Posted on March 9, 2009 by Tia Lalani

Augustana History professor Rani Palo will be serving up the next installment of this year�s series of food related discussions.

by Dylan McConnell

Augustana History professor Rani Palo will be serving up the next installment of this year’s series of food related discussions, this time on the historical turning point of Columbus’ 1492 voyage to the New World and the subsequent Columbian Exchange that followed.

The term “Columbian Exchange” was coined by a professor from the University of Texas named Alfred Crosby, to describe the movement of ideas, people and materials back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean thanks to the famous discovery of – what would eventually become – the Americas by Christopher Columbus. This exchange (as we know) would change the world forever, as many of the materials that we have come to take advantage of would not be so readily available – or even known – had someone like Columbus not tried to cross the Atlantic Ocean. As professor Palo explains, “It’s really quite amazing – it was a dramatic change for both the Americas and the Old World – a change that can be attributed to those initial transatlantic voyages.”

Of course, we know that certain things were brought over to the New World from Europe. It is easy to think back on elementary school lessons about the fur trade in Canada, and how the aboriginals were given guns, blankets, tools and other modern items for the raw materials the aboriginals possessed. But, Palo explains, “the natives of the New World seemed to get used to the guns and similar technology of the Europeans – the guns weren’t terribly accurate and bows and arrows were a lot better for certain things back then anyway – but the horses and large animals brought over were quite surprising to them.” Indeed, some of the simplest gifts were the most profound.

Unfortunately, not everything brought over to the New World was friendly. Disease, usually in the form of cholera or small pox devastated thousands of indigenous people in the Americas whose immune system had not been trained to handle such foreign diseases. “Many people have blamed Columbus and the explorers who followed, especially back in 1992 (the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ trip to the New World) for much of the death and misery caused by disease” explains Palo. “But I have a hard time blaming the humble sailor for spreading something he didn’t feel himself, or even know existed. There was the business much later with a few strategically placed blankets, but for the most part the spread of disease to the New World was done completely by accident.”

Another negative consequence of the Columbian Exchange was the importation of what would eventually become millions of African slaves, people who were forced to leave their native Africa to work for Europeans on plantations in the New World. These African people and their children would have to deal with the unfortunate consequences for hundreds of years.

However, there were many positive results to the discovery of the New World, and, because professor Palo’s discussion will tie into the food theme, it should be expected that food was one of those positive results. Interestingly, some of the most staple South, Central or North American products today can be traced back to European or far Eastern beginnings. Livestock, wheat, coffee, bananas and other products we generally associate with the western world were brought over by Europeans and planted in areas that allowed the crops and animals to flourish in ways they never could in the Old World. Similarly, foods like tomatoes (commonly associated with Italian cooking) potatoes (commonly associated with the dismal livelihoods of the Irish) and corn were brought back to the Old World from across the Atlantic. Jokingly Palo added, “it’s strange to think that Columbus’ parents and grandparents, and especially those in Italy would be without pasta sauce.” Tobacco and various spices would also make their way back to Europe.

One of my favourite points from my chat with professor Palo was one regarding the introduction of hogs to the Caribbean Islands. He explained to me that “Europeans would drop off a bunch of pigs, or hogs, onto some of the Caribbean islands. A year or so later, the sailors would come back to the islands where they would find the pigs had reproduced like crazy, and they’d help themselves to as much bacon as they pleased.”

On March 9th at 12:30 professor Rani Palo will be exploring these points and more in his lesson on the voyages of Christopher Columbus and the impact those voyages continue to have on our food, and our lives.

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