top of page

Christopher Columbus

1451 – 1506
Genoese (Italian) Navigator and Explorer for Spain
Exploration Ranking 1st of 26
Overall Ranking 2nd out of 500

400th anniversary of Columbus' landing in Trinidad on his third voyage to the New World. Trinidad stamp from 1898.

Neither fifteenth-century Europeans nor ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle had any knowledge of the existence of the American continents. Christopher Columbus’ establishment of permanent links between Europe and the New World (North and South America) ranks him as the most influential person in the history of exploration. His voyages fundamentally changed the world. Christopher Columbus’ four voyages (1492-1504) opened the way for European exploration, exploitation, and colonization of North and South America. Columbus brought the Catholic faith which spread over time throughout the Americas. Columbus’ discovery of the Americas also allowed the King and Queen of Spain to become rulers of a huge overseas empire.  


A Summary of What Columbus Set In Motion


After Columbus arrived in the New World and established a permanent settlement more European explorers followed and eventually took over Central and South America. Searching for the sources of the Aztec and Incan treasures, the Spaniards discovered silver west of Mexico City as early as 1531; they made large silver strikes in Zacatecas in 1546 and in Peru at Potosí in 1545.(1) The silver and gold of the new continent of South America and Mexico fueled the expansion of the Spanish Empire and made Spain the superpower of the sixteenth century, able to fight against the Protestant Reformation and dominate European political affairs. The silver mainly came from the Petosí mines in the Andes Mountains of Bolivia and over the next 300 years (1530-1830) it will supply 80% of all the silver in the world.(2) Altogether it is estimated that between 1500 and 1650 some 181 tons of gold and 16,000 tons of silver arrived in Europe from the Spanish colonies in the Americas.(3) And that is only the amount legally registered, from which the crown extracted a hefty tax. Smuggling added an unknown quantity to the total of previous metals imported from the New World. Many historians think that the amount smuggled was no more than 10 percent in the sixteenth century but rose much higher in the seventeenth century.(4) The most common coin minted from this silver was the Spanish piece of eight which became the first universal currency used across the world. The American colonies used this coin, sometimes called America’s first silver dollar, as their first government approved currency for trade before minting their own coins.


Columbus’ arrival in the Americas also started one of the greatest revolutions in global food habits. Plants and animals previously separated by some 3,000-4,000 miles of ocean would now be exchanged. (See Columbian Exchange map at the end).


Until the end of the fifteenth century, the New World and Old World had entirely separate agricultures, and most of the deadly diseases of Europe and Asia had not crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Columbus’ voyages began what is called “The Columbian Exchange” which had far-reaching implications across the world, irrevocably changing the global ecosystem. It is why there are tomatoes in Italy, oranges in Florida, chocolates in Switzerland, and hot peppers in India, China and Thailand. If these world altering exchanges were not enough add the first firearms, the plough for farming, the first iron and steel tools and remarkably the wheel. Columbus introduced all five for the first time in the New World and it changed Native American technology forever.(5) “It (Columbus’ arrival in the Americas) is arguably the most important event in the history of life since the death of the dinosaurs.”(6)


Did Columbus Discover America and Columbus’s Recent Devaluation


Before discussing in detail the full implications of Columbus’s voyages there are two issues to address: First, Columbus did not “discover” America. Leif Ericsson, a Norse explorer, is widely accepted as the European discoverer of America in about 1,000 C.E.(7) During the Viking age, from shortly before 800 C.E., there was a special sea route, the western route across the North Atlantic, followed by the Norwegians and, after the discovery of Iceland, also by the Icelanders. The Norsemen sailed from island to island, farther and farther west, settling in the lands they reached. First they came to Shetland, Orkney, the Hebrides and the Faeroes; then Iceland and Greenland were found and settled; and as a final, logical consequence of the western route, none-too-distant America was reached.(8) The key difference between Ericsson and Columbus’s achievement is Columbus established permanent settlements in the New World and started the Columbian Exchange.


Secondly, Columbus’s place in history has been discounted recently to the point where many people focus on his terrible treatment of the Native Americans and in so doing, never learn that Columbus initiated changes in our global food supply and spread of Old World diseases that transformed the entire world, probably more than anyone in history. Clearly Columbus enslaved many of the natives he encountered in the Caribbean and killed many others but at the same time he started the irreversible process that linked the world together. Let us explore this unification of the world.


Years of Preparation and Manuevering Before Epic Voyage


Born in Genoa, Italy Columbus arrived in Lisbon, Portugal in 1476 after surviving a shipwreck off the southern coast of Portugal near Lagos. Later his younger brother Bartolomé arrived in the city setting up business as a dealer in maps with Christopher as partner. During his time ashore Columbus overcame the most important barrier to his advancement in the merchant fleet—illiteracy. He learned to read and write Latin, Portuguese, Castilian, and Italian. Columbus wrote everything in the Castilian language, with the exception of some Latin notes in the margins of his Latin books.(9) Castilian is the dialect spoken in Castilla, Spain which became the predominant dialect in the whole country. Therefore, Columbus spoke and wrote in what is essentially today’s Spanish. Even when he wrote to Italians, such as his brother Bartolomé and the city councilmen of Genoa, he wrote in Castilian. His Castilian, however, was heavily mixed with other languages: Portuguese, Latin, Italian, and the Mediterranean sailors’ pidgin, “Levantisca.”(10)


Literacy changed the course of his life—and perhaps of history—because he could now peruse books that put ideas in his head, works such as Pope Pius II's treatise on the circumnavigation of Africa and Marco Polo's Travels. Columbus’s convictions as to the earth’s dimensions, the distribution of its lands and seas, and the relationship of the earth to the heavenly bodies (collectively and loosely termed “cosmography” in his day) developed through his study of four works: three cosmographical treatises, Tractatus de sphaera by Sacrobosco (d. 1256; also known as John of Holywood), Tractatus de imagine mundi (Imago mundi) and Cosmographiae tractatus duo by Pierre d’Ailly (d. 1420), and a sensationalist travelogue, Polo’s Travels (c. 1299).(11)


The book that influenced him most was Imago mundi by Pierre d'Ailly (1350-1420), a French cardinal and Church reformer with a scientific avocation who suggested that the Indian subcontinent and China could be reached by sailing west.(12) Columbus's personal copies of Imago mundi, Pope Pius's book, and his Latin edition of Polo's Travels, still preserved in Seville, are marked with copious marginalia and underlining. Of all the medieval accounts of European contacts with the Mongol dynasty, the most famous and the most influential was that of Marco Polo. The effect of his account on Columbus is well known, for in his great enterprise, Columbus let it be known that he was seeking, not a new continent, but a shorter route to the Cathay (China) of Marco Polo.(13) In the early 1480s he decided to sail west to China (Cathay).


