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March 20, 2012

I was a skeptical reader of 1491, but fascinated by 1493. While I found the initial treatment of Columbus as an anti-hero a bit too predictable, Mann warms to his topic and each subsequent chapter improved in complexity, presented with enthusiasm and from a new and challenging perspective. 1493 is about ‘“the Columbian Exchange” — the transfer of plants, animals, germs and people across continents over the last 500 years.’ NYT review.

From a review in the Guardian,

Mann avoids [Niall] Ferguson’s trademark triumphalism by giving an often critical account of his central topic – namely, the free and forced migration of peoples, plants, quadrupeds and parasites in the so-called “Columbian Exchange” inaugurated by the Spanish conquest of the Americas. Chapters of this story have been told before by Fernand Braudel, Pierre Vilar, William McNeill and others, but Mann can report new findings.

He does not supply a very detailed account of the “great dying” of the native peoples, but instead dwells on less well-known antecedents and consequences of Columbus’s voyage in 1493. He makes a strong case for the role of the sweet potato and of the common-or-garden potato in helping Europe and China to mitigate, if not avoid, the “Malthusian trap” of overpopulation and famine. The book’s extensive discussions of Chinese agriculture and manufacture are a strong feature even where they don’t quite convince. Mann’s account of the wilful blunders of China’s rulers down the ages helps to explain recurrent disasters.

If there is a rival candidate for the event that changed the course of history then it would have to be industrialisation, with its extraordinary impact on urbanisation, life expectancy, productivity and resource depletion. Mann sees the slave plantation as a forerunner of industrialism and notes the role of plantation products such as sugar, tobacco and coffee in stimulating mass consumer demand. In fact, he sees the discovery of the Americas as the prelude to the rise of industry but his case would have been strengthened by giving space to US cotton, a raw material easily adapted to industrial methods.

Mann is possessed of an intense curiosity rather than being driven by pattern-seeking. He gives a good account of Africans’ resistance to slavery without asking why it stopped plantation growth in some cases (São Tomé and Hispaniola) and not in others (English Jamaica and French St Domingue). The contrast probably reflects a stronger commercial impulse. Likewise he pays welcome attention to the Haitian revolution (1791-1804) but stresses its effects on the planters of the Americas. Slaveholders in lands where there was a slave majority were “terrified” into accepting abolition. But in the 19th-century US South, Cuba and Brazil, territories where slaves were outnumbered by the free population, the planters exploited fear of bloody slave revolt to build new slave systems and rally non-slaveholders behind them.

In 1493, Mann emphasizes the role of the potato and sweet potato in helping Europe escape the Malthusian trap. In addition, he cites 1845 as the date for the introduction of significant amounts of guano to England in a revolutionary increase in nutrient exchange.

This contrasts oddly with Sylvia Nasar’s discussion of 1845 – a date she identifies for when infant mortality began to plummet. She cites Schumpeter, “The capitalist process, not by coincidence but by virtue of its mechanism, progressively raises the standard of life of the masses.” For Schumpeter, and seemingly for Nasar, a nation’s development depends not so much on its resources, but on “innovation, entrepreneurs, and credit.” Nasar. Grand Pursuit. page 189-190.

I am glad that I read both books – they are on completely different topics after all.  And they will keep me questioning if success or failure in any one case, is dependent more on human factors or available resources. I enjoyed this book enormously and was sorry to finish. It’s a book about ecology that doesn’t whack you over the head with agenda, presents pros and cons, engages with story and has a fascinating final chapter on the Maroon culture. For that reason alone it is worth a read.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 20, 2012 11:50 am

    I’ve not read either of these Charles C. Mann books nor Syliva Nasar’s work you cite. Now, I’ll start with 1493 because of your recommendation.

    Have you read the books of Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio, that Mann says he’s “associated with”?

  2. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    March 20, 2012 6:52 pm

    No, I don’t know these books, but I think I will buy Hungry Planet: What the World Eats for my daughter. She is a chef and she loves this kind of book.

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