The Significance of 1492

More than 500 years after the first Spaniard arrived in the Caribbean, historians and the public still debate Columbus’s legacy. Should he be remembered as a great discoverer who brought European culture to a previously unknown world? Or should he be condemned a man who brought devastating European and Asian diseases to unprotected native peoples, who disrupted the American ecosystem, and who initiated the Atlantic slave trade? What is Columbus's legacy--discovery and progress or slavery, disease, and racial antagonism?

The encounter that began in 1492 among the peoples of the eastern and western hemispheres was one of pivotal events in the world history. This cultural collision not only produced an extraordinary transformation of the natural environment and human cultures in The New World, but also initiated changes in the Old world as well.

New foods were introduced. Global patterns of trade were overturned, as crops grown in the New World—including tobacco, rice, and vastly expanded production of sugar—feeding growing consumer markets in Europe.

Even the natural environment was overturned. Europeans cleared forested land and inadvertently introduced Old World weeds. The introduction of cattle, goats, horses, sheep, and swine transformed the ecology as grazing animals ate up many native plants and disrupted indigenous systems of agriculture. The introduction of horse encouraged many farming peoples to become hunters and herders.

Diseases which the Indian peoples had no immunities caused the greatest mass deaths in human industry. Within a century of contact, smallpox, measles, mumps, and whooping cough had reduced indigenous populations by 50 to 90 percent

With the Indian population decimated by disease, Europeans gradually introduced a new labor force into the new world—enslaved Africans.

Columbus's voyage of discovery had another important result; it contributed to the development of the modern concept of progress. To many Europeans, the New World seemed to be a place of innocence, freedom, and eternal youth. So while the collision of three worlds resulted in death and enslavement in unprecedented numbers, it also encouraged visions of a more perfect future.

The European voyages of discovery of the late fifteenth century played a critical role in the development of modern conceptions of progress. The discovery of the New World threw many supposedly universal ideals into doubt. The Indians, who seemingly lived free from all the traditional constraints of civilized life--such as private property or family bonds—offered a vehicle for criticizing the corruptions, abuses, and restrictions of European society.

Source: The Significance of 1492
Copyright 2016 Digital History

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