Introduction: Discovery of the New World and the Columbian Exchange
What is problematic with the assumption that "Columbus discovered America in 1492?" To
begin, the assertion is Ethnocentric in that it totally disregards the existence of the millions of
people (50 million or more) living in America for thousands of years prior to 1492. Another
flaw in this assertion is that Columbus was not the first European to reach the shores of America.
Around 1000 AD, Norsemen (Vikings) under Leif Ericsson established settlements in what is
now eastern Canada in pursuit of the greater Viking trading empire.
In any case, however, Columbus plays a prominent role in the story of the establishment of
America. Every school-age child can recite the old lines that in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean
blue etc. Yet, Columbus himself never knew that he had discovered a new continent. He
believed until his death that he had landed in the Indies (Far East) and even went so far as to
make people swear that the new lands were part of the Indies when he was governor of
Hispaniola. This led to the erroneous term "Indians" for the native peoples.
While no one referred to the new lands as America in Columbus' time, it was not long after
the discovery that many realized that the lands were not part of the Indies. In 1507 a German
map maker labeled the lands America as a result of the writings of Amerigo Vespucci. Vespucci
voyaged to the land after Columbus, and recognized that America was not part of the Indies, and
he wrote extensively describing the new world.
Indian Peoples: The native Americans, as noted previously, were called Indians. These people
appear to have migrated to the New World during the great Ice Age (38,000-10,000 years ago).
They belonged to the same human stock as the modern Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans. As
hunters and gatherers, they depended on roots, berries, fish, and game for survival, and it is
believed that decreasing rainfall in their homeland prompted them to migrate eastward to stay
alive. They traveled across the region known as Bering Strait, a land bridge (that no longer
exists) that linked Asia and Alaska. Once in North America, these migrants gradually moved
southward, and within a thousand years had spread from just below the Arctic Ocean to the
stormy southern tip of South America. They also increased enormously in numbers. From
perhaps a few hundred or a few thousand original immigrants, by 1492 the Indian population of
the Americas had swelled to over 50 million, a figure about equal to that of contemporary
Europe. As these groups dispersed throughout the North and South American, they began to
settle into distinct cultural areas, abandoning some of the hunter characteristics for agriculture.
The chief Indian societies to emerge were the Mayas, Aztecs, and Incas of South America and the
developed society of the Iroquois in North America.
The Mayas built great ceremonial and administrative cities in the dense rainforests of the
Yucatan Peninsula and Central America. Mayan society was composed of many separate urban
centers, each independent and governed by a group of priests. The Mayans also had a highly
sophisticated society, for they, alone among the American Indians had a written language and
books, and their mathematicians developed the idea of zero as a number long before the
Europeans did. The Mayans were also highly advanced astronomers with a calender much more
accurate than the European calender.
The Aztecs (concentrated in central Mexico), were a more warlike people than the Mayans.
Around 1300 AD they settled on the site of what is now Mexico City. Led by powerful rulers,
the Aztecs conquered virtually all their neighbors, creating a great empire of 5 million inhabitants
in central Mexico. In the course of their many wars, the Aztec rulers took thousands of prisoners,
whom they publically sacrificed to appease the War God. The Aztecs, like the Mayans, erected
huge pyramids that displayed marvelous craftsmanship. In fact, their capital city of Tenochtitlan
(on the site of present-day Mexico City) had a population of over 100,000. The city was located
on an island had an extensive network of canals, botanical gardens, a zoo, and innovations such
as the Chinampas. Chinampas were woven mats which floated on the lake and provided a fertile
setting for growing crops.
In the coastal mountains of South America, the Incas created an empire that paralleled the
Aztecs to the north. At its height, 7 million people lived within its borders. Strong rulers like the
Aztec chiefs, the Inca emperors built strong fortresses on the Andes Mountains and a network of
roads that held their far-flung state together. They also kept a detailed census of their lands and
had a paved road system that rivaled the roads of the great Roman Empire. Additionally, the
Incas were among the most skilled metallurgists of the time, making a variety of weapons and
ornaments out of gold, silver, and bronze. The Inca privileged class lived comfortably, but the
sick and handicapped were taken care of by the government. For this reason, Incas society has
often been referred to as one of the first modern welfare states.