Lobbying for Funding to Sail West to China and Japan


With an impressive resume of maritime voyages and deep study of the latest world maps plus the works mentioned above, Columbus had formed a risky plan to sail West to reach Japan and China. In 1482 he began lobbying the King of Portugal for funding of a fleet to sail across the Atlantic Ocean. The king rejected Columbus’s proposal after a long delay during which King João sent a clandestine expedition based on the information extracted from the Genoese mariner. When the secret voyage returned, the crew declared it was impossible to reach land over a sea route going west. Columbus’s efforts would not yield funds for ten more years.


In 1485 Columbus next appealed to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand in Spain. At the same time he dispatched his brother Bartolomé to England to plead with King Henry VII. The Spanish monarchs, based on the conclusions of a panel of advisors, rejected his plan because they believed, correctly, that Columbus had grossly miscalculated the distance to Cathay (China) and Cipangu (Japan). Columbus estimated 2,400 miles to reach Asia when the actual distance is 10,600 miles. Meanwhile Bartolomé was captured by pirates before he arrived in England and endured a long period of captivity before being set free. He arrived finally in England, but was not successful. So he went on to France to enlist the aid of Charles VII which also was unsuccessful.


After being rejected in Spain, Columbus tried again with Portugal and surprisingly the king wrote to him to come. Columbus arrived in Lisbon in 1488, at the same time Bartolomeu Dias, King João’s favored navigator of the moment, had just returned leading the first European expedition to round the Cape of Good Hope, the southwestern tip of South Africa. It must have been a moment of intolerable bitterness for Columbus, for the prospect of reaching Asia by way of Africa meant the end of any chance he might have had of arousing the king’s interest in his own project for a westward route. Columbus, humiliated, returned to Spain still hoping for funding from the Spanish monarchs. Sometime during this period (1489-1491) he also went to Genoa to try to generate interest in an expedition, but he met with little enthusiasm in his birthplace.


Several years passed and by 1492, luckily for Columbus, the political climate had changed dramatically in Spain after Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand had driven the Muslims out of Granada in southern Spain. The Spanish monarchs were receptive to yet another plea from Columbus and finally fund this Italian’s radical proposal to establish a new western route to the riches of Asia, countering Portugal’s successful eastern route around the horn of Africa.


First Voyage

When Columbus first set sail from Spain in 1492, his purpose was to bring back valuable spices by finding a westward route from Europe to Asia, sailing due west across the Atlantic Ocean. He departed with a crew of 90 men from Palos de la Frontera, Spain on August 3, 1492 with three small caravel ships – the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria.

Life On Board Ship – Equipment, Clothing, and Rations (14)


The equipment carried aboard Columbus’s ships on his first voyage of discovery was limited to essentials. Life aboard ship in the Age of Discovery was not easy. Seamen had to put up with many privations and during foul weather perform hard physical labor for extended periods of time. To accomplish this, they needed an ample supply of nourishing food and a reasonable level of assurance that, however indefinite the length of the voyage might be, they eventually would return safely to their homes. Thus, high on the list of priorities were those items needed to maintain the crew’s physical ability to withstand the rigors of an ocean voyage and temper their mental image of the dangers facing them in sailing off into the unknown.


Maintaining their physical well-being required adequate means for preparing and serving food, and for providing necessary rest. On ships of this era, neither was easily accomplished. It should be understood that the serving of meals on these ships was for the basic purpose of providing nourishment rather than a pleasurable experience. The cooking was done on a stove called a fogon which was an open square metal box with raised sides and back, lashed down somewhere on deck out of the weather. A layer of sand in the bottom of the box provided insulation for the wood fire. A cooking pot, hanging from an iron rod spanning the box, swung freely as the ship rolled. Food was ladled out of the pot into each crewman’s wooden bowl, which he carefully held level against the rolling of the ship. He then ate with his fingers while sitting on a convenient coil of rope, one of the hatches, or on the deck wherever he could find room. He had no fork. If the food needed to be cut, the crewman used his personal knife, which he carried with him at all times for a variety of needs. If there was gravy or a heavy broth, he sopped it up with hardtack, a biscuit that needed some moistening to be edible. The only beverages available were water and wine, which became either unpalatable or unavailable after several weeks at sea.


The ship’s watch schedule governed the time that food was served. Watches were of four hours’ duration. In Columbus’s time, the watch was changed at three, seven, and eleven o’clock day and night. In modern times, watches change at four, eight, and twelve around the clock, except the evening watch, which is commonly split into two watches, four to six and six to eight. This permits the evening meal to be served at the convenient time period of five to seven to one group of watch-standers just before they go on watch and to the other group just after they come off watch. These two-hour periods are called dog watches. There is no indication that dog watches were used in the discovery era.


Although there is no historical comment as to when and how often the crewmen were fed, there are records of the food and drink carried by ships of the period. The basic staples were sea biscuits, or hardtack, salted flour, salt fish (cod, sardines, and anchovies), salt meat (beef or pork), olives, olive oil, vinegar, cheese, dry legumes (peas, chick-peas, black-eyed peas, and lentils), rice, garlic, almonds, raisins, honey, molasses, wine, and water. The olive oil, and perhaps olives, were carried in large earthenware jugs. All other provisions were stored in wooden casks, which occasionally, according to some reports, were of cheap and faulty construction, permitting the preserving brine to leak out of the meat casks and moisture to invade the casks of dry provisions. All were stored in the hold, the driest section of which was normally reserved for those casks carrying dry provisions. The cooper was responsible for keeping the casks as tight as possible, with allowance made for their condition when loaded aboard.


Getting necessary rest was not easy. Cabins normally were available only to the admiral and the captain. The master and the pilot usually had open bunks in steerage under the raised quarterdeck clear of the massive tiller by which the helmsman steered the ship. Everyone else not on watch had to bed down somewhere out of the way on the main deck or in the hold. Some of the senior ratings had thin mattresses and others had straw mats, all of which were rolled up and stowed when not in use. The spare sails stowed in the hold would have been a favored spot for stretching out, particularly in foul weather.


