“Columbus’s voyage did not mark the discovery of a new world, but its creation.” So claims Charles Mann in his impressive 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. After reading the book, I can’t help but agree.
Mann builds on the work of scholars like Alfred Crosby, who posited that “[a]fter Columbus, ecosystems that had been separate for eons suddenly met and mixed in a process” he called “the Columbian Exchange.” While being “neither fully controlled nor understood by its participants,” the exchange “took corn (maize) to Africa and sweet potatoes to East Asia, horses and apples to the Americas, and rhubarb and eucalyptus to Europe—and also swapped about a host of less-familiar organisms like insects, grasses, bacteria, and viruses.” It also moved people all around the globe.
Sound like something you’ve heard before? The core argument may not be new, but the examples Mann uses to bolster his take on it are fascinating. For instance, when revisiting the effects of European diseases on Native Americans (which he examined at length in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus), Mann makes the case that the Columbian Exchange may have temporarily helped cause “today’s climate change in reverse.” Specifically, the Little Ice Age of 1550-1750 (or so), which brought hard winters, late springs, and bad harvests to the Northern Hemisphere, might have been a secondary consequence of the mass death of Native Americans: prior to Europeans’ arrival, Native Americans used fire to shape their surroundings, regularly burning forests on such a scale that for “weeks on end, smoke from Indian bonfires shrouded Florida, California, and the Great Plains.” But after smallpox and other plagues took their devastating toll, the fires diminished, resulting in less CO2 in the atmosphere, more trees to reduce the CO2 that remained, and a colder climate. Then there’s the role malaria (and to a lesser degree, yellow fever) likely played in the rise of the Atlantic slave trade. This other “Old World” disease was no friendlier to Native Americans, but it flourished in the warmer areas of the Americas so virulently that European colonists died there in droves. But Africans’ inherited and acquired resistance to the illness meant that “biologically speaking, they were fitter, which is another way of saying that in these places they were—loaded words!—genetically superior.” Sadly, Africans’ immunity “became a wellspring for their enslavement,” since for (unscrupulous) Europeans “the economic logic was hard to ignore. If they wanted to grow tobacco, rice, or sugar, they were better off using African slaves than European indentured servants or Indian slaves.” Not coincidentally, the “Mason-Dixon line roughly split the East Coast into two zones, one in which falciparum malaria was an endemic threat, and one in which it was not.” And that’s just for starters: 1493 goes on to delve into the Galleon Trade and chart how Spanish silver from the brutal mining town of Potosí, Bolivia knit the world together like never before, financing wars in Europe and fueling a debilitating currency crisis in China, long the world’s largest economy. Next, Mann tracks the impact of crop migrations (like the introduction of Andean potatoes into Europe), the birth of the “agro-industrial complex,” the race for Amazonian rubber, and finally the “extraordinary cultural mix that slavery inadvertently promoted.” Mann’s writing is excellent, and the book is stuffed with devastating details, such as the tidbit that, when officials at the Peruvian mine of Huancavelica dug up the graves of their conscripted Native American workers in 1605, they found that the miners’ corpses left behind puddles of inhaled mercury. But while Mann argues in his prologue that “globalization brought both enormous economic gains and ecological and social tumult that threatened to offset those gains,” and later that “the huge benefits of moving species outweigh the huge harms,” his emphasis is decidedly on the negative aspects. In short, 1493 isn’t—and doesn’t pretend to be—a comprehensive account of the roots of the modern world. It’s just a damn good one.