Sunday, February 19, 2012

Charles Mann's 1493

When Columbus reached Hispaniola in 1492, he started a profound change in the world.

Life in the eastern and western hemispheres had been evolving in different directions for a hundred million years, since North America split from Europe and the Atlantic Ocean began to open. The barrier was far from absolute, and many species had been able to cross in one way or another – including people – but the ecosystems remained very different. Human cultures in the two hemispheres had been developing separately for 13,000 years, and the civilizations of Mesoamerica and Peru had arisen without any knowledge of the civilizations of the Old World that they in some ways closely resembled.

Columbus’ arrival changed all that. In his wake ships of a dozen European nations began to crisscross the world’s oceans, carrying revolution in their tiny holds. The economy of China was upended by sweet potatoes, maize, and silver from America, carried across the Pacific on Spanish galleons built in Acapulco by African and Malaysian carpenters. To Europe went more silver, along with the potato, which in the golden decades before blight and the potato beetle produced five times the calories per acre of wheat. The populations of both China and Europe doubled. Maize and manioc transformed African agriculture. The Americas were overrun with European and African people, and, tragically, their diseases. Tobacco smoke became part of the culture on every continent. The huge profits earned by managing this exchange made Europe the economic center of the world, and innovations like joint-stock companies, insurance exchanges, and commodities markets were driven forward by the needs of overseas trade.

Charles Mann’s 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created (2011) is an entertaining, thought-provoking look at this “Columbian exchange.” I found it fascinating from beginning to end. As he did in 1491, Mann judiciously summarizes a vast swath of recent scholarship, this time mainly in the cutting edge field of environmental history. The work Mann reviews is new and highly controversial, and much that Mann says may turn out not to be true. He also has a habit of sketching the possible impacts of things like European potato farming in maximal terms, making it seem like potatoes alone were responsible for the industrial revolution. This can be fascinating, but the reader should remember that Mann is carrying out thought experiments that ignore all the other variables in the equation to focus on one. With that caveat in mind, this is a great book, and reading it gave me much pleasure and taught me many new things.

Mann has a fine eye for the telling historical detail, focusing in on certain times and places that most clearly show the effects of globalization. One of my favorite parts was his description of Mexico City in the seventeenth century, when it was the first global city. Europeans were a small minority, much outnumbered by both Indians and Africans. Fifty languages were spoken on the streets. Chinese barbers drove Spanish barbers out of business by combining bloodletting and minor surgery with acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine. Another great section covers the maroon communities that were formed by runaway African slaves. From Brazil to the Great Dismal Swamp, hundreds of thousands of Africans fled slavery for the forest, often living together with displaced Indians. In a few places they set up independent kingdoms that warred with the Spanish and Portuguese authorities and even signed treaties that guaranteed their independence. In England the sack of Panama City and the seizure of mule trains loaded with silver were celebrated as the achievements of Sir Francis Drake, but really most of the men and firepower were supplied by an essentially free maroon kingdom in the Panamanian jungle. On the Mosquito Coast of what is now Honduras and Nicaragua, Africans and Miskitu Indians set up a string of four kingdoms, and with British support they maintained their independence until 1894. In these Maroon kingdoms the people practiced idiosyncratic mixtures of African, Indian, and European culture, such as the blended religions of Santeria and Voodoo. In the Brazilian Amazon, isolated maroon communities have endured down to the present day, and their right to the land they occupy was finally recognized a few years ago by the Brazilian government.

While the scholarship of these developments is exciting, much of what happened was and remains sad. Before 1800, most of the people who crossed the Atlantic did so as slaves; in the first three centuries of trans-Atlantic contact, two or three times as many enslaved Africans crossed the ocean as free Europeans. Their average life expectancy, once they boarded slave ships, may have been as little as 4 or 5 years. The great sugar planters of Brazil and the Caribbean used up Africans like another raw material, not caring how many survived as long as more could be bought. In those lands centuries passed before self-sustaining black communities could grow up. Even more awful was the fate of American Indians, 90 percent of whom may have been wiped out by European diseases. What smallpox and the measles did in North America, malaria and yellow fever did in the tropics, devastating populations, wrecking communities and obliterating whole ways of life. It took 300 years for Native American populations to develop enough resistance to those diseases to begin to rebound, and by that time most of the New World had been conquered by the Spanish, Portuguese, English and French. It is a sad story but very much part of how the modern world came to be as it is, and Charles Mann gives it an excellent telling.

Mann is remarkably fair-minded and intensely curious, he works hard, his writing is fine, and he has chosen a fascinating and important subject. I give 1493 my highest recommendation, just as I did with his earlier book, 1491.

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