1493: Uncovering The New World Columbus Created, by Charles C. Mann
As one of a small family of books that deals with the subject of the “Columbian Exchange,” by which the European discoverers and their successors remade much of the world in a more familiar way and by which different trade items and people and diseases and knowledge transferred from continent to continent making us all a lot more similar than we were before. As a student of military history and a fond reader of “Atlantic Studies,” this book fits snugly along with others of its kind dealing with a set of issues that are not too dissimilar from many others of its kind.
This book, rather than seeking to present a thorough and full account of the Columbian Exchange, which would be an impossible task and a nearly unreadable one for most of its readers, takes a different approach and manages to include a lot of odd and quirky and touching stories about people trying to make the best of difficult experiences, including bankruptcy, slavery, rape, and other tragedies, all while making their small and notable influence on the history of the world. Full of ironic touches, a gentle sense of humanity, and a tendency to point out the way in which people sought to show agency rather than remain helpless victims of history, this book is a standout in its genre and one that has a deeply humane sense of history about it that makes it well worth reading its 400+ pages.
The scope of this book, even somewhat limited as it is, is still quite massive. It goes from Santo Domingo to Manilla to look at two monuments to the Spanish exploration of the Atlantic and Pacific, examines the importance of the silver trade to Spanish and Chinese taxation, trade, smuggling, and a host of evils including the forced slavery of tens of thousands of Indians in the brutal mines of South America’s Andean highlands. Another chapter looks at the growing worldwide addiction to tobacco and sugar and other related products and the consequences of that, as well as the problem of lovesick grass (!) and the transfer of plants and diseases around the world over the last few centuries. Other chapters of this book deal with the agro-indutrial complex started in the use of the potato to save Europe from starvation and other foods like wheat and sweet potato that greatly helped China feed its growing population. Another chapter deals with rubber and the complications of its farming and its risk for disease in the present world. Yet another chapter deals with the crazy soup of crops and their complicated origins and how it is impossible for anyone to really be a localist in this day and age. After this comes a look at fugitive forest communities of those who escaped slavery and oppression in Brazil and other places, despite being ignored by many historical texts. The last chapter of the book looks at the panopoly of foods and people in Bulalacao, where Spain met China in the Philippines, in a fateful encounter, ending where the story began. Appendices include difficult matters of communication and language.
This book is a very deep read, testing the reader’s knowledge and interest in a variety of historical interests, but for those who want to understand the course of humanity over the last few centuries and some of the more important dangers that we face as a result of those choices, in a way that is humane and gentle and honest, this is a good book to read, and one well worth the while, coming in at a little more than 400 pages of readable text casting a wide net and including a huge host of often surprisingly (and undeservedly) obscure characters.