It all sounds familiar, and terribly modern — and that’s no accident. Mann’s book, a successor to his best-selling “1491,” takes a god’s-eye view of the world as it began to change, rapidly and inexorably, in the face of the wealth a restless Europe discovered in the Americas — and, at about the same time, in Asia and Africa.
For all the talk we hear today about globalization, that process began with the onset of what historians call the Columbian Exchange half a millennium ago. The very word “exchange” lets us know that the encounter was two-way — and sometimes more. America, that vast new market, was soon absorbing European goods and customs, even as indigenous homelands were being transformed by introduced animals and crops into “ecological versions of Europe, landscapes the foreigners could use more comfortably than could their original inhabitants.” America became an extension of Europe, its people and resources commodities to use up.
Meanwhile, new crops and goods were arriving in the Old World as well, some brought over on Columbus’s first return trip. Moody and god-haunted, Columbus had hit the lottery, but retirement into the easy life did not suit him, so he asked the Spanish king to allow him to go off to convert the emperor of China to Christianity. Columbus died before he could undertake that quest, but one of the goods he helped introduce arrived in China soon after, “exciting, habit-forming, vaguely louche” — namely, tobacco, which found a ready market there. Smoking the imported luxury wasn’t cheap, though, and the khan of Manchuria was shocked to learn that his soldiers were selling off their weapons and armor to buy the weed.
Europe was already addicted. Tobacco was so much at home there that in the 17th century, Mann writes, “priests were celebrating Mass with lighted cigars.” Pope Urban VIII sent out a memo banning smoking in church, but no matter; across the whole of the Eurasian landmass, the New World had found vast markets for its signal product, which has only recently begun to relax its hold.
Tobacco was not alone. Mann writes at length of the introduction of the potato, a native of the Andean foothills, to the Old World. Most histories of food tell this story, but few with the grim recognition that the arrival of the potato marked the onset of the age of monoculture — for, as Mann notes, “All of Europe’s potatoes descended from a few tubers sent across the ocean by curious Spaniards.” The potato that Europe knew thus represented only a tiny sliver of the food’s genetic diversity, and if it fed millions and “was as important to the modern era as, say, the invention of the steam engine,” it also impoverished the European larder as small vegetable gardens gave way to vast one-crop fields.
Mann’s book is jammed with facts and factoids, trivia and moments of great insight that take on power as they accumulate. We all know that mosquitoes are a nuisance and that malaria, brought with them across oceans during the Columbian Exchange, poses a grave danger. Mann adds the unknown story of their surprisingly important role in both the American Revolution and the Civil War. Malaria, that parasitic disease, was rare in England and in the North and easily felled outsiders, while most of the Southerners who fought at places such as Yorktown and Chancellorsville were used to it, if not altogether immune. “Revolutionary mosquitoes,” by Mann’s account, helped win American independence and to extend the Civil War nearly two years beyond Gettysburg.
He also finds a possible significance in the practice of slavery by some indigenous peoples before the arrival of Europeans. The British colonies of the northern Atlantic seaboard coincided with areas where slavery was not practiced, while the southern ones were founded among native peoples who held and traded slaves. “Did the proximity of Indian societies with slaves to sell help grease the skids for what would become African slavery in the South?” asks Mann, provocatively. That question could give rise to a hundred books. Meanwhile, this one, fascinating and complex, exemplary in its union of meaningful fact with good storytelling, ranges across continents and centuries to explain how the world we inhabit came to be.
lives in Tucson. He is the author, most recently, of “Aelian’s On the Nature of Animals.”