TRADING PLACES 1493: HOW EUROPE’S DISCOVERY OF THE
AMERICAS REVOLUTIONIZED TRADE,
ECOLOGY AND LIFE ON EARTH
By Charles C Mann (Granta Books 535pp £25)
the old Rise of the West narrative in favour of a more dialogic understanding of how the modern world economy came into being.
For someone without specialist knowledge of Chinese history, Mann does tolerably well to grasp the main trends and communicate their significance to his readers. He does get suckered by the popular image of the fifteenth-century eunuch Zheng He, China’s version of Columbus, unaware that histor ians have reduced the length of his much ballyhooed flagship by half and its width by five-sixths. This innocent mistake doesn’t greatly matter to the main story, which is that the arrival of Spanish silver in the Philippines in the sixteenth century altered the relationship between China and much of the globe. Yet it is a slip that betrays an unconscious tendency to fall back on popular caricatures of Ming China when it first faced Europe as a realm more closed and dysfunctional than it actually was. Mann has certainly done his homework, but more recent interpreta-
IS THERE ANY need to go back to Columbus yet again? Science journalist Charles Mann thinks so, though not for the usual purpose. He first went back to 1492 in fact six years ago with his book 1491, a survey of the rich ecology of Native life in the Americas just before its isolation ended. That book was a memorial to the world we lost when the Amer i cas were integ rated with Europe, Africa and Asia. 1493 presents us with the world we gained as a result. The book is not really about 1493 nor, thankfully, 1492. Mann does quickly revisit the Columbus fetish, but he soon moves on to explore what happened through later centuries as the New World became part of the world. His guide in this project is Alfred Crosby. Four decades ago Crosby published h i s f i r s t book on what he dubbed t he ‘Columbian exchange’, the movement of microbes and other biota into and out of the Americas subsequent to Columbus’s landfall. A second book a decade later explored the ecological rearrangement of the globe produced by these movements, coining the equally memorable term ‘ecological imperialism’. Mann not only acknowledges his debt to Crosby but sought him out. When he urged his mentor to pull together the new environmental history that has since been done and bring his work up to date, Crosby countered with the suggestion that Mann take up the task – hence this book.
Andean potatoes: chips with everything tions elude him. Histor ians now doubt that American silver drove China’s economic boom of the late s ixteenth century, or caused significant inflation, or, most absurdly, paid for the Great Wall. It is not especially a problem that Mann is behind recent developments in the field of Ming h i s t o r y, f o r none o f t he s e outmoded i n t e r p re t a t i ons mortally damages his point that the growing intensity of economic exchange followed from the integration of the Americas with Asia.
The inadvertent biological movements that constituted the Columbian exchange are but one type of exchange that Mann goes in search of . Another is economic exchange, in particular the global networks of trade that became possible with the circulation of materials from ‘Columbian’ sources: tobacco, potatoes, rubber, sugar, and silver. For these tales, Mann goes to the work done by historians of China since the late 1990s, which integrates China’s history with Europe’s, thereby dethroning
What Mann has learned about ecological and economic exchange has in turn provoked what most fascinates him: cultural exchange. For the main trend he borrows, from my own work as far as I can see, the Cuban ethnomusicologist Fernando Ortiz’s term ‘transculturation’. The term expresses what happens when cultures come into intimate contact, each absorbing features from the other such that neither is what it was prior to contact. Ortiz coined this concept to describe the post-Columbian métissage that he saw around him in Cuba, and it fits perfectly with the cultural interactions that catch Mann’s attention, particularly the mixing of Europeans, Natives, and Afr icans that makes Latin America a region like no other.
