August 2011

The shrinking of the world

By Charles Mann
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Globalization, according to Charles C. Mann, began in December of 1492, when Christopher Columbus established what he hoped would be a permanent settlement in what is now the Dominican Republic. (It lasted for five years.) Thus began what historian Alfred W. Crosby called the Columbian Exchange. Following Crosby’s lead, noted scientific journalist Mann, using the latest scholarship and his own trips to sites around the world, demonstrates the crucial importance of that exchange in 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, a follow-up to his critically acclaimed 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.

Mann shows that globalization was not just economic and cultural, but was also, maybe even primarily, a biological phenomenon. Some biologists say it was the beginning of a new biological era: the Homogenocene, a mixing of new substances to create a uniform blend. Organisms from the separate hemispheres could now travel to, and prosper in, locations halfway around the world. Many historians consider the introduction of the hardy potato (native to the Americas) to Europe as a watershed historical moment. But these exchanges were not always beneficent. Among other things, Columbus brought viruses that caused epidemic diseases such as cholera, typhus and smallpox to the Americas, where they were previously unknown—with catastrophic results. During the 16th and 17th centuries, such diseases were responsible for the deaths of at least three-fourths of the native population of the Americas.

Globalization extended beyond the interchange between Europe and the Americas. In 1570, two Spanish explorers, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi and Andres Ochoa de Urdaneta y Cerain, did what Columbus was unable to do: initiate trade with wealthy China by sailing west. They did for economics what Columbus did for ecology. For 2,000 years the population of China had grown slowly. That changed when American crops were introduced there and the population soared. What became known as the “galleon trade” brought together Asia, Europe, the Americas and, less directly, Africa, in a network of exchange for the first time in history.

Mann’s sweeping overview invites us to interpret history a bit differently than more conventional approaches. One of the most compelling subjects is the crucial role played by the slave trade and the Indians in developing what became the United States. Although textbooks indicate that the Europeans moved into a sparsely populated hemisphere, in fact the hemisphere was already home to millions of inhabitants. And most of the movement into the Americas was by Africans, who easily became the majority population in places not controlled by native tribes. One recent study has calculated that in the period between 1500 and 1840, three Africans were brought to the Americas for every European.

In one fascinating discussion, Mann relates how malaria, to which many in West and Central Africa are largely immune, assisted in slavery’s development. Although it is unlikely that they were conscious of it at first, planters with slaves had an economic advantage over planters who used indentured servants, who were more likely to come down with the disease. As that became apparent, the most successful planters imported additional slaves, and other planters who wished to prosper did the same thing.

There is so much more in Mann’s engaging and well-written book. Information and insight abound on every page. This dazzling display of erudition, theory and insight will help readers to view history in a fresh way.

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