Friday, 13 January 2012

1493 by Charles C. Mann

The follow up to 1491, which makes sense thematically, if not numerically.  The previous book looked at the Americas before the arrival of Columbus; here we find out what happened next.

Mann reckons 1492 marks the beginning of a new epoch in Earth's history - the Homogenocene.   It's the first time in 200 million years that the east and west hemispheres have had any meaningful interaction.  The New World gets Europeans, Africans, Chinese, smallpox, yellow fever and malaria.  The Old World gets potatoes, corn, rubber, and lots of silver and gold.  It's the start of globalisation, and it changes everything for better or worse.

This book has a wider scope than the previous one, and looks at the impact on China and Africa, as well as Europe, and at the amazing early years of the post Columbian Americas.  Potosi in modern day Bolivia became one of the biggest cities of the world in just a few years, thanks to the amount of silver ore nearby.  Mexico City was similarly cosmopolitan, with Spaniards, Africans, Indians and Chinese living side by side.  No-where like these cities had ever existed before, and they were a glimpse into the future.  Here's a cool fact - there were even exiled samuari in Mexico at this time, making their way by guarding the silver routes.

There's also a great and unusual look at the slave trade, which seems to have been largely fuelled by diseases like malaria and yellow fever.  Europeans just couldn't survive and died in staggering numbers, but Africans had already built up immunities.  This even explains the US Civil War - the Mason Dixon line, which seperates the Southern slave owning states with the rest of the USA, is also the cut-off point for mosquitos.  The Northern states never really had slaves because Europeans weren't dying of malaria there.

We also find out about new Maroon societies formed between escaped African slaves and Indian survivors, mostly in South America.  Many slaves were originally soldiers captured by other Africans, so they had military experience.  Along with Indian knowledge of the territory and ecology, these maroons became hugely troublesome to European plantations.  Even today these people and their histories are largely ignored.

As in 1491, there are plenty of amazing people.  My favourite is Esteban - probably the first African in North America.  In the early 16th century he was brought along with a group of Spaniards to explore the new continent, but soon he became their de facto leader.  He was worshipped as a powerful holy man in Indian villages and his legend grew.  What happened to him is still a mystery, but the best story is that one village worshipped him so much that they cut off his legs to keep him there.  He apparently survived for many years as a captive god, his wounds being tended with great care.

This is a cracking read for anyone who likes Jared Diamond or Felipe Fernadez Arnesto - a mixture of sweeping macrohistory with compelling personal stories.  And, as with the best histories, you're simultaneously hit by how relatable, but how bizarre, the past can be.


Anonymous said...

Exiled samurai in Mexico? That sounds like an awesome movie opportunity...


Joe said...

They were trapped in the Americas when Japan closed its borders in 1639, and they were the only Asians the Spanish rulers allowed to carry weapons. I like to think they were massively badass.