Charles Mann has a knack for making the details of history into fascinating reading, and this book did, indeed, keep me up reading past my bedtime. The book combines the results of his prodigious reading, his own travels and personal experiences, and his conversations with some of the leading scholars in the field.
On the heels of his earlier success (1491), Mann now turns to the post-Columbian world, and shows how Columbus's voyages brought about what Mann calls (rather inelegantly, perhaps) the "Homogenocene Age." We're all living in one world now, like it or not, and he explores how it got that way. The book doesn't attempt to be exhaustive, but goes into detail about some of the more interesting aspects of what scholars are now calling the "Columbian Exchange": a massive swap of plants, microorganisms, and animals (including humans). The period after Columbus brought about some of the most radical (and often surprising) changes in the nature of the world.
In some ways, the book recalls James Burkes' Connections television series. We see the unintended consequences and often unexpected results of seemingly minor events. The 1707 Union of Scotland and England turns out to be, quite possibly, partly the result of Panamanian mosquitoes, for example. And I learned a lot. We all know about the Puritans landing in New England, but I had no idea they also founded a colony off the coast of Nicaragua!
on October 13, 2011
This is a very interesting book and a good follow up to 1491. The problem is, I purchased the Kindle version for $5.00 less than the hard copy version. This was a mistake. Pay the extra five bucks. Although I love my Kindle and have read about 40 books on it so far, because of the number of maps and illustrations central to the understanding and enjoyment of 1493, this Kindle version has been a disappointment. The maps are almost completely unreadable on the Kindle even if expanded to full screen. The photographs are unusable as well. Hopefully the new Kindle Fire will be better at displaying this type of content. As of now, don't waste your money on a Kindle version of this book.1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created
Charles Mann knows how to write. He also knows how to make history interesting and come alive.
The title "1493" refers to all that time since Christopher Columbus, for whom Mann has had a fascination with, first discovered the new world. With that new discovery came changes and exchanges that have transferred the world. The great trade routes that developed from the new American continent to Europe and Asia--The Columbian Exchange-- created both beneficial and devastating results and altered what people ate around the world.
The changes most of us learned about in high school social studies classes: new diseases were introduced into the indigenous peoples of the Americas and many died. Columbus came looking for gold and silver but found also sugar, corn, tobacco, beans, tomatoes and so much more. Coffee, chocolate, rubber all followed. The Spaniards in turn brought in the horse and sheep and we all know the legend of the horse in the American West.
Little did Columbus realize, Mann states, that he and the men who followed to America began what was known as globalization. Coveted items were used as trading items for other equally coveted items. Wars were fought over these items because every monarchy wanted to have the most power over the control of earth's resources, and this thirst for power spilled into Asia as well.
There may not be too much new to learn from Mann's book. I had been aware of the "Columbian Exchange" but terms such as"Homogenocene" and the dawn of globalization is new to me. Mann then uses his writing and research skills to create detailed and interesting chapters to show how the movement of animals, plants and humans have created new species, varieties and that this movement was not always bad. If a killer disease kills off the rubber plantations in Brazil, for instance, there will still be rubber trees to support economic needs growing in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Like Mann says in the book by quoting one of his sources "The Industrial Revolution would not have happened without three things: steel, fossil fuel and rubber." I'd add human ingenuity to that triage.
Another skill that makes this book great reading is that Mann traveled to all his places to see the area for himself. This book is full of photographs of historical figures, old trade routes (plus nearly 100 pages of notes), and places he has been to. This makes the book read faintly like an imbedded travel book with history as the reason. Normally travel books that mesh with historical subjects don't always work so fluidly; this book does. And while many books often just focus on the Americas and Europe, Mann correctly includes a lot of footage about China and other Asian countries, proving that even the once reclusive Chinese and Japanese can not continue to thrive without the rest of the world. This makes the evidence of the effects of globalization more impressive.
History and science buffs would like this book. It's a hard one to put down because the reader wants to learn more about the ecological version of globalization.
on December 28, 2011
I thought 1491, Mann's earlier book on pre-Columbian America, was fabulous. This one has a lot of very interesting information but it doesn't quite come together as well as the original.