A lot happens in this book, possibly too much. Mann is a fact hound, rounding up as much information as he can about a series of topics that sprawl outwards and eventually feed back into each other without much predictability. More often than not there is a Spaniard somewhere in the
LITERARY REVIEW September 2011
story, but that is about the extent of the internal consistency among the topics he selects. To a degree he relies on his own anecdotal experiences in the places he writes about. Holding these stories together is the main, though briefly stated, idea of the book – that 1493 marks the inception of what he calls the Homogenocene, a new biological era in which biota have mixed globally into a homogeneity. Biologist John Curnutt coined the term in 2000 to capture the unprecedented extent to which biological exchange has altered the biosphere. Biology was not the only science to start thinking this way. The same year atmospher ic chemist and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen came up with the term Anthropocene to designate the geological aeon we currently inhabit in which the principal changes to the physical earth are the product of human activity. Anthropocene and Homogenocene are vivid signs of the rethinking that natural scientists are doing about the cumulative effects of Alfred Crosby’s Columbian exchange. They are also warnings. Mann is happy to celebrate the stunning diversity of what the Columbian exchange has ushered in – he calls the promiscuous mixing of peoples and cultures in the Americas ‘crazy soup’ – but he recognises that the breakdown of biological isolation favours blights and diseases as much as crops and communities. The Columbian
Th e He i r s o f L u c r e t i u s THE SWERVE: HOW THE RENAISSANCE BEGAN
By Stephen Greenblatt (Bodley Head 356pp £20)
THROUGHOUT THE 1980S and 1990s, S t ephen Greenblatt wrote a series of dazzling books that changed not just the face of Shakespeare studies, but our entire approach to the European Renaissance. Many students, myself included, chose an academic career in sixteenthcentury literature and history because of Greenblatt’s exciting New Historicism, a combination of anthropology, psychoanalysis and post-structuralism that seemed to offer a way out of the arid formalism of prevailing literar y cr iticism, and which provided a new way of understanding the relations between literature and its historical context. Greenblatt wrote of the ‘circulation of social energy’ in Renaissance England, and of how the theatre in particular defined – as much as it reacted to – pressing issues of the time such as political absolutism, colonisation, sexuality, witchcraft and fear s exchange must eventually complete itself, he warns, ‘taking away what it once gave’. Mann’s ecological umbrella shelters an enormous array of historical material stretching from the sixteenth century to the nineteenth, an approach not unlike ‘crazy soup’ itself. Whatever is at hand goes into the pot, and as new things turn up, they go in as well. Some readers enjoy feisty incoherence and tumultuous variety, though when too many flavours are served up, it is sometimes hard to taste anything. Half of knowing what material to include in a popular history is deciding what to leave out. Rather than rely on his own persona as the unifying device, the author might have stinted on a few ingredients and given us a broth with a more distinctive taste – but that would not have been this book.
Credit is still due. Charles Mann gives us the version of the Columbian outcome that our era calls for. The straight line we used to draw from 1492 to a triumphant Western present now meanders through a great many places with no obvious single destination and no clear moral when we get there. With this change in plan has come the dizzying realisation that the only sound way to understand who and what we are is to absorb the history of the entire globe and think again. To order this book for £20, see LR bookshop on page 20
surrounding strangers or aliens such as Jews, Turks, and American Indians. Thanks in part to Greenblatt, these issues are now central to the teaching of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
As well as offer ing definitive interpretations of key works such as More’s Utopia, Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, and most of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, Greenblatt’s work stressed two things. First, the self was historically conditioned: the sixteenth century offered a particularly acute moment when writers and public figures struggled to ‘fashion’ their identity and sustain the illusions that they were its principal makers. He concluded from this that there could be no appeal to genius as the sole origin of great art or literature. Secondly, Greenblatt rejected the traditional understanding of the Renaissance as the disinterested pursuit of beauty and a glorious flowering of the individual will. He embraced the use of ‘early modern’ to descr ibe the per iod from 1400 to 1600: rather than looking backwards to the rebirth of classical values, this was an era that anticipated the emergence of modernity. Greenblatt argued that a resolutely dialectical change took place: individuality was celebrated, but also subject to increased state surveillance and restr ictions; social mobility was on the rise, but the strictures placed on the family were greater than ever; art became more innovative, but was also subject to prescriptive patronage and censorship.
Thanks to scholars like Greenblatt, biographical celeb r a t i ons o f t he per s onal i t i e s and g l o r i e s o f t he
LITERARY REVIEW September 2011