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The Transformation of Post-Columbian Europe: The Impact of Contact

The Transformation of Post-Columbian Europe: The Impact of Contact


Old and New Worlds. For the first time in recorded history, the voyages of Christopher Columbus established regular, sustained long-term contact between the civilizations and cultures of the American New World on the one hand and those of the Old World of Europe, Africa, and Asia on the other. For the people of the Americas, the arrival of the Europeans obviously had far-reaching consequences that radically transformed their lives. From the point of view of native Americans, the legacy of this contact was largely negative. European conquest and imperialism, the enslavement of native populations in many areas, and outbreaks of Old World diseases such as smallpox against which the Americans had no immunity resulted in widespread death and suffering. Yet the Atlantic Ocean in the age of exploration and expansion was not simply a one-way street. Contact with the Americas also had far-reaching social, cultural, and intellectual implications for the natives of the Old World. In Europe, for example, sustained contact with the Americas substantially transformed fields of thought and endeavor as diverse as agriculture and medicine as well as geography and cartography.

The Columbian Exchange. The voyages of Columbus initiated a massive transhemispheric mutual exchange of plants, animals, and diseases that historians collectively call the Columbian Exchange. Europeans brought to the Americas, for instance, a variety of plant and animal species native to the Old World and previously unknown in the New World. These European introductions into the New World included, for example, wheat and the horsetwo

species that have had enormous impact in reshaping the cultures and landscapes of the Americas. Similarly many species native only to the New World were first introduced to Europeans by travelers returning from the Americas, resulting in a transformation of European agriculture and diets. Today, for instance, it is difficult for us to imagine Italian cuisine without tomato sauce. Yet tomatoes are native to the Americas, and they were introduced to Italy and the rest of Europe only after 1492. Similarly maize, or corn, and many varieties of beans are crops native to the Americas which, after their introduction into Europe during the age of exploration and expansion, gradually came to play significant roles in European agriculture. From Europe many of these New World crops later spread to Asia and Africa, bringing about significant dietary changes among civilizations throughout the Old World. In the long term no American plant species has had greater impact on Old World diets than the potato. Yet when it was first brought back from the Americas in the sixteenth century, many Europeans feared that the potato was poisonous and refused to eat it. By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, the potato had become an indispensable staple food in many areas of Europe.

European Medicine. American products previously unknown in Europe also changed many aspects of European medical practice in the age of exploration and expansion. In Spain, for instance, a physician named Nicolás Monardes published several books between 1565 and 1574 in which he outlined methods of curing or treating various diseases by making use of newly available plants from the Americas. His books were quickly translated into all major European languages, and in 1577 a combined English translation of Monardess books was published in London under the title Joyfull Newes out of the Newe Founde Worlde. A principal concern of Monardes and other European physicians of the era was malaria, a disease that had since ancient times been a constant and persistent killer in the Mediterranean region and elsewhere. In his book Monardes proposed that tea made from the American sassafras plant not only constituted an outstanding tonic but also could be used effectively as a treatment for malaria as well as other diseases. As many of Monardess readers discovered, sassafras tea did little or nothing to help malaria victims, but it remained for centuries a popular tonic among Europeans. Another plant imported by the Europeans from the New World, however, would finally provide European physicians a successful means of curing malaria. As other Spanish doctors discovered in the late 1500s and early 1600s, quinine, an extract from the bark of the South American cinchona tree, effectively cures malaria. The use of quinine not only allowed Europeans gradually to eradicate malaria in Europe itself but also over the coming centuries to send conquering armies into malaria-infested tropical areas without fear of losing most of their soldiers to the deadly disease.


Don Beecher, The Book of Wonders of Nicolás Monardes, Cahiers Elisabethians, 51 (1997): 113;

Lucile H. Brockway, Science and Colonial Expansion: The Role of the British Royal Botanical Gardens (New York: Academic Press, 1979);

Alfred W. Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972).

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