Insistence by Columbus on careful use of the three principal navigational instruments available in the late fifteenth century would have been an important element in his efforts to develop his crew’s confidence that the location of the ships was known at all times. These instruments were the compass, the half-hour sand glass, and the traverse board.


In the Columbus era, and until the late sixteenth century, four items of shipboard equipment were used in conjunction with each other to indicate the approximate time of day. One was a simple diagram, sometimes referred to as the Polaris clock, for indicating time from the orientation of the axis of the Little Dipper as it appeared to rotate in a counterclockwise direction around the polestar. The second was an instrument called a nocturnal with which it was possible to measure with some precision the orientation of that axis. The third was an almanac that recorded that orientation at midnight for every night of the year, and the fourth was the half-hour sand glass, or ampolleta.


The only means available for keeping track of time on a continuing basis was the ampolleta, or half-hour sand glass. A grommet, or ship’s boy, was assigned the tedious but essential task of watching the sand glass and turning it over promptly when all the sand had run out of the upper globe. These sand glasses were very fragile and each ship normally carried a dozen or more. Seamen of the period thought of time in terms not of hours but of ampolletas and guardias, sand glasses and watches, eight sand glasses to a watch. The crewmen of each ship were divided into two groups or watches, usually referred to as the port watch and the starboard watch. Every four hours, or eight ampolletas, the men on watch would be relieved of duty by the oncoming watch. At that time, the ship’s pilot, sharing with the master the duty of being in charge of either the offgoing or the oncoming watch, would estimate the ship’s position from the record of its estimated course and speed as recorded on the traverse board at half-hour intervals during the prior watch.


One item of equipment particularly important to historians was the ship’s log book in which the ship’s captain kept a record of each day’s events. Entries in the log naturally depended on the writing skills of the captain and on his level of interest in events that occurred. In a well-kept log, the record would show the place and time of departure, courses and speeds for every watch, a daily estimate of the ship’s position, weather conditions, including wind direction and velocity, unusual conditions and sightings, occasional comments about the adequacy of provisions and the health and morale of the crew, position and time of landfalls, place and time of arrival at destination, and any other happenings that might be of historical interest.


Clothing worn by seamen in the Columbus era could in no sense be described as uniform. Typically, clothing was of wool and loose fitting except for stockings, which, when worn, were of the leotard type. Some form of hat was always worn. Two general types were common: one, a red wool stocking cap from Catalonia and the other, also of red wool, a bonnet from Toledo. Blouses with full sleeves were favored and occasionally had hoods, which were useful in foul weather. Often, a lightweight sleeveless tunic was worn over the blouse.


Regardless of the weather, the Spanish always remained fully clothed, even in the tropics. This may have been the reason they were so astounded by the nakedness of the Indians, comments on which abound in every report. On board ship, when rousing the next watch to come on duty, there was no need to allow time for dressing. None would have undressed when coming off the previous watch.


In colder weather, an overcoat of course brown cloth was common. Columbus often wore such a coat, which some authors have referred to as a Franciscan habit, associating his choice of drab clothing with his fondness for that religious order. But whenever Columbus went ashore to claim new lands in the name of the Spanish sovereigns or to impress native caciques (chiefs), he invariably was royally adorned in red.


The Canary Islands and the New World


After six days Columbus stopped at the Canary Islands as he did on each of his four westward voyages. On this voyage, he repaired the rudder of Pinta and rerigged Niña to a square rig from triangular lateen sails for better maneuverability. Columbus knew the Atlantic winds blow steadily from the east or northeast in these latitudes. He planned to return from the Indies with the westerly winds he had observed personally in the winter along the coast of Portugal and Galicia. Also, Columbus had sailed to England with the Portuguese in the past and had learned that the westerlies blew year-round in the higher latitudes. Obviously, Columbus knew how he would return to Spain.


In addition to his determination to see his plan of reaching Asia by sailing West, Columbus proved a master navigator which were the keys to his enduring fame and influence. Lacking either quality he would be forgotten to history. Columbus estimated time and distances with simple devices such as a rope or buoy or landmark. He was an intuitive master of the most ancient form of navigation. All his maps and charts and painfully acquired formal education—so impressive, yet so misleading—were of little use to him. He relied on his instincts and experience concerning tides and wind; the color of the sea and composition of clouds mattered more to him than the mathematical calculations of the era’s leading cosmographers. They had never gone to sea, but Columbus had. His dead reckoning proved so accurate that he was able to sail from Spain to the New World without incident the very first time, and, incredibly, with no loss of life.(15) And each time after that, he improved his course based on experience rather than theory.


After more than a month in the Canary Islands the expedition set sail on September 6. Three days of calm kept them in sight of land but by September 9 Hierro (Ferro), the westernmost island of the Canaries, disappeared from view. Thirty-three days with sunny skies, fair winds, and calm seas brought the Europeans across the Atlantic Ocean. Though the weather and winds were very favorable the crew had grown very uneasy after eighteen days and began organizing for a mutiny. Columbus had to do his best to calm their fears. On October 12, 1492 Columbus first landed in the New World, on the island he named San Salvador(16) in the Bahamas, 400 miles southwest of Florida. He also discovered Cuba and Hispaniola (now dividend between Haiti and the Dominican Republic). Hispaniola is the Latin version of the island’s name while L’ Española is the Spanish version that came from Columbus’s original name of La Isla Española. Hispaniola will be used for consistency moving forward.


Columbus’ discovery led within a year to the first permanent European colony in the Americas, on Hispaniola. Columbus’s landfall occurred in a “new world” he never expected, recognized, nor acknowledged to the day he died. Throughout the rest of his life he was convinced he had reached Asia. Its relative lack of portable material riches disappointed him, because he had been seeking Cipangu (Japan) and Cathay (China). But his courageous voyage brought the Admiral glory beyond his imagination and personal ambition, neither of which was small. Although more than ten years would pass before Europe realized that Columbus had discovered, literally, a New World, not lands on the fringes of Asia, the knowledge that vast territories, new peoples, and potential riches lay within reach captured people’s imaginations and stimulated efforts in every field.(17)


Treaty of Tordesillas


After Columbus’ successful return, Spain asked Pope Alexander VI, who was Spanish, to grant Spain the right to all trade in the western Atlantic Ocean. In response, the pope created an imaginary north-south line 100 leagues (about 345 miles) to the west of the Cape Verde Islands, about halfway between Europe and North America. The pope gave Spain the right to control non-Christian lands to the west of the line. Portugal received the right to lands to the east of the line, including Africa, where Portuguese explorers had recently made significant progress.


