The traditional image of Columbus Day was that of Columbus and his crew wading ashore on an island in the Bahamas.
But Columbus Day can also conjure up a long list of seemingly contradictory images from history and culture: Native American villages devastated by disease; Swiss chocolate; Plymouth Rock; marinara sauce; Florida oranges; the Irish Potato Famine; the Indian National Finals Rodeo; and Winston Churchill’s iconic cigar.
Columbus Day, a federal holiday observed this year on Oct. 11, marks the arrival of Europeans in the Americas that led to long-term European communities here.
Today is also Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which Gainesville and many other cities observe. It celebrates Native American culture and history. It also draws attention to the pain, suffering, and broken promises Native Americans endured in the years following Columbus’ arrival.
When Columbus and his crew waded ashore that October day in 1492, it began what is called the Columbian Exchange. The term describes the transfer of many things between the New World and the Old World that had previously been unique to one or the other: culture, foods, diseases, even peoples.
The spread of disease had the most profound, immediate impact, even before conquest and slavery. Native Americans had never been exposed to smallpox, measles, malaria, and a host of other illnesses. Therefore, they had no immunity. Once contracted from Europeans, these diseases raced ahead through Native American communities.
Historian Noble David Cook estimates the rapidly spreading diseases killed at least 80 percent of Native Americans—four of every five people.
That’s where Plymouth Rock comes in. When the Pilgrims landed more than a century after Columbus’ arrival much further south, it wasn’t just another major step toward what would become the United States. The Pilgrims found far fewer people there than they likely would have found earlier.
The impact of disease was basically one way. The only major disease spread from the New World to the Old World may have been syphilis. (There’s an emphasis on “may,” because historians widely debate that issue.)
The Columbian Exchange is not just a story of misery, however. Food is the classic example.
The Swiss are the premier producers of chocolate for many people. Cacao beans, from which chocolate comes, originated in the Americas. Similarly, marinara sauce and other tomato sauces are often considered synonymous with Italian cuisine, especially southern Italian. The tomato is native to South America.
Florida oranges came from the Old World to the New. Oranges are originally from east Asia. They spread west and were eventually introduced into Spain. It was the Spanish who brought them to the Americas. Oranges arrived in Florida in 1565 with the establishment of St. Augustine.
The Irish Potato Famine is an example of how complicated history can be. Potatoes also originated in South America. They were introduced to Ireland in 1589. By the 1800s, they were an affordable staple crop for many Irish, which was certainly a blessing.
Then, beginning in 1845, a blight appeared, destroying huge portions of the potato crop for multiple years. One impact of the famine was the migration of millions of Irish, many to the United States. Where did the pathogen that caused the blight come from? Researchers say it originated in Mexico.
While the Americas were not the origin of any substantial communicable diseases, two plants native to the New World had a significant impact on the health of millions and millions by their use—or abuse.
Cocaine comes from the coca plant, native to South America. Tobacco is from Central America. (As for Winston Churchill’s iconic cigar: He died at age 90 after suffering a severe stroke. So while his smoking may have contributed to his ill health, he also survived way past the life expectancy for his time. Cigars and other tobacco products in Old World countries were a result of the Columbian Exchange.)
There had been horses in North America at one time prior to the arrival of Columbus, but they had been extinct for thousands of years. Horses originally brought by the Spanish were acquired by Native Americans in a variety of ways. Horses became a significant part of the lifestyle of many Native Americans. That connection continues with events such as the Indian National Finals Rodeo, which will take place next week in Las Vegas.
A list for the Columbian Exchange could be endless—from something as simple as the spread of popcorn, to something as profound as the expansion of slavery.
What motivated Christopher Columbus? He certainly was an ambitious man seeking glory. He definitely expected to become wealthy. But as an Italian sailing for the king and queen of Spain, he also had another motive: the spread of Christianity.
As with many other parts of the Columbian Exchange, the spread of Christianity has not always been a positive one. It has also been very successful. More Christians live in the Americas than in any other regional grouping. The three countries with the most Christians are in the Americas. Mexico is third, Brazil is second, and the country with the most Christians is the United States—although Christianity is currently growing the fastest in the global south.
Any day in history can be a pivotal one, as billions of people make innumerable decisions that can have little impact or great long-term impact. But it’s hard to dispute that few days in history have altered the world more than Oct. 12, 1492.