Sunday, November 6, 2011

1493: Uncovering the World Columbus Created, by Charles C. Mann (author), Roberson Dean (reader)


Random House Audio, ISBN 9780307913760, August 2011

This is the follow-up to Mann's excellent 1491, and it's every bit as excellent. In this book, Mann creates a rich and detailed picture of the world after Columbus, form the first few years of Spanish-Indian interaction through the complex effects of globalization in the contemporary world.

He starts, for reasons that soon become clear, with his own garden, and his introduction to heritage tomatoes. Tomato varieties, differing widely in size, appearance, and color, now come from all over the world--but they began as barely edible fruits of the nightshade family in Meso-America. Why are there now wonderful tomatoes from Bulgaria? That's what this book is about in a microcosm: how Columbus's discovery of the Americas led to the dispersal of people, plants, and animals from both hemispheres all over the world.
This is a really fascinating exploration of the post-Columbian world, a world of complexity, unexpectedness, and unpredictable mixtures of good and bad effects that are completely lost in any standard telling of the European colonization and conquest of the Americas. It wasn't just European culture and disease impinging on the New World; in fact, Mann makes the point that Eurasia and the Americas in 1492 were both very old worlds, each filled with cultures, history, flora and fauna the other had not suspected.

The Europeans, at the beginning of this process, did not think of themselves as Europeans. They were Spanish and English and Portuguese and French and Dutch. The peoples of the Americas didn't think of themselves as Americans, Indians, or any other collective noun; they were Incas and Maya and Sioux and Cherokee and dozens of other names that most of us have never heard. Many of those cultures were virtually destroyed by the arrival of Europeans, not because of European weapons or superior European cultural development (the Triple Alliance, better known to us as the Aztec Empire, and the Inca Empire, were more developed and civilized in most respects than the Spanish who conquered them), but by disease--often before they'd had more than casual contact with Spaniards or any other Europeans. Some of the Indian cultures we think of as ancient, such as the nomadic, horse-riding, buffalo-hunting cultures of the plains Indians, were in fact responses to two effects of the Columbian discovery of the Americas: depopulation due to disease, and the arrival of the horse.

But the effects weren't all, or even mostly, one way. American gold and silver had enormous economic consequences in both Spain and China. The potato, the sweet potato, and the tomato had culinary, cultural, and environmental effects all over the world. The Americas had mosquitoes well designed to be vectors for malaria and yellow fever, which didn't exist in this hemisphere; Europeans and Africans brought malaria and yellow fever; the middle-term effect of this was to increase the Atlantic slave trade. This in turn led, eventually and among many other effects, to Toussaint's revolution in Haiti, which led to the sale of France's North American possessions to the US in the Louisiana Purchase...

But Mann looks most closely at the effects on smaller scales, all over the world, the impact on how ordinary people live their everyday lives, the good and bad effects of the globalization created by the connecting of the two hemispheres, and what people think of as "normal" and "traditional" that goes back a few hundred years at most--having been impossible before the hemispheres began to share their plants, animals, and diseases, and to trade with people on the other side of the globe.

Mann makes a fascinating, complex, and compelling story of something that could have been either tedious or depressing. Highly recommended.

I borrowed this book from a friend.