If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Lesson summary: The Columbian Exchange

Summary of key people, events, and concepts related to the Columbian Exchange.
In 1492, Columbus landed in the Americas, starting a period of exploration and colonization.

Key terms

CaravelA small, fast ship used by the Spanish and Portuguese, which made exploration easier.
EpidemicThe spread of a disease to a large group of people within a population in a short period of time.
MercantilismAn economic theory that was designed to maximize trade for a nation and especially maximize the amount of gold and silver a country had.
Columbian ExchangeThe process by which commodities (horses, tomatoes, sugar, etc.), people, and diseases crossed the Atlantic.

Triangle trade of the Columbian Exchange

Chart showing the triangle trade, in which:
Europe sent textiles, rum, and manufactured goods to Africa Africa sent slaves to the Americas The Americas sent sugar and tobacco to Europe
The triangle trade, in which merchants on each continent sent commodities and people between Europe, Africa, and the Americas.

Key themes

Causes of European migration: After 1492, the motivations for European migration to the Americas centered around the three G’s: God, gold, and glory. Gold refers to the desire to extract natural resources like gold and sugar from the New World. European colonizers also had a desire to spread Christianity to the New World. Glory refers to the desire for European colonizers to increase their nation’s status as a world power and gain military strength through colonization.
Technological innovation: European colonization of the Americas was made substantially easier through several technological innovations like compasses, caravels, and astrolabes. It affected economic development by making it possible for large scale trade networks between the Old World and the New World to develop.
Cultural exchanges and trade networks: Initial contact between Native Americans and European colonizers began a process of cultural and biological exchanges between the Old World and the New known as the Columbian Exchange. The Columbian Exchange caused population growth in Europe by bringing new crops from the Americas and started Europe’s economic shift towards capitalism. Colonization disrupted ecosytems, bringing in new organisms like pigs, while completely eliminating others like beavers.

Review questions

  • What were the goals of Spanish colonization?
  • How did technology help fuel European colonization?
  • Can you name two positive and two negative effects of the Columbian Exchange?

Want to join the conversation?