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

1493 by Charles C. Mann
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May 29, 12

Read from April 30 to May 24, 2012

This was a fascinating work of synthesis, wherein Mann draws on a variety of current scholarly sources to chronicle the genesis of globalization after 1492 and the forces unleashed by it, both constructive and destructive. He examines the impact of the spread of different microbes, animals, insects, foodstuffs, and ultimately, people, into and out of the Western Hemisphere, and how it transformed ecologies and economies. Some examples: he shows how the spread of maize and sweet potatoes from the Americas into China resulted in the ecological destruction of much of China, primarily due to deforestation, erosion, and exhaustion of land fertility from the 1500s even unto the present day; the spread of Africans into the Americas and the plight of slaves and creation of communities of escaped slaves ("Maroons"), and the legacy of these communities forming a permanent underclass of the dispossessed in Brazil and elsewhere. He shows the spread of the potato and also the spread of the potato blight and the Colorado potato beetle. They say that history is written by the victors, but this is history from the other side. Even more admirable is how he brings the history forth into the present time, showing how the extractive and exploitative actions of governments and corporations, continue to exploit the dispossessed, to ruinous effect. Mankind still seems prone to the same kind of selfish barbarities that have inflicted untold suffering over the centuries. No armchair scholar is Mann - he writes of his trips to China, Brazil, Mexico, and the Philippines and his interviews of native scholars, officials, and peasants, together with his visits to the actual sites. One of my favorite lines describes the inequality of a Laotian village elder (who is 30 years old), in negotiating a contract with a large Chinese company for rubber tree production - that the contract showed that 'one side had lawyers to maximize its contractual rights, and the other side didn't know what a lawyer was.' Mann's writing style is engaging and erudite. He maintains a certain sense of humor throughout the book. His footnotes and list of sources is extensive, comprising perhaps the last 20% of the book. Over the years, my tastes have become somewhat jaded, so I am drawn to and prize originality. This is a very original work of a vast scope - the exploration of the Columbian Exchange and its legacy. It is much greater than the sum of its parts. I give it 5 stars for this.
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