North American Indians: North of these great Indian civilizations were less complex, smallerscale cultures and societies. By 1492 there was a substantial population perhaps as many as 9
million people, in what is now the United States and Canada. This population was diverse in
culture, economy, and social organization. There were twelve distinct language groups in the
present-day United States, each embracing numerous individual tribes. These various tribes also
had differing economies. Some were hunters and gatherers and others were farmers who
cultivated corn, tobacco, melons, beans, and squash.
Indian dwellings ranged from tepees of skin-covered poles, the typical homes of the western
Plains Indians, to the impressive lodges made of wooden beams and covered with bark built by
the Iroquois and other eastern peoples. Among the Hurons and many southeastern groups these
structures were often grouped into towns surrounded by stockades. Although some Indian tribes
were isolated and self-sufficient, others relied on trade with other tribes. Many of these Indian
tribes were skilled in handicrafts, from their beautiful pottery to their swift birchbark canoes.
Others, however, lived very simply, with few artifacts. The numerous peoples of California, for
example, blessed with a mild climate and abundance of food, made do with minimal clothing and
Politically, these peoples varied greatly. The Indians of the Iroquois Confederacy, or the Six
Nations, as they were called, were a powerful and warlike league, the terror of its Indian
neighbors and the scourge of the later European settlers. On the other hand, the Delaware were
peaceful and the Chippewas of present-day Ohio lived in many small bands and had little in
common besides language. Tribal government varied widely. The Natchez of the lower
Mississippi River Valley were ruled by an absolute despot called the Great Sun, who was
chosen by the female suns when his predecessor died. The Iroquois had a kind of representative
political system. Female clan heads elected the male delegates to the Confederacy council and
the chiefs who governed the Six Nations.
Religion was important among virtually all native Americans. Most believed in an ultimate,
supreme being, the creator of nature, mankind, and all the good things of life. Indians held that
spiritual forces resided in all living things. Like other religious peoples, they expressed their
feelings about the change of seasons, hunting, death, love, and war in elaborate ceremonies that
included dances, songs, feasts, and the wearing of vivid costumes and masks.
Discovery of the Americas: Europeans first touched the Americas long before Columbus.
According to early Scandinavian sagas, in 986 AD a Norwegian ship on the way to European
settled Greenland was driven off course by a storm and narrowly escaped being dashed to pieces
on an unfamiliar coast. The land this crew encountered- -probably Newfoundland- -was
covered with forests and low hills. The Europeans were not interested in the new land and they
did not disembark. When they finally reached Greenland, however, they reported their discovery.
Ever on the lookout for new lands to settle, other Scandinavians soon followed. In the year
1000, Leif Ericsson, one of the founders of Greenland, sailed westward to investigate reports of
the new land. He and his party found it relatively warm, densely forested with streams that
overflowed with salmon. Finding what they later described as grapes, and hoping to encourage
settlement of the new land, they dubbed the new country Vinland (Wineland) the Good.
Norse settlers soon followed Ericsson to Vinland. In 1010, three boatloads of Greenlanders
set out to establish permanent communities in North America. Indian attacks drove them away,
but the Norse apparently made other attempts to colonize the country. Some garbled knowledge
of the Norse discoveries spread throughout Europe, yet nothing happened. The first European
contact with the Americas did not “take.” Europe quickly forget the 11th century Norse voyages
to North America. It was almost as if they never took place.
