Wednesday, April 30, 2014


Some time ago I heard author Charles C. Mann interviewed on NPR.   He spoke about his book 1493.   1493 details the aftereffects of Christopher Columbus' "discovery" of the New World.  Mann grandly describes this as:
the greatest event in the history of life since the death of the dinosaurs.
I was fascinated by the interview and resolved to read his book.  First I read his earlier book 1491 about what the Western Hemisphere was like before the Europeans.  I blogged about 1491 last year.

You might assume that because 1491 focused specifically on the Western Hemisphere before the year 1492 that 1493 would concentrate on what happened here after 1492.  You'd be correct only up to a point.  Many surprising things happened when the nations of Europe fell over themselves in cutthroat competition, sometimes comically, often unwittingly, to bring religion, greed, weapons, animals, diseases and slaves to this strange, dangerous new world.

The other half of the story concerns how the Europeans tried to exploit their discoveries back in the old world.  These discoveries included:
  • seemingly limitless quantities of silver, 
  • essential foodstuffs like corn (Mann calls it maize) and potatoes, 
  • rubber (which blew the European's minds) 
  • tobacco (which blew their minds in a different way) and 
  • (most remarkably) vast amounts of bird shit.
To describe the constant interactions between old and new worlds, he adopts the term Columbian Exchange.  Mann follows this subject matter in surprising directions:
  • How the life cycle of the malaria parasite affected the position of the Mason-Dixon line.
  • How silver from South America impacted Chinese monetary policy and the founding of the city of Manila.
  • Why the potato famine in Ireland was exacerbated by modern agricultural practices.
  • How a failed Scottish colony in Panama led to Scotland joining Great Britain.
  • Why the first Chinatown in the Americas was located in Mexico City in the 17th century.
  • How the mass deaths of American Indians might have caused temperatures to drop in Europe during the Little Ice Age.
Mann doesn't pass up chances to tell good tales about colorful characters, historical or modern. He follows several of his stories right up to the modern era, trying hard to bring his disparate subjects together.  Still there's only so much you can fit into a 500 page book.

Bringing it all together, however, is really what 1493 is about.  In a word, the book's subject is globalization. While we usually think of this in a contemporary context, Mann shows us that globalization actually started very soon after Columbus and has been going on ever since.

And Mann makes it clear that it is not just the human narrative which is important.  Plants and animals, especially microscopic animals, have big parts in his story.  Mann's overall approach is well summed up by a simple comment, tossed off in a footnote:
history is an interplay of social and biological processes.
He argues that the changes to the earth resulting from the human ability to encircle it are so massive that they constitute a whole new biologic epoch.  He calls this period the homogenocene era, now just entering its second half millennium.

Indeed, humanity is not likely to undergo such a massive sudden change in environment, resources or basic conditions until that day when someone discovers how to get back and forth to another habitable planet, filled with strange plants and creatures whose intelligence is hard to identify, where humans will once again try anything they can think of to make a buck, proselytize their gods and plant their flags without giving the slightest thoughts to what the long-term repercussions might be.

A book completely unrelated to 1493, except in the form of its title, is 1453 by Roger Crowley.

Are you wondering about my reference to bird shit?  Mann tells about the discovery of huge deposits of bird dropping on islands off the coast of Peru.  In the mid-19th century Chinese slaves were used to mine the stuff and ship it back to Europe as potent agricultural fertilizer - far better than any other known at the time.  It was especially useful for the potato crop.  Here are two quotes from 1493 which describe the far-reaching effects of the humble potato and this huge pile of guano:
Before the potato and maize, before intensive fertilization, European living standards were roughly equivalent with those today in Cameroon and Bangladesh; they were below Bolivia or Zimbabwe.  On average, European peasants ate less per day than hunting-and-gathering societies in Africa or the Amazon. Industrial monoculture with improved crops and high-intensity fertilizer allowed billions of people - Europe first, and then much of the rest of the world - to escape the Malthusian trap.  (p.280)
"Potatoes, by feeding rapidly growing populations, permitted a handful of European nations to assert dominion over most of the world between 1750 and 1950." Hunger's end helped create the political stability that allowed European nations to take advantage of American silver.  The potato fueled the rise of the West. (p.253)
So the next time you bite into a french fry at McDonalds, think about the global effects of that pigeon pooping under the bench next to you.

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