The Columbian Exchange

Travel between the Old World (Europe, Asia, and Africa) and the New World (North and South America and the Caribbean islands) was ignited by the journey of Christopher Columbus and his three ships in 1492. Contemporary historians have come to describe the results of those journeys as the Columbian Exchange. Plants and animals and people were relocated; ideas and diseases also crossed the ocean. All five continents were changed by the new things that arrived as a result of this European Age of Exploration.

As Europeans colonized the New World, they brought many of their old plants and animals with them. The traditional barnyard of North America contains creatures familiar from European farms: horses, cows, pigs, sheep, goats, chickens, and even honeybees were brought to North America. About the only North American animal to be raised in Europe in large numbers was the turkey. Colonists also brought apples, wheat, oats, rice, and assorted garden vegetables and herbs; further south they established sugarcane, bananas, oranges, lemons, and coffee. But New World plants also had a significant impact upon the Old World, with the introduction of maize (which North Americans call corn), potatoes, sugar maples, rubber, tobacco, vanilla, and cocoa. At first the tomato was thought to be a poisonous berry—parts of the plant are poisonous, and some people are allergic to tomatoes. But some brave person found that tomatoes are good to eat; this North American plant met the Chinese invention called pasta in southern Europe, and “traditional” Italian food such as spaghetti and lasagna was born.

People also crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Some were European conquerors seeking wealth; others were European laborers seeking work and new opportunities. Among the later group were peons, workers who went into debt to make the voyage, then spent their earnings to pay off their debt. When lenders increased the debt (charging for food, lodging, clothing, tools and medical care) faster than the peons could earn money to pay the debt, they were stuck in virtual slavery. Most slaves in the New World, though, were imported from Africa. Between 1500 and 1800, more Africans entered the Americas than Europeans. Twelve million Africans were sold into slavery on the Atlantic coast of Africa, usually by their fellow Africans. Nine million Africans survived the trip and were sold again in the Americas. Shippers treated the horrific loss of human life during the voyage as an acceptable business loss.

As diseases had traveled along the Silk Roads, so they also crossed the ocean. Smallpox, measles, and other sicknesses known in the eastern hemisphere met a population without resistance, and millions of native Americans died. Entire civilizations that met one group of Europeans disappeared before a second European group visited their homes decades later. Disease traveled so rapidly that smallpox had reached the Inca Empire of Pacific South America before the first European ships arrived there. Although sexually transmitted diseases had been known in the Old World since ancient times, a more virulent form of syphilis appeared almost immediately after the first European travelers returned to their homes after their voyages.

Europeans brought to the New World a concept of private property that was foreign to many native Americans. Tribal groups did not comprehend the meaning of some of the treaties they signed with the new settlers. Europeans also brought Christianity to the Americas. In some areas, missionaries worked patiently with the native population, seeking to convert people through preaching of the Word. In other areas, conversion was more violent. Spanish overlords forced the Aztecs and other native tribes to tear apart the pagan temples in their cities and to build Roman Catholic cathedrals. The overlords and priests were pleased to see the local population bowing in respect to the altar and to the statues of Jesus and Mary; the Spanish did not know that the builders had smuggled images of their pagan gods into the churches and altars, but the local population knew. In other parts of the New World, pagan religions and Christian faith combined into new religions such as Voodoo and Santeria.

Five hundred years ago, globalization took the form of the Columbian Exchange. Interactions between and among cultures continues into the present, with many European, Asian, and African influences at work in the Americas and many American influences at work in the rest of the world. J.

Why I write

If I wrote to make money, I would be badly disappointed. The tax documents that I am preparing to file remind me that what I earned through writing last year was a tiny sum, nowhere near enough to support the year’s mortgage or groceries.

If I wrote to become famous, I would be badly disappointed. Some of my writing has been read by others and even quoted by others, but I have probably been noticed more for my public speaking than for anything I have written.

If I wrote to change the world, I would be badly disappointed. A few people have told me that they were helped by something I have written, but for the most part the world has gone its own way without paying any attention to the things I have written.

Why, then, do I write? Largely I write because I must write. I have thoughts that must be expressed. People sometimes ask authors, “Where do you get your ideas?” Ideas swirl around in my mind like flies in a stable. When I am showering, or when I am mowing, or when I am driving, my mind is composing sentences and paragraphs on various topics. For me, writer’s block is not a question of nothing to say; writer’s block for me is too many things to say, crowded together like too many people trying to get through a doorway at the same time.

I earned good grades in school. I scored highly on standardized tests. I could easily have been a scientist, a mathematician, a businessman, or an engineer. I would probably have earned far more money in any of those careers. But my primary fascination has always been language. I read about science, and I understand what I read and find it interesting, but I do not regret refusing to pursue a career in that field. I read about economics, and I understand what I read and find it interesting, but I do not regret failing to work in the world of business.

