Thursday, October 11, 2012

Book Club Discussion of 1493

The Rockville B&N History Book Club met last night to discuss 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann. We had read and discussed his earlier book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus some years ago, and enjoyed the book very much. We therefore had been waiting for some time for the sequel to come out in paperback.

As Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond (another book we read and discussed in the past) describes, there was a process of exchange of people, plants, animals and diseases across the old world of Europe, Asia and Africa that lasted for millennia. It had been made more potent by the improvement of communications and transportation technology. By the time of Columbus, Europeans had circumnavigated Africa and there was the beginning of colonization of Africa and Asia by Europeans.

The discovery of the new world of North and South American by Columbus marked a change in the rate of progress of the exchanges, and initiated the Columbian Exchange. Peoples who had been isolated from each other for thousands of years were brought into contact with each other. Species of plants, animals and microbes were exchanged between the eastern and western hemispheres. Of course, had the communications and transportation technology not continued to improve, we would not have the world we now live in, but the riches available through the exchange stimulated then technology development.

1493 explores the phenomenon of globalization as it progressed after Columbus' initial voyage in 1492, extending the analysis in the book, 1491.

Our group had been brought up with a Eurocentric bias. We were surprised when reading Mann who points out that the most important human migration soon after Columbus was of Africans to the Americas. Africans crossing the Atlantic outnumbered Europeans in those early years by more than three to one. He also points out the significant trans-Pacific traffic which led to Spanish colonization of the Philippines and some 50,000 Asian immigrants to the Americas. We were surprised to discover not only a significant Asian population in colonial Mexico, but Japanese samurai guarding silver shipments for the Spanish in Mexico. Mann paints Mexico City in the early colonial period as the first of the multi-ethnic cities that characterize the world today.

The Europeans went to the Americas for gold and silver. The Spanish found gold but they especially found silver in huge quantities in Potosi and Mexico. The flow of precious metals to Spain fueled the spread of the Spanish monarchy throughout much of Europe, but eventually proved so great that it devalued the Spanish currency and led to the decline of the Spanish power. Less familiar to the club members was the flow of American silver to China. In China as in Europe, the flow of American silver first led to an increase in commerce and in the power of those who could control the flow, then to inflation and to devaluation of silver. Of course, neither the Spanish nor the Chinese knew enough economics to predict the impact of massive silver imports, and thus could not ameliorate the eventual negative impacts.

A continuing theme of the book is the suffering brought about by the avarice of men. Mann describes the high mortality of the early European settlers, the suffering of slaves, and the atrocious conditions in which Indians were forced to work in the silver mines, and the atrocities of the rubber industry in the Amazon. He describes Asians by the millions being forced into poverty when good land was transferred into plantations for production of export products. With the failure of the potato crop in Ireland in the 19th century, the Irish were left to die while food was being exported from Ireland. While the diseases that decimated populations in America could not have been prevented or treated with the knowledge of the time, they were no less terrible for that fact.


At the end of the 15th century, the world's most important industry was agriculture. The Columbian Exchange is shown to have made a huge change in agriculture. Mann describes the commercialization of tobacco and sugar cane production in the Americas. He relates the introduction of malaria and yellot fever to the American sugar cane regions to the importation of African slaves, who carried a resistance to malaria. A new social structure grew around the plantation agriculture for export. Mann also explains how the Africans and their descendants escaped from slavery and formed communities with American Indians, communities that in some cases continue to exist today. Again, we see cultures evolve combining Africa, European and American elements with innovations appropriate to the new circumstances.

We of course knew quite a bit about the introduction of old world crops and livestock into the Americas and the huge impact that they had, in part from 1491. 1493 focuses more on the introduction of American crops -- potatoes, maize, sweet potatoes, beans into the old world. As they were adopted they increased agricultural production greatly. In some cases they did so by increasing yields from existing lands and in others by allowing new lands to be brought into production.

While there was a crash in population among American Indians after 1492, the new crops were associated with an explosion of population in Europe and Asia. In large areas, famine was avoided for long periods.

Mann describes how the Indian use of guano as nitrogen fertilizer was transformed into a massive trade in guano. When the guano proved insufficient, Chilean nitrates were commercialized internationally, and when Germans could not import from Chile during World War I, a chemical process was developed to fix atmospheric nitrogen, producing fertilizer (as well as munitions).

Mann also describes how the Columbian Exchange led to plant diseases and pests rising to plague proportions, which in turn led to the development of chemical pesticides (and to crop improvement). Thus after Columbus, modern agriculture developed based on new and improved crop species (many of which originated in the Americas), fertilizer, and pesticides. (Mann does not discuss the development of irrigation, farm machinery, etc.)

We in the book club discussed how the development of modern agriculture, which allowed a small portion of the population to provide food and fiber for the whole country, also allowed people to move into cities and take up work in manufacturing and service industries. Even today, developing societies in Africa and Asia have to increase labor productivity in agriculture in order to allow adequate labor inputs for development of other economic sectors.

Other Impacts

Mann goes to some pains to describe the environmental damage that has been incident on the Columbian Exchange. Deforestation due to the commercialization of lumber varieties, rubber, and hearts of palms has led to environmental problems, including flooding and erosion and loss of biodiversity. Replacement of forests with rich biodiversity by monocultures has led to susceptibility to pests. Many land races of crops have disappeared entirely.

The discussion faltered in discussing the social impact that followed Columbus' voyages. Clearly European institutions permeated the Americas as Indian cultures were largely destroyed. Slavery took on social and cultural aspects in the new world quite different than in the old. The agricultural revolution described above brought with it major cultural changes, and in fact the changes in what farmers did in growing their new crops was itself a major cultural change. Many more indirect changes can be traced at least partially to the influence of the transfers between the old and the new worlds.

There have been both positive and negative effects, in addition to those described, of the post Columbian globalization. The new world order has more people, living longer, in more interesting and comfortable circumstances than ever before. On the other hand, many cultures have disappeared -- changed beyond recognition -- and others are endangered.

Unintended Consequences

It is no news that globalization is a hugely complex process. 1493 traces the process for the last half millennium, but its roots go even further back in history. Seemingly small things have consequences over time. Thus, as Mann shows, introduction of snail culture to produce a new minor export industry can, in failing its original purpose, lead to environmental degradation and contribute to the loss of a local culture of considerable age and richness. The preference of people in the United States for furniture that looks like it is made of mahogany can lead to deforestation in the Philippines and also contribute to that same loss of local culture.

We discussed the fact that through this entire process, people were largely unaware of the larger impact of their actions. New crops were introduced with no idea of how widely they would be grown, nor what the impact of their proliferation would be on the population. Sometimes the new crops saved lives and prevented hunger, but not always. New species were introduced and some would become pests of huge proportions. Monocultures would be utilized with no recognition that they would be extended over huge territories, and would then be destroyed by pests and diseases with eventual serious negative economic repercussions.

We noted that the situation continues. We see threats today from decisions made in innocence in the past, and make decisions today that will carry risks in the future.

Final Comment

We found Mann's 1493 to be less exciting than his 1491. While we had a full house of some 18 members, the discussion was not as lively as that which we recalled of the earlier book. Clearly the book was filled with interesting vignettes, conveying some information that none of us knew and considerable new information for each of us. Perhaps we had difficulty extracting the thesis of the book from the interesting detail -- seeing the forest for the trees as it were.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

251When you mention Mexico as a country, Potosi should be identified as being in Bolivia. It is possible many are unfamiliar with the cities in Bolivia beyond La Paz.