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U.S. History

2.4 New Worlds in the Americas: Labor, Commerce, and the Columbian Exchange

U.S. History2.4 New Worlds in the Americas: Labor, Commerce, and the Columbian Exchange
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  1. Preface
  2. 1 The Americas, Europe, and Africa Before 1492
    1. Introduction
    2. 1.1 The Americas
    3. 1.2 Europe on the Brink of Change
    4. 1.3 West Africa and the Role of Slavery
    5. Key Terms
    6. Summary
    7. Review Questions
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
  3. 2 Early Globalization: The Atlantic World, 1492–1650
    1. Introduction
    2. 2.1 Portuguese Exploration and Spanish Conquest
    3. 2.2 Religious Upheavals in the Developing Atlantic World
    4. 2.3 Challenges to Spain’s Supremacy
    5. 2.4 New Worlds in the Americas: Labor, Commerce, and the Columbian Exchange
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  4. 3 Creating New Social Orders: Colonial Societies, 1500–1700
    1. Introduction
    2. 3.1 Spanish Exploration and Colonial Society
    3. 3.2 Colonial Rivalries: Dutch and French Colonial Ambitions
    4. 3.3 English Settlements in America
    5. 3.4 The Impact of Colonization
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  5. 4 Rule Britannia! The English Empire, 1660–1763
    1. Introduction
    2. 4.1 Charles II and the Restoration Colonies
    3. 4.2 The Glorious Revolution and the English Empire
    4. 4.3 An Empire of Slavery and the Consumer Revolution
    5. 4.4 Great Awakening and Enlightenment
    6. 4.5 Wars for Empire
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
  6. 5 Imperial Reforms and Colonial Protests, 1763-1774
    1. Introduction
    2. 5.1 Confronting the National Debt: The Aftermath of the French and Indian War
    3. 5.2 The Stamp Act and the Sons and Daughters of Liberty
    4. 5.3 The Townshend Acts and Colonial Protest
    5. 5.4 The Destruction of the Tea and the Coercive Acts
    6. 5.5 Disaffection: The First Continental Congress and American Identity
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
  7. 6 America's War for Independence, 1775-1783
    1. Introduction
    2. 6.1 Britain’s Law-and-Order Strategy and Its Consequences
    3. 6.2 The Early Years of the Revolution
    4. 6.3 War in the South
    5. 6.4 Identity during the American Revolution
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  8. 7 Creating Republican Governments, 1776–1790
    1. Introduction
    2. 7.1 Common Sense: From Monarchy to an American Republic
    3. 7.2 How Much Revolutionary Change?
    4. 7.3 Debating Democracy
    5. 7.4 The Constitutional Convention and Federal Constitution
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  9. 8 Growing Pains: The New Republic, 1790–1820
    1. Introduction
    2. 8.1 Competing Visions: Federalists and Democratic-Republicans
    3. 8.2 The New American Republic
    4. 8.3 Partisan Politics
    5. 8.4 The United States Goes Back to War
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  10. 9 Industrial Transformation in the North, 1800–1850
    1. Introduction
    2. 9.1 Early Industrialization in the Northeast
    3. 9.2 A Vibrant Capitalist Republic
    4. 9.3 On the Move: The Transportation Revolution
    5. 9.4 A New Social Order: Class Divisions
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  11. 10 Jacksonian Democracy, 1820–1840
    1. Introduction
    2. 10.1 A New Political Style: From John Quincy Adams to Andrew Jackson
    3. 10.2 The Rise of American Democracy
    4. 10.3 The Nullification Crisis and the Bank War
    5. 10.4 Indian Removal
    6. 10.5 The Tyranny and Triumph of the Majority
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
  12. 11 A Nation on the Move: Westward Expansion, 1800–1860
    1. Introduction
    2. 11.1 Lewis and Clark
    3. 11.2 The Missouri Crisis
    4. 11.3 Independence for Texas
    5. 11.4 The Mexican-American War, 1846–1848
    6. 11.5 Free Soil or Slave? The Dilemma of the West
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
  13. 12 Cotton is King: The Antebellum South, 1800–1860
    1. Introduction
    2. 12.1 The Economics of Cotton
    3. 12.2 African Americans in the Antebellum United States
    4. 12.3 Wealth and Culture in the South
    5. 12.4 The Filibuster and the Quest for New Slave States
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  14. 13 Antebellum Idealism and Reform Impulses, 1820–1860
    1. Introduction
    2. 13.1 An Awakening of Religion and Individualism
    3. 13.2 Antebellum Communal Experiments
    4. 13.3 Reforms to Human Health
    5. 13.4 Addressing Slavery
    6. 13.5 Women’s Rights
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
  15. 14 Troubled Times: the Tumultuous 1850s
    1. Introduction
    2. 14.1 The Compromise of 1850
    3. 14.2 The Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Republican Party
    4. 14.3 The Dred Scott Decision and Sectional Strife
    5. 14.4 John Brown and the Election of 1860
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  16. 15 The Civil War, 1860–1865
    1. Introduction
    2. 15.1 The Origins and Outbreak of the Civil War
    3. 15.2 Early Mobilization and War
    4. 15.3 1863: The Changing Nature of the War
    5. 15.4 The Union Triumphant
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  17. 16 The Era of Reconstruction, 1865–1877
    1. Introduction
    2. 16.1 Restoring the Union
    3. 16.2 Congress and the Remaking of the South, 1865–1866
    4. 16.3 Radical Reconstruction, 1867–1872
    5. 16.4 The Collapse of Reconstruction
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  18. 17 Go West Young Man! Westward Expansion, 1840-1900
    1. Introduction
    2. 17.1 The Westward Spirit
    3. 17.2 Homesteading: Dreams and Realities
    4. 17.3 Making a Living in Gold and Cattle
    5. 17.4 The Loss of American Indian Life and Culture
