Columbus, a self-taught scholar and voracious reader, had studied math, astronomy and cartography. He told the Spanish monarchs that he strongly believed he could reach Asia from Europe by sailing west across the Atlantic. After lobbying the Spanish court for two years, the monarchs agreed to finance his trip. They were hopeful that Columbus would discover great riches, which would fatten Spain’s coffers and help them to spread Catholicism.
Interesting Side Note: It is now theorized that Christopher Columbus may have in fact been a Jew living in hiding—known at the time as a converso. Read more here.
Columbus embarked on the first of what would be four voyages, reaching the Bahamian Islands on October 12, 1492. He discovered a thriving indigenous people, the Taino (a tribe of the native Arawaks), who drew sustenance from colorful native crops, fish, and game. Maize, beans, squash, and seafood were central components of the native diet. In one of his logs, Columbus described a native meal, which was comprised of fish and “bread which tasted exactly as if it were made of chestnuts.”
Fish and wild fowl (turkey) were the main sources of meat. Other regional crops included cacao (chocolate), maize, potato, tomato, capsicum, peppers, cassava, pumpkins, and groundnuts (peanuts). Tropical fruits enhanced the native diet, such as pineapple, avocado, guava, and papaya. Most of these foods were new and unfamiliar to Columbus and his crew. In Hispaniola, the first settlement in the New World, the native foods of the Taino tribe became an important source of sustenance to the European colonizers.
In the early days of Hispaniola, many European colonizers died due to disease. At the time, their demise was largely attributed to malnutrition. While European settlers enjoyed native foods made with maize and cassava, they believed that somehow their bodies were not equipped to handle these foods. On subsequent voyages to the New World, Columbus brought with him European foodstuffs that would drastically change the cultural and ecological landscape of the Americas.
On Columbus’ second voyage he brought wheat bread, as well as radishes, chickpeas, and melons. Livestock came from Europe, including horses, cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, and chickens. Over time, new crops were introduced to the Americas, including wheat, rice, barley, oats, coffee, sugar cane, citrus fruits, melons and Kentucky bluegrass. The introduction of wheat was of particular significance. For thousands of years, bread had been a central part of the European diet. Wheat was not indigenous to the Americas, where maize was the native grain. In the first few decades of colonization, European settlers imported goods like bread, wine, olive oil and certain meats. Over time, wheat and other European foodstuffs were cultivated and grown in the Americas.
While European colonizers had difficulty adjusting to the new food culture of the Americas, they took a toll on the native landscape as well. Before Columbus came to the New World, it is estimated that some 250,000 natives Arawaks lived on the Bahamian islands. By the early 1500’s, less than 15,000 remained, most having perished after exposure to European diseases (for which they had no immunity).
When all is said and done, the Spanish hoped to Europeanize the native populations of the islands of the Caribbean and convert them to Catholicism. By attributing the deaths of European settlers to native foods, they were buoying their argument for the superiority of European food and, simultaneously, European values. This strange intersection of native American foods and European crops gave rise to a brand new food culture, which we still enjoy the fruits of today.
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