Coffee, Cacao, Tobacco, and Sugar Are Sold Worldwide Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Asian and New World foods were among the first items of global trade. While Europeans treated most new foods with apprehension or grew them as botanical curiosities, coffee, tea, cacao, tobacco and sugar became important plantation crops as colonies were founded and worked by slave labor to satisfy Europeans’ desires.

Summary of Event

The original impetus of European exploration was to find a sea route to Asia to gain direct access to the spice trade. The Portuguese accomplished this at the end of the fifteenth century by rounding the southern tip of Africa in 1488 under Bartolomeu Dias and eventually with the voyage of Vasco da Gama in 1498, which reached India. India became a launching pad for the establishment of numerous trading posts throughout Southeast Asia and ultimately the Spice Islands Spice Islands , or Moluccas, now in Indonesia. In the long run this route circumvented the Venetian spice trade in the Mediterranean via Arab middlemen, increasing the volume of spices reaching Europe, lowering their cost, and thereby making them commodities that enjoyed more widespread consumption. Trade;New World foods Gama, Vasco da Columbus, Christopher Monardes, Nicolas Gama, Vasco da Columbus, Christopher Monardes, Nicolas

Hoping to find a westerly route to Asia, Christopher Columbus was commissioned by Isabella, the queen of Castile, in 1492 to venture across the Atlantic and around the globe. Seriously underestimating the circumference of the earth, Columbus believed he had landed somewhere off the coast of Asia when he arrived in the Caribbean. Columbus and his men were the first Europeans to taste the sweet potato, yucca, corn, chilies, and tobacco. These New World products, along with tomatoes, new varieties of beans, squash, turkeys, and eventually cacao from Mexico and potatoes from South America, were soon exported to Europe.

Those foods that readily fit a culinary niche occupied by a similar and familiar food were soon enthusiastically adopted. For example, corn was easy to grow and soon replaced millet and barley in porridges throughout southern Europe. Turkeys were similar to fowl already familiar to Europeans, and New World beans supplemented the varieties already known. None of these, however became major items of world commerce because they could easily adapt to the European climate and were grown at home. In the ensuing decades, chilies were grown in the Middle East and, along with sweet potatoes, found their way to Asia. Tomatoes and potatoes, on the other hand, would take several centuries before becoming major parts of the European diet.

A number of crops could be grown only in subtropical climates, and it was these that fueled colonial expansion. The first was sugar, originating in Southeast Asia. During the Middle Ages, Europeans had purchased it through Arab merchants, and it remained a rare and expensive luxury. After experimenting with the crop in the southern Mediterranean and on their island possessions in the Atlantic, Madeira, and the Canaries, Europeans found sugar to be the ideal plantation crop. The Portuguese planted it in Brazil, the Spanish in the Caribbean, and eventually the British on Barbados and Jamaica and the French and Dutch in their Caribbean colonies. To satisfy the European sweet tooth, African slaves were imported to these colonies to supply the cheap labor needed, especially after the Native American populations were decimated by European diseases and warfare. Slavery;Americas Sugar was used in Europe as a practically universal flavoring, not only in confectionery but also in savory dishes, and increasingly in novel new drinks. As a byproduct of sugar manufacturing, molasses and rum distilled from it also became items of commerce.

Cacao was the first of the newly introduced hot drinks, discovered in Mexico among the Aztecs, who drank it flavored with vanilla and chilies. The Europeans added sugar and spices, and cacao became the first New World luxury item to cause a sensation. Physicians proclaimed it a wonderfully nourishing and medicinal food, and Spanish nobles were soon found idly sipping hot chocolate throughout the day. When Nicolas Monardes, a Spanish botanist, first proclaimed its virtues in print, chocolate quickly became a status symbol and a major item of commerce at a time when there were few items available for conspicuous consumption.

Tobacco Tobacco , another New World product, was similarly hailed as a medicinal herb good to combat coughs and colds. Soon its medicinal reputation was eclipsed by its recreational use, despite the fact that some physicians condemned it, as did the king of England James I in his Counterblaste to Tobacco. In the seventeenth century, it would become the crop that sustained the British colony of Virginia, and it led directly to the importation of massive numbers of African slaves into what would become the United States. Other “medicinal” herbs followed a similar fate: After being touted as miracle drugs, they eventually made their way into soft drinks. Sarsaparilla and sassafras (root beer) are prime examples. Agriculture;slavery and

Following a more circuitous route, coffee originated in what is now Ethiopia, making its way through Arabia and eventually to the Ottoman Empire, where it was celebrated as a sobering alternative to alcohol, formally forbidden by the Islamic faith. By the seventeenth century, northern European and Protestant countries had enthusiastically embraced coffee as a stimulant that would keep them alert through long hours of work. It also became a vehicle for social and commercial discourse as coffeehouses sprang up and offered a place to quaff the new drink while doing business or discussing politics or the arts. As coffee was grown on a wider scale and became more readily available, it gradually supplanted beer as a typical morning drink, not only for wealthy Europeans but increasingly at every level of society.

