Before Columbus landed on Hispaniola, China was the most technologically advanced country in the world. Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) was larger and cleaner than any Spanish city. There were empires and pig iron in Africa, and empires across the Americas. Europeans were malnourished, disease ridden, and living in filth.
But there was no contact. For better or worse, that contact was established by Columbus. That contact set off an exchange of produce, metals, commodities, cultures, and perhaps most important, diseases, that continues to this day. Globalization has been happening for more than 500 years, and only accelerates.
I was stunned repeatedly while reading this book. Particularly intriguing to me were the stories of 16th century Mexico City, the first global city. Silver from South America was counted there and sent to China and Spain. Porcelain and silk came from China before going on to Europe. The trade and peoples of the world flowed through Mexico City.
This is only one chapter in a long book that sets the received stories of the colonization of the Americas on its head. It wasn’t an orderly colonization of a nearly-empty continent. The very first settlers found a populous, healthy land. Smallpox, malaria, and other diseases endemic to Europeans needed to depopulate the continents to make European conquest possible. Even so, it was the 19th Century before there were more Europeans than Africans in the Americas.
Frequently I felt as if no good has come from the Columbian exchange, even though I’m a product of it. So many wars, famines, plagues. It’s brought vast wealth for a few kings and individuals, but complete social destruction for many cultures.
That was my own agenda in reading 1493, though, not Mann’s in writing it. He takes scrupulous care to be evenhanded, to not make judgments to one side or the other, just to show objectively the effects of the Columbian exchange. There’s a lot to talk about, and this long, invigorating book ranges over the centuries and the planet.
Mirrored from Nature Intrudes. Please comment over there.