    6. 17.5 The Impact of Expansion on Chinese Immigrants and Hispanic Citizens
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
  19. 18 Industrialization and the Rise of Big Business, 1870-1900
    1. Introduction
    2. 18.1 Inventors of the Age
    3. 18.2 From Invention to Industrial Growth
    4. 18.3 Building Industrial America on the Backs of Labor
    5. 18.4 A New American Consumer Culture
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  20. 19 The Growing Pains of Urbanization, 1870-1900
    1. Introduction
    2. 19.1 Urbanization and Its Challenges
    3. 19.2 The African American “Great Migration” and New European Immigration
    4. 19.3 Relief from the Chaos of Urban Life
    5. 19.4 Change Reflected in Thought and Writing
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  21. 20 Politics in the Gilded Age, 1870-1900
    1. Introduction
    2. 20.1 Political Corruption in Postbellum America
    3. 20.2 The Key Political Issues: Patronage, Tariffs, and Gold
    4. 20.3 Farmers Revolt in the Populist Era
    5. 20.4 Social and Labor Unrest in the 1890s
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  22. 21 Leading the Way: The Progressive Movement, 1890-1920
    1. Introduction
    2. 21.1 The Origins of the Progressive Spirit in America
    3. 21.2 Progressivism at the Grassroots Level
    4. 21.3 New Voices for Women and African Americans
    5. 21.4 Progressivism in the White House
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  23. 22 Age of Empire: American Foreign Policy, 1890-1914
    1. Introduction
    2. 22.1 Turner, Mahan, and the Roots of Empire
    3. 22.2 The Spanish-American War and Overseas Empire
    4. 22.3 Economic Imperialism in East Asia
    5. 22.4 Roosevelt’s “Big Stick” Foreign Policy
    6. 22.5 Taft’s “Dollar Diplomacy”
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
  24. 23 Americans and the Great War, 1914-1919
    1. Introduction
    2. 23.1 American Isolationism and the European Origins of War
    3. 23.2 The United States Prepares for War
    4. 23.3 A New Home Front
    5. 23.4 From War to Peace
    6. 23.5 Demobilization and Its Difficult Aftermath
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
  25. 24 The Jazz Age: Redefining the Nation, 1919-1929
    1. Introduction
    2. 24.1 Prosperity and the Production of Popular Entertainment
    3. 24.2 Transformation and Backlash
    4. 24.3 A New Generation
    5. 24.4 Republican Ascendancy: Politics in the 1920s
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  26. 25 Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? The Great Depression, 1929-1932
    1. Introduction
    2. 25.1 The Stock Market Crash of 1929
    3. 25.2 President Hoover’s Response
    4. 25.3 The Depths of the Great Depression
    5. 25.4 Assessing the Hoover Years on the Eve of the New Deal
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  27. 26 Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-1941
    1. Introduction
    2. 26.1 The Rise of Franklin Roosevelt
    3. 26.2 The First New Deal
    4. 26.3 The Second New Deal
    5. Key Terms
    6. Summary
    7. Review Questions
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
  28. 27 Fighting the Good Fight in World War II, 1941-1945
    1. Introduction
    2. 27.1 The Origins of War: Europe, Asia, and the United States
    3. 27.2 The Home Front
    4. 27.3 Victory in the European Theater
    5. 27.4 The Pacific Theater and the Atomic Bomb
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  29. 28 Post-War Prosperity and Cold War Fears, 1945-1960
    1. Introduction
    2. 28.1 The Challenges of Peacetime
    3. 28.2 The Cold War
    4. 28.3 The American Dream
    5. 28.4 Popular Culture and Mass Media
    6. 28.5 The African American Struggle for Civil Rights
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
  30. 29 Contesting Futures: America in the 1960s
    1. Introduction
    2. 29.1 The Kennedy Promise
    3. 29.2 Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society
    4. 29.3 The Civil Rights Movement Marches On
    5. 29.4 Challenging the Status Quo
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  31. 30 Political Storms at Home and Abroad, 1968-1980
    1. Introduction
    2. 30.1 Identity Politics in a Fractured Society
    3. 30.2 Coming Apart, Coming Together
    4. 30.3 Vietnam: The Downward Spiral
    5. 30.4 Watergate: Nixon’s Domestic Nightmare
    6. 30.5 Jimmy Carter in the Aftermath of the Storm
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
  32. 31 From Cold War to Culture Wars, 1980-2000
    1. Introduction
    2. 31.1 The Reagan Revolution
    3. 31.2 Political and Cultural Fusions
    4. 31.3 A New World Order
    5. 31.4 Bill Clinton and the New Economy
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  33. 32 The Challenges of the Twenty-First Century
    1. Introduction
    2. 32.1 The War on Terror
    3. 32.2 The Domestic Mission
    4. 32.3 New Century, Old Disputes
    5. 32.4 Hope and Change
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
  34. A | The Declaration of Independence
  35. B | The Constitution of the United States
  36. C | Presidents of the United States of America
  37. D | U.S. Political Map
  38. E | U.S. Topographical Map
  39. F | United States Population Chart
  40. G | Further Reading
  41. Answer Key
    1. Chapter 1
    2. Chapter 2
    3. Chapter 3
    4. Chapter 4
    5. Chapter 5
    6. Chapter 6
    7. Chapter 7
    8. Chapter 8
    9. Chapter 9
    10. Chapter 10
    11. Chapter 11
    12. Chapter 12
    13. Chapter 13
    14. Chapter 14
    15. Chapter 15
    16. Chapter 16
    17. Chapter 17
    18. Chapter 18
    19. Chapter 19
    20. Chapter 20
    21. Chapter 21
    22. Chapter 22
    23. Chapter 23
    24. Chapter 24
    25. Chapter 25
    26. Chapter 26
    27. Chapter 27
    28. Chapter 28
    29. Chapter 29
    30. Chapter 30
    31. Chapter 31
    32. Chapter 32
  42. Index

