Permanent connection between “Old” and “New” Worlds would revolutionize life on both sides of the Atlantic. The easiest way to conceptualize the consequences of this permanent connection, especially early on, is to talk about something historians call the Columbian Exchange. The Columbian Exchange refers to the transfer of population, disease, plants and animals, technology, and ideas between Old and New Worlds. We don’t cover all of these in detail today, but let’s look at a few of these categories below to get a better idea of how revolutionary permanent connection really was.
The Columbian Exchange led to both sides of the Atlantic encountering plants and animals entirely unknown to them. Europeans encountered turkey, corn, strawberries, watermelons, potatoes, tomatoes, and chocolate—just to name a few. Meanwhile, Native Americans encountered sheep, pigs, horses, cows, rice, apples, and oats – again, just to name a few! Looking over that list, it’s not hard to see how important the exchange was. Imagine the Comanche or the Sioux with no horses! Imagine Italian food with no tomatoes, or the course of Irish history with no potatoes! In short, encountering new plants and animals could be radically transformative. It could also be destructive at times, as Cherokee farmers discovered when English pigs ran rampant through their corn fields.
The Columbian exchange could also mean encountering new ideas. A good example of this is Native American encounters with Christianity. It’s important to remember that “conversion” is a process that can look very different in various cultures and in various historical periods—even for different individuals within the same culture! So, just because we see groups or individuals in history identifying with Christianity in some way, it doesn’t mean that they always understood this commitment in the same ways that we might as twenty-first century Americans – not that twenty-first century Americans all understand it in the same terms, either!
As we discussed in previous entries, Western Europeans initially took to the ocean to regain access to Asian trade goods. Portugal accomplished this first, then Spain took a risk that Columbus just might have found a way to do it, too. Further explorations after Columbus’ voyages eventually made it clear that what Columbus originally stumbled across was not a series of unknown islands off the coast of Asia … but a new landmass completely unknown to (or, perhaps we could say “completely forgotten by,” in light of the Vikings’ earlier voyages) Western Europe.
This begs the question: why did Western Europeans keep coming back? If it wasn’t Asia—and thus could not provide the silks, spices, etc, craved by Europe—why did Western European nations continue to explore, conquer, and colonize this “new world”? It might seem like an odd question, but Europeans needed a reason to return. They naturally occupied a world in which Europe and Europe’s needs were at the center. Even when their New World colonies had become quite prosperous (as we’ll see later in our series), European countries continued to think of North and South America in terms of how they could meet Europe’s needs. Eventually, this feeling of being perpetual second-class citizens in global empires would help lead to revolutions throughout the New World – first among the Atlantic seaboard British colonies, but eventually among the Spanish colonies from Mexico down through South America, as well. More on that later down the line!
Eventually, we’ll look at the actions and experiences of individual European New World Empires—not to mention the actions and experiences of the New World indigenous nations who don’t exactly just disappear in 1492! But for this entry and the next, let’s stay fairly broad and “big picture.” Today, we’ll examine several general reasons why Western Europeans saw such promise in the Western Hemisphere.
Whenever I teach the early part of American history, I ask my students: how many of you were taught in school that no one would support Columbus because people thought the world was flat, and that he would sail off the edge? Fortunately, less and less students raise their hand each semester, but this misunderstanding remains central to how some Americans remember Columbus. The truth, however, is that it was well known that the world was round. It was Columbus’ calculations, not his decision to sail west to reach Asia, that scared people off.
Sailing west was in and of itself a great idea; it would completely bypass the Portuguese choke hold on trade with Asia. The problem? What Columbus proposed wasn’t possible. In believing that the globe was much smaller than it actually was, Columbus grossly underestimated how far he would have to travel west to reach Asia. Experts at the time rightly understood that no ships existed that could store enough supplies to survive such a long trip across the open sea. In fact, Columbus was literally thousands and thousands of miles off in his calculations. If not for the existence of North and South America, he would have died at sea.
So, if Columbus was wrong, and experts in every European court (including Spain’s) knew he was wrong … why did Spain eventually agree to sponsor his journey? Well, to answer that question, we need to go back a bit and talk about something called the Reconquista, or Reconquest.