A New World: 6 Ways the Journeys of Columbus Changed Civilization

A New World: 6 Ways the Journeys of Columbus Changed Civilization

Donna Patricia Ward - April 20, 2017

The voyages of Christopher Columbus impacted the world in significant ways. When Columbus and his fleet landed in the Bahamas in 1492, they were exposed to an entirely new continent filled with animals, plants, and people never before seen by Europeans. New webs of interconnectedness began between the Old World and the New World. Communication and trade networks developed. Historians call this connectedness the Columbian Exchange.

There were millions of plants, animals, people, and diseases transported between the Old World and the New World in the post-Columbian era. For the first time, trade routes between Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas were sustainable and fruitful. Many of the initial trade relationships remain into the present day, although with modifications. Ideas were also traded as part of the Columbian Exchange, which led to nation building, urbanization, and eventually industrialization. Below are some of the most significant exchanges that began with the accidental landing of Columbus in the West Indies.

A New World: 6 Ways the Journeys of Columbus Changed Civilization
Bust of a patient with tertiary syphilis. Musee de l’Homme, Tracadero, Paris. Public Domain


The French disease was introduced to the Old World by returning sailors from the Christopher Columbus voyages. Syphilis had many names depending upon which European had it. Russians called it the Polish disease; the Poles called it the German disease; people in the Middle East called it the European pustules; people in India called it the disease of the Franks; and the Chinese called it the ulcer of Canton. Finally, in the nineteenth century it universally became known as syphilis.

Syphilis is caused by bacteria and most commonly transferred from one person to another during sexual activity. Congenital syphilis is transmitted during pregnancy or birth. The infection appears shortly after contraction. During the first phase the skin begins to show firm, non-itchy, and painless ulcerations that can range from just a few to a multitude over the body. In the second phase, a rash will usually appear on the hands or the feet. When the rash disappears, syphilis has entered into its third phase.

The third phase of syphilis is a latent period with no symptoms that can last for years. When the infection enters into its fourth and final stage, it becomes horrific and causes death. People in the fourth stage of syphilis have numerous growths all over their bodies. Many slowly go blind and insane. When the infection attacks the nerves and heart, death is slow and painful.

Columbus had three voyages to the New World. Each time they stayed for several months and then returned to Europe carrying with them Native Americans and other New World goods. Only after 1493 is there documented evidence of syphilis in the Old World. When the infection spread throughout Europe and into Asia, there was no cure aside from local remedies. People may have thought that they were cured, but in actuality, they were most likely in the dormant phase of the infection.

Syphilis spread quickly through Europe after 1493. Painters and writers have depicted the infection in their works. When America entered into the First World War in 1917, it had created a massive campaign geared toward soldiers going overseas to avoid contracting the French Disease. This campaign seems somewhat ironic considering the origins of syphilis are in the Americas. Penicillin, discovered after the Second World War, cures the infection in its early stages.

A New World: 6 Ways the Journeys of Columbus Changed Civilization
Public Domain


Maize is often called corn. It originated in Mesoamerica where native people began to domestically cultivate it roughly 5,000 years ago. Climates that are too dry for rice or too wet for wheat produce can sustain maize. Corn requires small acreage while it produces high yields in a short amount of time. This makes the crop desirable for famine-prone areas as well as feed for livestock. While much of the corn cultivated in the twenty-first century is genetically modified in some way, it remains a staple food crop throughout the world.

Native Americans have been cultivating corn for centuries. When the Spaniards arrived in the New World, they believed corn to be inferior for several reasons. Catholics believed that only wheat flour could be used to make bread that would be used in the sacrament of Holy Communion. The belief that wine and bread undergo transubstantiation and actually become the blood and body of Christ meant that corn flour could not be used for such a holy purpose.

Documents left by the Conquistadors noted that corn was an inferior crop because the Native population in the New World relied upon it. Europeans believed that they were at the top of a human hierarchy. They believed that it was their responsibility to spread Christianity throughout the world. This meant that they were a stronger and more important people. Native Americans, on the other hand, were viewed as weak, and the only way to save their souls was to be conquered by the Spaniards. The Spaniards believed the Native people of the New World to be weak because they ate maize. As such, Europeans refused initially to eat maize.