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:
  • Describe how Europeans solved their labor problems
  • Describe the theory of mercantilism and the process of commodification
  • Analyze the effects of the Columbian Exchange

European promoters of colonization claimed the Americas overflowed with a wealth of treasures. Burnishing national glory and honor became entwined with carving out colonies, and no nation wanted to be left behind. However, the realities of life in the Americas—violence, exploitation, and particularly the need for workers—were soon driving the practice of slavery and forced labor. Everywhere in America a stark contrast existed between freedom and slavery. The Columbian Exchange, in which Europeans transported plants, animals, and diseases across the Atlantic in both directions, also left a lasting impression on the Americas.

LABOR SYSTEMS

Physical power—to work the fields, build villages, process raw materials—is a necessity for maintaining a society. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, humans could derive power only from the wind, water, animals, or other humans. Everywhere in the Americas, a crushing demand for labor bedeviled Europeans because there were not enough colonists to perform the work necessary to keep the colonies going. Spain granted encomiendas—legal rights to native labor—to conquistadors who could prove their service to the crown. This system reflected the Spanish view of colonization: the king rewarded successful conquistadors who expanded the empire. Some native peoples who had sided with the conquistadors, like the Tlaxcalan, also gained encomiendas; Malintzin, the Nahua woman who helped Cortés defeat the Mexica, was granted one.

