18 August 2011

Damn you, Charles C. Mann and your big books with numbers on the cover

I was reading 1491, New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, for about six years, when you popped up again with 1493, Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.

The new books I really want to read are getting in the way of finishing the other not-quite-so-new books I also really want to read.

While waiting for 1491 to turn into 1493 I read 1945, The War That Never Ended (Gregor Dallas) I also read parts of Moscow, 1812, Napoleon’s Fatal March (Adam Zamoyski) and 1688 A Global History (John E. Wills, Jr.) I have to cover another 323 years of reading before I’m up to date. I also am dipping into a novel by Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood, which turns out to be highly entertaining futurist fiction, so although it’s about a single year, with some flashbacks, it’s not clear exactly which future year she is talking about.

I can report that a lot of things changed after 1493. According to the author, that year marked the beginning of absolutely immense changes in the history of mankind, and the fate of all the other species.

It began with the now vanished town of La Isabela, personally established by Christopher Columbus, on what now is the island of Hispaniola, Dominican Republic side. “It was the initial attempt by Europeans to make a permanent base in the Americas” not counting the Vikings in Newfoundland five centuries before. It failed, as many other settlements, but even this small effort brought changes:

“(Columbus) and his crew did not voyage alone. They were accompanied by a menagerie of insects, plants, mammals, and microorganisms. Beginning with La Isabela,” Mann writes, “European expeditions brought cattle, sheep, and horses, along with crops like sugarcane (originally from New Guinea), wheat (from the Middle East), bananas (from Africa), and coffee (also from Africa). Equally important, creatures the colonists knew nothing about hitchhiked along for the ride. Earthworms, mosquitoes, and cockroaches; honeybees, dandelions, and African grasses; rats of every description – all of them poured from the hulls of (Columbus’) vessels and those that followed, rushing like eager tourists into lands that had never seen their like before.”

From here, the author goes deep into the weeds of history, carefully delineating the changes – how New World silver changed everything, bankrupting Spain and bringing down a dynasty in China; the tobacco saga and the reinvention of slavery; the fatal progress of malaria; the growth of international trade and our subsequent dependence on it, and much much more.

This is a book in which you will rediscover some things you already knew, and many you never imagined. It’s rich in imagery, research, and plain good story telling.

I found myself bogged a bit in some of the detail – but there’s always another page, another story, another fascinating connection I had never seen before.

Mann and other historians call the process The Columbian Exchange. Most importantly, he insists, “there is a growing recognition that Columbus’ voyage did not mark the discovery of a New World, but its creation.”

When the Old World landed in the New, the effect of newly introduced plants, animals and diseases was to quickly wipe out the natives, plant, animal and human, and replace one ecological system with another – to make the New World in effect something of a replica of the Old. It was this accidental but overwhelming transformation that allowed Europe and Europeans to dominate the next several centuries.

We arrived ill-equipped and soon starving; in no more than 50 years after Columbus we were beginning to rule the New World and its inhabitants. We accidently invented what now is called Globalization, too. It is an amazing story, and in 1493, Charles Mann tells it exceedingly well.


1491, New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann. Vintage paperback $14.95. ISBN 1400032059.

1493, Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann. Knopf hard cover $30.50. ISBN 9780307265722.

Wikipedia on La Isabela

1945, The War That Never Ended by Gregor Dallas. Yale University Press paperback $28.00 ISBN  9780300119886.

Moscow, 1812, Napoleon’s Fatal March by Adam Zamoyski. Harper Perennial paperback $16.99 ISBN 006108686X.

1688 A Global History by John E. Wills, Jr. W. W. Norton paperback $16.95. ISBN 0393322785.

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. Anchor Books paperback $15.00 ISBN  0307455475. Set in the same future as the author’s earlier novel Oryx and Crake. YouTube author interview on the subject of Book Three of this trilogy

1 comment:

Winston Smith said...

Don't forget "1984."

Ministry of Truth

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