Saturday, March 24, 2012

Charles C. Mann - 1493: How Europe's Discovery of the Americas Revolutionized Trade, Ecology and Life on Earth

The arrival of Columbus in the Caribbean in 1492 was a fairly minor event for a very small number of people.  The famous sea-captain's small band of men, encountered a fairly remote group of indigenous people. Elsewhere in the Americas, a vast plethora of different cultures and societies also flourished. Each organising in many, varied ways.

The impact of those that followed Columbus on the Americas was enormous. Vast numbers of the indigenous people died, mostly from the new diseases brought by sailors, explorers and colonists. Many villages were depopulated long before they saw a white man. Those that survived were often at risk from guns and slavery.

Charles C. Mann's book 1493 continues a story he began in an earlier work, 1491. There, he examined the pre-Columbian civilisations, discovering their complexity and extent, Here, Mann explores the impact of the arrival of Europeans, not just upon the people and ecology of the Americas, but on the world itself.

Coincidentally, some of what Mann explores here is also discussed in a book I reviewed recently, David Graeber's book Debt, which discusses in detail the impact of the trade in precious metals that began to leave the Americas in vast quantities soon after 1492. This is a great theme of Mann's book, and I think Mann captures far better the enormous wealth that was channelled out of the countries, but also the horror of the slavery and destruction that formed the basis for that wealth. Mann, like Graeber, discusses the way that the precious metals became part of the wider trade networks between Europe and China, how it facilitiated the great trading networks that already existed, turning them into enormous financial concerns.

However Mann doesn't limit himself to the economic consequences. He shows how our world has been transformed in the "post Colombian exchange". Large numbers of plants and crops arrived from the New World. Tobacco, maize, tomatoes, chilies and many others. These transformed both the Old World, but they also altered lives elsewhere. One of the most fascinating chapters discusses the social impact of the arrival of tobacco in China.

"As a child in the 1630s, the writer Wang Pu had never heard of tobacco. When he grew to adulthood, he later recalled, 'customs suddenly changed and all the people, even boys not four feet tall, were smoking.'"

Mann tells us how "late-waking aristocratic women, slept with their heads elevated on special blocks so that attendants could do their hair and makeup while they were unconscious - it shortened the time between waking and the first tobacco of the day."

Such attention to detail marks out Mann's book as a brilliantly readable history. His understanding of the wider social and economic relationships is fascinating, and his ability to tie in a wider ecological understanding adds a new dimension to a story that has often been discussed. In his explanation of the way that the earthworm was accidentaly re-introduced to parts of North America from where it had been driven extinct during the last ice-age, Mann links the slave trade, to the agriculture of the Americas and the practises of the ships crews that took part in the trade. His easy to follow explanation of the importance of earthworms to agriculture reflects a wider ability to explain difficult and complex ecological ideas.

Sadly much of the book is dominated by the horrific reality of the changes that arrived with Europeans in the Americas. The slave trade is one aspect of this, as is the slavery imposed on the indigenous people of South America. As capitalism develops and the New World becomes and increasingly important part of the world economy, Mann tells us of the horrors of the rubber plantations, conditions in Haitian slave plantations and the consequences of the introduction of Christianity to the continent. There is of course resistance, slave revolts and indigenous populations creating their own communities far from European towns. But much of the story centres of the cementing of a new way of organising and exploiting the natural world. It is this great transformation that is the real heart of Mann's story, one that has been central to shaping our modern world. Mann's book is a great introduction to this, that should be widely read.

Related Reviews

Cronon - Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England
Graeber - Debt:  The First 5000 Years

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