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1493: A Review


by Charles C. Mann

Vintage Books, New York, 2011

When Cristobal Colon (Columbus) set off from Spain in 1492 he really had no idea where he was going, where he would wind up, or what the consequences of his voyage would be. But history knows no event without consequences, even those unintended. It recognizes no coincidences, no effect without cause. Human history in fact reveals itself as a chain of causality, a web in which everything is connected. Charles C. Mann’s book, 1493, shows in a quite remarkable way how a chain of events ushered in a whole new era in history, giving rise to the world as we know it today.

Mann’s claim is that Columbus’ journey inaugurated a whole new era in the history of life – the era of globalization – “the single turbulent exchange of goods and services that today engulfs the entire habitable world.” He goes on to describe the “Columbian Exchange” as a process that took place on three different levels: the biological, the economic, and the human.

Two hundred fifty million years ago the earth was composed of a single landmass – Pangaea – which later split into Eurasia and the Americas. Now, Mann claims, the Columbian Exchange has “reknit the seams of Pangaea.” Mann describes the launching of a whole new biological era as the “Homogenocene” – a mixing of unlike substances to create a uniform blend.

The Biological Exchange

From the Americas came the native maize (corn) and the sweet potato, as well as the introduction of the potato into Europe and the rubber tree into Southeast Asia. Today, Brazil’s primary agricultural exports are soybeans, beef, sugar and coffee. Not one is native to the Americas. From the lower Amazon tobacco was introduced into the colony at Jamestown, which later led to the first great global commodity craze.

The Europeans brought with them cattle, sheep, horses, sugarcane (from New Guinea) bananas (from Africa) and coffee (also from Africa). But also, and devastatingly, the Europeans brought the viruses – smallpox, influenza, hepatitis, measles, and viral pneumonia. Also came the bacteria: tuberculosis, diphtheria, cholera, typhus and scarlet fever. All of these were unknown to the Western Hemisphere. As a result more than three-quarters of the Native American population were wiped out. There is no comparable demographic catastrophe in human history.

The introduction of new diseases to the Americas caused a population crash, which in turn led to a reforestation, the consequence of which, by the withdrawing of carbon dioxides from the atmosphere brought on what became known as the Little Ice Age, that took place between 1550-1850).

“Biology enters history,” Mann says, “when one realizes that almost all the slaves ferried to the Americas came from West and Central Africa.” The Mason-Dixon line demarcated where malaria thrived and where it did not, and where African slavery was dominant and where it was not. The introduction of malaria was a biological link which led to the importation of slaves from West Africa, but the Africans also brought with them not only yams, millet, sorghum, watermelon, black-eyed peas and African rice, but also yellow fever. The West Africans were largely immune to malaria and yellow fever, but these had a devastating effect upon the European as well as the native populations in the Americas.

The importation of these diseases made the Southeastern U.S. inhospitable to Europeans, and often they did not survive a year. By 1715, decimation of the native populations put an end to the Indian slave trade. Until then, the Carolinas were largely slave exporters, primarily to the Caribbean. The English colonies largely avoided slavery until the early 1700s. In 1650 there were only 300 slaves in Virginia. By 1750 that number had exploded – a pivotal moment in history.

Today the potato is the fifth-most important crop worldwide. In the century after its introduction, the population of Europe doubled. It set the template for modern agribusiness, first with the widespread use of guano (bird excrement) imported from the Americas, and when that ran out, high-intensity fertilizers and pesticides. Living standards doubled or tripled worldwide even as the world’s population grew by leaps and bounds as farming as an industrial monoculture was put in place.

It spelled the lie of the “Malthusian trap.” According to Malthus, a British economist of the time, the power of population is always greater than the power of the Earth to produce subsistence – humanity is therefore doomed to exist at the edge of starvation. In fact, as population has soared the percentage of malnourishment has fallen. (Karl Marx derided Malthus as a “sycophant of the ruling classes”). But we will have to look elsewhere to explain the current rise in world hunger.

The potato also brought with it the potato blight, which caused one of the deadliest famines in history. Today Ireland is the only country that has fewer people than it did 150 years ago.

Hoops of Silver: the Economic Exchange

The Homogenocene is a world bound together by hoops of silver, says Mann. With the discovery of one of the biggest and richest strikes of silver in history in Potosi, Bolivia, the Spanish peso was well on its way to becoming a de facto world currency. China, which was hungry for silver, sucked up as much as half of it. The establishment of the “galleon trade” linked China with the Americas, Europe, and Africa.  “Never before had so much of the planet been bound to a single network of exchange.” Spanish silver literally became China’s money supply.

Giddy with its newfound wealth and the power that came with it, the Spanish monarchy launched a series of costly wars with France, the Ottoman empire, and with England. Debt piled up, leading to bankruptcy; with the overproduction of silver, the value fell, and the richest nation in the world was headed toward a financial Armageddon. Sounds familiar.

Slavery: Foundational Institution of the Americas.

Now we see the interaction of the economic and the human branch of the Columbian Exchange. In a very real way slavery has come to define the history of the Americas, and consequently the globe. We cannot understand who we are apart from it. Mann estimates that between 1500 and 1840 almost 12 million captive Africans were brought to the Americas. We are familiar with the impact that slavery has on U.S. history, but it also came to be the foundational institution of the Americas as a whole. “America was an extension of Africa rather than Europe until late in the 19th century, says Mann. “This great transformation, a turning point in the history of our species, was wrought largely by African hands.”  Argentina had many slaves, and Brazil came to be economically and culturally defined by Africans. In the 19th century migration was dominated by Europeans, which changed the demographic composition once again. Europeans became the majority in the hemisphere.

“Colon’s voyage inaugurated an unprecedented re-shuffling of homo sapiens – the human wing of the Columbian Exchange.” Europeans became the majority in Argentina and Australia, Africans are found from Sao Paulo to Seattle, and “Chinatowns” are all over the globe. Asians are included from India, Malaysia, Burma, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Borneo and the Philippines. Mexico City became the world’s first truly global city, a showpiece of the Columbian Exchange.

The world as we know it today did not exist 500 years ago. Yet as it has been said, the past is never past. It is always with us. One important area that Mann does not touch upon is the impact of the growth of productive forces and how the introduction of new technology qualitatively changes the course of human history and society. In the 500 years, which are the subject of Mann’s examination, we have seen the transition from a society based in agriculture and manual labor to a mechanized industrial production, to the new epoch of electronics and laborless production. In several very real ways, Charles C. Mann’s 1493 reveals to us how there is a new humanity in the making. We stand on the edge of a history that promises the fulfillment of that vision that history reveals to us. We have a world to win.

November/December 2013. Vol23.Ed6
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
P.O. Box 477113 Chicago, IL 60647 rally@lrna.org
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The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.

'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011

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