A New World: 6 Ways the Journeys of Columbus Changed Civilization

The Imaginative Conservative

The voyages of Christopher Columbus impacted the world in significant ways. When Columbus and his fleet landed in the Bahamas in 1492, they were exposed to an entirely new continent filled with animals, plants, and people never before seen by Europeans. New webs of interconnectedness began between the Old World and the New World. Communication and trade networks developed. Historians call this connectedness the Columbian Exchange.

There were millions of plants, animals, people, and diseases transported between the Old World and the New World in the post-Columbian era. For the first time, trade routes between Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas were sustainable and fruitful. Many of the initial trade relationships remain into the present day, although with modifications. Ideas were also traded as part of the Columbian Exchange, which led to nation building, urbanization, and eventually industrialization. Below are some of the most significant exchanges that began with the accidental landing of Columbus in the West Indies.

Bust of a patient with tertiary syphilis. Musee de l’Homme, Tracadero, Paris. Public Domain


The French disease was introduced to the Old World by returning sailors from the Christopher Columbus voyages. Syphilis had many names depending upon which European had it. Russians called it the Polish disease; the Poles called it the German disease; people in the Middle East called it the European pustules; people in India called it the disease of the Franks; and the Chinese called it the ulcer of Canton. Finally, in the nineteenth century it universally became known as syphilis.

Syphilis is caused by bacteria and most commonly transferred from one person to another during sexual activity. Congenital syphilis is transmitted during pregnancy or birth. The infection appears shortly after contraction. During the first phase the skin begins to show firm, non-itchy, and painless ulcerations that can range from just a few to a multitude over the body. In the second phase, a rash will usually appear on the hands or the feet. When the rash disappears, syphilis has entered into its third phase.

The third phase of syphilis is a latent period with no symptoms that can last for years. When the infection enters into its fourth and final stage, it becomes horrific and causes death. People in the fourth stage of syphilis have numerous growths all over their bodies. Many slowly go blind and insane. When the infection attacks the nerves and heart, death is slow and painful.

Columbus had three voyages to the New World. Each time they stayed for several months and then returned to Europe carrying with them Native Americans and other New World goods. Only after 1493 is there documented evidence of syphilis in the Old World. When the infection spread throughout Europe and into Asia, there was no cure aside from local remedies. People may have thought that they were cured, but in actuality, they were most likely in the dormant phase of the infection.

Syphilis spread quickly through Europe after 1493. Painters and writers have depicted the infection in their works. When America entered into the First World War in 1917, it had created a massive campaign geared toward soldiers going overseas to avoid contracting the French Disease. This campaign seems somewhat ironic considering the origins of syphilis are in the Americas. Penicillin, discovered after the Second World War, cures the infection in its early stages.