European Background and the Columbian Exchange
Nevertheless, the isolation of the Americas did not last. The Old World eventually intruded
into the New, and within a few generations the collision of these two worlds completely
transformed both societies. To the people of Europe this contact with the Americas seemed a
“discovery” but instead it was actually a meeting. According to the words of one historian,
Columbus did not discover a new world; he established contact between two worlds already
old. The question remains, then, why did Europe fail to follow up on the Norse voyages of the
11th century, and why did it respond differently in 1492? What had happened during the
centuries separating Leif Ericsson from Christopher Columbus to change the way Europeans
reacted to the momentous meeting of the two worlds? Uncovering the answer requires a bit of
Eight hundred years before the Norse voyages, the Roman Empire had joined all parts of the
Western European world into a peaceful, prosperous whole. Over the centuries, however, the
empire had become too large to manage and it finally collapsed in the 5th century AD. In the
centuries that followed waves of Germanic, Muslim, and Viking invaders ravaged the former
lands of the empire. Many of these barbarian eventually settled down, and along with the
remaining parts of Western Europe, began to form the social, political, and economic institutions
that would eventually lead to modern Nation States. During this period, known as the Dark
Ages, Europe was poor, politically divided, beset by local wars and civil disorder, and its people
were largely illiterate and unfree.
By the year 1000, Europe had disintegrated politically as well as economically. Kings reigned
in France, Portugal, and Spain, but they were not like later monarchs. They did not have armies
or navies at their disposal, nor did they have large financial resources; for instance, no European
ruler had the ability to impose uniform national taxes. Instead, the economic system of the era
was called Feudalism. Under this arrangement, kings granted estates to Vassals. The vassals
owed allegiance to the king and were required to provide military service for a certain number of
days per year (depending upon the contract). The estate worked by the vassal was called a
Manor. Living and working on these manors were the peasants (Serfs), who were required to
serve in their lord’s army at his request. Serfs were legally tied to the land; they could not leave
and had to give their lord 1/3 to ½ of their crop in return for protection. Consequently, large
scale military campaigns, because they were so expensive, were out of the question for most
Consequently, in the year 1000, Europe simply could not rise to the challenge of the
newfound world to the west. It did not have the economic or technical resources, the political or
social cohesion, or even the interest to do so. The disorganized, politically feeble, largely
illiterate Europe of Leif Ericsson’s time was simply incapable of responding to the Norse
encounter with the New World. Five hundred years later, however, when Columbus reported the
discovery of the new route to the Indies, Europe reacted powerfully and decisively. This new
response reflected the fact that some remarkable changes had taken place in Europe in the 500
years between Ericsson and Columbus.
Revival of Trade and Commerce: The first of these changes was that Europe was beginning to
experience a revival of trade and commerce. This revival would, in the long-run, undermine
Feudalism and be instrumental in the rise of modern nation states in Western Europe. In part the
change followed contact with the Islamic civilization that rimmed the shores of the
Mediterranean Sea. For centuries, Western Christians were content with what they had. But
then, at the very end of the 11th century, Europe unleashed the Crusades to recover the Holy
Lands (Palestine) from the Muslims. After the Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099, Europeans
settled on the Eastern edge of the Mediterranean. This brought Europeans into closer contact
with Muslim traders and helped them to develop a greater awareness of Muslim culture. Trade
and the chance to make money, however, was the driving force. Compared to the crude
commodities produced by France, Germany, and England, the products of the Muslim world
(especially silk, cotton, spices, and cabinetwork) were marvels of delicacy and sophistication.
Many Europeans appreciated the skills and artistry of Muslim craftsmen, developed a taste for
sugar, silks, and the luxury items of the Muslim world, and came to respect science and
philosophy. This was a beginning of a change in European attitudes and an awakening to the
opportunities of commercial relations with distant lands and cultures.
Even more intriguing were the riches of the Orient. By the 11th century a lucrative trade had
sprung up between Europe and remote China and India. Italian textiles, arms, armor, copper, and
other items moved eastward; Oriental silk, jewels, and spices moved westward. The immense
profits made in this trade made Italian merchants the envy of other European traders. The most
important part of this East-West exchange was the spice trade. To Europeans, spices seemed
indispensable to civilized living. They retarded decay, relieved the blandness, and disguised the
poor quality of unrefrigerated meat. Europeans had long used many locally grown herbs to flavor
their foods, but none could compare to pepper, cloves, cinnamon, and the other spices that could
be found only in India, Ceylon, or the Spice Islands (Indonesia).
