Columbian Exchange

June 16, 2015

This resource consists of texts and images dealing with the Columbian Exchange. Its goal is to evaluate the mixed consequences of the Columbian Exchange by examining two of its most infamous elements: small pox and chocolate.


The "Columbian Exchange" is the term used to describe the complex biological and ecological consequences of European voyages to the Americas starting in the late fifteenth century. These early explorations ignited an unparalleled quantity of exchange in plants, animals, people, and diseases across the Atlantic and had an enormous and mixed affect on the world's human populations and the natural environment.

Food, such as wheat and grapes, and animals, such as horses, cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, and chickens made their way from Europe to the Americas. Crops indigenous to the Americas, including maize, potatoes, beans, tomatoes, peppers, peanuts, manioc, papayas, cacao, avocados, tobacco, and pineapples were transplanted to parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa and became important elements in many cultures' foodways.

Most devastating perhaps was the uneven global circulation of pathogens. Europeans transferred deadly diseases to the indigenous populations of the Americas, whose immune systems were ill-prepared to ward off imported diseases like smallpox. Such contagions produced widespread epidemics though the Americas, contributing to a precipitous decline in the indigenous population. While the total number of deaths attributable to European diseases remains in dispute, scholars estimate that over 100 million people perished from European diseases imported to the Americans and Pacific Islands between 1500 and 1800.


The following sources provide evidence of the complex outcomes of the Columbian Exchange.

  1. A drawing by Spanish missionary and Aztec archeologist Father Bernardino de Sahagún from the mid sixteenth century that depicts small pox victims at different stages of the disease. Historians estimate that over the sixteenth century, infectious diseases may have reduced the number of people belonging to the Aztec civilization in present day Mexico from around 17 million to 1.3 million.
    Citation: Bernardino de Sahagún, Fray. Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España, c. 1575-1580, edited and translated by James Lockhart in We People Here: Nahuatl Accounts of the Conquest Mexico. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

    Columbian Exchange: Epidemic

  2. An excerpt from Sahagún's Book Twelve of the Florentine Codex that describes the role of smallpox in the defeat of the Aztec by the Spaniards. 
    PDF iconFlorentine Codex.pdf
  3. An excerpt from a mid-seventeenth century treatise written on chocolate and the cacao plant (from which chocolate derives) by Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma, a Spanish physician. Indigenous to Mesoamerica, natives introduced the cocoa plant to the Spanish. Soon chocolate become a popular drink throughout Europe.
    PDF iconThe Way of Making Chocolate.pdf

Discussion Questions 

  1. According to the first two documents, what role did small pox play in the defeat of the Aztecs? What do we learn about the disease from the two accounts?
  2. What ingredients in addition to cacao were used to make chocolate? How did methods of preparation and consumption differ among the indigenous, Spanish, and other Europeans? How does the document portray the native population?
  3. Evaluate the sources together to think about whether the Columbian Exchange was a mutually beneficial exchange. Who profited from the flow of pathogens and food goods? Provide examples of current debates over fair exchange in discussions of global trade today.

Suggested Readings

Crosby, Alfred W. The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Westport: Greenwood Pub. Co, 1972.

Richards, John F. The Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early Modern World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.