The Columbian ExchangeShmoop.com (adapted)Columbus: Discovery, Ecology and Conquest In 1492, Christopher Columbus and his crew washed ashore in the Bahamas, "discovering" the New World and claiming ownership of it for the Spanish monarchy. The Taino Indians Columbus encountered—whose homeland he claimed for Spain—must have thought he was mad, suffering delusions of grandeur. But, as we know, Columbus's arrival was indeed the first act in a centuries-long drama of colonization and conquest in which Europeans and their descendants largely displaced the Taino and their fellow Native Americans while remaking the Western Hemisphere in their own image. How and why were the European colonists able to achieve such total dominance in far-off continents? Did the Europeans' power lie in their technological superiority, especially in weapons of war? Or was the European advantage ideological, rooted in the aggressive expansionism of crusading Christianity or the profit motive of entrepreneurial conquistadors? Was it simply a matter of the Europeans proving more brutally committed to a genocidal fight to the finish? While a case can be made for the significance of any of these factors—or all of them—in truth the single most important factor in facilitating the European conquest of the Americas may be found, surprisingly, in a realm beyond simple human control: ecology.
Unequal Exchange: Food for Disease Columbus's ships, and those of the innumerable Europeans who followed him to America, short-circuited millions of years of divergent evolution in the two hemispheres by rapidly introducing Old World plants, animals, and micro-organisms into New World environments, and vice versa. This manmade reunion of the ecologies of the hemispheres—dubbed "The Columbian Exchange" by historian Alfred Crosby—had dramatically asymmetric consequences for the peoples of the Old World and the New. The New World happened to be much a healthier place than the Old before 1492, hosting few or none of the devastating diseases that continuously plagued the populations of Europe, Africa, and Asia. Thus, when Europeans arrived, they generally found life in the Americas to be at least as healthy as back home. By contrast, American Indians—never before exposed to vicious Old World pathogens like smallpox and thus lacking any immunities to them—began dying at apocalyptic rates. Many historians now believe that new diseases introduced after Columbus's arrival killed off as much as 90% or more of the indigenous population of the Americas. The Indians' "Great Dying"—which may have killed as many as one out of every five humans alive worldwide in the sixteenth century—ravaged not only Indian bodies but entire Indian societies and cultures. The traumatized survivors were often left unable to mount any effective resistance against the incursions of the European colonists.