Book 4; Continent: Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas

1493 by Charles C. Mann

  • 509 pages (690 with Appendices, Notes and Index)
  • Engaging enough to read even while on the bus or subway; Chapters are long but have reasonable subdivisions.

This is the book I’d been putting off until my next transcontinental flights. Five hundred pages seemed like a lot to tackle without those opportunities to read for five uninterrupted hours at a crack. I really shouldn’t have worried: Mann is an engaging author who makes the pages turn. I’d digested his 1491 pretty easily, after all.

While 1491 focused on pre-Columbian societies in the Americas, 1493 tackles a broader theme: The Columbian Exchange. The Columbian Exchange is the introduction of organisms evolved in one continent to the ecosystems of another. The term was coined to describe the way Europeans brought everything from pigs and horses to tomatoes and potatoes across the Atlantic in either direction.

Introduction of these species was intentional in some cases (tobacco, sugar cane) and in other cases (the earthworm, malaria) not so much. Although the term seems to suggest that Columbus’ ships were floating arks full of critters to turn loose on the beaches of Hispaniola, it actually refers to any species introductions made by mankind since European colonization efforts in the Americas began. Consequently, it covers a lot of real estate and a few centuries. In academic circles, the Columbian Exchange has further expanded to include similar introductions across the Pacific, and the book is therefore divided along the lines of species introductions across these two oceans.

In the Pacific section, I found the discussion about China and the Ming dynasty – in power during much of Europe’s “Age of Exploration” – very enlightening. My elementary-school history text said the Spanish explorers wanted to find a shortcut to China, as if they were kids who wanted to get to Disney World by cutting through the neighbors’ yards. No one mentioned that China had an interest in whether or not they ever arrived. In fact, the Chinese economy was starved for something the Spanish had in abundance: silver, which held its worth (at least for a time) while the Chinese imperial monetary system endured crazy ups and downs in valuation. It was this economic fact that drove much of European travel, and by extension, introduction of various plants and animals across the oceans.

Mann’s final section discusses the impact of one particular species introduced into new environments: Homo sapiens. In particular, the slave trade. The slave trade may seem like an odd topic to include in a book about potatoes and earthworms, but Mann couldn’t have made a credible discussion of the Columbian Exchange without it. The slave trade is how most people who weren’t already in the Americas before 1700 AD got there. Mann tells us that 90% of people who made the passage across the Atlantic during that time were African. I was stunned by that percentage, and I know it will stick with me next Thanksgiving, when we are surrounded by images of smiling Caucasian Pilgrims.

The slave trade underpinned the plantation-driven economies that encourage large-scale farming of introduced species: coffee, sugar cane, etc. Other industries, too, depended on slave labor, and not all of the people in bondage came from West or Central Africa. Mann tells us about the guano business in Peru, where Chinese and native populations were pressed into service bagging seabird guano for use as fertilizer in Europe (fertilizer to help grow all those crops introduced to Europe). The movements of large populations and the way labor was marketed over a few centuries profoundly impacted the plant and animal species found in regions across nearly every continent.

Don’t pick up 1493 to marvel at the greed and shortsightedness of humanity. Plenty of shorter books will fuel that passion. Read Mann’s work because some of the history you already know about will make more sense when discussed from the economic and ecological perspectives offered in this remarkable book.

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