rather, the Old World determined what men saw in the New and what they did with it. What America became after 1492 depended both on what men found there and on what they expected to find, both on what America actually was and on what old writers and old experience led men to think it was, or ought to be or could be made to be.

During the decade before 1492, as Columbus nursed a growing urge to sail west to the Indies—as the lands of China, Japan and India were then known in Europe—he was studying the old writers to find out what the world and its people were like. He read the Ymago Mundi of Pierre d'Ailly, a French cardinal who wrote in the early 15th century, the travels of Marco Polo and of Sir John Mandeville, Pliny's Natural History and the Historia Rerum Ubique Gestarum of Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini (Pope Pius II). Columbus was not a scholarly man. Yet he studied these books, made hundreds of marginal notations in them and came out with ideas about the world that were characteristically simple and strong and sometimes wrong, the kind of ideas that the self-educated person gains from independent reading and clings to in defiance of what anyone else tries to tell him.

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