Over time, of course, the Spaniards in the New World had no other choice but to eat maize. When Europeans planted wheat, it could not survive the hot, humid, and often dry conditions. The wheat crops rotted while the maize crops flourished. If Spaniards were going to continue their conquest of the New World from the fifteenth century onward, they had to embrace corn.

Maize contributed to a worldwide population boom in the years after the voyages of Columbus. As returning sailors introduced corn to Europeans, diets improved. Corn, along with the Old World crops such as wheat, rice, and fruits, introduced new vitamins to Europeans. As diets improved and varied from consuming only meat and bread, people began living longer. When farmers in present-day China began cultivating corn at the end of the seventeenth century, the Asian population began to increase substantially.

A New World: 6 Ways the Journeys of Columbus Changed Civilization
Painting of Cassava in the 17th Century by Albert Eckhout. Public Domain

Manioc, Cassava, Tapioca

Manioc is a tuber and has been called cassava or tapioca. Manioc grows in the tropics and is a large shrub. The leaves and young shoots provide food, but the roots are the most valuable part of the plant. The tuber is either sweet or bitter.

Sweet manioc can be consumed straight from the earth while the bitter manioc must be processed. Native Americans rubbed the root on a stone until it turned into curds and then baked it into cakes and breads. The liquid was collected and boiled over a fire. If a person drank the liquid before it was ready, they would die.

For centuries, Native Americans have processed manioc for human consumption. A resistant plant to bugs and pests that destroy the wheat harvest, for example, manioc is also drought tolerant and can grow in marginally poor soil. Manioc is a staple crop for people along the equator. It is a major source of carbohydrates, which has made it a food source for many developing nations.

Upon first contact, the Spaniards did not embrace manioc. As with maize, the Spaniards believed that the root was an inferior food and wheat was a much better crop. When wheat failed to be a success in the New World, the Spaniards turned their attention to manioc. The high yields of the tuber and the plant’s ability to grow in what the Europeans considered to be an inhospitable climate changed their tune. There is little doubt that the Spaniards cultivated the crop first by using native Indian slave labor before importing African slaves. The use of slave labor solidified the importance of manioc for Europeans in the New World.

Residents of the Old World knew manioc by a different name. For elites and nobles, manioc was a gourmet food served as a dessert in the form of tapioca. The demand for desserts drove more Europeans to flee the land-starved Old World in search of new exotic ingredients and potential profits in the New World. Desserts enjoyed by the elites of Europe played an important role in the exploitation of slave labor in the New World.

A New World: 6 Ways the Journeys of Columbus Changed Civilization
Variety of Potatoes. Public Domain


Would you like fries with that? People around the world enjoy potatoes. They come in all shapes and sizes and are a staple in fast food restaurants, sit down eateries, and fine dining establishments throughout the world. The potato arguably has had the most significant impact on Old World agriculture than any other crop.

There are thousands of varieties of potatoes. All of these varieties are indigenous to the New World, primarily South America. During the sixteenth century, the potato made its way to Europe. At first Europeans embraced it as an aphrodisiac and a novelty item. After its 100-year presence in Europe, it was still viewed as an inferior item. Some Europeans thought consuming a potato would cause leprosy, others considered it mealy and insipid no matter how it was prepared, and still others found it to be fitting for only peasants and laborers.

In actuality, the potato was nutritious. As land in Europe was divided over and over again due to various cultural traditions and laws, plots became smaller and smaller. Land available for cultivation declined and the land that was available was of poor quality. The potato plant could produce high yields in poor soil and on small plots. In other words, the potato could be both a sustenance crop and a surplus crop on a small parcel of land.

Global trade had been perfected in the late-eighteenth century. Ships held more cargo while being lighter and faster. As sugar, cotton, and tobacco became primary crops in the Americas, regions in Europe grew and sustained on just a single crop. The potato rose to prominence in Europe, and farmers with small plots were able to grow enough to live off of while selling their surplus to merchants who would then carry them to the New World’s sugar islands, tobacco farms, and cotton plantations. The potato had come full circle.

The potato of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was very nutritious. The Irish families that lived away from the coast survived almost solely on the potato. It was prepared in a number of ways, and it was not uncommon for an Irish farmer to eat 13 pounds of potatoes a day. People who lived in the coastal areas supplemented their potatoes with fresh seafood.

