Monday, April 15, 2013

from 1491 to1493 with author charles c. mann

Article first published as Book Review: 1493 by Charles C. Mann on Blogcritics.

Charles C. Mann begins his book 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created with a discussion of his vegetable garden. Thinking about heirloom tomatoes seeds and how they had originated in the Americas, but then journeyed all over the world — Japan, Italy, the Ukraine and many other countries — to come back to this continent got the author thinking about global trade, travel, and cultural exchange.

At the same time he was tracing the origins of his tomato crop Mann became interested in the Columbian Exchange, a process first written about by historian Alfred W. Crosby. The Columbian Exchange is the worldwide exchange of culture, plants, animals, people, and even disease between the Old and New Worlds. His thoughts on crops and research on the Columbian Exchange was the beginning and the basis of his entertainingly written and very well-researched 1493.

Vintage has recently released the book in paperback. At 700+ pages it is a dense read, but never a dull one. One story, one history, one anecdote leads to another. Before the reader knows it, he or she has embarked on a journey with Columbus, or Colón, to Hispaniola. Then with John Rolfe (and earthworms) to Jamestown, Virginia to learn about tobacco. Tobacco also takes us to China, where potatoes (sweet and white) then take up the story as the location shifts back to Europe. Around and around Mann follows crops and disease and cultural exchanges. Voyages that may have begun as a Eurocentric and even mythical search for gold and silver resulted in the exchange of goods and crops that we now take for granted, but were once foreign to this continent.

In 1491 Mann wrote that the indigenous peoples of the South Americas were more sophisticated than had been previously believed. As compelling as its predecessor, in 1493 Mann takes things a little further, describing how early trade and cultural interaction have led to our current global economy. 1493 is chock-full of photos and illustrations to help punctuate Mann's historical travelogue. The last 180 pages are full of the author's notes, credits, and citations.

Previous histories have posed that European firepower is responsible for the conquest of the Americas, but Mann cogently argues that the smallest of creatures — micro-organisms — may actually be responsible for the success of our current culture. A successful tobacco crop meant more for the survival of the early colonists in Jamestown than boatloads of soldiers or settlers. According to Mann's theory, similar micro-organisms played a part in the colonists' victory in the American Revolution, and the slave trade in Africa.

Charles C. Mann is a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, Science, and Wired, and has written articles for National Geographic, the New York Times, Vanity Fair, and the Washington Post. There is much to be learned in 1493 about our country and its origins. Together with 1491 Mann has shone a previously unseen light on the culture, and now global impact, of early American inhabitants. One wonders what more we could learn if he decides to keep going, into the turn of the 15th century and beyond.
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