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1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

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Guest Reviewer: Nathaniel Philbrick on 1493 by Charles C. Mann   Nathaniel Philbrickis the author of theNew York TimesbestsellersThe Last Stand;In the Heart of the Sea, which won the National Book Award;Sea of Glory, winner of the Theodore … see full wiki

Tags: Books
Genre: History, Science
Publisher: Knopf
1 review about 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus...

How Columbus globalized the world

  • Oct 14, 2011
Like "1491," his book about the state of the world -- old and new -- before Columbus' voyage, journalist Mann's "1493" takes a long, complex, and provocative view of the earth-shaking results of that voyage and those that followed.

Mann divides his eminently readable book into four parts: "Atlantic Journeys," "Pacific Journeys," "Europe in the World," and "Africa in the World," plus an introduction and "Coda."

The book is a look at globalization, which Mann says rose directly from Columbus' explorations. The new globalization involved everyone, from the Chinese to all corners of Europe and Africa and while some effects could be foreseen -- a more stable currency for China with its new access to American silver -- much could not, like the ripples of disease and ecological destruction that almost inevitably followed upheaval.

Mann keeps the book moving by his use of lots of people and also by the inherent drama of much of the material. Readers feel the waste and horror of the Chinese people's willful destruction of their own farmland in thrall to American crops -- especially tobacco. Tenant farmers would cut down soil-holding trees on slopes, allowing rainwater to flood in torrents into the fertile valleys below, carrying rocks and debris and destroying rice paddies and fields. This went on for a couple hundred years -- still does in some places.

Or the cynicism and tragedy of the role of malaria and yellow fever in the rise of the African slave trade -- African adults had more immunity to both than did Europeans or Indians, making them a more reliable labor force. He also discusses the African role in the slave trade and the communities -- some huge -- of escaped slaves that arose.

The commonplace slaughters all over the world, the ordinary viciousness and shortsighted selfishness of our species are as relentlessly portrayed as is our industry, ingenuity and curiosity. In Manila, the Spanish base for trade with China, the sprawling Chinese community, walled off from the city (which it dwarfed), was routinely wiped out by Spanish terrified of Chinese hordes.

Yet, so profitable was the trade in Chinese silks and porcelains for Spanish silver, that the Chinese repopulated the place, with the encouragement of the Spanish, almost as quickly.

The waves of disease, famine and climate catastrophe -- all of it caused by human action -- is mind-boggling. The Little Ice Age, which went on for 200 years and brought global hardships, was likely caused, Mann argues, by the destruction of Indian societies, which had regularly burned the undergrowth in their forests, adding a predictable amount of carbon dioxide to the air and preventing thick tree growth.

Mann backs this and other ideas with the research of experts across the spectrum -- historians, geologists, climatologists and many more. He also has traveled to many of the places he discusses, giving the book added depth and color. Maps and black-and-white photos sprinkled throughout also add interest. His logic is clear and compelling and his narrative talent keeps this complex material so well organized that one thing flows from another.

He continually expands on the familiar -- the Irish potato famine for instance -- by placing it in context with what came before, or after. The potato, an Andean crop, was originally the savior of Europe, which suffered famine (and consequent peasant unrest) regularly. The potato put an end to those famines until, of course, the blight came, probably aboard a guano ship from Peru.

The overall effect of the book is a bit of despair -- we are too shortsighted and selfish to save ourselves from self-destruction -- but Mann has such a lively, optimistic writing style that hope remains. Recommended for anyone interested in a different perspective on familiar moments in history.

--Portsmouth Herald

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