A few years ago, I was invited into a classroom to talk to seventh- and eighth-graders about writing. I encouraged the students to do three things. Read a lot: being exposed every day to samples of good writing will always improve one’s writing. Write a lot: even when one writes something that goes unread, the exercise sharpens skills. Rewrite a lot: no one but God gets it right the first time. Good writing can always be improved. At the end of the session, one of the students heading out the door asked, “Are you famous?” I smiled and said, “Not yet.”

I wouldn’t mind earning more money for my writing. I wouldn’t mind becoming famous for my writing. I wouldn’t mind making the world a better place by my writing. If none of those things happen, I still must write. It’s who I am; it’s what I do. If I did not write, I would not be who I am. J.

Independence Day, freedom, and politics

On the Fourth of July, citizens of the United States of America celebrate Independence Day. Especially as part of a three-day weekend, the festivities include parades, picnics and cookouts, outdoor concerts, and fireworks shows. Independence Day is the biggest national holiday that is not faith-based, as are Christmas and Easter. Best of all, though, is that the day commemorates signatures on a document. The holiday is not about victory in battle, like Mexico’s Cinco de Mayo. It is not about a mob storming a castle, like France’s Bastille Day. Independence Day is about ideas: the idea of freedom, the idea of human rights, and the idea of government limited by the people and responsible to the people.

Thomas Jefferson echoed the philosophy of John Locke when he wrote that “all men are created equal… [and] are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights… among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Locke’s formula had been simpler—life, liberty, and property—but nothing is more American than the idea of the pursuit of happiness. Happiness is not guaranteed. Being created equal does not ensure that all people will be equally happy. We possess the right to pursue happiness, seeking happiness where we expect it to be found.

All rights are limited. Most Americans concede that a murderer or other violent criminal has waived a right to life, although a minority opposes the death penalty in all cases. Americans generally agree that certain crimes lead to imprisonment, a loss of liberty, although ongoing prison reform is needed to keep imprisonment from being a cruel and unusual punishment. Nearly all Americans concede the right of the government to tax its citizens so it can provide services needed by those citizens. These include the work of armed forces to keep citizens safe from hostile foreign governments and terrorists, police protection where we live, public schools, highways, inspections of various kinds to protect workers and customers and to limit pollution, and many other government functions. Citizens debate how many services the government should provide and how much property and liberty it can claim to make those services available. My point is that we can debate these questions. We can talk about them and write about them without fear of arrest and punishment. We can send messages to our leaders. We can vote leaders out of office and replace them with new leaders. We can work in campaigns of potential leaders or campaigns targeting specific policies and causes.

Freedom is not cheap. Not only do we need armed forces to protect us from those who would rob us of our freedom; we also need men and women willing to serve as leaders. These men and women know that they will be publicly insulted, mocked, and reviled. They expect to work long hours to educate themselves about the issues facing government, to respond to requests from the citizens they represent, and to talk to one another about the choices that must be made in their sessions. They will be paid less money than they could receive in other careers for which their abilities qualify them. They will be called “politicians” as if that word is vulgar. The positions they take will be challenged vigorously by opponents, and then they will be scolded by their supporters for compromises they must make to accomplish the work of government.

The word “politics” comes from the word “polis,” which described the independent units of ancient Greece (such as Athens, Sparta, and Corinth). Some poleis were monarchies; others were oligarchies. Athens experimented with broader participation in government, which their leaders called “democracy.” To make democracy work, citizens had to talk to each other. They had to listen to each other. They had to defend the ideas that were most important to them. They had to compromise on some of their ideas to preserve those ideas that ranked highest to them.

Politics is the art of communication and compromise which allows a government to rule wisely and efficiently. Otto von Bismarck is quoted as saying, “Laws are like sausages—you lose your appetite for them when you see how they are made.” Politics is not a career for the weak-hearted or the thick-headed. Politics requires quick and clear thinking, the ability to listen and to speak, and zeal for serving the citizens of a city, a state, or a country. Politics requires a strong trust in one’s own abilities, but also the humility to realize that, in every election, more than half the candidates are going to lose.

America needs politicians. In the United States, we have the privilege to choose among our politicians, to try to select the best of them to be our leaders, to disagree with our leaders, to inform them of our positions and beliefs, and to work to replace the leaders we think are wrong. This freedom, defined by the Continental Congress in 1776 and eventually structured by the Constitution of the United States, is celebrated on Independence Day across this great land. From sea to shining sea, let freedom ring! J.