The Spanish believed native peoples would work for them by right of conquest, and, in return, the Spanish would bring them Catholicism. In theory the relationship consisted of reciprocal obligations, but in practice the Spaniards ruthlessly exploited it, seeing native people as little more than beasts of burden. Convinced of their right to the land and its peoples, they sought both to control native labor and to impose what they viewed as correct religious beliefs upon the land’s inhabitants. Native peoples everywhere resisted both the labor obligations and the effort to change their ancient belief systems. Indeed, many retained their religion or incorporated only the parts of Catholicism that made sense to them.

The system of encomiendas was accompanied by a great deal of violence (Figure 2.14). One Spaniard, Bartolomé de Las Casas, denounced the brutality of Spanish rule. A Dominican friar, Las Casas had been one of the earliest Spanish settlers in the Spanish West Indies. In his early life in the Americas, he owned Indian slaves and was the recipient of an encomienda. However, after witnessing the savagery with which encomenderos (recipients of encomiendas) treated the native people, he reversed his views. In 1515, Las Casas released his native slaves, gave up his encomienda, and began to advocate for humane treatment of native peoples. He lobbied for new legislation, eventually known as the New Laws, which would eliminate slavery and the encomienda system.

A drawing shows a Spaniard, wearing a beard and European clothing and holding a stick or sword, pulling the hair of a much smaller Indian who is wearing a loincloth and has blood flowing from his face and body.
Figure 2.14 In this startling image from the Kingsborough Codex (a book written and drawn by native Mesoamericans), a well-dressed Spaniard is shown pulling the hair of a bleeding, severely injured native. The drawing was part of a complaint about Spanish abuses of their encomiendas.

Las Casas’s writing about the Spaniards’ horrific treatment of Indians helped inspire the so-called Black Legend, the idea that the Spanish were bloodthirsty conquerors with no regard for human life. Perhaps not surprisingly, those who held this view of the Spanish were Spain’s imperial rivals. English writers and others seized on the idea of Spain’s ruthlessness to support their own colonization projects. By demonizing the Spanish, they justified their own efforts as more humane. All European colonizers, however, shared a disregard for Indians.

My Story

Bartolomé de Las Casas on the Mistreatment of Indians

Bartolomé de Las Casas’s A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, written in 1542 and published ten years later, detailed for Prince Philip II of Spain how Spanish colonists had been mistreating natives.

Into and among these gentle sheep, endowed by their Maker and Creator with all the qualities aforesaid, did creep the Spaniards, who no sooner had knowledge of these people than they became like fierce wolves and tigers and lions who have gone many days without food or nourishment. And no other thing have they done for forty years until this day, and still today see fit to do, but dismember, slay, perturb, afflict, torment, and destroy the Indians by all manner of cruelty—new and divers and most singular manners such as never before seen or read or heard of—some few of which shall be recounted below, and they do this to such a degree that on the Island of Hispaniola, of the above three millions souls that we once saw, today there be no more than two hundred of those native people remaining. . . .

Two principal and general customs have been employed by those, calling themselves Christians, who have passed this way, in extirpating and striking from the face of the earth those suffering nations. The first being unjust, cruel, bloody, and tyrannical warfare. The other—after having slain all those who might yearn toward or suspire after or think of freedom, or consider escaping from the torments that they are made to suffer, by which I mean all the native-born lords and adult males, for it is the Spaniards’ custom in their wars to allow only young boys and females to live—being to oppress them with the hardest, harshest, and most heinous bondage to which men or beasts might ever be bound into.

How might these writings have been used to promote the “black legend” against Spain as well as subsequent English exploration and colonization?

Indians were not the only source of cheap labor in the Americas; by the middle of the sixteenth century, Africans formed an important element of the labor landscape, producing the cash crops of sugar and tobacco for European markets. Europeans viewed Africans as non-Christians, which they used as a justification for enslavement. Denied control over their lives, slaves endured horrendous conditions. At every opportunity, they resisted enslavement, and their resistance was met with violence. Indeed, physical, mental, and sexual violence formed a key strategy among European slaveholders in their effort to assert mastery and impose their will. The Portuguese led the way in the evolving transport of slaves across the Atlantic; slave “factories” on the west coast of Africa, like Elmina Castle in Ghana, served as holding pens for slaves brought from Africa’s interior. In time, other European imperial powers would follow in the footsteps of the Portuguese by constructing similar outposts on the coast of West Africa.

