Book Review by Laura L. Klure
The book “1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created,” by Charles C. Mann, is a very admirable effort to discuss some of the changes in the world that happened after Christopher Columbus and other Europeans crossed the Atlantic. It is guaranteed to teach readers a variety of new things, and that even applies to college graduates. But it’s a LONGGGG, difficult book! However, to even briefly outline all the impacts of 500 years of global migrations would take much more than one book, so the author had to choose which changes and locations he was going to talk about. Some readers’ choices might have been different.
This book looks at shifts in population, the spread of diseases, the impacts of farming, and other social and environmental issues that arose when humanity started moving all around the planet. For example, it tells how diseases introduced from Europe impacted Native Americans and Africans who had not been exposed to them before, and therefore had not become resistant to those disease organisms. Conversely, diseases from Africa did not sicken African slaves as much as they did Europeans or Native Americans (in both North and South America).
For anyone interested in slavery, the coverage of the types of slavery that we have already known the most about, which happened in the United States, is fairly limited. What was more surprising to this reader was the coverage of other types of slavery: enslavement of Native Americans; Europeans converted from indebted workers to slaves; and even the transporting of Asians eastward to the Americas, where they labored as slaves. The book also talks about African slaves in Mexico, the Caribbean, and other places in Latin America.
Mann points out that, “Textbooks commonly present American history in terms of Europeans moving into a lightly settled hemisphere. In fact, the hemisphere was full of Indians—tens of millions of them. And most of the movement into the Americas was by Africans, who soon became the majority population in almost every place that wasn’t controlled by Indians.” He states that, “Slavery was the foundational institution of the modern Americas.”
Sometimes called “The Columbian Exchange,” the global movements of people, ships, plants, animals, diseases, and practices had a tremendous impact. Some food plants are taken for granted everywhere today, but the author points out how corn, potatoes, tomatoes, and many other plants were transplanted from their origins in the Americas both to Europe and to Asia. Food plants were moved in other directions also, such as bananas being widely planted in Africa, Central America, and South America, far from their origins in Southeast Asia. The native plants and animals were removed from many places in the world, replaced by farms with imported plants and animals, which were often productive for only a limited time.
As unpublicized as some of the Trans-Atlantic migrations were, most Americans may have been taught more about those Atlantic movements than they were about the similar eastward and westward ship traffic in the Pacific. Mann describes the role of the Philippines in the trade of silver and tobacco westward from the Americas to China, and the eastward movement of silk, laborers, rice, and other items.
Mann does not present any firm solutions to most of the problems pointed out in the book. Some might view population control as an effective approach. Mann sees human desires as being hard to change. He states: “Complicating all is the welter of mixed emotions. On the one hand, people want the wash of goods and services that the world-wide market provides. ….On the other hand, the same people who want to satisfy their desires also resist the consequences of satisfaction. They want to have what everyone else has, but still be aggressively themselves – a contradictory enterprise.”
The main text is 509 pages, followed by an interesting Appendix, plus over 150 pages of notes and an index. The factual material is generally very well researched, but with so many topics mentioned, it’s likely someone more knowledgeable about a specific small topic might pick bones with Mann. The book is well worth trying to wade through, at some point when the reader has a lot of free time available. An earlier book by Mann is titled “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.”
“1493” is available in paperback, from Vintage Books.