Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Post 4400: 1493 by Charles C Mann

This has already joined Souls on Fire, Nine Nations of North America and Albion’s Seed as books which changed my entire framework for viewing things

Mann’s earlier book, 1491, upended much of what is commonly taught about the Americas before the arrival of Columbus.  I had known some of it; there was more I should have put together from pieces I did know; much was entirely new.  Short version: the effect of European diseases on the Native Americans, particularly in the areas settled by the Spanish and Portuguese, was far more profound than anything we had been taught in school. They wiped out 90%, perhaps even 95%, of the population.  Secondly, we continue to discover entire civilisations that were unheard of even a few decades ago, in the Andes, in the Amazon, in Mexico.  I reviewed it a few years ago, and followed up on that last year.

But upending pre-Colombian understanding is a smallish thing.  Few of us speak much of that, or connect it to our own history, physical or intellectual. The history of the world after 1500, especially in Europe and North America, is part of our intellectual furniture. It includes much that we use to define ourselves, our culture, and our enemies.  We discuss ourselves in a world connected to Martin Luther, Queen Elizabeth, Thomas Jefferson, and Isaac Newton.  Battles, royal successions, great thinkers, scientific advances – these are the influences that made our world.


Mann would rate their influence far lower, seeing them as riding atop deep currents that drove the actions of leaders.  From the moment the Columbian Exchange started in 1492, it changed the world.  Silver – vast piles of it from Potosi, far and away the richest city in the world.  Had you heard of it?  Me neither. It was in in the Andes, and its hiccoughs brought down the Ming empire in  China and bankrupted Spain - the two most powerful entities in the world.  Now unremembered. Mosquitos – and the differences among them – may have fueled most of the African slave trade and drawn our Mason-Dixon line for us, as well as extending a one-year Civil War on for four years.  Potatoes and sweet potatoes, tobacco, guano, beer and wine, horses, epidemics – these were the main players on the stage, driving the human decisions in ways we still have difficulty understanding. Our actions did not mean nothing, but neither were individuals of much influence, save by accident.

It upends everything you thought you knew.  You will never read world history from 1500, including the parts you thought you knew well, in the same way again.  It does not contradict what was known before so much as swamps it in newer, larger concepts.  Time and again I nodded to myself “I knew that.  Why did I not make the connection?”  It is strong evidence of the ability of narrative (as well as counternarrative and amendments) to channel our thought. 

What you know is still there, just pushed a few rows back. Northwest Europe colonised the world and became rich because of a few crops which allowed it to eliminate years of complete famine. That changed trade, acquisition, science, mortality, weaponry. That may be most of history. Is that an oversimplification and a bit of a stretch?  Absolutely.  Does it make as least as much sense as my previous understanding?  Probably.

Mann himself says "...any general history of Europe without an entry in its index for S tuberosum should be ignored." So there.

People interested in environmental issues will have much to consider as well.  Mann declares that both the catastrophists and the free marketers are right, and provides a lot of information either could use to advance their arguments.  He concludes that the unregulated exchange and the free movement of goods across the world has indeed made humanity much more prosperous.  But it has also caused famines, epidemics, wars, and other suffering.  For those who worry that intensive agricultural practices might cause ecological collapse, Mann would say it already has.  Lots of times.  Yet he also gives evidence that it has fed the world, brought huge swaths of humanity into comfortable existences undreamed of before, and improved our cooperation and goodwill.  Both are true.  We won’t be able to keep our old assurances quite intact, none of us.  Okay, lots of us will anyway, because we will only keep the parts we like.  Yet I think even the most stubborn and polarised will pause.

There is also a lot here for those who wish to understand how the Far Eastern trade 1500-1900, both with Europe and the west coast of South America, connects with events we are more familiar with.


Texan99 said...

This sounds fantastic. I've been hearing for many years--I suppose since reading "Plagues & Peoples"--that disease was a more powerful force than conquest in New Spain. Strangely, though, I've been reading a 16th-century account of Cortez's career that barely mentions epidemics. It seems otherwise to be a faithful and minute account. How could the ravages of disease have escaped the chronicler's notice?

Sam L. said...

Perhaps he thought that these were periodic recurrences that had been going on for centuries.

Mark Stoler said...

I found both 1491 and 1493 to be very stimulating. Nice review and think you are right to point out if provides room for thought no matter what your ideological perspective may be. History does not have an ideology, it just is.

Texan99 said...

Sam L.--yes, and I was re-reading pertinent sections this morning with a view to sorting that out. The chronicler certainly mentions pestilence in connection with the three-month siege in which Cortez finally conquered the city of Mexico, but the sense is that it was no more than the expected pestilence of siege and starvation. Not once is there a suggestion that the Mexicans perceived themselves to have been visited by a novel illness. Europeans could easily be mistaken from a distance, of course, but Cortez wasn't fighting alone; he was in intimate contact with large forces of "Indians" who had joined forces with him to revolt against Mexico and Mutezuma. Surely they would have remarked on a brand-new plague? Surely it would have affected his allies just as severely?

This doesn't mean that smallpox didn't devastate the population later, of course. And the siege of Mexico was reported to have killed something like 100,000 Mexicans, many from "pestilence."

Well, I've got both 1491 and 1493 on my computer now, so I'll see what they have to say about it.

dmoelling said...

I was recently at Cahokia in Illinois which was the largest North American city for a long time. But it's decline seemed to predate the Spanish explorers. You can argue as Mann does that disease made the Spanish conquest easier (yes), but no amount of special pleading will make the Meso American and Andean societies more sophisticated.

India was conquered by a handful of Englishmen as the change at the top of government was not an issue for most of the people.

Except for high trade value goods and precious metals, very little could be usefully transported from the new world to the old. Only ideas and technology (including plants etc.) could make a significant difference.

Texan99 said...

When you compare the impoverished early European settlements with Indian culture, it's pretty easy to point out that one culture did these things better, while the other had the advantage in those other things. But when they really got down to it, the invading Europeans had a huge technological advantage even without considering the impact of disease. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the collapse and conquest went more quickly and smoothly after the native population was devastated. Africa held off Europeans far longer, in large part because the disease advantage tipped the other way.

ymarsakar said...

The only difference between central run and bottom up freedom is that the losers are different people. There will still be losers, because without losers, superiority in action or class cannot be distinguished.

The losers in a free system are the incompetent or stupid. The losers in a top down hierarchy are the ones the powerful despise, lack pol connections, are part of the wrong bloodline, etc.