The discussion of the immediate impact of European exploration covers some very familiar ground (importing European diseases, sending tobacco to Europe, etc.) and a lot of information that was completely new to me (the transformative impact on the Americas of earthworms and bees, for example). I've been a longtime student of US history and much of what he wrote (the broad-ranging impacts of the importation of malaria, for example) was new to me.
He branches out well beyond the immediate trans-Atlantic Columbian Exchange, which is where he gets in a bit of trouble. A major segment of the book is on the ecological and economic disaster in China following the beginnings of the importation of Spanish silver and American agricultural products (sweet potatoes and tobacco, most notably). While some of this discussion is interesting, it also seems too long and somewhat disorganized.
He totally loses focus when he gets to the importation of the potato into Europe. He does a good job of showing how the potato transformed nutrition and it seems well within the book's stated topic (the worldwide impact of the Columbian Exchange). But then his discussion of the great Irish potato famine wanders here, there, and everywhere. It's really more about English cultural imperialism and the replacement of tried and true peasant agriculture with "scientific agriculture" (monoculture, intense use of fertilizer, etc.) By the time he gets to the potato beetle in the American midwest, the book has become a general discussion of problems caused by industrial agriculture and world trade. The focus on the Columbian Exchange has been completely lost.
I also don't think his information supports all the conclusions he tries to support (for example, that malaria was a main cause of the British defeat in the American Revolution or that the importation of the potato was a primary reason for the rise of Europe to world domination).
Mann is a writer, not a historian. That wasn't evident on every page of "1491," but it seemed really evident in this book.
on August 7, 2011
Worms and parasites, slaves and masters, greed and commerce, tobacco and guano - all have radically shaped today's world, and continue to do so. The Columbian Exchange united, both for better and for worse, this earth in ways that Columbus could never have dreamed.
The author's writing is well organized, researched, illustrated, and annotated. Given that, it still could have been boring but it wasn't. Charles Mann kept me entertained and interested through every word, remarkable considering how much information he was able to impart in the roughly 400 pages of text. I knew bits and pieces of this story, but never the bigger picture as he was able to show me. He did this without becoming pedantic, condescending, or proselytizing. I highly recommend this book to anyone at all interested in the history and future of this planet.
The geographical separation (by oceans) of the continents meant that significantly different variations in plants and animals (along with the associated diseases, predators and prey) originally developed in the Americas, compared to those that evolved in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere.
At least, that (in simplified terms) is how our world developed until around the time of 1493.
This book tells the story of how the early explorers and settlers - Christopher Columbus as well as many others - began what is now referred to as "The Columbian Exchange", the actions and chain of events between continents, with the transfer of plants, animals, insects, diseases, and leading to biological and ecological consequences that we are living with today.
We all know for example that the ancestors of most of our countries population came originally from Europe and other continents. The effects of diseases brought by the early settlers are also somewhat understood (but this book will expand that further). But we generally give much less thought to these other associated non-human "settlers": how essentially all of the grazing animals now living in our country are not indigenous (cattle, horses, sheep, goats), and what that has meant to our landscape and the plains; how each of the new animals and plants brought with them associated insects and diseases that had not previously existed outside of their original homes.
This is fascinating and wide-ranging. It is written for the general reader, with a very satisfying depth of scientific detail.
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." This book may also help to develop a broader appreciation of the unintended consequences of our actions, something that is even more relevant today than it was in 1493!
Homo Sapiens has always, but not exclusively, tried to get at reality through analysis. Break things down and study each part until you are at the irreducible. This method has gone a long way, but not everywhere. Charles C. Mann takes time in his prologue to point out that History is not a self-contained discipline. Indeed, it may be that only purely theoretical studies are self-contained and well bounded. But there is no ivory tower of History that stands by itself. For example, ecology and biology are needed to understand some of the largest forces in history. These forces routinely exceed the grasp of traditional historical methods of analysis. They certainly exceeded the grasp of all those actors on the historical stage who thought they were in control, or else controlled by the power of others like themselves who seemed to be calling the shots. Guess again.
