1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann

Back when I reviewed Mann's pop-archaeology classic 1491, I mentioned that I'd held off reading it for a while for fear that it would be excessively polemical in a "Cortez the Killer" kind of way. Happily, it was not, so when I saw he had a sequel coming out, I didn't hesitate to pick it up (in electronic form, this time).

As you can probably guess from the title and subtitle, 1493 is about what happened after Europeans made contact with the Americas. This covers a wide range of material, from straight history, to biology, to economics, but the central theme of the whole thing is basically that globalization started about 500 years before people started talking about globalization. Starting as early as the 1500's, the world became linked by a complicated web of trade that shuffled plants, animals, and people all around the globe. The end result of this is that the landscapes and lifestyles of even areas considered relatively unspoiled until the 20th century have, in fact, been profoundly altered by global trade.

Some of this is old news, but Mann makes a point of looking at familiar history from a different angle. For example, while more or less anyone who has ever argued economics on the Internet knows that a flood of precious metal from South America eventually crashed Spain's economy, Mann argues that this was actually a relatively minor effect of the global web of trade. In fact, most of the silver extracted from Spanish colonies left South America headed in the opposite direction, for China. The Chinese, at that time the world's largest economy, had a pressing need for silver, and traded huge amounts of silk and other goods to the Spanish, often to a level that the monarchs on either end found distressing. And along with silver came New World plants like maize and potatoes, which greatly changed Chinese agriculture, which in turn led to drastic environmental changes, and so on.

The other most significant trade involved was, of course, the slave trade, and Mann points out that the vast majority of people crossing the Atlantic prior to the late 1800s were African slaves, who outnumbered Europeans by a huge margin. Mann notes that even back in Adam Smith's day, economists were hard pressed to understand how the slave system made economic sense, but Mann argues biology played a crucial role: Africans were vastly less susceptible to diseases like malaria and yellow fever than Europeans, who were so prone to illness as to be essentially useless as laborers anywhere that malaria could prosper. High demand for the crops that could be produced in the New World-- primarily sugar and tobacco, at first-- led Europeans to import Africans, who were less prone to crippling disease, so that biological factor helped create the appalling chattel slavery system.

Slaves crossing the Atlantic and silver crossing the Pacific are the two main trades Mann discusses, but they provide the seed for many interesting stories-- the tense history of Spanish-Chinese trade in Manila, the almost comically incompetent colonization of Jamestown, the tangled history of Chinese piracy. Among the most fascinating of these is the story of the "maroon" communities of escaped slaves and Indians who set up their own communities and even kingdoms, sometimes right under the noses of the European colonists.

And there are all sorts of interesting tales about the mingling of plants and animals from different parts of the world, which Mann takes evident pleasure in relating, including this bit about invasive species in the Canary Islands:

[Spanish] colonists brought donkeys to Fuerteventura, the chain's second-biggest island. Inevitably, the animals escaped. So many bands of donkeys rampaged through the grain fields, reported a historian who lived there at the time, that the government "assemble[d] all the inhabitants and dogs in the island, to endeavor to destroy them." An orgy of asinine slaughter ensued.

That last sentence was clearly a whole lot of fun to get to write.

Anyway, as with 1491, this is a very good and engaging read. It makes some claims that are provocative-- that malaria is a critical factor for the origin of the slave trade, that the potato was essential for producing the political stability that led Europe to conquer the world, that the Little Ice Age might be due in part to the reduction in burning of forests after disease wiped out 90% of the population of the Americas-- but whose accuracy is difficult for me to judge. I suspect some of these are overstated, but whether they are or not, they make for interesting reading, and thinking afterwards.

It's an interesting book to read, and will probably provide the seed for at least a couple of blog posts beyond this review. As with the previous book, I'm happy to recommend it to anybody interested in the subject; and if Mann's right about the extent to which the modern world was shaped by globalization, pretty much everybody ought to be interested in the subject.


More like this

As mentioned earlier in the week, I recently read Charles C. Mann's 1493 (see also this interview at Razib's place), which includes a long section about the colony at Jamestown. Like most such operations, the earliest colonists were almost comically incompetent, managing to nearly starve to death…
We picked up a used copy of Charles Mann's pop-archeology book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus a while back. I didn't read it at the time, because I was a little afraid that it would be rather polemical in what I think of as the Neil Young mode-- wildly overstating the…
'Pristine' Amazonian Region Hosted Large, Urban Civilization: The paper also argues that the size and scale of the settlements in the southern Amazon in North Central Brazil means that what many scientists have considered virgin tropical forests are in fact heavily influenced by historic human…
YouTube - Walk on water "Liquid Mountaineering is a new sport which is attempting to achieve what man has tried to do for centuries: walk on water. Or to be more precise: running on water. We are developing the sport from scratch. By accident we found out that with the right water repellent…

I just finished 1493 last night on my Nook. I concur with your review--fascinating reading, with some claims that might be a bit over-blown. I learned a good deal, though, and recommend it. Not for the Nook, however: the illustrations, and especially the maps, don't show up well on the small screen.

Excellent! I'm glad to hear this. I really liked 1491, and I was hoping that 1493 lived up to it.

Another take on why slave labor was useful economically is found in Pietra Rivoli's The Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy, where she talks about cotton, and the need for a lot of labor suddenly yet unpredictably, as many of the stages of cotton farming then were driven by weather changes. Everybody would need lots of labor at the same time, forcing up the cost of labor and making labor acquisition less predictable. Another interesting globalization book, that despite its title, doesn't just cover modern globalization.

Don't overlook the lowly chili pepper! Although there were peppery spices used in Szechuan and south asian cuisine before the arrival of the chili from the Americas, many of the ingredients we take for granted in Chinese and Thai food are native to a different continent.

Concerning slaves and disease, I have been reading some great articles about interbreeding between h Sapiens and Neanderthals and Denisovans (recent The New Yorker plus news stories about very recent journal publications on the subject) that indicate Africans have a different genome in key areas related to immune response as a result of this very ancient history.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 30 Aug 2011 #permalink

It has also been argued that the potato and sweet potato enabled a huge increase in the Chinese population after about 1600. The potato produces more carbohydrates per acre than anything else, and served as a backup in years when the rice crop failed. Even now Chinese don't seem to like potatoes much, and I think it's because they're regarded as the poor man's substitute for rice (a kind of attitude not unknown in Europe.) A student of mine who had studied in Germany liked almost everything there but eating potatoes every day.

Ketchup is a 1493 international sauce, Mexican tomatoes prepared Asian style. There's an argument about the origin of the word, but a South Chinese origin is most likely.

By John Emerson (not verified) on 02 Sep 2011 #permalink