Saturday, August 27, 2011

[Book] 1493


The New World was created, not discovered, says Charles C. Mann. The impact of Columbus’ historic trip was felt worldwide, ushering in the Age of Globalization that we know today. Nearly everything, worldwide, changed so much as to make the pre-Columbian world unrecognizable. Can you imagine Italy without tomato sauce? Ireland without potatoes? Georgia without peaches?

I was surprised to see that this book is as much about China as it is about America or Europe. In fact, the author did much of his research in China. This is more obvious than it seems: after all, trade with China was the ultimate goal of Columbus and the generations that followed him.

There is a lot to this book and I know I’ll think about it for many years to come. If I had more time or motivation, I’d write a proper summary, but in these days of super-short tweets and instant-access Google, let me just summarize a few of the more interesting takeaways, since I know I’ll likely want to refer back to these ideas later:

  • Columbus’ largest ship, Santa Maria, ran aground on his first voyage, so he had to leave 38 people behind. When he returned eleven months later, they were all dead—the result of conflict with the locals (called Taino).
  • The non-human travelers to America were at least as important as the explorers themselves: bacteria and viruses caused epidemics, insects destroyed native crops.
  • Earthworms were unknown in America until the Europeans arrived. Imagine the soil without them, and all the consequences on mulch and the types of trees possible and much, much more.
  • Trade with China began in the 1560s in Manila.
  • The period of unusual cold known as the Little Ice Age, from 1550 to 1750, may have been caused by the end of wide scale forest burning by native Americans.
  • The Virginia joint-stock corporation shipped seven thousand people to Virginia between 1607 and 1624, of whom eight out of ten died.
  • Tobacco saved England’s New World investments: by 1680 it was exporting 25 million pounds per year.
  • Nicotine addiction was rampant worldwide by the early 1600s: in 1635 the khan Hongtaiji prohibited tobacco. Guangxi Chinese were making tobacco pipes by 1549.
  • The flintlock rifle, which first became available in the late 1600s, was the first weapon that Indians recognized as superior to the bow. John Smith’s matchlocks didn’t work in wet conditions and required a tripod for accuracy.
  • Malaria killed untold numbers of people in the Americas and was common even in New England. Africans, with their “Duffy antigens” were immune and became ideal laborers as a result.
  • One reason Zheng He’s historic travels from China weren’t followed up: he never encountered a nation richer than his own. “For the same reason the United States stopped sending men to the moon – there was nothing there to justify the costs of such voyages”.
  • The Ming prohibited all private seagoing vessels in 1525 (but reversed the order fifty years later in order to trade with Europeans in Manila).
  • Wokou (倭寇) Japanese pirates were a serious threat to trade.
  • Yuegang, near modern Xiamen, was one of the world’s most important ports in the 1600s.
  • By the 1570s, 90% of Beijing’s tax revenue came in the form of silver coins.
  • Potosi, Bolivia’s “mountain of silver” was discovered in 1545. By 1611, its population of 160K was as big as London or Amsterdam.
  • The Qing dynasty enacted a program of smallpox inoculation.
  • “Part of the reason China is the most populous nation is the Columbian exchange” (p177). New, highly productive crops like sweet potato and corn enabled cultivation in otherwise impossible areas.
  • For 167 days in 1925 two Polish researchers lived on potatoes with butter and reported no health problems. [p197]
  • “Roughly 40 percent of the irish ate no solid food other than potatoes”. [p209]
  • Tenochtitlan fell on August 13, 1521.
  • P.312 : 57% of the early descendants of Conquistadores tracked were of Indian descent.
  • P.313 In 1640 there were 3x as many Africans as Europeans in Mexico.
  • P323: Katana-swinging Japanese helped suppress Chinese rebellions in Manila in 1603 and 1609. When Japan closed its borders in the 1630s Japanese expatriates were stranded wherever they were.
  • P.359: English Puritans launched two colonies, one at Plymouth and another off the coast of Nicaragua in 1631.

Like I said, very interesting and there’s a lot more. If you like history in general, or if you’re looking for a fresh take on China, this is definitely worth reading.