Tea Tea had long been an expensive luxury item in Europe and at first lagged behind coffee in popularity. It did not become readily available until the seventeenth century, and it supplanted coffee only in countries such as Britain after they had established plantations in India and protected the trade of tea throughout their empire. In subsequent centuries, sweetened tea became an indispensable part of the British diet at every level of society, often supplanting more nourishing foods in the average household budget.


The introduction of Asian and New World foods not only expanded the global economy in ways that anticipated trade today but also radically transformed the diets of people throughout the world. The Irish came to depend on potatoes for basic sustenance, with disastrous results when this dominant crop was destroyed by blight in the 1840’, followed by famine and migration. Tomatoes and peppers became staples in southern European cooking. The Chinese experienced a population boom after the introduction of sweet potatoes. Coffee continues to be a major commodity grown and sipped throughout the world, and chocolate, especially in solid edible form, provides one of the principal ingredients for the confectionery industry.

Two commodities that have had perhaps the greatest impact, for different reasons, are tobacco and sugar. Tobacco remains one of the major recreational drugs used throughout the world, with unfortunate consequences for human health, but its successful cultivation fueled the economies of fledgling colonies, notably that of Virginia. Sugar, likewise, became a dominant part of the economies of Caribbean colonies, and its entry into the human diet has had perhaps subtler but widespread implications for human health.

These changes are emblematic of a larger and more important phenomenon: The exchange of plants and animals across the globe, which expanded precipitously after fifteenth and sixteenth century exploration laid the groundwork for seventeenth century colonization. This global exchange dramatically altered the biological makeup and ecology of most places on earth, as native flora and fauna succumbed to the invasions, both intentional and accidental, of plants and animals raised commercially.

The impact of new crops was not only dietary and ecological but also social: To sustain their colonial settlements in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, Europeans—who originally had sought quicker access to trade with the East—were desperate to identify and develop new commodities for export to their mother nations. These commodities would make or break the success the survival of the distant settlements. Over time, resources and particularly labor needed to fuel the success of the new agriculture would lead Europeans to rationalize an increasing dependence on indentured servants and, by the 1620’s in the Americas, slavery Slavery;colonization’s effect on . This development had radical implications that would both shape and hinder national identities to this day. The legacy of slavery and colonial plantation economies has left transplanted peoples throughout the world and has contributed significantly to grave imbalances in wealth and standards of living across the planet.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crosby, Alfred. Ecological Imperialism. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1986. A study of how the world was biologically transformed by the exchange of plants, animals, humans, and diseases.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Foster, Nelson, and Linda S. Cordell, eds. Chilies to Chocolate: Foods the Americas Gave to the World. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1992. Detailed articles focus on the introduction of New World products to the rest of the globe.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power. New York: Penguin, 1985. The classic treatment of how sugar rose to become a major item of world trade and a major component of the diet.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Salaman, Redcliffe. The History and Social Influence of the Potato. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1949. The unsurpassed account of how the potato was introduced and became a dietary staple throughout the world.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. Tastes of Paradise. New York: Vintage Books, 1993. Discusses the allure of exotic new products in the European imagination, arguing that chocolate was an ideal drink for the Spanish, who valued leisure, while coffee and tea, as more potent stimulants, were ideally suited to northern Europe, where the Protestant work ethic held sway.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sokolov, Raymond. Why We Eat What We Eat. New York: Summit Books, 1991. Good basic overview of how the modern diet has been influenced by new foods since the sixteenth century.

Early 1460’s: Labor Shortages Alter Europe’s Social Structure

1490’s: Decline of the Silk Road

Early 16th cent.: Rise of the Fur Trade

16th cent.: China’s Population Boom

16th century: Worldwide Inflation

1502: Beginning of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

1502-1520: Reign of Montezuma II

1531-1585: Antwerp Becomes the Commercial Capital of Europe

Autumn, 1543: Europeans Begin Trade with Japan

1545-1548: Silver Is Discovered in Spanish America

Dec. 31, 1600: Elizabeth I Charters the East India Company

Categories: History