Charles Mann (1955)
Two hundred and fifty million years ago the world contained a single landmass known to scientists as Pangaea. Geological forces broke up this vast expanse, splitting Eurasia and the Americas. Over [millennia] the two divided halves of Pangaea developed wildly different suites of plants and animals. … After [Cristobal Col´o;n’s voyage in] 1492 the world’s ecosystems collided and mixed as European vessels carried thousands of spices to new homes across the oceans. (7)With these lines near the beginning of 1493, author Charles Mann sets the stage for a fascinating exploration of the dramatic, far-reaching and largely unforeseen changes that occurred in the time after this sudden linking of the world’s hemispheres, an era he calls the Homogenocene, a period --- still on-going --- of global homogenization of economics, ecology and humanity. As in his earlier work, 1491, which described the American continents and their inhabitants before Col´o;n first reached the New World, Mann enlivens his history by bringing in anecdotes and stories from the diaries, journals and books of individuals who experienced the many upheavals that came with the interconnecting of the continents. Thus he personalizes for the reader what might otherwise have become just a forced march through a series of dry historical events and facts; in this way we don’t just learn about the changes that occurred, we also experience a bit of the awe, and the trauma, of those who lived through them.
In 1491 Mann naturally focused mainly on the Indian societies of the Americas, communities that from a European, Asian or African perspective may as well have been located on another planet before 1492. In 1493, by contrast, the world abruptly contracts as Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas become linked together through a frenetic movement of people and goods, as well as plants and animals, across the globe. There is a delicious irony in the fact that although Col´o;n solicited funds for his proposed expedition based on a significant underestimate of the size of the globe, and the world was actually much larger than he claimed, in the end he did indeed take a major step in effectively shrinking it for mankind. The subsequent speed with which settlements in the Americas multiplied and expanded in the 1500’s seems astounding today, knowing that Col´o;n first reached the Americas in 1492 and that at the time a single crossing of the Atlantic took over a month to complete.
Mann opens the book by introducing the two key ocean crossings that established the links leading to our modern, interconnected world. The first, of course, led to Col´o;n making landfall on what he called Hispaniola, an island in the Caribbean. The second expedition, some 65 years later, crossed the Pacific Ocean, as Miguel L´o;pez de Legazpi and Andr´e;s Ochoa de Urdaneta y Cerain made landfall in the Philippines and established the modern city of Manila (after leveling an exiting village whose ruler refused to make way for the Spaniards); though they were not the first to make the east to west crossing of the Pacific, it was Legazpi’s group who established contact and began trading via the Pacific route with the Chinese, whose junkets had long been coming yearly to the Philippines to sell their goods. As Mann summarizes: “[A] way to state their accomplishment would be to say that Legazpi and Urdaneta were to economics what Col´o;n was to ecology: the origin, however inadvertent, of a great unification.” (24)
Having established how the world was linked together by these two daring voyages, Mann goes on to explore the impacts of this new reality on societies around the globe, impacts that have continued to our current time. Instead of telling his story chronologically, Mann splits the book into geographic sections. He begins by describing the connections across the Atlantic, and the establishment of the early settlements in the Americas, which initiated a significant ecological exchange between the Old World and the New. The intentional transfer of particular plants and animals in both directions across the Atlantic had lasting economic and human impacts in the Americas and Europe, as did the unintended introduction of other organisms, including devastating diseases. Malaria and yellow fever, for example, arrived in the New World, and proved to be as deadly to the Indians as to Europeans; but West Africans showed a significantly higher resistance to these diseases, which increased their worth as slaves, with all the devastating consequences that implies.
From the Atlantic Mann moves in the next section to the Pacific, and the trade routes formed between Asia, the Americas and Europe. He describes the transformations in Chinese society that resulted from the sudden dramatic expansion of trade with Europe; new markets opened for Chinese goods, leading to new industries for Chinese workers, while the introduction of previously unknown crops fundamentally altered Chinese agriculture and diet. In this section he also examines the discovery and subsequent large-scale mining of sliver lodes in South America, and the key role that this silver played in growing European trade with the Chinese.
