August 28, 2011

After the Columbian Exchange, nothing was ever the same

Columbian Exchange: 1493 by Charles C. Mann1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Chances are, you’re aware that the potato originated in Peru and smallpox in Africa, and that both species crossed the Atlantic shortly after Columbus. You probably know, too, that the potato later became a staple in many European countries and that smallpox decimated the native population of the Americas. However, what you may not know is how profound was the impact on the course of history of the exchange of animals, plants, minerals, and microorganisms from the Old World to and from the New.

Historians call this phenomenon the Columbian Exchange. Writing in 1493, Charles C. Mann refers to it as a turning-point equally as profound as the development of agriculture. One after another, this brilliant book brushes away a host of cherished myths that have grown up in the shadows of history.

Consider:

  • The Columbian Exchange was by no means limited to commerce between Europe and the Americas. It was a truly global phenomenon, with far-reaching effects in Asia and Africa as well. Mann refers to the era ushered in by the Columbian Exchange as the “Homogenocene” — a new phase in human history when globalization became a reality and the world we share became increasingly homogenized.
  • Though the Conquistadors’ search for gold was largely frustrated, their discovery of a mountain of silver in Bolivia led to Spain’s flooding the world with so much of this metal that it eventually wrecked the economies of both Europe and China.
  • When Europeans sailed westward to colonize the New World, the native population was huge. For example, the Eastern seaboard of North America was more densely populated than Western Europe. Diseases inadvertently introduced from Europe and Africa reduced the population by half or more within the first few decades.
  • Most Americans think of the westward movement of people as a European phenomenon. It was, in fact, predominantly African. Africans, transported over the sea as slaves, outnumbered European colonists by huge ratios. Not until the 19th Century, when the Irish potato famine and political upheaval across Europe produced mass emigration to the Americas, did the ethnic balance tip.

These are just a few of the eye-opening themes Charles C. Mann develops so ably in 1493. If you have even a passing interest in how the world got to be the way it is, read this book.

For links to my reviews of several other books that take a broad view of history, including Mann’s 1491, see Big History: New perspectives on world history. You might also find it illuminating, as I have, to see 75 readable and revealing historical novels.

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluslinkedinmail

Mal Warwick