If this sounds like dry academic theory grinding, fear not. This is a vivid and engaging book, well written and researched. The stage is merely being set. Mr. Mann's first personal example, and therefore sort of a micro example, is when he says his biggest obstacle in doing historical research in Beijing was not the government but the traffic. The Chinese government has had a creeping sense of its loss of central control (to the extent it ever truly had any) for some years now. They look with nostalgia on the Great March, the Five Year Plans (if one can imagine such a nostalgia), Great Leaps Forward, and perhaps even the Cultural Revolution. All gone. A few years back this realization of the absence of control seen in the hopelessly corrupt provincial power brokers (we shall meet their `most dishonorable' ancestors later), and actually threatened them with democracy.
Mr. Mann wants to know how the tomato (the edible variety) got from the Andes Mountains to what is now Mexico, and what it and other crops actually had to do with the price of tea in China. This was going to be good. Mr. Mann is more a reporter than an historian. Here is his topical agenda:
Silk and Porcelain
Malaria and Yellow Fever
Silver from Bolivia and Japan to China
Sweet Potato and Corn
Peruvian Potatoes to Europe
All these in the context of waves sweeping and colliding from the Old Worlds to the New and back again. We talk about globalism mostly from an economic perspective. Mr. Mann talks about economics from biological and political perspectives as well. As the title suggests, he begins with Columbus. He convinced his royal backers that Ptolemy had made a big error in his calculation of the earth's circumference. It was really five thousand miles smaller and more pear-shaped. Therefore, it was shorter and easier to get to China by going west.
We are taken to China during an expansive period. She floated an Armada that made Phillip's look more like Tommy Lipton and Queen Victoria's regatta luffing around the Channel. Wait until you see the photograph of the exact replica of the enormous flag ship. This ain't no junk. But China's government turns inward, against the tide, so to speak. The context shifts to the prying eyes of outsiders and to the frustrated insiders who could no longer trade legally, as if that would stop anybody. They were labeled pirates and bandits.
During the 16th century, China was the world's largest economy. The Chinese had to monetize this vast super power up from paying tax with a portion of the harvest. Copper coins just could not suffice. Silver, concentrated in Japan sparked a transition, for a while. Then back come the "pirates and bandits". Finally, long overdue, the Spanish ships show up, groaning with South American silver. Eighty per cent of the worlds silver was gushing out of New Spain. Maybe half of that was starting to head for China in return for silk and porcelain (hence called `china'). The value of silver began to drop, and faster still did the tax receipts of the Spanish Crown. They paid for that vast navy and army to project power. They would not make up the gap by raising taxes because of the few wealthy merchants and nobles. Spain sank into four hundred years of depression, moderated by a few decades of recession. Uh-oh, here comes Franco...
China, on the other hand, was paying Spain twice the world for its oversupply of therefore overvalued silver.
Biology intervenes again. The Chinese took up smoking, from the Spanish in Manila, the Chinese soldiers especially. "Smoke `em if you got `em..." The `ladies', as you would see in later Hollywood films of the thirties, would smoke using long stems (not their vaunted gams). Mr. Mann talks about the mosquito repellant attributes of tobacco. There was another, more sinister and compelling reason why a ready supply of cheap tobacco has been supplied to armies; it stops starvation pangs.
I did not know the use found for the unsmokable tobacco stems. Grind them into snuff. All these were made possible by the silver trade. With distances so great, value needs an abstract form. Silver may tarnish; it may sink; but it does not rot. Good old tobacco. I suppose that outside of every silver lining, a dark cloud can be found.
Several crops followed to China, thankfully, chili and peanut among them. Potatoes, in the best sense of the word supplanted turnips as a staple of European food stuffs. Their yield per acre was crucially higher than the tasty turnip. Both get you through long winters. What I had no idea of was that an Irish laborer's average per capita consumption, and I read this sentence four times, his consumption of potatoes was twelve pounds. Twelve pounds every day, on average? Holy Crisp!
