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The Columbus Exchange

The Columbus Exchange

The Columbus Exchange refers to the era in history that marked biological and cultural exchanges between the Old and New Worlds. The exchange period is documented to have started as early as in 1492, and lasted throughout the expansion and discovery period. Evidently, the name Columbus Exchange was coined from the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus. Particularly, the era had a huge impact on cultural and social composition of both sides of the Atlantic. The period saw the world exchanging plants, diseases, animals, cultural values as well as technological items. The explorers, who had been venturing back and forth from Europe and Africa to America brought with them vast amount of new resources. Particularly, the explorers from Europe carried crops such as tobacco, cotton, rice, wheat, coffee, tea, sugar beans, and peanuts. Other importation included fruits such as lemons and oranges. Although the Columbus Exchange appeared to have brought more positive influence, it had some negative impacts as well. For example, the exchange led to the sharing of education, evolution of warfare, increased mortality rates among the European settlers and Native Americans. As mentioned, the period also triggered the exchange of chronic old ailments such as small pox, syphilis, malaria, chickenpox, influenza, whooping cough, and measles. Thus, the paper focuses on the chronic diseases brought by the travellers during the Columbus Exchange period.

However, prior to the invasion of the European explorers to America and other parts of the world, the natives in those regions had a share of their own diseases, too. The travellers from Europe and slaves from Africa appeared to have developed biological resistance to wide range or pathogens they picked from their homeland. Upon the arrival of immigrants to the New World, their exposure to the disease-causing pathogens, interactions with the native population and among themselves triggered outbreaks and epidemic of New World’s chronic diseases in the Caribbean, Central America, and the USA. However, the big cities such as Boston, New York and Philadelphia did not suffer much from epidemics despite the high levels of pathogens exposure from the new immigrants.

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Some imported ailments such as yellow fever and malaria were unintentionally spread into humid coast environment. Since malaria is a mosquito-borne disease, its insertion to the humid environment triggered malaria epidemics because such regions are favorable habitats for insects such as mosquitoes. The impact of malaria was felt more among the Native Americans and African immigrants than the Europeans because the latter were resistant to the illness. The mosquitoes became the major carriers of the ailments when they sucked the blood of humans who had been infected by the disease. At that time, scientist had not created the antibiotics or vaccination to treat the disease, leaving it to spread widely and causing thousands of deaths. Much blame was put on the Europeans for introducing agricultural practices that provided conductive habitat that harbors various species of mosquitoes. These mosquitoes were able to transmit both Plasmodium falciparum and Plasmodium vivax malaria virus that infected many of the Native Americans. Particularly, the Indians who were always referred to as the Mann attributed the introduction of Plasmodium vivax to Europeans, as the virus was active at low temperatures and was predominant throughout. Eventually, the population started to decline across the Northern Atlantic coastline, which also resulted in decrease of the ailments.

The epidemic developed to higher level after the arrival of new African immigrants and Europeans in the Caribbean region and the Southern U.S. coasts. The pandemic was serious enough that it prompted researchers to try to understand the entangled background and nature of malaria. Also, the Native Americans attempted to prevent further spread of the ailments by restricting the introduction of too many African immigrants as slaves as well as limiting close interactions with European population. In addition, that stalling of Malaria alongside other illnesses such as yellow fever influenced major events in the American History. For example, the two diseases led to the creation of the immensely profitable and brutal slavery where slaves were forced to work in the plantations of the American South because Africans were perceived more resistant to the diseases than other captives such as the red Indians.


Another dangerous and one of the worst infectious ailments that killed many Native American was smallpox. Initially, the smallpox pandemic was reported in British colonies, along the North American populations such as the Algonquin community of Massachusetts. According to a a report that was written in 1630s by William Bradford, an English Separatist, smallpox was so dangerous that is swept away massive population as they were not able to wake and help one another. The victims could not even prepare meals or even bury the dead when they died. The solutions to cure the disease had not been discovered, leading to further spreading up to the 1700s. For example, many missionaries have shared the appalling story of how the small pox pandemic killed half of the Cherokee and Catawbas population in the years 1738 and 1759 respectively.