However, Portugal’s king, João II, demanded to deal directly with Spain. In 1494, ambassadors from each country met in the town of Tordesillas, in northwestern Spain. They agreed to move the north–south line to 370 leagues (1,277 miles) west of the Cape Verde Islands. Thus the Portuguese gained ratification of their African claims and the African route to India (plus Brazil, as it turned out). Spain gained an undiluted claim to what would become its empire in the Western Hemisphere.

Second Voyage



The Spanish monarchs were suitably impressed with the results of Columbus’s first voyage so, in 1493, Columbus’ second voyage included a much larger contingent of seventeen ships carrying 1,500 men and woman including the Admiral’s two brothers, Bartolomé and Diego. On this voyage he began his discoveries in the Lesser Antilles in the following order: Dominica, Marie Galante, Guadeloupe, Monserrat, Redonda, Antigua, Nevis, St. Kitts, St. Eustatius, Saba, St. Croix, and the Virgin Islands followed by in the Greater Antilles: Puerto Rico, the south coast of Cuba, and finally Jamaica.(18) The history of European crops in the Americas began with the second voyage of Columbus.(19) Columbus, on his return to Hispaniola, brought seeds and cuttings for wheat, chick-peas, melons, onions, radishes, salad greens, grape vines, sugarcane, and fruit trees, including the olive.(20) Here, with the vegetable mainstays of Mediterranean cuisine, the newcomers set about re-creating the gardens and orchards of home.


He also introduced new animal species to the Americas—he brought twenty-four horses, ten mares, eight pigs, three mules, and an assortment of sheep, goats, cattle, chickens, dogs and cats.(21) Apart from the chickens and dogs, these were all unfamiliar creatures to the indigenous Americans, and Spanish colonization in the sixteenth century quickly expanded stock holdings.

Columbian Exchange

The “exchange” of animal foods between the Old and New Worlds was mainly one-sided, with Europe importing its domesticated animals into the Americas. The exchange of plant life, by contrast, ran both ways. The European colonists attempted to grow all the traditional Old World crops in the Americas, with sugar cane, bananas and lemons, for example, all doing well in the tropical climate. Originated in Southeast Asia, the banana was brought to Hispaniola (now divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic) from the Canary Islands by the Spaniards in 1516.(22) Large international production and trade of the fruit, however, began only in the late nineteenth century with the development of refrigerated transport. The Europeans also brought the plough, which enabled farmers to cultivate on a much wider scale than before.

Grain crops such as wheat grew better in mountainous regions and later found perfect growing conditions in the temperate plains of North America. Exported in the opposite direction were crops that changed the diets of much of Europe and Asia, including corn, beans (pinto, red, kidney, lima, string, runner), field and black-eyed peas, potatoes, sweet potatoes and manioc. Cacao (the key base ingredient of chocolate) transformed European confectionery, while tobacco introduced a whole new pastime. In many instances, the New World foods had an important effect on the evolution of local cuisines. Chili peppers gave rise to spicy curries in India, to paprika in Hungary, and to spicy kimchee in Korea. Tomatoes significantly altered the cuisine of Italy and other Mediterranean countries and became staples of Mediterranean cooking.


New World Foods Transform the Diets and Cuisine of the Old World



      Potatoes and Corn


“The New World crop that arguably had the largest impact on the Old World is the potato.”(7) Pizarro was the first European to see the potato in its original environment, Peru. Potatoes were introduced across Europe between 1570 and 1600, and two centuries later they would be one of the most important crops of the Old World, alongside corn. Because it provides an abundant supply of calories and nutrients, the potato sustains life better than any other food when consumed as the sole article of diet.(8) Humans can actually subsist healthily on a diet of potatoes, supplemented with only milk or butter, which contain the two vitamins not provided by potatoes, vitamins A and D.


Corn or maize had a similar career. A crop of almost magical reproductive qualities, it produced high yields on lands that discouraged other crops. Columbus himself took it to Spain, and by the time of his third voyage he could say that there was much of it growing in Castile. The Spanish and Portuguese introduced maize to Africa and Asia as well in the sixteenth century, but it took several centuries to become an important staple of the human diet, mostly for the poor. By the eighteenth century it gained a permanent place around the globe as a food for human beings and for livestock. In regions where wheat and other grains were always scarce, maize--like the potato--allowed the expansion of the human population on limited amounts of land, a development that has been a distinctly mixed blessing for the modern world.(9)


The spread of New World crops, most significantly, corn and the potato, was the first of two momentous steps that helped banish starvation in Europe. The other crucial step was the discovery of chemical fertilizers about 1915 by Fritz Haber. Today, the potato is the fifth most important crop worldwide, after sugarcane, corn, wheat and rice.(10) As of 2018 global production in millions of tons was 2,077 for sugarcane, 1,233 for corn, 786 for wheat, 742 for rice, and 403 for potatoes.(11)




The capsicum pepper originated in the areas that today are Bolivia and southern Brazil. By the arrival of the Europeans, the plant migrated to Mesoamerica and the Caribbean. Capsicum annuum, domesticated in Mesoamerica, is the ancestor to most of the peppers commonly consumed today: the cayenne pepper, bell pepper and the jalapeño pepper. A second variety, Capsicum frutescens, first cultivated in the Amazon basin, gives us the tabasco pepper.


By 1493, immediately following Columbus’ second voyage, capsicum peppers arrived in Spain and Africa.(12) They then reached the East Indies by 1540 and India by 1542. In Hungary, paprika, the spice made from grinding dried fruits of the capsicum pepper, is first mentioned in 1569. Paprika has since been widely adopted in a variety of Hungarian dishes, including goulash, and today is the country’s national spice. The capsicum also had a significant impact on the cuisine of many other countries. In South Asia and South East Asia, some form of pepper is used in the base of almost every dish (for example, curries). In China, cuisine in the southeast (like Sichuan, Guizhou and Hunan) are defined by uses of certain chili peppers. In Korea, a side dish of spicy kimchi is consumed with every meal.




