Charles C. Mann in his new book, 1493: UNCOVERING THE NEW WORLD COLUMBUS CREATED tells of how today’s unified, globalized world originated with the voyages of Christopher Columbus and how contact with the Americas changed Europe, Africa and Asia. As in his earlier book, 1491, he made me see that the world’s history was different from what I thought it was.
In 1491, Europeans lived in Europe, Africans lived in Africa, Asian Indians lived in India and Chinese lived in China, and they had little contact with each other. The exception was the civilization of Islam, located in the center of the Eastern Hemisphere, which traded with all the others. The Spanish and Portuguese sent out explorers to find routes to India and China that bypassed the Muslims.
The Portuguese reached India by sailing East, but had little impact because in fact they had little of value to offer in trade. The Spanish sought to reach the East by sailing West, and ultimately were successful, establishing settlements in the Philippines in the 1570s. Unlike the Portuguese, they did have something the Chinese needed in exchange for their silk, porcelain and other manufactured products—the silver of the New World.
By 1650, according to Mann’s account, the center of the world economy was the city of Potosi in what is now Bolivia, at the foot of an extinct volcano where there was a mountain of nearly pure silver. Mann wrote that it was bigger than London or Amsterdam, or any other city in the Western Hemisphere.
The silver was transported up the west coast of South America to Panama and Mexico. Some of it was shipped to China, which at that time was the largest, richest and most advanced country in the world, according to Mann. The Chinese did not go on voyages of discovery, but they engaged in world trade because the rest of the world came to them. But China was poor in precious metals, and an earlier experiment with paper money led to a ruinous inflation. So the Spanish were able to obtain their manufactured products at a bargain rate.
Most of the silver went to Spain itself, which at that time was the dominant power in Europe, thanks to its New World riches and the valor of its troops. In the 17th century, the Spanish peso was the world’s preferred currency, much like the U.S. dollar in the 20th century. In the long run, because the Spanish did not invest in productive enterprises, their silver flowed to bankers and manufacturers in the Netherlands, Britain and other countries.
Potosi is now a ghost town, an example of what Mann called the “extractive state,” whose rulers—often absentee—sought only to extract what they could of value from the land, regardless of consequences.
The bulk of Mann’s book tells what happened next, as food crops, diseases and people moved to and from the New World. American food crops changed the world. Imagine Italian cooking without tomato sauce, or Thai cooking without chili pepper! The American sweet potato saved China from famine and the white potato saved northern Europe, Mann wrote, but at the cost of creating an agricultural monoculture—crops that were genetically the same—that left the crops vulnerable to disease and pests.
One chapter tells the story of tobacco, the cash crop that attracted English settlers to the New World. In a remarkably short time, nicotine addiction spread all over the world, to Japan, China and India as well as Europe. Another tells the story of rubber, a product as vital to the industrial world as steel or fossil fuels. Deforestation and leaf blight virtually destroyed the rubber trees of Brazil, but the rubber industry meanwhile was reestablished in Southeast Asia. Brazil is known for coffee, which originated in Ethiopia.
Mann said globalization fostered “extractive states”—societies controlled by people who lived elsewhere, and who were only concerned with what they could profitably extract in the short run. different from, say, England under William the Conqueror, who lived among the people they ruled and expected their descendants to be able to do the same.
In 1491, Mann told how European diseases wiped out a large percentage of the American Indian population. In 1493, he told how the New World was influenced by malaria and yellow fever. The peoples of west and central Africa have immunities to these diseases that Europeans and American Indians lack, so over time African slaves replaced European indentured servants and American slaves as plantation labor. At the same time, the United States and then Haiti were helped in their struggles for independence by the effects of malaria and yellow fever on the invading British and French armies.
A final section tells of the relations of Africa and the Americas. According to Mann, the number of Africans who crossed the Atlantic in the 16th and 17th centuries in slave ships was greater than the number of Europeans who immigrated. Many Africans fled slavery and took refuge with American Indians, where they formed numerous independent “maroon” communities beyond the reach of the governments of their areas. The Seminoles of Florida, who gave refuge to American slaves, are a small example, but there were huge maroon communities all through the American tropics. Mann told how, in the present era, the “maroons” of Brazil are fighting to keep their lands from being expropriated by ranchers and developers.
The photo above shows the property of Maria do Rosario Costa Cabral, whose family of maroons have lived for generations along the tributaries of the Amazon River. Their history has been to settle on abandoned land, bring it back into production and then be pushed out because they have no legal title. She told Charles Mann she acquired her current property cheap because the land had been ravaged by the 1980s fad among fashionable Americans and Europeans for heart-of-palm salad. Whole trees were chopped down to get the edible tips. This time she acquired legal title, paid the back taxes and, at the time of writing, succeeded in fending off ranchers who tried to expropriate her.
Her current management of her property resembles the practices of American Indians described by Mann in 1491. She is neither an environmentalist, who leaves the land untouched, nor an exploiter, who extracts whatever is of immediate value and moves on. Instead she manages her environment so that it can sustain her and her family over the long term. To the untrained eye, as the photo shows, it looks like undeveloped wilderness.
I’ve always subscribed to what has been called the Whig theory of history, which basically says the historical process that has led to me having a good life must have been good. Mann’s 1491 and 1493 make me doubt that assumption. The Columbian age of globalization has brought many benefits to humanity, but often at great eventual cost in social and environmental disruption. I’m unable to say whether the benefits or costs were greater. The story isn’t over yet.
Click on The Dawn of the Homogenocene to read the opening section of Mann’s 1493.