Although researchers managed to introduce the smallpox vaccine, which allowed to eradicate the ailment, the disease had already killed many Native Americans. Since the illness had caused so many deaths, no one was ready to take the blame for spreading it. Other reports suggested that smallpox was spread by the Spaniards as a higher impact of smallpox was noted in Mexico where they were fighting. On the other hand, the Spaniards avoided the blame and implicated to the American Indians, Cuban Indians, and the African slaves. In real sense, all the Europeans including the French, British, Spaniards, and Italians were not highly vulnerable to smallpox as they had experienced it at their home while growing up. In other words, most of the Europeans had smallpox or at least lived in the environments with smallpox at one point of their lives, and this made them develop immunity against the disease. With the immunity, many of the Europeans could not be infected by smallpox in the New World.


Another dreaded and the most dangerous venereal disease that sprung a lot of controversies and blame game was syphilis. Many historians have listed syphilis as one of the venereal diseases that affected many people in the New World during the Colombian period. Unlike today, syphilis was the most feared disease as it was not treatable. On the onset of 15th century, the impact of the ailment was mostly fatal and its symptoms were much more severe. The syphilis victims portrayed symptoms such as rashes, severe pains, genital ulcers, dementia, large tumors, and, as a result, deaths. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the ailment had evolved and become less fatal and serious as the symptoms had changed. Later, researches revealed two theories that explained the origin of syphilis in the Columbus Exchange.

First is the Colombian hypothesis theory, which states that the ailment-causing bacteria, Treponema Pallidum, originated in the New World and was widely spread by Christopher Columbus and his crew in the 1493. The theory claims that Columbus and his crew acquired the disease-causing agent from the natives of Hispaniola through sexual contact. The spread of the disease became more rampant after some of Columbus men moved back to Spain and joined Charles VIII military campaign to conquer Naples in 1495. The encamped soldiers were engaged in sexual relationships with the Naples’ prostitutes, thus amplifying the transmission of the ailment. The infected soldiers spread the diseases across Europe after being disbanded and allowed to return home. By 1497, which was virtually 5 years from its arrival, the syphilis had spread across entire Europe to countries such as Russia and Hungary. By 1959, Syphilis had reached Africa, India, China, Japan, Australia, and the Middle East.

Second was the pre-Columbian Hypothesis theory, which claimed that syphilis had existed in the Old World prior to the Columbus Exchange period. The theorists claimed that the fact that there were no accounts of syphilis before the invasion of the Europeans was because the ailment had not been differentiated from other illnesses with similar symptoms. Like after the other akin diseases, the remains of syphilis victims also had scars.

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Another scourging ailment that proved to be disastrous to the New World was measles. Similarly, many historians have associated and blamed the European explorers for spreading a disease that nearly swept the entire population of the Native Americans. Virtually, all the Americans contracted measles virus, which was characterized by fever, skin blotches, and telltale skin. Later a vaccine was discovered between 18th and 19th centuries by European physicians. The diagnosis was manageable as the ailment had similar symptoms to smallpox. Some researchers claimed that the measles’ virus came from animals rather than humans. In some of his voyages, Columbus carried livestock such cattle, sheep, horses, and goats. Scientist backed their suggestions by claiming that measles virus was highly similar to that of rinderpest, which was prevalent in cattle and horses.

Like the other ailments, measles infected many Native Americans because they had no natural immune against the disease. Scholars estimated that measles accounted to 30% of Native American deaths over a period of 60 years. Towards the 18th century, measles had spread widely as travelers and traders were traversing the globe. The disease infected both children and adults, but the children were highly susceptible all over the world. For example, Kamehameha II, the Hawaii’s King in the 18 century contracted measles on his visit to London to meet King George IV who was also infected. Eventually, the two kings died within a month. That proved that the ailment’s virus had spread extensively prior to the introduction of its vaccine.. Subsequently, large populations of the Hawaiian archipelago died from measles and other New World diseases.

