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Columbus Day and the Columbian Exchange

Schoolchildren wave Italian flags on a float in the Columbus Day parade in New York, Oct. 13, 2014. The parade is organized by the Columbus Citizens Foundation, and is billed as the world's largest celebration of Italian-American heritage and culture.

On October 12th, 1492, three Spanish ships, under the leadership of Christopher Columbus, landed on an island in what is today the Bahamas.

On October 12th, 1492, three Spanish ships, under the leadership of Christopher Columbus, landed on an island in what is today the Bahamas. The anniversary of that event, observed annually in the United States as Columbus Day, initiated a vast, global exchange of foods, animals, plants, peoples and diseases that transformed the world, known today as the Columbian Exchange. For that reason, 1492 is considered by many historians to be the most significant year in modern world history.

World population has increased more than four times since 1492, doubling between 1650 and 1850. Although a number of contributing factors are responsible for such an enormous growth, clearly the most significant is an increased and improved food supply. The addition to the food supply of native American food plants such as maize, potato, tomato, peanuts, manioc, pineapple, peppers and cocoa beans was the most significant factor.

The potato became the most important food source for the poor in central and northern Europe. Maize and manioc, were introduced to Africa in the sixteenth century, and replaced traditional African crops as the continent’s most important staple food crops.

The introduction to China of New World food crops, in particular potatoes, corn and peanuts, resulted in a population boom between 1500 and 1650. By the eighteenth century, over one third of the world's population lived in China.

The Columbian Exchange was global, introducing new foods to every corner of the world. Before 1492, there were no oranges in Florida, no bananas in Ecuador, no paprika in Hungary. The exchange brought tomatoes to Italy, coffee to Colombia and Indonesia, pineapples to Hawaii, rubber trees to Africa, chili peppers to Thailand, China and India, and chocolate to Switzerland.

The landfall of three small ships on an island in the Bahamas brought about unprecedented change in the course of history. It shaped the future of human kind for centuries to come, not just because of the discovery of a new continent, but because it brought about regular contact between the earth's hemispheres, engendering trade, allowing for an exchange of ideas, and creating connections and encounters between cultures.

In 1492, the peoples of the world began to come together as a global society, and that is good for all peoples.