Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Columbian Exchange: How Columbus's Voyages Changed Everything

Several years ago I read a book, 1421, that told the story of five treasure fleets sent out by the Emperor of China to map the entire world. And map they did.  When they returned home five years later political fortunes had changed - ships, maps, treasures, even some sailors were ordered destroyed and it was never mentioned again.

As with all things ordered by imperial fiat, things survived. The author notes mysterious maps slowly trickled into Europe, maps that may well have made the Age of Discovery possible.  The Chinese knew, as the ancient Greeks, that the world was round and came close to its exact size. The surviving maps are usable today.

I just finished Charles C Mann's book 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created and was introduced to "The Columbian Exchange."  The theory, now accepted globally, tells how the world changed forever with the first voyage Columbus made in 1492. He brought diseases, bugs, animals, and many other things the New World had never seen before. He took back foods and new bugs and diseases the Old World had not seen. Nothing like this had occurred since the time of the dinosaurs.

The peoples of the  New World suffered the worst. In the time it took him to make his second voyage over 50% of Native Americans were dead where Europeans had interacted with island peoples. While gold was not discovered, they discovered a series of plants, tobacco and sugar, would make them wealthy beyond their dreams. To make up for labor needs to replace native deaths, slaves from Africa were imported along with a variety of goods and living plants bearing yellow fever and Malaria, diseases unknown in the Americas. The results were devastating. Indians and Europeans had no immunity to these diseases either and died in some cases days after leaving the ship.  It was discovered Africans raised in areas where it was endemic usually survived. Hence their importation increased in numbers we will never know the totals to.

Before you think America was immune, Southern deaths on rice, tobacco and cotton plantations could be horrific up to the Mason-Dixon Line, the limits for the mosquito that carried both diseases. This book explained so much of what I saw and read about in Virginia.  When the Indians died of European diseases, there weren't enough laborers in Europe so Africans seemed the perfect answer.

This exchange affected the entire world. Remember Spain was looking for a shortcut to China. Silks, gold, spices and porcelains were in huge demand. By the time they reached Europe they cost a fortune. Finding a shortcut would increase profits and cut costs.

The discovery in Bolivia of a mountain of silver changed everything. China would buy ALL the silver they could get.  They paid with silks, spices and porcelain for decades. As it was doing in first Spain and Europe, now in China, the sheer volume of silver undermined the financial system that some might argue is still trying to recover. Globalization started.  The entire world was affected as no nation or peoples could escape its affects. This book explains how and why. I couldn't put it down.

This book is a "must" read.  Globalization is not new. Rome may have ruled some of the known world, Columbus's voyage changed forever the world. We are digesting this still!

P. S. Art wasn't immune either. Religious and profane combined as well.

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