Monday, July 23, 2012

Musings: 1493 - Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

1493:  Uncovering the New World Columbus Created
I read and loved Charles C. Mann's 1491:  New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, so when I heard that Mann had a companion book out, I was very excited to get my hands on it.  1493 in some ways picks up where 1491 left off, except that it dramatically increases the scope of the research.  Instead of focusing on the Americas, Mann gives detailed accounts of how the Columbian Exchange impacted the entire world.  Yes, the Europeans brought disease and took tobacco, but that is just one tiny piece of a colossal whole.  As in his previous book, Mann gives us a spectacular perspective on the continuing effects of what happened- "nothing less than the forming of a single new world from the collision of two old worlds..."

Often when we are taught history, we are taught in silos.  "This is what happened in Europe at this time.  This is what they were doing in India then.  In the US, they were dealing with something totally separate."  What I most appreciated about 1493 was that Mann brought all of these histories together and made clear just how intricately they were connected.  Silver mined in South America by African slaves was minted in the Spanish empire, but 80 to 90 percent of it went to China.  These are links that textbooks rarely make, and it was amazing to see just how global the world has been for so long.  And just how completely our world changed when the Americas were discovered.

I said that what I most loved about this book was Mann's ability to bring together so many disparate threads to give us a full picture of world history.  This is not a Eurocentric account.  It's not about the victimization of Native Americans and Africans.  It's not about the trade wars that occurred in the Far East.  Mann presents every major player as ambitious and flawed.  Instead of saying that the Chinese were isolationist because they had nothing to trade with Europe, he points out that China was so far advanced over Europe in the Middle Ages that Europe had nothing to offer that it could not get itself.  That is, until all the silver of the Americas was made available.

It was absolutely fascinating for me to read just how much the sweet potato changed the landscape of China, the rubber tree changed the landscape of Laos, the potato plant led to the Industrial Revolution, and sugarcane had such a profound impact on everything.  Also, that the Little Ice Age that started in the 16th century can possibly be blamed on the death of so many Native Americans that no longer burned the forests, leading to a huge decrease in the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.  So the exact opposite of what is happening now happened in the 16th century and caused an ice age because the forests grew so much.  HOW AMAZING IS THAT?  Also, earthworms were brought to the Americas by Europeans.  ALSO AMAZING.  Also, you can survive very well on a diet of just potatoes.  They have almost every essential nutrient you need to be healthy.  So go ahead, eat those French fries.  They have saved more lives than yours.

I enjoyed every chapter of this book but was completely blown away by the chapter on the effect of disease, especially malaria.  I cannot even attempt to describe to you just how much malaria has shaped our world.  But what was most disturbing was the way Mann tied malaria to slavery:
"Inherited malaria resistance occurs in many parts of the world, but the people of West and Central Africa have more than anyone else - they are almost completely immune to vivax... Add in high levels of acquired resistance from repeated childhood exposure, and adult West and Central Africans were and are less susceptible to malaria than anyone else on earth.  Biology enters history when one realizes that almost all of the slaves ferried to the Americas came from West and Central Africa.  In vivax-ridden Virginia and Carolina, they were more likely to survive and produce children than English colonists.  Biologically speaking, they were fitter, which is another way of saying that in these places they were - loaded words! - genetically superior...Their immunity became a wellspring for their enslavement."
Mann goes on to explain how African immunity made slaves a better investment than European indentured servants, and... well, you can guess how things went from there. 


I was also astounded (yes, I'm using a lot of extreme words here, but they are TOTALLY JUSTIFIED) by the history of Asians in the Americas.  I realize this sounds silly, but I didn't have any idea that so many people from China and India and all over Asia came to the Americas in the 16th and 17th centuries.  This was so cool to read because, quite frankly, Asians are left almost completely out of American history in school until the Gold Rush.  Mann puts us right back in there and makes clear just how integral we were to the political and cultural evolution of the continents.  I love him for doing that, and for detailing just how complex and mixed and confusing race became in South America because so many people were descended from so many different places.  He includes a series of illustrations and terms (a lot of very specific terms!) that describe people of mixed race heritage in Mexico and just how complicated the hierarchy became when people started worrying more about bloodlines and less about making alliances.