The third section highlights the impact on societies around the world of new forms of intensive agriculture developed to meet growing demands of especially the European market. As one example, he looks in detail at the nearly complete transition in 18th century Ireland to potatoes as a food crop, and the deadly consequences in the 19th century, when the large, monoculture fields of potatoes became an easy target for potato blight, which arrived in Europe from the New World via the same trading routes that had earlier brought the potato. As a second example, Mann examines the discovery of rubber by Europeans in the Brazil, and the subsequent development of a processing technique that led to vulcanized rubber becoming a critical part of so many products of the industrial revolution. He describes how the ever increasing demand for rubber drove the creation of large scale plantations of rubber trees in many parts of the world, and warns of the risk that threatens our modern world if a particular spore that has already destroyed vast spreads of rubber trees in Brazil crosses the ocean to the plantations of south-east Asia.
Finally Mann turns to the human side of the Homogenocene. The Americas became a “crazy soup,” as he calls it, of people from around the world. Europeans, Asians and, involuntarily, millions of African slaves arrived in the New World, joining those (few) Indians in the hemisphere who survived the many introduced diseases that burned through their communities. The western hemisphere became the first melting pot, in which these groups intermingled, culturally and genetically. Mann also dedicates a significant portion of this final section to the groups of African slaves who escaped their masters and then fought to maintain their freedom, in many cases succeeding in establishing independent communities that lasted for decades and even centuries, a fascinating history that I had heard little about before now.
Although the focus varies from one section of the book to the next, the fundamental story remains the same: increasing economic, ecological and human exchanges between far-flung societies led to consequences that were generally unplanned, and often unexpected and uncontrollable. In each region of the world that Mann examines, societies realized positive developments from the exchange that developed after 1493; but often too they experienced what could in modern times be referred to by the term blowback: the unintended consequences of policies that initially seem beneficial. The rewards and risks of the Homogenocene that Mann recounts from four and five centuries ago resonate even into modern times in the concerns we hear and read about in the daily news.
Among the clearest examples of the unintended consequences of the Homogenocene are found in the intentional transfer of plants from the Americas to the rest of the world. In particular, maize, potatoes and sweet potatoes --- domesticated in the Americas --- were exported and became important crops elsewhere in the world in the years after 1493. Able to be grown on relatively marginal land, and providing more nutritional value per acre than many other crops, these plants quickly spread to Asia and Europe, becoming in a short period dietary staples in regions that had never known them before. The advantages were obvious as populations boomed in these new areas of cultivation as a result of the increased caloric and nutritional yield. Only later came the downsides: Mann describes, for example, how potatoes became the main food for a majority of the Irish in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, and due to both the ease in growing them and their nutritional advantages, led to a significant increase in population. Then, without warning, the same trade routes that originally brought the potato from the new world in the 1500’s brought the potato blight, a disease which in the span of a few months in 1845 laid waste to Europe’s potato fields. In Ireland the effects were particularly devastating, given the significant part of the population that subsisted on potatoes; Mann points out that due to the famine caused deaths and emigration, Ireland’s modern day population remains less than it was in the mid-1800’s.
China too benefited --- and suffered --- from the plants it adopted from the new world, principally maize and sweet potatoes. Able to significantly expand agriculture with these crops into what had before been marginal, unused land, the population rose quickly. The planting of these crops continued to spread into ever more marginal land, to sustain on-going population growth. The newly planted areas, however, could often only sustain being cultivated for a few years before becoming unusable and pushing farmers to clear further new lands. As more and more of the countryside was stripped of its traditional, permanent ground-cover, a significant increase in the number of destructive floods began occurring, causing crop loss even in traditional agricultural areas, and leading to repeated periods of deadly famine, in a cycle that continued into the 20th century.
What can be most disturbing about Mann’s accounts of these and other effects of the Homogenocene is the seeming inevitability of events. In the case of the famines described above, societies had simply found a better, more stable food source for their people, and so naturally had taken advantage of it. In so doing, however, they had planted the seeds, literally, for future disasters they could not imagine.
An even more disturbing example of this in Mann’s book, the rapid expansion of plantation slavery in the years after 1493, seems saturated with the sense of unplanned inevitability. He explains how the roots of this brutal regime extended back to before Col´o;n’s first voyage, slavery having existed for many centuries, while large plantations of cash crops had begun to develop in the century or so before his trip. But the European’s discovery of the Americas opened an entire hemisphere to the creation of these plantation-oriented crops, particularly sugar and tobacco. With the dramatic increase in the need for labor, and the rapid spread of malaria and yellow fever from Africa into the New World, came a seemingly exponential rise in the Atlantic slave trade in the decades and centuries after 1493. As with the famines and other negative consequences of introduced New World plants, no one had specifically planned for this development.
