Old World Crop Exchange in the New World
Europeans were good at conquering the New World. This is evidenced by the sustaining influence of Catholicism in North and South America, the cultural traditions directly transferred to the New World, and the rise in importance of sugar islands in the Caribbean. Arguably sugar was the most important Old World crop transplanted into the New World, but there were others.
Wheat, grapes, and olives were a staple for Europeans. Bread came from the wheat, wine from the grapes, and oils from the olives. The second Columbus voyage returned to the Americas with all sorts of seeds and plant clippings. Wheat, chickpeas, melons, onions, radishes, salad greens, grape vines, sugar cane, and fruits were introduced around 1494. Accounts left behind by Europeans in the New World initially reported of the massive success of these old crops in the New World. Early successes provided Europeans with hope that they could refuse the native bounty of the New World. Their ethnic hierarchy would remain intact and they would not be forced to eat corn, for example, which some believed would turn them into Indians.
These early successes were short lived. Old World crops could not be sustained beyond one or two seasons. Success came from the lowly garden crops that were usually planted on small farms or gardens of the elites. Cauliflowers, cabbages, radishes, lettuce, and melons prospered. Over time, these Old World crops were planted in larger quantities and used as export goods.
An attribute of the conquering Europeans was that they gave up on cultivating crops that would not grow in the subtropical regions of the New World. Instead, they took New World crops and introduced them to regions where they were not found. This may explain why maize is found throughout the Americas instead of where it is indigenous in present-day Mexico.
Notable exceptions to agricultural failures in the New World were sugar, tobacco, and coffee. All of these crops originated from the Mediterranean area. When they were introduced to regions in the New World, they became very successful. These staple crops became the lynchpins of what would become the massive plantation system in the New World. In many respects, sugar, tobacco, and coffee justified the use of slavery as a labor force.