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Guest Reviewer: Nathaniel Philbrick on 1493 by Charles C. Mann
I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous book 1491, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that it’s anything but exhausting to read.
With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, I’m proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, “globalized” entity.
Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose “southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple.”
We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato, tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted and convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we are finally living on one integrated or at least close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the process they helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory book, an open question.
It looked an ice cream cone. But when I came closer, I realized that the boy was eating a raw sweet potato. His father had whittled at the top to expose the orange flesh, which the boy was licking; the unpeeled bottom of the sweet potato served as a handle.
This was at a farm about 300 miles northwest of Shanghai. Sweet potatoes are often eaten raw in rural China--a curiosity to Westerners like me. I didn’t realize that I had been staring until the boy ran to seek the protection of his father, who was hoeing a row of sweet potatoes. The father glared at me as I waved an apology. Because I don’t speak Chinese, I couldn’t tell him that I had been staring not at his son, but at the sweet potato in his hand. Nor could I say that I was staring because the sweet potato was an emblem of four hundred years of convulsive global change.
Sweet potatoes are native to Central America. Spanish ships carried them to Manila in the 1570s, and then a Chinese ship captain smuggled the vines past Spanish customs by wrapping them around ropes and coiling the ropes in a basket. He took the contraband plants to Fujian, in southeast China, across from Taiwan. It was a time of famine in China. The captain’s son took the sweet potatoes to the governor of Fujian, who in turn ordered farmers to plant the fanshu (foreign tubers). The famine ended. Other regions took up sweet potatoes to solve their food problems. Millions of lives were saved. For three centuries the food of the Chinese poor was not rice but sweet potato.
How did that Chinese kid get his sweet potato? Christopher Columbus. Scientists view Columbus as the man who inadvertently began an explosive global biological swap. After he established contact between the eastern and western hemisphere, thousands of plant and animal species ricocheted around the continents. It was the biggest event in the history of life since the death of the dinosaurs. The Columbian Exchange, as historians call it, is why there are tomatoes in Italy, oranges in the United States, potatoes in Ireland, chili peppers in Thailand--and sweet potatoes in China.
It also is a big part of the reason why the British lost the Revolutionary War, why Mexico City became the world’s first truly international city, and why millions of African slaves were transported unwillingly across the Atlantic. Indeed, these are among the subjects of my book, which is largely about the Columbian Exchange.
The sweet potato--along with another American import, corn--did help save China from the calamity of famine. But they also caused another calamity. Traditional Chinese agriculture focused on rice, which had to be grown in wet river valleys. Sweet potatoes and corn could be grown in China’s dry highlands. Armies of farmers went out and cleared the forests on these highlands. The result was catastrophic erosion. Silt filled the Yangzi and Huang He (Yellow) rivers, setting off huge floods that killed millions of people. It was like one Katrina after another, a Chinese scientist told me. Beset by disaster, China fell behind in the race for global supremacy.
All of this history was encapsulated in the boy and his sweet potato, though he didn’t know it. To him, it was just a snack. When I took out my camera, the boy’s father rolled his eyes in disbelief. But I was taking a picture of centuries of global turbulence. The boy pouted; I clicked the shutter.
A New York Times Notable Book
A TIME Magazine Best Book of the Year
A Washington Post Notable Book
"Fascinating. . . . Lively. . . . A convincing explanation of why our world is the way it is."
—The New York Times Book Review
"Even the wisest readers will find many surprises here. . . . Like 1491, Mann's sequel will change worldviews."
—San Francisco Chronicle
"Exemplary in its union of meaningful fact with good storytelling, 1493 ranges across continents and centuries to explain how the world we inhabit came to be."
—The Washington Post
“Engaging . . . Mann deftly illuminates contradictions on a human scale: the blind violence and terror at Jamestown, the cruel exploitation of labor in the silver mines of Bolivia, the awe felt by Europeans upon first seeing a rubber ball bounce.”
—The New Yorker
—Lev Grossman, Time Magazine
“Compelling and eye-opening.”
—Publishers Weekly Top 100 Books of 2011
“A book to celebrate. . . A bracingly persuasive counternarrative to the prevailing mythology about the historical significance of the ‘discovery’ of America. . . 1493 is rich in detail, analytically expansive and impossible to summarize. . . [Mann’s book] deserves a prominent place among that very rare class of books that can make a difference in how we see the world, although it is neither a polemic nor a work of advocacy. Thoughtful, learned and respectful of its subject matter, 1493 is a splendid achievement.”
“Despite his scope, Mann remains grounded in fascinating details. . . . Such technical insights enhance a very human story, told in lively and accessible prose.”
“Mann’s excitement never flags as he tells his breathtaking story. . . There is grandeur in this view of the past that looks afresh at the different parts of the world and the parts each played in shaping it.”
“A muscular, densely documented follow-up [to Mann’s 1491]. . . Like its predecessor, 1493 runs to more than 400 pages, but it moves at a gallop. . . As a historian Mann should be admired not just for his broad scope and restless intelligence but for his biological sensitivity. At every point of his tale he keeps foremost in his mind the effect of humans’ activities on the broader environment they inhabit.”
—The Wall Street Journal
“Evenhandedness, a sense of wonder, the gift of turning a phrase. . . Mann loves the world and adopts it as his own.”
“Charles C. Mann glories in reality, immersing his reader in complexity. . . . The worn clichés crumble as readers gain introductions to the freshest of the systems of analysis gendered in the first post-Columbian millennium.”