Tomatoes are a fruit (not a vegetable as it is commonly categorized) that originated in South America. Botanists believe that approximately 1,000 years before the Spanish arrived in the Americas, an unidentified wild ancestor of the tomato made its way north and came to be cultivated in South and Central America. The tomato is first mentioned in European texts in 1544. European cultivation became widespread in the ensuing decades in Spain, Italy and in France. The first documented authentic recipe using tomato in Italy appeared in 1692 in an early Italian cookbook. Spaniards brought tomatoes to Asia when they visited the Philippines in 1564. However, in China, where they were regarded as foods of the “southern barbarians,” they were not cultivated until the twentieth century.


One of the difficulties in consuming tomatoes was that they did not preserve well. Ripe tomatoes can become putrid within days in hot climates. The canning process helped increase the shelf life of the tomato to several months, but prior to 1890, it was a costly manual process. The mechanization of canning at the turn of the twentieth century significantly lowered the cost of this process and resulted in a significant increase in tomato consumption. Tomatoes have truly become a global food.(13)


Although not particularly rich in calories, tomatoes are an important source of vitamins, particularly vitamins A and C. The tomato is so thoroughly adopted and integrated into Western diets that today it provides more nutrients and vitamins than any other fruit or vegetable.(14)


     Chocolate from Cacao Beans


Chocolate comes from the seeds – roasted, fermented and ground – of the cacao tree. Historical records indicate that Columbus first brought back specimens of cacao pods to King Ferdinand I after his second voyage. Chocolate reached Europe in 1544 when a party of Maya paid a visit to the future Philip II of Spain. They brought him chocolate, maize, sweet gum, sarsaparilla and chilies.(15) As a commodity of trade, cacao beans began to reach Spain in 1585. Outside of the Americas, cacao was first cultivated in 1590 by the Spanish off the coast of Africa on the island of Fernando Po. At first, it was used in expensive chocolate drinks, mainly confined to aristocratic courts. In the seventeenth century the Spanish court was well known throughout Europe for its prowess in preparing chocolate drinks.


From Spain, it spread to Italy where cooks added chocolate to savory dishes and to ice creams, and then to France via the royal marriage of Philip III’s daughter, Ana of Austria, with Louis XIII. Chocolate was first sold in London about 1657 by a Frenchman with a shop in Gracechurch Street.(16) Samuel Pepys, the renowned seventeenth century English diarist, records that chocolate drinks changed from being novelty drinks to a regular luncheon beverage of the middle class during his lifetime. England’s supply of chocolate came from the plantations of Jamaica, captured from the Spanish in 1655. The chocolate houses which sprang up in London at this period became fashionable meeting places, precursors of men’s clubs. The Garrick Club began life as ‘The Cocoa Tree,” the early headquarters of the Jacobite political party.


Other New World Foods


Avocado, papaya, and pineapple also came from the New World but were not widely consumed in Europe until much later.




It is believed that Native Americans began to use tobacco in the first century B.C.E. There is no evidence that Native Americans ever consumed tobacco recreationally. It was instead used as a hallucinogen during religious ceremonies and as a painkiller. Ramon Pane, a monk who accompanied Columbus on his second voyage, gave lengthy descriptions about the custom of smoking tobacco. Europeans quickly adopted tobacco. At first tobacco was regarded and consumed only as a medicine. In 1560, The French ambassador to Portugal, Jean Nicot de Villemain (from whom the term “nicotine” originated), proclaimed that tobacco had a panacea of medicinal properties. In 1561, Nicot sent tobacco leaves to Catherine de Medici, the Queen of France. In England, Sir John Hawkins and his crew first introduced tobacco in the 1580s. Sailors chiefly used it, including those employed by Sir Frances Drake. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, tobacco spread to all parts of Europe.(17) Fast forwarding to today, tobacco, according to the World Health Organization, is the leading cause of preventable death.(18)


Old World Crops Flourish in the New World




The Muslims grew sugarcane in the Middle East and the Mediterranean for centuries before Columbus sailed to the New World. However, in Europe sugar was a rare luxury, prized as a medicine and aphrodisiac and sold in miniscule quantities at high prices. The Muslims introduced sugar to Sicily and parts of Spain centuries before the Crusades, and Venice imported Egyptian sugar in the late tenth century. Nevertheless, sugar and sugarcane plantations were new to the Frankish crusaders and attracted the attention of northern chroniclers. Their reports helped stimulate demand for sugar in western Europe.


On Columbus’ second voyage, he planted the New World’s first sugar cane in Santo Domingo (the largest city on the island of Hispaniola).(19) Within decades, sugar mills marked the heights in Jamaica and Cuba, where rain forest had been cleared and the native population eliminated by disease or war, or enslaved. By the end of the 16th century, sugar cane grew in huge amounts in the Caribbean, Peru, Brazil, and Mexico. Thus started the age of big sugar, of Caribbean islands with slave plantations, leading, in time, to great smoky refineries on the outskirts of modern cities, to mass consumption. One consequence of the large-scale production of sugar in the Americas was that, for the first time in human history, there was a large enough supply of the commodity that the commoner in Europe consumed it.(20) First consumed in tea and other hot drinks, sugar provided a cheap and easy source of calories for the growing urban working class in Europe. During the nineteenth century, sugar consumption further increased as processed foods–such as jams, cakes and biscuits, canned vegetables and fruits, relishes, and white bread–became more common.(21)


In 1700 the average Englishman consumed four pounds of sugar a year. In 1800 the common man ate eighteen pounds of sugar, in 1870 it increased to forty-seven pounds annually, and by 1900 the same sweet-tooth was up to 100 pounds per year. In 2013 the average American consumed seventy-seven pounds of added sugar annually, or more than twenty-two teaspoons of added sugar per day.(22)


