[Marxism] "1493" reviewed

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Aug 21 08:03:13 MDT 2011

(Another surprisingly leftish review.)

NY Times Sunday Book Review August 19, 2011
Seeds, Germs and Slaves

Uncovering the New World Columbus Created
By Charles C. Mann
Illustrated. 535 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $30.50.

“There’s a chain of events in this best of all possible worlds,” Dr. 
Pangloss says at the end of Voltaire’s “Candide.” “If you hadn’t been 
caught up in the Inquisition, or walked across America . . . you would 
not be here eating candied fruit and pistachio nuts.”

“True,” Candide answers. “But now we must tend our garden.”

Voltaire would have loved Charles C. Mann’s outstanding new book, “1493: 
Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.” In more than 500 lively 
pages, it not only explains the chain of events that produced those 
candied fruits, nuts and gardens, but also weaves their stories together 
into a convincing explanation of why our world is the way it is.

Going one better than Voltaire, Mann’s book opens in a garden as well as 
closes in one. The first is Mann’s own in Massachusetts; the second, a 
Filipino family plot in Bulalacao. Despite being half a world apart, the 
two gardens grow many of the same plants, hardly any of which are native 
to either place. This, Mann tells us, is the hallmark of the ecological 
era we live in: the “Homogenocene,” the Age of Homogeneity.

“1493” picks up where Mann’s best seller, “1491: New Revelations of the 
Americas Before Columbus,” left off. In 1491, the Atlantic and Pacific 
Oceans were almost impassable barriers. America might as well have been 
on another planet from Europe and Asia. But Columbus’s arrival in the 
Caribbean the following year changed everything. Plants, animals, 
microbes and cultures began washing around the world, taking tomatoes to 
Massachusetts, corn to the Philippines and slaves, markets and malaria 
almost everywhere. It was one world, ready or not.

Mann generously acknowledges how much of this story line comes from 
Alfred W. Crosby’s classic “Ecological Imperialism: The Biological 
Expansion of Europe, 900-1900,” first published a quarter of a century 
ago. This book has had a huge influence in academia (it was one of the 
main inspirations for Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-­winning “Guns, 
Germs, and Steel”), but Mann has long felt it needed updating. When he 
met Crosby, he nagged the historian to write a new edition. Finally 
Crosby told him: “Well, if you think it’s such a good idea, why don’t 
you do it?”

And so Mann did. “1493” is much more than just “Ecological Imperialism” 
warmed over, however. Mann takes the argument into new territory by 
suggesting that only by understanding what Crosby called “the Columbian 
Exchange” — the transfer of plants, animals, germs and people across 
continents over the last 500 years — can we make sense of contemporary 
globalization. The lesson of history, Mann argues, is that “from the 
outset globalization brought both enormous economic gains and ecological 
and social tumult that threatened to offset those gains.”

With admirable evenhandedness, he shows how the costs and benefits of 
globalization have always been inseparable. We cannot have one without 
the other. Bringing the potato to Europe made it possible for the Irish 
famine to kill millions when the potatoes were stricken by blight, but 
it also kept other millions of half-starved peasants alive. Bringing 
malaria to the Americas depopulated some parts of the New World, but it 
also kept European armies out of other parts. Mann can even see the 
point of view of the chainsaw-­wielding loggers who deforested the 
Philippines so that Americans could have cheap furniture: “These agents 
of destruction were just putting food on the table.”

Mann has managed the difficult trick of telling a complicated story in 
engaging and clear prose while refusing to reduce its ambiguities to 
slogans. He is not a professional historian, but most professionals 
could learn a lot from the deft way he does this. The book takes a 
roughly chronological approach, beginning in 1493 and continuing to 
2011, and ranges across almost every continent. It is thoroughly 
researched and up-to-date, combining scholarship from fields as varied 
as world history, immunology and economics, but Mann wears his learning 
lightly. He serves up one arresting detail after another (who knew that 
“No Potatoes, No Popery!” was an English election slogan in 1765?), 
always in vivid language (as in his description of inland Brazil in the 
1970s — “bad roads, poor land and lawless violence: ‘Deadwood’ with 

Most impressive of all, he manages to turn plants, germs, insects and 
excrement into the lead actors in his drama while still parading before 
us an unforgettable cast of human characters. He makes even the most 
unpromising-­sounding subjects fascinating. I, for one, will never look 
at a piece of rubber in quite the same way now that I have been 
introduced to the debauched nouveaux riches of 19th-­century Brazil, 
guzzling Champagne from bathtubs and gunning one another down in the 
streets of Manaus.

All historians struggle to get the balance between human will and vast 
impersonal forces just right. “Should part of the credit for the 
Emancipation Proclamation be assigned to malaria?” Mann asks, and while 
I’m sure he’s right to answer that “the idea is not impossible,” this 
claim (and one or two others) seems a stretch. But that is part of the 
book’s appeal. Almost everyone will find something that challenges his 

As well as making humans share the stage with other organisms, Mann also 
wants Europeans to surrender more of the limelight to the rest of 
humanity. In the 1960s, historians began to flip from casting Europeans 
as heroic adventurers who created the modern world to casting them as 
wicked exploiters. But they continued nonetheless to put Europeans in 
the main roles. Mann repeatedly emphasizes that the numbers do not bear 
this out. “Much of the great encounter between the two separate halves 
of the world,” he observes, “was less a meeting of Europe and America 
than of Africans and Indians.” As late as the 19th century, Europeans 
were still in a distinct minority in the New World.

Mann might be faulted for sometimes seeming to forget that since 1492 it 
has overwhelmingly been Europeans (not Africans or Native Americans) who 
have put animals, plants and microbes into motion, but his larger points 
still stand. In setting off the Columbian Exchange, humans rarely knew 
what they were doing. Once begun, the process ran completely out of 
human control. And now that it has hit its stride, every animal, plant 
and bug in the world is caught up in it. Back in the 1870s, for 
instance, the British government, worried about its rubber supplies, 
offered to buy every rubber seed that could be smuggled out of Brazil. 
People didn’t ask what this would mean for Laos — why would they? But 
140 years on, the chain of events they set off has brought social 
upheaval and the threat of ecological collapse to this remote corner of 
the world. There is nowhere to hide from globalization.

Mann shows that Dr. Pangloss was right: Candide’s run-ins with the 
Inquisition and America’s natives were not just random events. The 
Columbian Exchange has shaped everything about the modern world. It 
brought us the plants we tend in our gardens and the pests that eat 
them. And as it accelerates in the 21st century, it may take both away 
again. If you want to understand why, read “1493.”

Ian Morris is the author of “Why the West Rules — for Now: The Patterns 
of History, and What They Reveal About the Future.”

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