A fascinating chronicle of the “Columbian Exchange,” which mixed old and new world elements to form today’s integrated global culture, the “homogenocene.”
People of European ancestry poured across the world after 1500, forming the majority in several continents and dominating everywhere. Historians traditionally credit Western superiority in organization and weaponry, but science journalist Mann (1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, 2005) argues convincingly that biology, not technology, gave them the critical advantage. Most readers will be surprised by the author’s discussion of the history of Jamestown, America’s first permanent English colony. Settled largely by incompetent adventurers eager to duplicate the jackpot of gold that Spaniards found in Mexico and Peru, they failed, dithered and starved to death by the thousands until, after 10 years, the jackpot appeared: tobacco, the first global commodity craze. Silk and porcelain crazes quickly followed. Arriving with Columbus, malaria and yellow fever debilitated white settlers throughout America, but Africans had partial resistance, a major factor in encouraging the slave trade. Historians have focused on gold, but an avalanche of South American silver poured into China as well as Europe, facilitating international trade as well as inflation, instability, war and today’s currency system. Potatoes and corn from America probably stabilized Europe by eliminating periodic famines. They did the opposite in China, encouraging a population explosion that cleared forests, leading to floods and vast environmental degradation.
Focusing on ecology and economics, Mann provides a spellbinding account of how an unplanned collision of unfamiliar animals, vegetables, minerals and diseases produced unforeseen wealth, misery, social upheaval and the modern world.