The Portuguese traded or sold slaves to Spanish, Dutch, and English colonists in the Americas, particularly in South America and the Caribbean, where sugar was a primary export. Thousands of African slaves found themselves growing, harvesting, and processing sugarcane in an arduous routine of physical labor. Slaves had to cut the long cane stalks by hand and then bring them to a mill, where the cane juice was extracted. They boiled the extracted cane juice down to a brown, crystalline sugar, which then had to be cured in special curing houses to have the molasses drained from it. The result was refined sugar, while the leftover molasses could be distilled into rum. Every step was labor-intensive and often dangerous.

Las Casas estimated that by 1550, there were fifty thousand slaves on Hispaniola. However, it is a mistake to assume that during the very early years of European exploration all Africans came to America as slaves; some were free men who took part in expeditions, for example, serving as conquistadors alongside Cortés in his assault on Tenochtitlán. Nonetheless, African slavery was one of the most tragic outcomes in the emerging Atlantic World.

Click and Explore

Browse the PBS collection Africans in America: Part 1 to see information and primary sources for the period 1450 through 1750.

COMMERCE IN THE NEW WORLD

The economic philosophy of mercantilism shaped European perceptions of wealth from the 1500s to the late 1700s. Mercantilism held that only a limited amount of wealth, as measured in gold and silver bullion, existed in the world. In order to gain power, nations had to amass wealth by mining these precious raw materials from their colonial possessions. During the age of European exploration, nations employed conquest, colonization, and trade as ways to increase their share of the bounty of the New World. Mercantilists did not believe in free trade, arguing instead that the nation should control trade to create wealth. In this view, colonies existed to strengthen the colonizing nation. Mercantilists argued against allowing their nations to trade freely with other nations.

Spain’s mercantilist ideas guided its economic policy. Every year, slaves or native workers loaded shipments of gold and silver aboard Spanish treasure fleets that sailed from Cuba for Spain. These ships groaned under the sheer weight of bullion, for the Spanish had found huge caches of silver and gold in the New World. In South America, for example, Spaniards discovered rich veins of silver ore in the mountain called Potosí and founded a settlement of the same name there. Throughout the sixteenth century, Potosí was a boom town, attracting settlers from many nations as well as native people from many different cultures.

Colonial mercantilism, which was basically a set of protectionist policies designed to benefit the nation, relied on several factors: colonies rich in raw materials, cheap labor, colonial loyalty to the home government, and control of the shipping trade. Under this system, the colonies sent their raw materials, harvested by slaves or native workers, back to their mother country. The mother country sent back finished materials of all sorts: textiles, tools, clothing. The colonists could purchase these goods only from their mother country; trade with other countries was forbidden.

The 1500s and early 1600s also introduced the process of commodification to the New World. American silver, tobacco, and other items, which were used by native peoples for ritual purposes, became European commodities with a monetary value that could be bought and sold. Before the arrival of the Spanish, for example, the Inca people of the Andes consumed chicha, a corn beer, for ritual purposes only. When the Spanish discovered chicha, they bought and traded for it, turning it into a commodity instead of a ritual substance. Commodification thus recast native economies and spurred the process of early commercial capitalism. New World resources, from plants to animal pelts, held the promise of wealth for European imperial powers.

THE COLUMBIAN EXCHANGE

As Europeans traversed the Atlantic, they brought with them plants, animals, and diseases that changed lives and landscapes on both sides of the ocean. These two-way exchanges between the Americas and Europe/Africa are known collectively as the Columbian Exchange (Figure 2.15).

A map shows the “Columbian Exchange” of goods and diseases. Goods include crops such as maize, potatoes, tobacco, beans, squash, peppers, cacao, cassava, and manioc traveling east as well as rye, wheat, rice, sugar, and tea traveling west. Animals such as cattle, horses, and pigs traveled westward. Diseases include syphilis, malaria, smallpox, yellow fever, and plague.
Figure 2.15 With European exploration and settlement of the New World, goods and diseases began crossing the Atlantic Ocean in both directions. This “Columbian Exchange” soon had global implications.