There were reports about the increases of the measles infections from different parts of the world which meant it was becoming a global disaster. For this reason, the American physicians urged the country to start reporting on measles cases to be able to establish the extent of its impact and spread within the nation. According to the reports, nearly all Americans both adults and children had contacted measles as the virus was airborne and highly contagious. Between the 16th and 17th centuries, approximately 48000 measles patients were being hospitalized annually. In addition, the deaths tolls averaged to 800 to 1000 annually. Many of the survivors developed serious side effects such as swelling brains, encephalitis and pneumonia. Although  many physicians around the world made munerous attempts to create measles vaccines, the first medicine was licensed in America after over 400 year after the Columbus Exchange. The vaccines were effective as they significantly reduced the infection rates among the Native American and the African slaves as well. By this time the infection had significantly dropped as people had started to develop strong immune against the virus.

Yellow Fever

Yellow Fever was another dreadful disease that was inserted to the New World by the Columbus Exchange. However, the first case of the illness was recorded in 1518 when there was extensive practicing of the Atlantic trade. The epidemic burden impacted the Native Americans heavily. Massive cases of the yellow fever virus and vector were first reported in Puerto Rico and San Juan in 1598. Other cases were also noticed along the US coastline, Central America, Gulf coasts of Mexico, and the Caribbean regions such as Cuba, Guadeloupe, and Barbados in the year of 1647. The Caribbean regions were majorly occupied by slaves from Africa, Asia, and Europe who were working in the plantations. In 1529, there was a great yellow fever outbreak and children were the most vulnerable part of population. The ailment had a high mortality rate as it caused thousands of children’s death prior to the introduction of the vaccine.

Swine Influenza

In addition, Swine Influenza has historical proofs that its introduction to the New World has links to the Columbus Exchange. Historians suggested that it all had started with sneezes. The flu began when the first Europeans transmitted the disease to the natives by sneezing. As usual, the travelers had developed strong immune while the Americans found the contagious influenza extremely deadly. As early as in 1493, the flu spread rapidly and continued to rage among the Americans as there were no effective methods to sterilize dishes and clothing in order to prevent the extension of the illness. The ailment was characterized by dreadful symptoms such as nausea, fever, diarrhea, vomiting, tiredness, joint pain, congested mucus membranes, chills, and persistent coughs. Later, physicians established that the natives contracted influenza after coming into contact with one of the three influenza virus types named Influenza A, B, and C. The viruses were transmitted either through saliva droplets from coughing and sneezing or direct contacts with an infected person. Many Native Americans were infected and hospitalized in a short period. In addition, many historians suggested that influenza was spread when Christopher Columbus sailed on the second voyage, as many of his crew had portrayed various symptoms of the disease. Later, it was confirmed that the ailment was influenza and originated from animals as the voyage carried hens, horses, and pigs acquired from Gomera, the present Canary Island. Specifically, the disease is believed to have originated from pigs as physicians discovered other genetics recombination and other subtypes viral from pigs.



In conclusion, it is justifiable to say that the Columbus Exchange had a negative effect on the New World because of the oppression on the Native Americans that later led to the slave trade and the introduction of killer diseases. The Europeans are believed to spread the diseases which include smallpox, syphilis, influenza, yellow fever, syphilis, measles, and whooping cough. While many of the Native Americans and Africans succumb to the impact of these illnesses, the Europeans had developed strong immune that made them resistant to some of them. Reports indicated that approximately 95% if the Native American Population died from those New World illnesses. In addition, these ailments spread fast across the globe because Christopher Columbus made more than three forth and back voyages across the Atlantic. Over the years, the Native Americans suffered constant battled to treat this illnesses as all the travelers from the Italy, French, Spain, and Britain refused to take the blame. Thus, although most people now would agree that the Columbus Exchange was a good thing, back in the 1492 the New World would undoubtedly disagree.

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