There are so many wonderful stories and facts and circumstances and people presented in this book.  I wish I could gush about them all, but I am still reeling from learning so much that shifted my perceptions so completely.  So I shall end with a quote from the wonderfully eloquent Buried in Print, who puts it perfectly.


"Sometimes I feel as though with books like this, which can dramatically alter the way that you view the world, that each chapter is the equivalent of an entire book; your brain can only expand so much in a few pages, even when you're vehemently wishing that it would take it all in. "
Exactly.  Read this book.  Your brain will thank you for it. 

22 comments:

  1. I'm glad you liked this book, I read it earlier this year and just LOVED it - the same thing, the sort of intricate untangling of the ends of threads that stretch out so many different directions, seeing how much of the history of the ren and modern world is really just a reaction to the flora and fauna of the Americas.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Exactly - I wish there were more books that did this sort of thing, especially in school. So many people accuse Americans of being myopic, and I think this method of teaching - of showing the impact that the Americas have HAD on the world - satisfies our craving for patriotism while also giving us a good grounding in world history.

      Delete
  2. "What I most appreciated about 1493 was that Mann brought all of these histories together and made clear just how intricately they were connected."

    Oooh.

    I got 1491 from the library, but ended up not getting to it in time and had to return it. But if it's this awesome, and I'll check it and 1493 out.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It is really THAT AWESOME. I preferred 1491 to 1493, I think, because I didn't even know there was that much research available to us on the Native Americans. AND WE LEARN NONE OF IT.

      Delete
  3. Two comments. One, I tried to listen to this, and admit it was educational, but after TWO ENTIRE DISKS on mosquitos, I gave up! LOL Second, (re the Chinese), you might enjoy [sic] reading "Sundown Towns" by Loewen. It's a truly important book about not only how blacks have been mistreated in ways not usually covered (i.e., these so-called "sundown towns" not only in the South but north as well - had signs up or "understandings" that blacks out on the streets after 5 will be "punished" (beaten, lynched, etc.)) but also covers burning (alive) Chinese (men ANd women and children) out of towns (after they built the railroads and did other undesirable labor of course). The "sundown town" practice has been documented up until 1999! It's truly an eye-opening book.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I thought the mosquitoes were FASCINATING! I am sad you disagree, but it is a valid point you make. I can understand, but you missed out BIG TIME by not listening to the three disks on potatoes ;-)

      I will definitely look into Sundown Towns. How terrifying. 1999?!

      Delete
  4. Wow, I'm completely sold on this. It'll probably have to wait till my current run of Only Lightweight Summer Reading, but it sounds really fascinating.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's worth the wait, in my opinion. It completely changes your perspective on the world. It's fantastic.

      Delete
  5. Ok, Aarti, your review has totally convinced me that I need to read this book, AND the previous book, because I crave information like this, and it sounds like it was delivered in such an intelligent and evenhanded way. I loved the details that you chose to include, and they alone, I think, are worth the price of admission. I am going to be getting my hands on a copy of the first book at the beginning of August. Then I will meander my way towards this one as well. Fantabulous review today! I loved it!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. YES, Heather, I think you would soak this book up and (hopefully) send me a long and detailed email about your thoughts on it and everything else because that is just what this book DOES - it makes you quote random facts all the time. For example, a couple of days ago, I told my boss that he could survive on potatoes for the rest of his life if he wanted to because they are THAT AMAZING. He did not seem as totally floored by this fact as I was, and he may now think I am some sort of weird tater-pusher, but it's ok because people should know these things.

      Delete
  6. Huh, earthworms, the little ice age, fascinating :D I'd read this

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I know! The earthworm thing was crazy!

      Delete
  7. That's really interesting, that the world was a global place even back then. We do tend to think of all the continents as separate... maybe connecting took longer but the connections were there.

    I hate that we're taught just basic facts and it's rare that teachers help us link them. I'm sure history would be a much more interesting school subject if stuff like what you describe was included!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I was lucky enough to have some great teachers in school, but I know what you mean. It would be wonderful to get a more big picture look in a higher level history class.

