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