Jason's Reviews > 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

1493 by Charles C. Mann
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Oct 07, 11

bookshelves: nonfiction, history, world_history
Read from October 02 to 07, 2011

A remarkable global history from 1493 to the present, describes the trade and exchange of people, plants, commodities, and microorganisms between Europe, the Americas, Asia and Africa. It is nowhere nearly as original as Charles Mann's previous 1491, with presented a revolutionary portrait of pre-Columbian America, nor Guns, Germs and Steel, which covers some of the same terrain. But it is still a thoughtful, balanced, creative, and large-scale history of what the author, following earlier works, calls the "Columbian exchange." The book is journalistic in nature and draws on a wide variety of research including conventional history, genetics, environmental studies, farm studies, and economic history.

Mann's thesis is that since 1493, a massive Transatlantic and Transpacific trade has helped create a new era in global environmental history, the Homogenocene -- which is a homogenizing of the people, plants and people around the world. Some of the exchanges he describes are well known and well documented, like the slave trade. Others I had never heard of, like the large role that the guano mining and trade played in 19th century agriculture. All of them are described in a vivid and humanizing way, for example describing the horrors of guano mining by essentially enslaved Chinese laborers, the boomtowns that it created in Peru, the cartels that controlled it, and the impact it had on European agriculture. In between these levels of familiarity, are detailed descriptions of the trade in tobacco, silver, the potato, rubber, rice, sugarcane, malaria and yellow fever.

In the course of this, the book covers the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, the founding of the America's and the rise of Europe. It is also interesting in that it spends as much time on China and Asia, not just as a source of materials for the West but also in describing how the trade in items like silver and the potato transformed Asian economies, societies, and even their physical topographies. The Philippines get a particularly interesting treatment in the book, as the crossroads of the Asia, the New World, and Europe.

I appreciate Mann's balance in writing the book. He is unstinting in his descriptions of the human and ecological horrors brought by the exchange. But he is also clear and forthright about their massive benefits that these exchanges have brought.
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