Contact with Islam and the revival of long-distance trade were accompanied by a change in
attitude toward money and the making of money. Prior to this, the Church outlawed Usery, the
process of charging interest or fees for lending money. Monarchs often oppressed traders
because the belief was that they were accumulating wealth in an unethical fashion. Nevertheless,
as long-distance trade poured more money into the Church and the ruler’s pockets, they were
forced to relax their ban on usery. Consequently, over time, banking became a highly profitable
and respectable enterprise.
The revival of trade also encouraged the growth of cities and prompted the destruction of
Feudalism. Serfs found more opportunities in the cities, and as trade returned, new cities sprang
up and old ones expanded. Besides the older cities of Italy, newer towns arose along the Baltic
and North Seas to distribute the goods of the East and to serve the growing commerce of
Northern Europe. This led to the growth of a powerful merchant class in Europe. These
merchants, moreover, became natural allies for the various European kings because they loaned
them money to finance their armies and other state projects. In the long run, the rise of a
merchant class led to the growth of Mercantilism, or a money economy (as opposed to the
former, which was a Barter Economy). This brought a great deal of wealth to the early
European states and allowed the kings to impose national taxes (which allowed them to support
armies and navies). Thus, in the quest for wealth, mercantilism led to the creation of modern
nation states in Europe. It was these states that would finance the expeditions to the New World.
Revolutions in Thought and Communication: Intellectual and cultural changes also made
1492 different from 1000. People in the Middle Ages had little sense of historical change. They
gave the ancients little credit for their contributions to civilization and, in fact, knew little about
them. Then, in the 14th century, Italian scholars began to discover that the ancient Greeks and
Romans knew many things that they did not. This new realization was probably sparked by the
interchange with Greek speaking Constantinople and the Muslim Mediterranean world, which
had preserved and translated many ancient Greek and Latin works. It was reinforced by the
discovery of hundreds of ancient manuscripts hidden in monasteries and libraries for almost a
thousand years. This “rediscovery” of the Greco-Roman past is referred to as the Renaissance,
which simply means “rebirth.”
The new contact with the classical world was a wonderfully stimulating experience for
Europe. Encountering a new civilization, even one long dead, made European culture richer and
more complex. At the same time, it gave Europeans more confidence in themselves and the
world they lived in. For most people at this time, life was extremely difficult. The vast majority
of people were terribly poor by today’s standards. Warfare was a constant threat, as was famine
or plague. The Renaissance, however, gave people the belief that they could transform society
and make life better. This new attitude is called Humanism. Humanism embraced the things of
this world, such as art, literature, architecture, and music. Prior to this, most people simply
accepted their life as it was (even if it was bad) because they knew that after death they would
have eternal salvation. Humanism, however, deflected their attention from religion and salvation
to the things of this world. Nevertheless, it was not an anti-religious movement. Instead, it was
concerned with the idea of improving people’s lives while on earth. Thus, the quest to improve
human life, spurred on by the Humanistic ideas of the Renaissance, made 1492 different from
This change in attitude was greatly helped by the European discovery of printing. In ancient
and Medieval times books had to be copied by hand and so were rare and very expensive. By the
end of the Middle Ages the revival of trade had created a new class of literate people, but the
high cost of recording people’s thoughts inevitably slowed the spread of ideas and knowledge. In
the 1460s, however, an early form of the printing press was perfected by Johann Gutenberg, of
Mainz, Germany. This technology quickly spread throughout Europe, and the impact was
enormous. The new printing press, called Movable-Type, could copy hundreds of books in the
time that it took to copy them by hand. By 1500, about 1000 printers were working in the trade,
and they had printed over 6 million books. This made books much cheaper and greatly
accelerated the spread of knowledge throughout Europe (this is comparable to the Internet in the
rapid spread of knowledge and ideas). Many of these books were religious, but there were also
scientific works, works on navigation, and numerous accounts of discoveries in foreign lands.
New Technology: Advances in navigation and naval architecture also help ...
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