The discovery of the Americas also provided the Old World with vast quantities of relatively unpopulated land well-suited for the cultivation of certain crops that were in high demand in Old World markets. Crops such as sugar, coffee, soybeans, oranges, and bananas were all introduced to the New World, and the Americas quickly (except bananas) became the main suppliers of these crops globally.(23) Today, Brazil is the world’s largest supplier of sugar and a total of 45 percent of the world’s supply comes from the New World; also from the New World: coffee--57 percent of the world’s production; soybeans-- 84 percent; oranges--65 percent; and bananas--35 percent.(24) Bananas are the second most popular fruit in the world after tomatoes with watermelon third, apples fourth, grapes fifth, oranges sixth, and mangoes and guavas seventh.(25)

Old World Animals Transform the New World:

Horses, Cattle, Pigs, Sheep, Goats, Asses


     Horses Introduced

The introduction of horses had a profound effect on the history of the Americas. The achievements of none of the great colonizing people who came to the New World would have been possible without the horse.(26) Horses existed on these continents previously, but were hunted to extinction by 7,000 B.C.E. Once American Indian nations of the plains (stretching from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River) mastered the use of the horse, it transformed their way of life. They traveled faster and farther than ever before, and their hunting efficiency increased exponentially. Firearms, unknown in the Americas before Columbus landed in 1492, transformed not only warfare, but also hunting, enabling Native Americans to kill larger animals easily.


The conquistador would never have been able to keep the vast sullen Indian populations under control if the horse had not enabled him to transfer information, orders and soldiers from one point to another swiftly. The horse along with the ass and the ox provided the New World with a new source of power. In the whole of the pre-Columbian Americas the only important sources of extrahuman energy were the dog and llama. Windmills and waterwheels were unknown, the dog was small and weak, and the llama was incapable of carrying any load heavier than about hundred pounds. The importation of the horse, ass, and ox brought about a revolution in the quantity of power available to man in the New World similar to that which Watt’s steam engine brought to late eighteenth-century Europe.


The horse could also be used for many manual tasks previously performed only by people including all farming related labor like plowing fields and transporting crops. In addition, the horse also carried people on its back or pulled a cart or a wagon which was much faster and more efficient than a person walking and carrying a load. The horse also made possible the great cattle industry of colonial America, which, in the final analysis, affected much larger areas of the New World than did any other European endeavor in that period.(27) A swineherd can operate effectively on foot: a vaquero, or cowboy, needs a horse. (See more about horses in the New World under Cortés.) 


New Sources of Protein for the New World


Europeans, on the eve of Columbus’ voyages, sustained themselves with a diet based on cereal grains, especially wheat, which supplied most of their calories. Sources of protein included meat, game, fish, eggs, milk products and legumes (often called the “meat of the poor”). The complex vegetable proteins provided by a combination of wheat and legumes, or rice and legumes, supplemented the complete proteins found in animal products. The animals of the Old World supplied more than just protein. Some of them provided labor for agriculture, transport, and industrial processes such as milling grain for bread. Animal power, coupled with widespread use of the wheel, meant that civilizations in the Old World required less human labor than civilizations in the New World. Moreover, the domestication of a wide range of animals in the Old World had probably contributed to the domestication of a wide range of diseases, shared in variant forms by humans and the animals they lived with. For example, smallpox and cowpox were related diseases shared between humans and animals, and cowpox was instrumental in the development of a vaccine against smallpox by Edward Jenner in the eighteenth century.


In the New World, complete vegetable proteins played a major role in assuring a balanced diet. Maize (often known in the United States as “corn” or “Indian corn”), in combination with beans or other legumes, supplied the complete proteins essential to health. Maize was particularly important to diets in the densely settled civilizations of Mexico and Central America, but it was widely consumed in North America as well. The potato supplied substantial calories and nutrition in the highlands of South America, the home of the Inca Empire. Elsewhere, sweet potatoes, manioc (cassava) and squashes held a prominent place in the daily diet. Pineapples, guavas and other fruits supplied ample amounts of ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) and other nutrients, as did tomatoes and chili peppers.


The most important dietary shortage in the Western hemisphere was animal protein.(28) The New World as a whole had few domestic animals, either for food or for labor. Small dogs and various kinds of fowl did not begin to provide the protein that domesticated cattle and pigs could have. Wild game, especially the characteristic deer, bison, elk and caribou of North America, played a crucial role in the diet and overall economy of native people, but they had to be hunted, at great cost in time and energy. Fish and shellfish were not available everywhere. Llamas and alpacas in the mountains of South America provided fiber for weaving and some animal power for transport, but their contribution to New World civilizations did not compare with the contributions of Old World animals. The limited types of domestic animals in the New World, coupled with the lack of the wheel, also meant that indigenous economies had to rely almost exclusively on human labor.


Once contact was established between the Old World and the New, the characteristic crops and animals of each area began to be interchanged, consciously, and yet without a sense of the effect they would have in a new environment. Europeans’ pigs multiplied astonishingly fast in the New World, in an atmosphere almost devoid of predators. Pedro de Las Casas who traveled with Columbus, told the story that the ships of Columbus’ second expedition re-provisioned at Gomera in the Canary Islands before starting the Atlantic crossing and took on eight pigs at the last moment. He wrote in awe about their ability to propagate. Cattle and sheep, horses and asses did likewise, spreading across the landscape and usurping land formerly used for farming. With the catastrophic decline in the human population of the New World, vast tracts of land were converted to open pasture, sometimes on soil that needed careful nurturing to remain fertile.


The results were mixed. Domesticated animals introduced by Europeans changed Mexico fundamentally. Already by the 1540s there were too many animals in the areas heavily settled by human populations. The Spanish encouraged livestock ranching to move ever farther northward, in an extension of the colonial frontier that produced its own distinctive and independent culture. The start of a domestic woolen cloth industry and a growing export trade in hides and tallow, all based on European livestock, came to characterize the vast area called New Spain (Mexico).


