1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, by Charles Mann

Mann’s earlier book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus described the state of the Americas before Columbus’ infamous voyage, with a focus on describing how the continent’s population was more numerous and more technologically advanced than generally known. Although no-one realized it at the time, the Americas were neither empty nor a wilderness but rather a managed ecosystem inhabited by sophisticated civilizations. Given the general lack of written records, thorough evidence for all of this takes some digging to uncover, but Mann was up to task and his book was very well received by the sort of people who ate up Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, which offers convincingly argued explanations for why it was that Europe was colonizing the Americas in the first place, as opposed to the other way around.

So what happened next? With this book, Mann picks up the tale and talks about the expected and unexpected results of these great global migrations. Inspired by historian Alfred Crosby’s 1972 book The Columbian Exchange, Mann tells us about plants, animals, and diseases that had enormous consequences far from their native lands. From the Andean potato, which could double the population of European agricultural communities, to malaria, an Old World illness that made it more profitable to import African slaves with some genetic resistance than indentured European bonded labourers into much of the Americas, to contemporary rubber plantations taking over parts of China (did you know that half of rubber used today comes from trees, not oil?), there are fascinating stories to tell. Mann tends to come across as a cheerleader of globalization and its possibilities, which gets old, but there are enough anecdotes to keep the book engaging and worthwhile. Just one example: by some estimates half the silver the Spanish took out of the Americas (and there were mountains of it there) went west across the Pacific to China, in trade for manufactured goods which already by the 16th century could be made better and cheaper there than by anyone in Europe. Anyone surprised that this is still happening now has clearly not been paying close attention.

1493 gives the reader a useful perspective on the present, when the idea that people in different countries will forever have vastly different living standards is seeming more and more untenable. Wars and epidemics have been truly global affairs for at least a century now (the 1918 influenza pandemic affected almost every country on earth and killed somewhere between 1% to 3% of the global population). Anthropogenic climate change is not going to spare anyone either. We’re all in this together, whether we like it or not. This isn’t news, but it’s interesting to know just how deep the roots of that truth go. We’re in what Mann calls the homogenocene now, the age when all things become the same, and though he doesn’t provide a roadmap for the future he at least gives a clearer idea of where we stand now.