Prussia went to war with Austria in 1778. The logistical point of control was the potato supply, a kartoffel cartel that would salivate the Medellín. Mr. Mann's approach to the large forces of history is to place them as unnoticed and incomprehensible to the famous personalities who crowd our history books. The successful confuse good luck with genius. But they cannot sense or comprehend what moves them on the stage. He reminds me of Ferdinand Braudel. Both are panoramic, but both do their work from many small data points, like an impressionist painting. The result is stimulating, provocative nd challenging - all while enjoyable.
Besides being a clear and precise stylist, he is comfortably readable. Formidable organization is needed to pull-off such a book with this wide scope and this amount of information. His keen scholarship is evidenced by his nearly fifty pages of notes, in addition to a full bibliography. His first of two appendices is a worthwhile discussion of terminology. The maps and illustrations are enriching, though, by me, there can hardly ever be enough maps and snaps.
Mr. Mann is at home with history, science, technology, and with matters of political economy. Finally, the type is a pleasant evolution of Aldine, which dates almost to the date of the book's title. It is today known as Monotype Dante.
on December 6, 2013
This is a terrifically interesting and entertaining book, which presented me with at least two blockbuster ideas that changed the way I think about the past. I'll get to those in a minute, but first a few general points. Charles Mann is a science journalist:who seems to specialize in BIG topics. His 2005 book ("1491", which argues that the pre-Columbian population of the Americas was much larger and more sophisticated than generally assumed), was very well received. I enjoyed it so much, and thought it so valuable a book, that I was very anxious to read "1493".
"1493" lived up to my (high) expectations. Mann is remarkable writer, with an extraordinary ability to present very complex facts and ideas in way that's not just accessible to the lay reader, it's fun for the lay reader. This isn't to say that the book isn't carefully researched -- the text is followed by almost 100 pages of footnotes, and throughout he cites and acknowledges the scientists and others from whom he has drawn information. It's just that Mann manages to combine a myriad of facts and hypotheses into a compelling narrative. And he often puts this in very concrete terms, focussing on individual people, commodities or events. It adds up to a fascinating read.
It is also a very important one, with implications for the future as well as about the past. Mann's subject in this book is the Columbian Exchange, the sudden movement of plants, microbes, animals and people between the eastern and western hemispheres after Columbus' voyage to the Americas in 1492. A well known effect of this was the eastern hemisphere adoption of western hemisphere foods (tomatoes, potatoes, chocolate, coffee, and on and on). Another effect that's only been recently come to be widely understood is the devastating impact on the pre-Columbian population of the Americas; as many as 80% died in the epidemics that followed the introduction of diseases to which they had no immunity. But the population die-off and the exchange of plant species are not the only effects of the Columbian Exchange. Mann's book explores the myriad ways in which the Exchange -- globablization -- has shaped the world of today.
Two things I learned from the book struck me particularly. First, like most Americans of my generation (older) I learned in school that the colonization of the Americas was carried out by white people, who moved into a largely uninhabited continent. "1491" took care of the uninhabited: "1493" takes care of the white. Mann says that from 1500 to 1840, about 3.4 million white Europeans emigrated to the Americas. Over the same period, about 11.7 million captive Africans were sent to the Americas. Except for New England, much of the United States and most of Latin American was far more black than white. (And probably in 1840 still more Indian/Native American than anything else). The racial balance changed as white immigration ramped up and as millions upon millions of blacks died too young, but the picture of early America looks very different to me now.
Secondly, Mann discussed at length the 19th century ecological disaster that engulfed China. I had always assumed that the floods that killed so many millions in China had always happened, and were the result of geography. There have indeed always been floods, but their severity and human cost grew logarithmically in the 19th century. New crops led to more food and to rising population growth, and at the same time to more potential cash crops, increasing the pressure on existing land holdings, and leading to vast land clearances. That made the floods far worse when they came, undermining the political structure and compounding China's problems. This was interesting not just a light on the past, but as a warning signal for the future.
The review is already too long, so, to sum it up: Great book!! Read it!! Give it to friends and family!!
Knopf's marketing campaign for this book is in full gear at the moment -- reviews in major papers on the date of publication, author interviews around the country, even proofs sent to Vine reviewers like me -- and it has created some favorable buzz, so I'll try to explain carefully why I find the book flat and disappointing.
