My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I’m familiar with the phrase “the Columbian Exchange”, but never spent much time working out all its nuances. Charles C. Mann takes up the topic in 1493. In a nutshell, the Exchange is the process through which the combination of old world and new world elements has interacted to form the global culture of today. Mann, not a historian himself, synthesizes a generation’s worth of research and literature into a lively, readable exposition on the political, cultural, and biological forces that were unleashed. Most such chronicles focus upon technology as the driving force in economic and social development. The Europeans, for instance, had superior weaponry and therefore easily conquered the New World’s indigenous peoples. But Mann argues that biological forces were much more influential in determining outcomes.
Opening with the first prolonged contact between cultures along the Atlantic coast, Mann describes how micro-organisms from the Europe, Asia, and Africa hitched free passage to the Americas, causing a myriad of problems that could not have been foreseen and were poorly understood at that time. The colonies nearly failed until a profitable commodity crop, tobacco, was established. It was a micro-organism that enabled an American victory in the war for independence, and other micro-organisms fostered the enslavement of Africans in many countries. Mann then moves on to the Pacific, where he looks at silver, corn, and piracy, and their effects on both sides of that vast ocean. His discussion of the food that enabled China’s population growth is particularly fascinating. Finally, he moves on to Europe and Africa, and provides an overview of the economy underlying the slave trade from the African point of view. Many men who were sold into slavery were prisoners of war, soldiers with military training, who put that experience to good use fomenting successful rebellions in Central America.
It’s daunting to review a book of this size and scope, so rich in facts and detail. But it’s not dry detail. There were streets in South America, for example, that really were paved, not in gold, but silver. Europeans “drank” tobacco, and had elaborate rules and rituals surrounding the practice. And that the influence of the lowly sweet potato has been enormous. 1493 is not a polemic or a sales pitch. It is a thoughtful, fair, and balanced tour de force with the power to change how we view the world.