The Spread of Disease from the Old World to the New


This great exchange steadily transformed the world's diets, but also had dramatic human consequences. Along with food, the Europeans also brought diseases that devastated indigenous populations. Most significantly were smallpox, then measles, bubonic plague, typhoid fever, scarlet fever, cholera, whooping cough, diphtheria, mumps, and (from Africa) malaria and yellow fever. From Roy Porter’s The Greatest Benefit To Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity:


The most momentous event for human health was Columbus’s landfall in 1492 on Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti). The Europeans’ discovery of America forged contact between two human populations isolated from each other for thousands of years, and the biological consequences were devastating, unleashing the worst health disaster there has ever been, and precipitating the conquest of the New World by the Old World’s diseases.(29)



     Native American Population Decimated


Because native populations had no previous contact with Old World diseases, they were immunologically defenseless. Henry Dobyns who wrote the book, Their Number Become Thinned, stated that “before the invasion of peoples of the New World by pathogens that evolved among inhabitants of the Old World, Native Americans lived in a relatively disease-free environment. . . . Before Europeans initiated the Columbian Exchange of germs and viruses, the peoples of the Americas suffered no smallpox, no measles, no chickenpox, no influenza, no typhus, no typhoid, no diphtheria, no cholera, no bubonic plague, no scarlet fever, no whooping cough, and no malaria.”(30)


Tracing the spread of smallpox, the deadliest of the European diseases,(31) begins on the island of Hispaniola in November or December 1518.(32) It killed a third of the native population before jumping to Puerto Rico and Cuba. Spaniards, exposed in childhood to the virus, were mostly immune. During Hernán Cortés’s conquest of Mexico, an expedition led by Panfilo de Narvaez landed on April 23, 1520, near what is today the city of Veracruz. Someone in the party had smallpox—and infected a hemisphere.(33) The disease raced to Tenochtitlan, leading city of the Mexica (Aztecs), where it laid waste to the metropolis and then the rest of the empire. From there, Dobyns discovered, colonial accounts show smallpox hopscotching through Central America to Panama.(34) At that point it was only a few hundred miles from the Inca frontier. The virus seemingly crossed the gap, with catastrophic consequences.


Although we may never know the exact magnitudes of the depopulation, it is estimated that upwards of 80-95 percent of the Native American population was decimated within the first 100-150 years (1492-1642) following 1492.(35) Within 50 years (by 1542) following contact with Columbus and his crew, the native Taino population of the island of Hispaniola, which had an estimated population between 60,000 and 8 million, was virtually extinct.(36) Central Mexico’s population fell from just under 15 million in 1519 to approximately 1.5 million a century later. Historian and demographer Nobel David Cook estimates that, in the end, the regions least affected lost 80 percent of their populations; those most affected lost their full populations, and a typical society lost 90 percent of its population.(37)


The uncertainty concerning the exact magnitude of the depopulation of the Americas arises because we do not know the extent to which disease may have depopulated the regions beyond the initial point of contact before literate European observers made physical contact with these populations.(38) If disease traveled faster than the explorers, it killed a significant portion of native populations before direct contact, causing first-hand accounts of initial population sizes to be biased downward. The result is that 1491 population estimates for the Americas vary wildly, from a lower-bound estimate of approximately 8 million (Kroeber, 1939) to an upper-bound estimate of over 110 million people (Dobyns, 1966).(39) Surprisingly, despite decades of research, the range of the estimates has not narrowed, and no clear consensus has emerged about whether the true figure lies closer to the high or low end of the range.


In summary, in 1491, the native population of North and South America numbered between 8 million (Kroeber, 1939) and 110 million (Dobyns, 1966) but by 1622, if you use Dobyns’ estimate, that number fell by 95 percent (Dobyns, 1966) to only 400,000 to 5.5 million!—mainly because of European-introduced diseases. According to a 1999 estimate from the United Nations, the earth’s population at the beginning of the sixteenth century was about 500 million. If Dobyns was right, disease claimed the lives of 80 to 100 million Indians by about 1630. All these numbers are at best rough approximations, but their implications are clear: the epidemics killed about one out of every five people on earth. According to W. George Lovell, a geographer at Queen’s University in Ontario, it was “the greatest destruction of lives in human history.”(40)


Compounding the horrors of disease were the social effects of Old World agriculture in a New World setting. The Spanish displaced local communities to make room for grazing cattle, or forced the natives to labor on farms and plantations. New types of weeds choked native plants. Serious overgrazing problems occurred in places such as New Spain, with large areas turned practically to desert, stripped of vegetation and suffering from soil erosion. For better or worse, the New World imported much more than just plants and animals.


     Syphilis — A New World Disease

The only major disease that traveled in the opposite direction was syphilis. The evidence supports the Columbian hypothesis that venereal syphilis is in fact a New World disease. The recent study by Harper et al. (2008) found that the bacterium causing venereal syphilis arose relatively recently in humans and is most closely related to a variation of the tropical disease called yaws found in a remote region of Guyana, South America. After decades of debate, this powerful study showed that venereal syphilis was indeed a New World disease.(41)


Quinine — An Effective Treatment for Malaria


An effective treatment for the malaria that traveled from Africa was found in the northern Andes in South America in the form of bark called by the natives quinquina, the “bark of barks” and changed to “quinine” by the Europeans. Quinine was the first effective treatment of malaria caused by Plasmodium falciparum, the protozoan parasite that is transmitted between mammals by the female Anopheles mosquito. Quinine works by inhibiting plasmodium reproduction. Spanish priests introduced it into Rome by 1632. The Catholic Jesuits brought the bark back to Europe from Peru.


Transatlantic Slave Trade Begins


The consequent collapse of the local workforce in the Americas contributed to the creation of the transatlantic slave trade, in which millions of Africans were forcibly shipped to the Americas to live and work on plantations. Until Britain banned the slave trade in 1807, traders shipped more than 11 million Africans to the New World—more than half ending up on sugar plantations.(42) This movement of people was the largest involuntary migration in human history.(43) The shortage of labor was most acute in the islands and littoral of tropical America, where the swords and maladies of the Old World had made the cleanest sweep of the aborigines and where the profits to be made from the mass production of tobacco, rice, indigo, coffee, and especially sugar were potentially the greatest. Almost 90 percent of the Africans who were ripped from their homes to serve as slaves in America were brought to the tropics of the New World, 38 percent to Brazil and 42 percent to the Antilles alone.(44)


Writing Introduced


Finally, the Europeans introduced writing, eager to propagate Christianity, which relied on reading of the Bible. This lead to the spread in the New World of the English, Spanish and Portuguese languages that are so widely spoken today.


