Sunday February 3, 2013
Why is the world the way it is now?
Review by ABBY WONG
Why is the world the way it is now? Read this book and be informed as well as intrigued and entertained along the way.
1493: Uncovering The New World Columbus Created
Author: Charles C. Mann
Publisher: Vintage (reprint edition), 690 pages
IT was said that somewhere in China there lay a fabled city called Zaytun. A bustling, congested metropolis, Zaytun was the terminus of the maritime Silk Road and the centre of what we now call globalisation.
To trade, people of every ethnicity – Malays, Persians, Indians, Vietnamese, and even Europeans – came to Zaytun, where each group formed its own neighbourhood. A score of junks and other vessels in the harbour impressed Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta, and the rich assortment of Asian luxuries – porcelain, silk, spices, precious stones, pearls – thrilled Venetian explorer Marco Polo, whose account of this wondrous city inspired Christopher Columbus’s dream of visiting it.
And went Columbus indeed, though he landed not in China but the Caribbean, and what his voyages brought was an ecological convulsion referred to as the Columbus Exchange.
In 1493: Uncovering The New World Columbus Created, Charles C. Mann provides interesting and fascinating accounts of the Columbus Exchange and its impact.
The Columbus Exchange is why there are tomatoes in Italy, oranges in Florida, chocolates in Switzerland, sweet potatoes in China, apples in America, wheat in the Mexico, and chilli in Thailand. More interestingly, tagging along in the trade ships were earthworms, mosquitoes, cockroaches, honeybees, dandelions, bacteria, fungi, viruses, rats, horses, cows and a host of others creatures. All of which spread willy nilly around the globe.
Also, Columbus’ voyages inaugurated an unprecedented reshuffling of homo sapiens – “People shot around the world like dice flung on the gaming table. Europeans became the majority in Argentina and Australia, Africans were found from Sao Paulo to Seattle, and China’s towns sprang up all over the globe.”
Diseases, too, found their way to foreign soil, while pesticides, new cultivation techniques, and slaves helped boost production of newly introduced crops to prevent famine, changing lives and landscapes in the Afro-Eurasian hemisphere.
Arguably one of the most important events of the world, the Columbus Exchange underlies much of subsequent history. But it was actually four decades later that a Spanish lad called Miguel López de Legazpi connected the world economically, paving the way for the creation of worldwide network in which Europe rose to prominence, China turned inward for fear of foreign invasion, Africa juddered and slaved, and Mexico City, for two centuries, became the centre of the world as Asia, Europe and the Americas came to interact.
Like Columbus, Legazpi sailed west to establish trade with China, then the richest, most powerful country in the world. It was in Manila that his fellow Spaniards sold South American silver and copper, mined by African and Indian slaves, to Asians in return for silk and porcelain. For the first time, goods and people from every part of the globe came together for a single worldwide exchange.
Having focused his attention on Native American societies before the Spanish conquest in his last book, 1491: New Revelations Of The Americas Before Columbus, Mann now turns to a tale more majestic in ambition and scope, trudging across continents (Africa, China, Europe, the Americas, Asia), addressing a myriad subjects (economics, the environment, human migration), and covering the five centuries (the 1400s to the 1900s) preceding the 21st.
In uncovering the new world created by the Columbus Exchange, Mann succeeds with unparalleled grace in giving us an eye-opening interpretation of our past, scientifically and culturally. This colossal book contains valuable knowledge unequalled in its authority and fascination. It feels like immense research presented with a light touch, giving us endless tidings from the old days to explain the current world’s political disputes, cultural wars, and economic disparities.
Mann’s storytelling ability, despite the complexity of the subject, is enviable and his organisation of the book, clever. From his own musings in the garden, to Columbus landing in the Americas, to Parian, a Chinese ghetto in Manila where goods from China and Europe changed hands, to Brazil where rubber was deemed Black Gold ... Mann never loses his way – or his reader. He has one goal in mind: to uncover the new world brought about by Christopher Columbus. And he does so wonderfully, engagingly, unsparingly, and, as detected from his tone, enthusiastically as well as gracefully.
The global network Columbus and Legazpi initiated is once again in these days split into two spheres with advocates for globalisation on one side and those against it on the other. The less trade, the latter says, is better because of the political, social and environmental destruction globalisation entails. But it was not Columbus who instigated such conflicts. It was events four centuries after Columbus established La Isabela, the first European town in the Americas, that set the template for the times we are living in today.
This book is revelatory. Read it.