The problem is not the title, though it was clearly chosen for marketing rather than for descriptive purposes; the book has almost nothing to do with the year 1493. But a poor title doesn't ruin a good book.
The problem is not the writing, which isn't bad. Mann writes far too much -- the book would have been better minus 100 pages and the two appendices and the "coda" -- and he has the annoying habit of falling into the first person from time to time to recount his research adventures. Once upon a time these would have been considered mistakes to be corrected in the editing process; since that process effectively no longer exists they are now considered part of one's "style." But the book is certainly readable, at least in short snatches.
The problem is not that the book is relentlessly politically-correct. From agonizing about what to call Indians to adopting as if it were gospel a controversial attempt to explain away the Medieval Warm Period, the book has every progressive base covered. But that's nothing new and shouldn't interfere too much with the substance.
But that's the problem: compared to the books' pretension, there's not much substance. The book is empty -- not empty of facts, there are thousands of those -- but empty of ideas. What is it about? It's about the fact that after Columbus people traveled all around the world, carrying with them things and ideas and other people (slaves) and plants and diseases and that that had a great effect and that now all those things are found everywhere, some of them mostly where they didn't used to be. The book is 400 pages or so of factual details -- some quite interesting, some not so much -- proving that. But does that surprise you? Did you need 400 pages of facts to prove it to you? Was that something you hadn't learned by high school? It doesn't take long to realize that the long book you are wading into is meant to offer meticulous support for an argument no longer worth making, using examples no longer particularly novel, with a bit of travelogue thrown in. The result is that what should be an interesting read becomes a tedious one.
The book is based on the work of a man named Crosby, who gained a bit of a reputation by putting a new and clumsy name -- the "Columbian Exchange," which Mann uses far too often -- and the trappings of "ecology" to the book's important but old and commonplace idea. The gushing review that appeared in the Wall Street Journal on the day of publication was written by Crosby -- a marketing coup for Knopf but hardly a service to the Journal's readers.
This is not so much a bad book as a grotesquely over-written one. Despite the hype, there is no scholarship here; Mann is a writer, not a scientist, and this is secondary-source stuff except insofar as he used the book as an excuse to take tax-deductible trips to the places he writes about. But the subject, though hardly new, is valid and the book's content might well have made two or three interesting shorter books plus a few magazine articles. Combining them, though, whether in a pretense of importance or simply for purposes of marketing, was unfortunate. There are interesting morsels here but throwing them together and attempting to present them as a substantial meal will cause readers heartburn.
This book is full of fascinating trivia and ideas. The basic one is about the Columbian Exchange: Europeans didn't just bring their guns, germs, and steel to foreign lands, they brought their earthworms, bees, cows, and crops. They didn't just kill off native peoples in the lands they 'colonized', they terraformed other continents into Europe-like places that the natives found confusing and unfamiliar.
If you think about it, it makes a fair bit of sense.
There are other ideas, too. For example, the cause of the Little Ice Age in Europe has long been a mystery. The common explanations fail so completely to actually explain it that most history and earth sciences textbooks just avoid offering any such explanation. This book proposes that the cause was the cessation of forest burning by the natives in the Americas. Not only was the smoke not released into the atmosphere anymore, but hundreds upon hundreds of square miles grew tree cover for the first time in centuries. It sure makes a lot more sense than a few small volcanic eruptions.
What this book lacks is flow. Ideas are stapled together, histories and anecdotes lurch from page to page, but there's no cohesive narrative to carry a reader from one to the next. The author will spend several pages ruminating on a topic that only merited a paragraph, perhaps two, but then gloss over the next one as if it's entirely self-explanatory. This book is absolutely full of information, but does a shoddy job of conveying it. If you're willing to work for it, you can learn a lot from this book. If not, you'll probably find one day that you set it aside a few weeks before but then never quite picked it up again.
And lastly, while the author does a good job of skirting the political correctness issues guaranteed to plague any volume like this, calling Columbus neither a hero nor a monster, that middle ground will not make anyone happy. Other reviewers, as you may see, have already castigated the book for being either too politically correct, or too culturally insensitive. If you need any story that mentions Columbus to put him on a pedestal or damn him fully, this book won't give you what you want.