Of all the commodities in the Atlantic World, sugar proved to be the most important. Indeed, sugar carried the same economic importance as oil does today. European rivals raced to create sugar plantations in the Americas and fought wars for control of some of the best sugar production areas. Although refined sugar was available in the Old World, Europe’s harsher climate made sugarcane difficult to grow, and it was not plentiful. Columbus brought sugar to Hispaniola in 1493, and the new crop was growing there by the end of the 1490s. By the first decades of the 1500s, the Spanish were building sugar mills on the island. Over the next century of colonization, Caribbean islands and most other tropical areas became centers of sugar production.

Though of secondary importance to sugar, tobacco achieved great value for Europeans as a cash crop as well. Native peoples had been growing it for medicinal and ritual purposes for centuries before European contact, smoking it in pipes or powdering it to use as snuff. They believed tobacco could improve concentration and enhance wisdom. To some, its use meant achieving an entranced, altered, or divine state; entering a spiritual place.

Tobacco was unknown in Europe before 1492, and it carried a negative stigma at first. The early Spanish explorers considered natives’ use of tobacco to be proof of their savagery and, because of the fire and smoke produced in the consumption of tobacco, evidence of the Devil’s sway in the New World. Gradually, however, European colonists became accustomed to and even took up the habit of smoking, and they brought it across the Atlantic. As did the Indians, Europeans ascribed medicinal properties to tobacco, claiming that it could cure headaches and skin irritations. Even so, Europeans did not import tobacco in great quantities until the 1590s. At that time, it became the first truly global commodity; English, French, Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese colonists all grew it for the world market.

Native peoples also introduced Europeans to chocolate, made from cacao seeds and used by the Aztec in Mesoamerica as currency. Mesoamerican Indians consumed unsweetened chocolate in a drink with chili peppers, vanilla, and a spice called achiote. This chocolate drink—xocolatl—was part of ritual ceremonies like marriage and an everyday item for those who could afford it. Chocolate contains theobromine, a stimulant, which may be why native people believed it brought them closer to the sacred world.

Spaniards in the New World considered drinking chocolate a vile practice; one called chocolate “the Devil’s vomit.” In time, however, they introduced the beverage to Spain. At first, chocolate was available only in the Spanish court, where the elite mixed it with sugar and other spices. Later, as its availability spread, chocolate gained a reputation as a love potion.

Click and Explore

Visit Nature Transformed for a collection of scholarly essays on the environment in American history.

The crossing of the Atlantic by plants like cacao and tobacco illustrates the ways in which the discovery of the New World changed the habits and behaviors of Europeans. Europeans changed the New World in turn, not least by bringing Old World animals to the Americas. On his second voyage, Christopher Columbus brought pigs, horses, cows, and chickens to the islands of the Caribbean. Later explorers followed suit, introducing new animals or reintroducing ones that had died out (like horses). With less vulnerability to disease, these animals often fared better than humans in their new home, thriving both in the wild and in domestication.

Europeans encountered New World animals as well. Because European Christians understood the world as a place of warfare between God and Satan, many believed the Americas, which lacked Christianity, were home to the Devil and his minions. The exotic, sometimes bizarre, appearances and habits of animals in the Americas that were previously unknown to Europeans, such as manatees, sloths, and poisonous snakes, confirmed this association. Over time, however, they began to rely more on observation of the natural world than solely on scripture. This shift—from seeing the Bible as the source of all received wisdom to trusting observation or empiricism—is one of the major outcomes of the era of early globalization.

Travelers between the Americas, Africa, and Europe also included microbes: silent, invisible life forms that had profound and devastating consequences. Native peoples had no immunity to diseases from across the Atlantic, to which they had never been exposed. European explorers unwittingly brought with them chickenpox, measles, mumps, and smallpox, which ravaged native peoples despite their attempts to treat the diseases, decimating some populations and wholly destroying others (Figure 2.16).

A drawing shows five depictions of an Aztec smallpox victim. The victim, who is covered with spots, is shown sleeping, vomiting, and being examined by a healer.
Figure 2.16 This sixteenth-century Aztec drawing shows the suffering of a typical victim of smallpox. Smallpox and other contagious diseases brought by European explorers decimated Indian populations in the Americas.

In eastern North America, some native peoples interpreted death from disease as a hostile act. Some groups, including the Iroquois, engaged in raids or “mourning wars,” taking enemy prisoners in order to assuage their grief and replace the departed. In a special ritual, the prisoners were “requickened”—assigned the identity of a dead person—and adopted by the bereaved family to take the place of their dead. As the toll from disease rose, mourning wars intensified and expanded.

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