The Great Exchange

The global exchange of cultures, plants, animals, and, disease.

It was called the Age of Exploration. It was the era during which explorers threw open the doors to new lands and not only made exciting discoveries, but also helped develop a larger global economy. The people living on the continents of Africa, Asia, and Europe, known as the Old World, already had access to each other, but broadened their world when they introduced themselves to the Americas, bringing with them their cultures, plants, animals, and, unfortunately, disease. In turn, the New World sent its cultures, plants, animals, and disease back to the Old World.

This was the Great Exchange.

Early explorers such as Christopher Columbus set sail for Asia, hoping to bring back exotic spices, gold, and other goods to be sold at reasonable prices. Spices were valued because Europeans used them as flavoring for food, preservatives, and medicine.

In fact, spices such as pepper and cloves made the long journey from Southeast Asia (modern day Indonesia) to India, then Arabia, and finally to Italy. As the journey progressed, as one trader followed the other, each increased the price of the spices as they moved westward until the price was so high in Europe, only royalty could afford to buy them. The goal of the early explorers was to cut out the middlemen in India, Arabia, and some places in Italy. By having a more direct route, spices wouldn’t be priced so high and more people could afford them.

When Christopher Columbus finally landed in America, he did not find the Asian pepper, cloves, and other spices he was looking for, but, instead, found new and exciting products, encountered new cultures, and saw strange and wonderful animals. In fact, Europeans thought this was a terrific opportunity to expand their borders, produce valuable commodities, develop new settlements for their crowded countries, and spread Christianity to the Native people in the Americas. The Spanish, Portuguese, French, and English all began to mine silver and gold, grow tobacco and sugar, and send thousands of people to build settlements in their territories. That was all well and good, but the new settlers in America also wanted the familiar foods and animals from their homeland. When they brought these plants and animals from their homes to the New World, these new things changed the landscape, affected indigenous animals, and exposed Native American populations to new diseases.

Throughout this site you will discover the cultures, plants, animals, and diseases that were introduced from the Old World to the New World, as well as from the New World to the Old World. Discover the impact this exchange had on the world as a whole. Test your knowledge on some of the items exchanged that can still be found in a modern discount store. Explore what products England was importing and exporting in 1683. Are there any products you recognize from life today?

To access the Mariners' Museum's Great Exchange online and printable activities, visit the "Activities" page, or click the link below.

Great Exchange online and printable activities