—Alfred W. Crosby, author of The Columbian Exchange
“In the wake of his groundbreaking book 1491 Charles Mann has once again produced a brilliant and riveting work that will forever change the way we see the world. Mann shows how the ecological collision of Europe and the Americas transformed virtually every aspect of human history. Beautifully written, and packed with startling research, 1493 is a monumental achievement."
—David Grann, author of The Lost City of Z
“ is readable and well-written, based on his usual broad research, travels and interviews. A fascinating and important topic, admirably told.”
—John Hemming, author of Tree of Rivers
“Fascinating. . . Convincing. . . A spellbinding account of how an unplanned collision of unfamiliar animals, vegetables, minerals and diseases produced unforeseen wealth, misery, social upheaval and the modern world.”
—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“A fascinating survey. . . A lucid historical panorama that’s studded with entertaining studies of Chinese pirate fleets, courtly tobacco rituals, and the bloody feud between Jamestown colonists and the Indians who fed and fought them, to name a few. Brilliantly assembling colorful details into big-picture insights, Mann’s fresh challenge to Eurocentric histories puts interdependence at the origin of modernity.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Charles Mann expertly shows how the complex, interconnected ecological and economic consequences of the European discovery of the Americas shaped many unexpected aspects of the modern world. This is an example of the best kind of history book: one that changes the way you look at the world, even as it informs and entertains.”
—Tom Standage, author of A History of the World in Six Glasses
“A landmark book. . . Entrancingly provocative, 1493 bristles with illuminations, insights and surprises.”
“Fascinating. . . Engaging and well-written. . . Information and insight abound on every page. This dazzling display of erudition, theory and insight will help readers to view history in a fresh way.”
“Spirited. . . One thing is indisputable: Mann is definitely global in his outlook and tribal in his thinking. . . Mann’s taxonomy of the ecological, political, religious, economic, anthropological and mystical melds together in an intriguing whole cloth.”
“Mann has managed the difficult trick of telling a complicated story in engaging and clear prose while refusing to reduce its ambiguities to slogans. He is not a professional historian, but most professionals could learn a lot from the deft way he does this. . . 1493 is thoroughly researched and up-to-date, combining scholarship from fields as varied as world history, immunology, and economics, but Mann wears his learning lightly. He serves up one arresting detail after another, always in vivid language. Most impressive of all, he manages to turn plants, germs, insects and excrement into the lead actors in his drama while still parading before us an unforgettable cast of human characters. He makes even the most unpromising-sounding subjects fascinating. I, for one, will never look at a piece of rubber in quite the same way now. . . The Columbian Exchange has shaped everything about the modern world. It brought us the plants we tend in our gardens and the pests that eat them. And as it accelerates in the 21st century, it may take both away again. If you want to understand why, read 1493.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Mann is trying to do much more than punch holes in conventional wisdom; he’s trying to piece together an elaborate, alternative history that describes profound changes in the world since the original voyage of Columbus. What's most surprising is that he manages to do this in such an engaging way. He writes with an incredibly dry wit.”
“Mann’s book is jammed with facts and factoids, trivia and moments of great insight that take on power as they accumulate.”
—The Washington Post
“Although many have written about the impact of Europeans on the New World, few have told the worldwide story in a manner accessible to lay readers as effectively as Mann does here.”
“The chief strength of Mann’s richly associative books lies in their ability to reveal new patterns among seemingly disparate pieces of accepted knowledge. They’re stuffed with forehead-slapping ‘aha’ moments. . . If Mann were to work his way methodically through the odd-numbered years of history, he could be expected to publish a book about the global impact of the Great Recession sometime in the middle of the next millennium. If it’s as good as 1493, it would be worth the wait.”
“None of us could travel with Columbus in 1492. But that’s OK, because in 1493 we can take an even more exhilarating ride. This powerful rethinking of the origins and consequences of globalization is so illuminating, it’s scary.”
—Carl Safina, author of A Sea In Flames and The View From Lazy Point
“Almost mind-boggling in its scope, enthusiasm and erudition. . . Almost every page of 1493 contains some extraordinarily provocative argument or arrestingly bizarre detail. . . Ranging freely across time and space, Mann’s book is full of compelling stories. . . A tremendously provocative, learned and surprising read.”
—The Times of London
More thought provoking than any other book about Columbus I've read.Published 5 days ago by J. G. COX
Excellent. Rewrites common perceptions of what the Americas
were like before 1492.
If you like big-picture history, this is a great book. It's very hard to pigeon-hole; I thought it was mostly on ecological ramifications of Columbus, but it's everything -... Read morePublished 8 days ago by E. Staub
Best book I've read since "The Swerve." Technically, I listened to it and the reader was great as well. I look at everything I eat, touch, and see differently. Read morePublished 15 days ago by Judy from Upstate
Superb book on the effects of the Europe on the entire world after Columbus.Published 28 days ago by Darrel Staat
Picks up where 1492 leaves off and, like 1492 it looks at History from an unusual but valid point of view. Read morePublished 1 month ago by Bay0Wulf
OK., but not nearly as interesting as 1491 (which I would give 4 stars because it makes one think).Published 1 month ago by teacher
"1493" is as terrific as its predecessor "1491." This view of the world is just not covered in standard American textbooks. Too bad for public education. Read morePublished 1 month ago by Sally A Lehr