Although Mann does not explicitly state this in his book, I find it difficult to avoid coming to the conclusion after reading it that the extractive and exploitive nature of the colonization that developed after 1493 was deeply tied to an inherently Western European view of the world during that era. When the Europeans came to the lands of the Americas, they seem to have primarily viewed it as a kind of bank, from which, by virtue of their having forcibly taken ownership of it, they could extract funds from it however they wished. (I am leaving aside the parallel interest of the church in converting the Indians to Christianity.) Especially in the 16th and 17th centuries, Europeans seem to have traveled to the Americas not to establish a new home, but rather in search of opportunities for making money --- and since it was not their home, in the most personal sense, it was as if they were under no constraints to operate as they might have done, or been legally and culturally forced to, in their home countries.
Aside from the mining of silver, which came primarily from what is modern day Bolivia and was shipped either to China to buy goods or to Europe to fund religious wars, a major focus for Europeans in the first centuries after 1493 was on growing tobacco, a crop discovered in the Americas, and sugarcane, a crop Europeans had only known as a very rare spice before the Crusades. To demonstrate the conclusion I mention above, I’ll pull in what follows from Mann’s detailed account of the spread of sugarcane plantations into the New World.
Mann points out that once sugar from the newly conquered Islamic plantations in the Middle East became more readily available in Europe, it became impossible to keep up with demand, and European sugar producers desperately sought out more regions in which to cultivate this crop that grows in warm, wet climates. According to Mann, growing and processing sugarcane is extremely unpleasant work, and he quotes studies that have shown that “Islamic sugar plantations kept their workers by paying relatively high wages. European-owned plantations initially followed the same strategy … [but] over the course of time Europe’s sugar producers reconsidered,” (373) a decision that would have far-reaching consequences.
Eventually running out of suitable regions for growing sugarcane in the Mediterranean, Europeans began looking farther a field in the early 1400’s, in particular to islands off of the Atlantic coast of Africa. On these islands the sugar producers created what would be recognized today as plantations --- turning entire islands into giant farm estates. By the middle to late 1400’s, sugar prices had fallen as production grew, and so to keep up profits the producers had to further increase the harvest while reducing costs: “With little evident reflection, some colonists made a fateful decision: they bought slaves.” (375) As the plantations spread to islands closer to the equator, the Europeans came into contact with malaria and yellow fever, which led to an extremely high death rate among both Europeans and many of their European and North African slaves … only the West African slaves seemed to have a much higher resistance to those diseases. Thus, those plantation owners who bought West African slaves were at an economic advantage: “The world of plantation slavery was coming, terribly, into existence.” (377)
With the discovery of the Americas, European sugar producers suddenly had a vast new expanse into which to spread their plantations. Of course, malaria and yellow fever traveled with them on the ships that crossed the Atlantic, and when Europeans tried to enslave the local Indians to work on the plantations, they found them extremely susceptible to these and other diseases, and so the plantation owners reached again for the labor force they knew already would more likely survive: West African slaves. The Atlantic slave trade quickly developed into a booming business, which would eventually bring millions of Africans across the Atlantic against their will, as first sugar plantations spread from the Caribbean down into Brazil, and not many years later tobacco plantations sprang up throughout the Americas.
Slavery, which had existed in Europe for centuries, took on an unrecognizable and much more brutal form in the New World, a form that would never have been acceptable in the home countries of most if not all of these plantation owners. In the New World during the first centuries after Col´o;n, whether in the silver mines or on the plantations, life was driven by economic forces with little or no serious thought for any other consideration. Thus was established an early view of the Americas as little more than gigantically larger versions of the early, uninhabited plantation islands along the African coast, that is, as lands that could be monetized in whatever way the colonizing Europeans wished. When independent countries developed in the Americas some centuries later, this terrible legacy of their birth would haunt their every step, and in many ways still does today.
As I mentioned above, Mann himself does not explicitly draw this conclusion in 1493; what he does make clear, however, are the dramatic and transformative effects on societies world-wide that resulted from Col´o;n’s expedition in search of an Atlantic trading route to Asia. In an engaging narrative that both spans the globe and ranges across the centuries since 1492, Mann reviews the latest understandings of the economic, biological and human exchange that has occurred.
Other reviews / information:
Interview with Charles Mann at Discover Magazine.
Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf