Many events throughout history have two sides. Most of the time, these opposing sides are defined by those involved in the event and the differing situations that each of them face. The Columbian Exchange was not an outlier in this case, as there are positives and negatives associated with the exchange, depending on the side of history you’re seeing the point of view from. Fortunately, it is easy to see that the positives of the Columbian Exchange are deeply weighed down by the negatives, as the negatives involve, at its simplest, an extreme loss of human life. From a purely moral standpoint, the Columbian Exchange was a genocide, driven by industrialism and consumerism, that only served to benefit those carrying out the genocide.
The exchange’s story, as with most misunderstood, one-sided money grabbing schemes, began with a European man with a thirst for riches. When Columbus “found” the islands off the coast of America, he brought destruction to the millions of Native Americans living there. He brought, most infamously, disease of many forms, including smallpox. Columbus enslaved the natives, took their resources, and sailed back to Spain for glory. According to Document 7, “The disaster began as soon as Columbus arrived.” Additionally, Document 7 also cites Alfred Crosley, who states that he likens the Columbian Exchange to “that of the Black Death on the history of the Old World.” Columbus changed the course of human history by sailing to the Americas, but not because he “discovered” them, or that he created a helpful children’s rhyme so fifth graders can remember his name and the year. Columbus began a cycle. While that cycle provided innocent trading opportunities from the New World to the Old World, it also began the terrible cycle of the slave trade at its largest.
If we pretend that, for a second, human lives have no bearing on the course of human history (like so many white nationalists tend to do), then the Columbian Exchange was a fantastic source of wealth for the world to benefit from. According to Document 8, the New World and Old World traded all sorts of resources, including corn, potatoes, beans, silver, and tobacco from the New World, and wheat, sugar, rice, horses, and cows from the Old World. Additionally, high-caloric foods like manioc and potatoes created a huge change in the way people farmed and fed themselves. According to Document 9, “The people of the Americas realized that crops with higher caloric value could not only feed more people, but also allowed people to work more because they were more energized.” Horses, as well, were a benefit to the many Native Americans living in North America at the time, because they were able to hunt alongside herds of running prey.
One could also argue that the Columbian Exchange allowed for the creation of a diverse, multi-ethnic world, as well. This is true— any form of trading, in any way, between civilizations, comes with a sharing of culture and social values. Document 6 asserts that after 1492, “the Eastern and Western hemispheres were joined after millennia of virtual isolation from one another.” The Columbian Exchange certainly helped create the, as Document 6 says, “microcosm” of humanity, and not just in North America. According to Document 3, South America, specifically Peru, in this case, was becoming a melting pot of ethnicities, and most of them were Spanish. “The inhabitants of Lima are composed of whites, or Spaniards, Negroes, Indians, Mestizos, and other casts, proceeding from the mixture of all three.” The Columbian Exchange exchanged more than just food, it seems: it also exchanged a change in religions, cultures, and societal patterns.
As Americans, it’s easy to talk about the Exchange from a purely economic standpoint. It’s easy to look at our veritable mixture of ethnicities and cite the Columbian Exchange as one of its causes. From that perspective, it’s simple to argue that the exchange was positive. However, there is something overlooked in these arguments, and that is the inherent worth and dignity of all people. Document 4 says that the “consequences” for the people of the Western Hemisphere “would not have been much different,” that this event would happen to matter what means we use. But what sin had the Western Hemisphere committed to receive the “consequence” of a genocide? The Native Americans live on tiny reservations now, significantly smaller than what they lived, prayed, and hunted on in their ancestor’s time. And for what? Trade? Imperialism? Riches? What sin affords the consequence of slavery? Not even just slavery— an entire enslaved masses, which preluded a theme of discrimination and abuse for years to come, even now.
At what point is the complete and utter destruction of a people and their culture excusable by economic gain? How much is a human life worth to historians who, like so many white nationalists, believe the Americanization and industrialization of a people is justified? It seems that many historians argue that this event would have happened regardless of the time period. At some point, the industrialized Old World would intrude on the “primitive tribes” and force them into the same industrial, European bubble. But it doesn’t make any sense, does it, to think that there was nothing that the Europeans could have done differently. “That’s just the way it happened,” they say. As citizens of this world, we should strive to live differently. We should strive to live in a world where the only option for the sake of industrial and technological gain isn’t the lives of human beings. Morality should be the most important, not industry.