      Delete
  8. Sorry to butt in again ...

    Just in defense of history teachers the world over (though admittedly some are indefensible), I've received an entirely different viewpoint on teaching history now that I have children of my own - my youngest LOVES history, and loves to learn about it. This summer, for example, we've spent our time learning about World War II, with different topics each week, from Partisans to Prison Camps, form Bombers to Stalingrad. He's really enjoyed it, and probably (I hope) gotten a bit more depth on a pretty seminal part of history than he may have gotten in school, but I also learned just how hard it really is to teach someone the finer points of a historical event.

    Unlike many topics (say, literature) when you begin history you really are, more or less, a tabula rasa. I find I forget this all the time. My child, who has been watching movies and reading and talking and comprehending new things about the war all summer, just recently expressed surprise that it was in the 1940's, and that people were alive who remembered it. He had a fuzzy idea that it must have been much closer to World War I. And thank god for Board Games, because I believe it was only Axis and Allies (a World War II strategy game) that made him realize that Austria and Australia weren't the same place. And keep in mind, this a kid who is very driven to learn the subject, who really WANTS to know these things.

    The problem with history is, I think, something like the problem with piano - that you never get to the truly mind-blowing moments of understanding until you've first slogged through a WHOLE lot of initial hard work at just learning the fundamentals. Kids need to learn to play the scales of history before they can play Debussy, you know?

    This doesn't excuse ALL the gaps in history classes, of course. I think, for instance teaching World War II WITHOUT talking about, say, Stalingrad, actually makes the thing MORE confusing, not less (did the Germans just get tired? Were the American soldiers just that awesome in 1943?). Teaching it without talking about our Japanese Internment camps feels more like hiding from our past than summarizing for brevity.

    But its such a hard balance, because you're trying to help someone understand a world conflict when they barely understand the world - and I can only imagine this when you're teaching someone who hardly cares.

    And then, on the other side of thing, its worth remembering that, for all our gaps, Americans are learning a more balanced and nuanced view of history than most school kids ever did (the volume of history they learn is a pure scandal, though, I think). When I was young, it was still eye-rollingly politically correct that they put in all that namby pamby about how the Indians suffered during westward expansion. I went to schools run by the military, but still remember clearly learning about the sixties in a way that portrayed Vietnam is a tragedy, in which both the soldiers and the protesters were brave in their way. We had debates about tether it was right to drop the bomb on Hiroshima. The world could be worse than that.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, this is an excellent point, Jason, so thanks very much for jumping back in.

      Your point is a good one because as I look back, I think that my interest in different eras was piqued in school but as I got older, I started looking into them more and more. Similar to my reading - I read a lot in school, but as I have gotten older, my reading tastes have changed and expanded. That could very well be due to the influence of my teachers at a younger age, even if I can't quite see the link now.

      I just wish the scales that kids learn before moving onto Debussy, as you say, were less black and white. I don't mean that when you're in third grade, you should learn about how slavery was a result of malaria and the cost of shipping people over a large ocean, but I mean that as you get older and continue to learn about the same eras of history over and over (such as the Civil War), then teachers should be given the opportunity to delve more deeply into a subject rather than giving an overview. Or at least, make the overview one that encompasses more information than what we have currently.

      Delete
  9. The global economics, trade and impact of new crops all sounds fascinating. I'm definitely going to give this one a closer look.

    ReplyDelete
  10. This sounds absolutely fascinating. I love getting lost in the historical details. Those are the things that make me feel like I'm really experiencing another time.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Exactly - I completely agree.

      Delete
  11. First of all, love the discussion about history in the comments. You and Jason both make such good points. I do wish there was a way to teach those basics that wasn't necessarily so black and white, but I appreciate how challenging a teacher's job really is. As for the book, I absolutely need to read it (and 1491 too).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes! As discussed via email, I think you would love them both.

      Delete

I read every comment posted on this blog, even if it sometimes takes me a while to respond. Thank you for taking the time and effort to comment here! Unless you are spamming me, in which case, thanks for nothing.