Friday, March 20, 2015

Review: 1493

From 1493, by Charles C. Mann:
Open quote 

What happened after Columbus, this new research says, was nothing less than the forming of a single new world from the collision of two old worlds -- three, if one counts Africa as separate from Eurasia. Born in the sixteenth century from European desires to join the thriving Asian trade sphere, the economic system for exchange ended up transforming the globe into a single ecological system by the nineteenth century -- almost instantly, in biological terms."

After the jump, my review.

Grade: C+

Globalization became a buzzword with the advent of the Internet, integrating communications, commerce, and culture on a global scale. But five centuries earlier, Columbus's voyages triggered the first wave of globalization, in some ways even more significant. 1493 is the story of those changes.

1493 tells the story of Columbus, Cortes, Balboa, Pizarro, Pocahontas and the other characters so familiar to American schoolchildren. But whereas American history books tend to stop with the discoveries and conquests, 1493 tells us the rest of the story. Diseases like malaria and yellow fever were introduced by Columbus to the New World. They were deadly, not just to millions of natives, but to the European immigrants as well. Mann makes a compelling case that slavery supplanted indentured servitude in the Americas because Africans had a lower death rate from these diseases.

American history is partial to the small English colonies on the eastern seaboard, but Mexico City was the hub where America, Europe, Africa and then Asia all came together in what Mann calls the world's first 21st century city. The earliest explorers were looking for China. When the Spanish galleons met Chinese junks in Manila, they found China had an insatiable demand for silver from Bolivian mines. Europe had an insatiable demand for silk and porcelain from China. It all changed hands in Manila, Philippines. Mann tells the story of how the first truly global trade system in history worked.

U.S. history books tell the story of white Europeans conquering the American wilderness. They rarely tell the story of the interaction of Africans with Indians. Especially in South and Central America and the Caribbean, huge numbers of runaway slaves formed communities in the interior. They mixed with the natives and formed new and unique African-Indian cultures. In South America particularly, these communities were often larger than the tiny European colonies hugging the coasts. They persist into the present day. Brazil still struggles to resolve land ownership disputes between locals and developers in the vast Amazon basin.

Mann details not only the globalization of commerce and politics, he also details the biological changes wrought by globalization. Famines were common every decade or two in both Europe and Asia in Columbus's time. Mann makes the compelling case that it was the transplanting of maize and potatoes from the Americas to Europe and China that freed the Old World from Malthusian limitations and triggered an explosion in world population. And it's not just food species that spread around the world. Mann shows how rubber, of all things, became a key natural resource, telling its story from its origin in Brazil as a curiosity (bouncing balls) to its modern role as a strategic resource used in industrial engines and medical equipment.

The Times of London called 1493 "almost mind-boggling in its scope." And that's probably its biggest flaw. Its title is deceptively narrow -- a single year. Don't be fooled. Its subtitle, "Uncovering the New World Columbus Created" reveals just how broad its scope is because the new world that Columbus created is our world today, the whole globalized kit and kaboodle. To cover it all, Mann keeps moving fast, sometimes too fast. He reduces it all to a more manageable, but still long, string of anecdotes. He gives you the gist of the story, but you're left wondering if he might have been better off giving six or eight of the anecdotes separate treatments in books of their own.

1493 is available in Kindle format from the Richardson Public Library. :-)

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