Wednesday, October 23, 2013

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

A solid follow-up to the outstanding 1491
In his 2005 book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, Charles C. Mann challenged traditional notions of pre-Columbian America, demonstrating that the civilizations that existed in America prior to European contact were far more populous and sophisticated than commonly thought. In his latest book, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, published in 2011, Mann turns his attention to the worldwide and centuries-spanning effects of the initial contact between the Old and New Worlds, and the monumental biological, cultural, economic, and political changes that followed the dawn of globalization.

The book opens with a brief biography of Columbus and the story of his famous voyage. Next, Mann gives an account of the settlement of Jamestown. Packed with lots of myth-busting factoids and anecdotes, these retellings of history seem far removed from the textbook versions we grew up with. When the Spanish begin trading with the Chinese in the Philippines, globalization has begun. American crops become overnight sensations on the world’s dinner tables: potatoes feed a starving Europe, sweet potatoes perform much the same function in China, and tobacco hooks everybody. Mann is very good at establishing chains of cause-and-effect relationships between the voyage of 1492 and later historical events. He postulates how malaria encouraged the slave trade and helped win the American Revolution, Mexican silver contributed to the fall of the Ming Dynasty, the Irish potato famine spawned the agro-industrial complex, and rubber made possible the Industrial Revolution. In the book’s latter half, Mann delves into the diverse racial makeup of the early post-conquest Americas, as embodied by the first truly global metropolis, Mexico City. He goes on to emphasize that, for centuries after the establishment of the slave trade, Africans constituted the majority of the American population. He details how many slaves departed into the wilderness, mixed with the indigenous inhabitants, and established their own communities, some of which still exist today.

While 1491 was an absolute joy to read from cover to cover, at times reading 1493 feels like work. Part of this is due simply to the subject matter. The ancient civilizations discussed in 1491 are inherently awe-inspiring, while the subject matter of 1493 is obviously more depressing—malaria, potato famine, slavery. Though Mann does briefly mention some of the positive effects of globalization, much of the book is a catalog of pestilence, cruelty, and misery. In addition, the theses presented here are not as novel or as shocking as those of 1491. Most readers will already have an inkling of the main ideas of the book, though Mann, skilled journalist that he is, fleshes out the familiar theories with plenty of facts and figures that are sure to surprise even the most historically savvy reader. Mann’s wide breadth of knowledge and minute attention to detail can be both a blessing and a curse. Some chapters feel like a disorienting morass of detail, devoid of focus, leaving the reader wondering what point is really being made.

Mann is an excellent writer, and perhaps such objections arise simply because 1491 set the bar too high. Despite its flaws and dull moments, it’s hard to imagine a better synthesis of the present state of research on the Columbian Exchange. Those who are at all interested in this subject can’t help but read it, and, for the most part, they will find it quite fascinating and insightful.

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