“1493” by Charles C. Mann


(Another audio book read by Mr. Navy.)

This is a book about the beginnings of globalization – the Columbian Exchange – and the “Homogenocene” (biological diversity moving towards uniformity, thanks to mankind).  Mann jumps from one fascinating “case study” to the next, showing just how intertwined the world really is — and has been for a long time.  Here’s just a sampling.


The English tobacco “craze” saved Jamestown. The colonists were struggling, as many early colonies did, due to a poor location and a lack of local agricultural knowledge and other effective survival techniques. The local Indians should have been a good source of helpful expertise in these matters, but the English seemed set on antagonizing them at every turn. (“Antagonize” is probably too weak of a word … there were a surprising number of brutal atrocities, on both sides.) Anyway, John Rolfe came in and introduced tobacco, which was an almost immediate monetary success.  The colonists didn’t really change their ways, but they did figure out how to grow the new cash crop in large quantities, and thus were able to buy food and other necessities with the proceeds.

The English planted tobacco just like they did other crops in Europe – in large, monoculture fields. This was at odds with traditional Indian agriculture, which mixed different crops in a more natural arrangement (this survives today as milpas). The English were so unfamilar with the technique that they saw Indian “fields” as wilderness to be cleared and planted over with tobacco, which they did much to the anger of the Indians.  Also, pre-contact America had no large livestock and so no real tradition of building fences, which also led the English to consider the land as unclaimed. (This kind of all worked out in a way when a large proportion of the Indian population died of European diseases, which did actually leave the land open in a tragic fashion.  See 1491.)


Potosi in Bolivia was the New World’s first boom town. Think the Wild West at 14,000 feet in the Andes. Spain became fabulously wealthy from all the galleon bullion, but massive inflation and a series of ambitious foreign wars, funded by the new found wealth, brought their own problems. A large chunk of silver also made it’s way west over the Pacific to Manila (thanks Legazpi) and then into China. The Pacific galleon trade connected Spainard silver to Fujianese porcelain and silk via Mexico City and Manila, two of the world’s first multicultural melting pots. The same factors which wrecked havoc on the Spanish economy also affected China and brought down the Ming.

Potatoes and Maize

Potatoes (sweet and “Idaho”) are from the Andes, maize (corn) from Mexico. Both had a huge impact on population growth in Europe and China. Seriously, huge: something like a third of the population in the years following these new crops introduction could have owed it’s existence to them. The Europeans and Chinese grew them both in vast monocultures, like tobacco, and were thus vulnerable to plant diseases. Per Malthus, the hungry population expanded to use up available resources, and was soon once again teetering on the brink. Events like the Irish Potato Famine likely killed off the “extra” population that had been made possible due to the potato’s introduction in the first place.

Fun fact: apparently you can live off nothing but potatoes and milk with no ill effects. It’s a complete diet, and those who have tried it long term expressed no desire for change.


I didn’t realize how critical natural rubber still is to the world economy. Like tobacco, potatoes, and maize, there are vast monocultures of rubber trees in Amazonia and also SE Asia … apparently there is a rubber tree disease in Brazil that is going to be really bad news once it finally makes the hop to Asia.


Malaria and other tropical diseases were big reasons why slavery became such an institution — adult Africans from malarial areas had more resistance, both from genetic immunity and also from childhood exposure. It became more cost effective to import an “expensive” African, even with the moral and practical troubles that slavery entailed, vs several rounds of European indentured servants who kept dying off.


Runaway slaves established countless “maroon” villages hidden in Amazonian jungles. This happened everywhere there were slaves – for instance Florida had “black Seminoles.” Africans mixed with Indians and were really the first Old World-New World contact in many cases, but we will likely never know that true history.


The world has always been in flux, ever changing. The world is not static; “that’s how it always has been!” is “imagined history.”

Mann is excellent at teasing out fascinating connections and stories from this very interesting time in history.  I highly recommend both 1491 and 1493.


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