European exploration of the Atlantic was one of the most significant developments of the Early Modern time. It left a profound impact on Europeans and Native Americans alike. While the Columbian Exchange enabled the powers of Europe to satisfy their economic interests, for the Native Americans, it meant exposure to a technologically superior enemy and unknown diseases.
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European countries aimed to explore the Atlantic and, upon discovery, North America, to further their economic interests. The two primary powers to initiate this exploration were Spain and Portugal, and they shared similar motivations. These included looking for alternative roots to India and “the search for gold and spices” (Strobel, 2015, p. 51). In some instances, the Europeans were able to find precious metals or other valuable commodities and also gained the opportunity to exploit the local population (Jennings, 2015). Therefore, the consequences of the Columbian exchange were beneficial for the Europeans.
It was less so for Native Americans, as European exploration exposed them to the enemy possessing superior arms as well as the new diseases. Many Indigenous societies were quickly subdued, and the colonizers enforced “coercive regimes,” such as encomienda in Spanish colonies (Jennings, 2015, p. 34). Explorers also brought the diseases nonexistent in America, which then spread from the coast “to the interior following the interregional river trade system” (Strobel, 2015, p. 37). Hence, European colonizers were responsible for both exploitation and transmitting Old World diseases to people in the Western Hemisphere.
As one can see, the Columbian exchange left profoundly different impacts on the parties involved. For Europeans, it meant access to valuable commodities and cheap labor force. For Native Americans, however, its consequences amounted to exploitation and the introduction of the previously unknown diseases to the continent.
Jennings, E.P. (2015). The sinews of Spain’s American empire: Forced labor in Cuba from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. In D. Donoghue & E.P. Jennings (Eds.), Building the Atlantic empires: Unfree labor and imperial states in the political economy of capitalism, ca. 1500–1914 (pp. 25-53). Leiden, Denmark: BRILL.
Strobel. C. (2015). The Global Atlantic, 1400 to 1900. New York, NY: Routledge.