Review | 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann

“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” But what happened next?

More than just the discovery of the new world that we call the Americas,Christopher Columbus set off globalization of ecology, trade, biology, and nationality beyond anything that preceded it, argues Charles Mann in “1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.” The discovery of America did more than just uncover lands previously unseen or mapped by Europeans. It set adrift the then current order of the entire world, changed civilizations from the Iberian Peninsula at the edge of Europe to the Ming Dynasty in Asia.

And the changes continue today, over five hundred years later.

Mann’s exploration of the world changed by Columbus’ discovery began in “1491: New Revelations of the America’s before Columbus,” a look at what the Americas were like before the 1492 discovery. In this new book, Mann steps off from the discovery to look at the effects.

Mann follows the trail of silver mined by the Spanish from Peruvian mountains as it travels across the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, adding so much silver to the world market that it result in high levels of inflation in Spain and to the opening of trade with silver-starved Ming China (and indeed, may have also contributed to the Ming’s fall, too). In fact, more Peruvian silver may have been sent to China than to Spain. Silver would travel to Manila where it was traded for porcelain and silk bound for Spain and Europe. So great was the trade that the English privateer cum knight Sir Francis Drake would make his reputation marauding, mostly without success, Spanish silver caravans en route to the coast of South America for shipment to China and Spain.

In addition to that of silver, 1493 tells the story of other products that found their introduction the world after Columbus’ discovery, from tomatoes to potatoes. In fact, potatoes may have ended the perennial famines that plagued Europe (and contributed to the great potato famine in Ireland) and became a staple, along with manioc, across Europe and China. Rubber became so valuable that it defied usual economic laws of supply and demand as the price rose even when supply increased. Tobacco and sugar cane together brought plantation slavery to the Americas, as well as millions of Africans. Modern day cultures continue to bear the echoes of the assimilation of cultures and traditions amalgamated in the soup of escaped slaves, native American tribes, and Europeans.

If Mann deserves any criticism, it is that the story is just too large, too vast, and too complicated. The reach and the effects of the homogenocene–the period of mixing of insects, germs, plants, and every other biology through man’s action over the last 500 years–are perhaps too great for one book. Indeed, one associate complained to me that Mann just goes on and on about each aspect. “I get it already…” In his effort to be thorough, Mann cannot perhaps be sufficiently thorough to cover impact of the mixing of the Old and New Worlds.

Despite the vast scope of his effort, Mann succeeds in a fascinating tale that deserves a place among histories of the world. As Niall Ferguson might argue, too few histories look at the broad paths of history and ask “why” while too many look at the small pieces and tell what. Mann looks at the why, and he looks at a why that impacts us all. For that reason, I recommend it as important reading for the interested historian in all of us. Our world is not moved only by kings, presidents and generals, but also by the bugs, goods, trade, and cultures that mix as a result of our actions. Our ecology matters, if in ways we might not suspect or guess. After five hundred years, the effects are still felt and still changing. What might we find out tomorrow?

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Overall rating4 of 5 stars false

Parent’s guide:

  • Content rating: G to PG, if just because it’s not really geared towards kids
  • Sex: None.
  • Violence: Some reference to war, but it’s non-fiction, folks.
  • Language: None
About Daniel

Daniel Burton lives in Salt Lake County, Utah, where he practices law by day and everything else by night. He reads about history, politics, and current events, as well as more serious genres such as science fiction and fantasy. You can also follow him on his blog PubliusOnline.com where he muses on politics, the law, books and ideas.

Trackbacks

  1. […] 1493 tells the story of the world changing after and as a result of Columbus’ discovery of the America’s, what Mann calls the “Columbian exchange.” Tomatoes and peppers hit the world markets, while potatoes ended endemic famine in Europe.  Tobacco and sugar cane together brought plantation slavery to the Americas. […]

  2. […] 1493 tells the story of the world changing after and as a result of Columbus’ discovery of the America’s, what Mann calls the “Columbian exchange.” Tomatoes and peppers hit the world markets, while potatoes ended endemic famine in Europe.  Tobacco and sugar cane together brought plantation slavery to the Americas. […]