Final Facts


In conclusion, the evidence supporting Columbus as the most influential explorer in history is overwhelming. Here are two final pieces of evidence: Columbus brought his Catholic Christian faith to the New World in 1492. With much help from those who followed him including Cortés, Pizarro and Cabral, today about 60 percent of the Western Hemisphere is Catholic with the Latin America/Caribbean region around 72 percent and North America at 26 percent.(45)


If this was not enough, Columbus Day is a national holiday in many countries of the Americas including Columbia, the only country in the world with a name originated from Columbus himself. On October 12, 1937 Columbus Day became a national holiday in the United States. Most U.S states still celebrate Columbus Day but at the end of the twentieth century some states and U.S. cities replaced Columbus Day with celebrations titled “Indigenous People’s Day.” In Italy since 2004, Columbus Day is officially celebrated as Giornata nazionale di Cristoforo Colombo and in 1981 Spain established Dia de la Hispanidad (later changed to Fiesta Nacional in 1987) as a national holiday.




(1) Mankind: The Story Of All Of Us, Chapter 8 – Treasure, 2012, DVD.

(2) William D. Phillips, Jr. and Carla Rahn Phillips, The Worlds of Christopher Columbus, (Cambridge, 1992), p. 269.

(3) Ibid., p. 269.

(4) National Geographic Magazine, “Legacy of Jamestown," by Thomas Mann, May 2007, p. 37. 

(5) Laurence Bergreen, Columbus: The Four Voyages 1492-1505 (New York, 2012), p. 30.

(6) Alfred W. Crosby Jr., The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492, 30th Anniversary Edition (Westport, 2003), p. 75.

(7) Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian, “The Columbian Exchange: A History of Disease, Food, and Ideas,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, Volume 24, Number 2, Spring 2010, p. 169.

(8) Ibid., p. 169.

(9) Phillips, Jr. and Phillips, pgs. 266-267.

(10) Charles C. Mann, “The Eyes Have It,” Smithsonian Magazine, November 2011, p. 87.

(11) National Geographic Map Supplement, “Asia’s Vital Rivers,” July 2020.

(12) Nunn and Qian, p. 171.

(13) Ibid, p. 172.

(14) Ibid., p. 172.

(15) Andrew Dalby, Dangerous Tastes – The Story of Spices (Berkeley, 2000), p. 146.

(16) Ibid., p. 147.

(17) Nunn and Qian, p. 176.

(18) Ibid, p. 176.

(19) Crosby, p. 68.

(20) Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian, “The Columbian Exchange: A History of Disease, Food, and Ideas,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, Volume 24, Number 2, Spring 2010, p. 178.

(21) Ibid., p. 178.

(22) National Geographic, “Sugar Love: A Not-So Sweet Story,” by Rich Cohen, August 2013, p. 87.

(23) Nunn, p. 167.

(24) Ibid., p. 178.

(25) World Atlas, "Most Popular Fruits In The World," in Did You Know, by Alisa Maia, August 18, 2020,, accessed on November 25, 2020. Based on 2018 Production (in million metric tons). (1) Tomatoes - 182.3 million metric tons; (2) Bananas - 115.74; (3) Watermelons - 103.97; (4) Apples - 86.14; (5) Grapes - 79.19; (6) Oranges - 75.54; (7) Mangoes and Guavas - 55.38; (8) Plaintains - 39.48; (9) Tangerines, Mandarins and Clementines - 33.39; (10) Pineapples - 27.92; (11) Melons - 27.35; (12) Peaches and Nectarines - 24.45; (13) Pears - 23.73; (14) Lemons and Limes - 19.39; (15) Papayas - 13.29; (16) Plums and Sloes; (17) Grapefruits - 9.37; (18) Dates - 8.53; (19) Strawberries - 8.34; (20) Avocadoes - 6.41; (21) Persimmons 4.71.

(26) Crosby, p. 85.

(27) Ibid., p. 81.

(28) Phillips, Jr. and Phillips, p. 264.

(29) Roy Porter, The Greatest Benefit To Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity (New York, 1998), p. 163.

(30) Nunn and Qian, p. 165.

(31) Herman J. Viola and Carolyn Margolis, editors, Seeds of Change – A Quincentennial Commemoration, Chapter 13: “Health and Disease in the Pre-Columbian World by John W. Verano and Douglas H. Ubelaker (Washington, 1991), 215; Crosby p. 43.

(32) Thomas Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (New York, 2005), p. 77; Viola and Margolis, p. 86; Crosby, p. 39.

(33) Mann, p. 77.

(34) Mann, p. 77; Viola and Margolis, p. 86.

(35) Nunn and Qian, p. 165.

(36) Nunn and Qian, p. 165; Herman J. Viola and Carolyn Margolis, editors, Seeds of Change – A Quincentennial Commemoration, (Washington, 1991), p. 13.

(37) Ibid., p. 165.

(38) Nunn and Qian, pgs. 165-166.

(39) Ibid., p. 166.

(40) Mann, p. 78.

(41) Nunn and Qian, p. 167.

(42) National Geographic Magazine, Sugar Love: A Not-So Sweet Story,” by Rich Cohen, August 2013, p. 87; “From the 1520s to the 1860s an estimated 11 to 12 million African men, women, and children were forcibly embarked on European vessels for a life of slavery in the Western Hemisphere. Many more Africans were captured or purchased in the interior of the continent, but a large number died before reaching the coast. About 9 to 10 million Africans survived the Atlantic crossing to be purchased by planters and traders in the New World, where they worked principally as slave laborers in plantation economies requiring a large work force.” Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., editors, Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, “Transatlantic Slave Trade” by Stephen Behrendt, (New York, 1999), p. 1865.

(43) Nunn and Qian, p. 181.

(44) Crosby, p. 213.

(45) Pew Research Center, The Global Catholic Population, February 13, 2013,, accessed on April 20, 2020.


Key References


1. Select Letters of Christopher Columbus, R. H. Major, editor, 1870.

2. Admiral of the Ocean Sea:  A Life of Christopher Columbus, 2 volumes, by Samuel Eliot Morison, 1942.

3. The Great Explorers: The European Discovery of America, pages 351-547 on Columbus, 1978, by Samuel Eliot Morison.

4. The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492, 30th Anniversary Edition by Alfred W. Crosby, 2003. 

5. Columbus: The Four Voyages, 1492-1504 by Laurence Bergreen, 2011.

6. The Worlds of Christopher Columbus by William D. Phillips, Jr. and Carla Rahn Phillips, 1992.

7. Christopher Columbus and the Age of Exploration: An Encyclopedia, Silvio A. Bedini, editor, 1992.

Click maps to enlarge
bottom of page