Columbus triggered the Little Ice Age. Malaria invented African slavery in the Americas, set the position of the Mason-Dixon line and helped the colonies win the American War of Independence. Silver from the New World wreaked havoc on the Chinese monetary system. Potatoes allowed Europe to take over the world.
These are some of the provocative gems found in Charles C. Mann’s 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. It’s a sequel of sorts to 1491, a book on the Americas before their discovery by Europeans that impressed the hell out of me. It’s essentially a popular history of the Columbian Exchange — where peoples, species, and goods previously separated by geography came together in a new period some have dubbed the Homogocene — where, for example, Africans outnumbered Europeans in the Caribbean and a substantial population of Asians lived in 16th-century Mexico, and crops like tobacco, sugar, rubber, potatoes and maize expanded across the world. Globalization, Mann argues, is not a new thing: the global economy can be traced to post-conquest Mexico, where Andean silver not only crossed the Atlantic to Spain, but also the Pacific to the Philippines, where Spain traded it for Chinese silk and porcelain. The world knit itself together on the bounty of the Americas.
It’s by necessity an incomplete look. The Atlantic triangle gets short shrift, and cod is not once mentioned. A comprehensive survey of the Exchange would have to be textbook-superficial, or come in twenty volumes. Mann takes one thing at a time — rubber or sugar or malaria, or racial mixing, or escaped slave colonies like the black Seminoles — and goes into considerable depth. Neither is this a history of the period immediately after contact: the Conquistadors share time with modern-day rubber plantations in Indochina. What 1493 is, like 1491 before it, is an immensely stimulating and accessible read, hard to put down, provocative of much thought. Go read it.