When a blight struck the potato plants over several years beginning in 1845, it devastated the Irish population. Those that could afford to flee did so. The poor and starving either had to enter into the poorhouse or roam the Island eating grass along the side of the road. Starvation was a long and painful process. A million Irish perished during the Great Famine and over a million emigrated.

A New World: 6 Ways the Journeys of Columbus Changed Civilization
Squashes. Public Domain

New World Crop Exchange in Africa

The Columbian Exchange often refers to the exchange of goods between the Americas and Europe. But the exchange occurred in other areas as well. Maize entered the Middle East by the sixteenth century and became a staple crop later in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The powerful Ottoman Empire traded throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe. As trade increased throughout the world after the sixteenth century, New World food crops spread.

Several New World crops impacted Africa. The tropical regions of Africa lay parallel to those in South America. This made transplanting crops relatively easy. Europeans introduced New World crops into Africa. Out of the approximately 650 cultivated plants in the tropical regions of Africa only 50 originated in Africa. The vast majority were introduced through Asian and European trade.

Why introduce so many crops into Africa? The answer is slavery. As sinister as it seems, in order to ensure healthy slaves, Africans first had to be healthy. One determinant of a region’s health is if the population increases or decreases. When populations decrease, it usually signifies poor nutrition, impacts from natural disasters, or governmental conflicts such as war. Populations increase when food sources are diverse and plentiful.

Europeans and Asians offered tribute to African tribal leaders. Many of the tributes came in the form of plants from the New World or Asia. Maize and manioc were the most important imports. Crops such as peanuts, squashes, tomato, sweet potato, and cacao provided more variety into the African diet. Combined these crops significantly impacted agriculture in Africa.

Beginning in the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries, the world’s population began to increase. In 1650, the overall estimated population of Africa was 100 million. The population continued to increase; however, the estimated numbers reflect a decrease due to the slave trade. In other words, as the land provided food surpluses it allowed for healthier people. Healthier females menstruated over more years, increasing their years of fertility. When babies were born, more of them lived beyond infancy and into adulthood than before the introduction of New World plants. If it were not for the New World plants introduced through Asian and European trade routes, it is quite possible that the African slave trades—to the Americans and in the Indian Ocean—could not have been sustained.

A New World: 6 Ways the Journeys of Columbus Changed Civilization
Sugar Plantation in British Antiqua. Public Domain

Old World Crop Exchange in the New World

Europeans were good at conquering the New World. This is evidenced by the sustaining influence of Catholicism in North and South America, the cultural traditions directly transferred to the New World, and the rise in importance of sugar islands in the Caribbean. Arguably sugar was the most important Old World crop transplanted into the New World, but there were others.

Wheat, grapes, and olives were a staple for Europeans. Bread came from the wheat, wine from the grapes, and oils from the olives. The second Columbus voyage returned to the Americas with all sorts of seeds and plant clippings. Wheat, chickpeas, melons, onions, radishes, salad greens, grape vines, sugar cane, and fruits were introduced around 1494. Accounts left behind by Europeans in the New World initially reported of the massive success of these old crops in the New World. Early successes provided Europeans with hope that they could refuse the native bounty of the New World. Their ethnic hierarchy would remain intact and they would not be forced to eat corn, for example, which some believed would turn them into Indians.

These early successes were short lived. Old World crops could not be sustained beyond one or two seasons. Success came from the lowly garden crops that were usually planted on small farms or gardens of the elites. Cauliflowers, cabbages, radishes, lettuce, and melons prospered. Over time, these Old World crops were planted in larger quantities and used as export goods.

An attribute of the conquering Europeans was that they gave up on cultivating crops that would not grow in the subtropical regions of the New World. Instead, they took New World crops and introduced them to regions where they were not found. This may explain why maize is found throughout the Americas instead of where it is indigenous in present-day Mexico.

Notable exceptions to agricultural failures in the New World were sugar, tobacco, and coffee. All of these crops originated from the Mediterranean area. When they were introduced to regions in the New World, they became very successful. These staple crops became the lynchpins of what would become the massive plantation system in the New World. In many respects, sugar, tobacco, and coffee justified the use of slavery as a labor force.