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Guest Reviewer: Nathaniel Philbrick on 1493 by Charles C. Mann
Nathaniel Philbrick is the author of the New York Times bestsellers The Last Stand; In the Heart of the Sea, which won
the National Book Award; Sea of Glory, winner of the Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt Naval History Prize; and
Mayflower, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history and one of the New York Times' ten best books of the
year. He has lived on Nantucket since 1986. I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous book 1491, in which he provides a
sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. It’s
exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that it’s anything but exhausting to read.
With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred
Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, I’m proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less
than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single,
Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a
consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of
the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese
cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose “southern
coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple.”
We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato, tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted and
convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we are finally living on one integrated or at least
close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the process
they helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory book,
an open question.
A Letter from Charles C. Mann
It looked an ice cream cone. But when I came closer, I realized that the boy was eating a raw sweet potato. His father
had whittled at the top to expose the orange flesh, which the boy was licking; the unpeeled bottom of the sweet potato
served as a handle.
This was at a farm about 300 miles northwest of Shanghai. Sweet potatoes are often eaten raw in rural China--a
curiosity to Westerners like me. I didn’t realize that I had been staring until the boy ran to seek the protection of
his father, who was hoeing a row of sweet potatoes. The father glared at me as I waved an apology. Because I don’t speak
Chinese, I couldn’t tell him that I had been staring not at his son, but at the sweet potato in his hand. Nor could I
say that I was staring because the sweet potato was an emblem of four hundred years of convulsive global change.
Sweet potatoes are native to Central America. Spanish ships carried them to Manila in the 1570s, and then a Chinese
ship captain smuggled the vines past Spanish customs by wrapping them around ropes and coiling the ropes in a basket. He
took the contraband plants to Fujian, in southeast China, across from Taiwan. It was a time of famine in China. The
captain’s son took the sweet potatoes to the governor of Fujian, who in turn ordered farmers to plant the fanshu
(foreign tubers). The famine ended. Other regions took up sweet potatoes to solve their food problems. Millions of lives
were saved. For three centuries the food of the Chinese poor was not rice but sweet potato.
How did that Chinese kid get his sweet potato? Christopher Columbus. Scientists view Columbus as the man who
inadvertently began an explosive global biological swap. After he established contact between the eastern and western
hemisphere, thousands of plant and animal species ricocheted around the continents. It was the biggest event in the
history of life since the death of the dinosaurs. The Columbian Exchange, as historians call it, is why there are
tomatoes in Italy, oranges in the United States, potatoes in Ireland, chili peppers in Thailand--and sweet potatoes in
It also is a big part of the reason why the British lost the Revolutionary War, why Mexico City became the world’s
first truly international city, and why millions of African slaves were transported unwillingly across the Atlantic.
Indeed, these are among the subjects of my book, which is largely about the Columbian Exchange.
The sweet potato--along with another American import, corn--did help save China from the calamity of famine. But they
also caused another calamity. Traditional Chinese agriculture focused on rice, which had to be grown in wet river
valleys. Sweet potatoes and corn could be grown in China’s dry highlands. Armies of farmers went out and cleared the
forests on these highlands. The result was catastrophic erosion. Silt filled the Yangzi and Huang He (Yellow) rivers,
setting off huge floods that killed millions of people. It was like one Katrina after another, a Chinese scientist told
me. Beset by disaster, China fell behind in the race for global supremacy.
All of this history was encapsulated in the boy and his sweet potato, though he didn’t know it. To him, it was just a
snack. When I took out my camera, the boy’s father rolled his eyes in disbelief. But I was taking a picture of centuries
of global turbulence. The boy pouted; I clicked the shutter.
Timeline for 1493
200,000,000 B.C.: Geological forces begin to break up the world’s single giant continent, Pangaea, forever separating
the hemispheres. After this, Eurasia and the Americas develop completely different suites of plants and animals.
1493 A.D.: Columbus sails on second voyage, establishing the first consequential European settlement in the Americas.
Without intending to, he ends the long separation of the hemispheres—and sets off the ecological convulsion known as the
1518: In the first environmental calamity of the modern era, accidentally imported African scale insects in Hispaniola
lead to an explosion of fire ants. Spaniards flee the ant-infested island in droves; colonists in Santo Domingo hold
procession in honor of St. Saturninus, praying for his aid against the insect plague.
1545: Spaniards discover the world’s biggest silver strike in Bolivia. In the next century, the world’s supply of this
precious metal will more than double, giving Europe an economic edge that will help it colonize Africa, Asia and the
1549: Initial appearance of tobacco—the addictive American drug that becomes the first global commodity craze—in China.
That same year, Hernán Cortés inaugurates the human part of the Columbian Exchange by signing the first contract to
import large numbers of Africans to the American mainland.
1571: Miguel López de Legazpi colonizes Manila and establishes continual trade with China—Columbus’s life-long,
never-fulfilled dream. Knitting the entire inhabited planet into a single web of trade, Legazpi’s actions are the
beginning of today’s economic globalization.
~1615: Earthworms come to northern North America in English ship ballast. During the next three centuries, they will
re-engineer forests from Ohio Valley to Hudson Bay.
1630-60: The gush of American silver finally causes its price to collapse, setting off a the world’s first global
1644: Collapse of Ming dynasty. Long struggle between remaining Ming in south and incoming Qing dynasty in north leads
the latter to forcibly evacuate most of the southern coast; millions of dispossessed people pour into the mountains,
where they grow maize and sweet potatoes, American crops first smuggled into China from Manila and other European bases.
1775: France’s Flour War, set off by high bread prices, persuades King Louis XVI to allow the pioneering nutritional
chemist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier to stage a series of publicity stunts to persuade farmers to grow potatoes, a
distrusted foreign species from Peru. Parmentier’s PR is so successful that broad swathes of northern Europe are soon
covered with a monoculture of potatoes.
1781: Britain’s “southern strategy” pushes Gen. Cornwallis’s army into North America’s malaria zone, an area dominated
by malaria parasites introduced from Europe and Africa. Defeated by malaria, the British army surrenders to a general it
never fought: George Washington. This ends the Revolutionary War.
1845: Europe’s potato monoculture, which is unlike anything ever seen in Peru, turns out to be especially vulnerable to
another Peruvian import, the potato blight. Ravaging the continent from Russia to Ireland, the blight causes a famine
that kills an estimated two million people, half of them in Ireland.
~1867: Léopold Trouvelot, French amateur entomologist, smuggles gypsy moths to Medford, Mass., hoping to breed them
with native silk-producing moths to produce a more robust silk-producer. Their almost immediate escape sets off an
invasion that continues today. Trouvelot hurriedly returns to France before the dimensions of the problem can be known.
1880-1912: Industrializing nations, desperate for the elastic belts, pliable gaskets and the aborbent tires needed by
steam engines and vehicles, buy every scrap of rubber they can get from the Amazon’s rubber trees, the sole source of
high-quality latex. The ensuing rubber boom collapses after an Englishman smuggles rubber trees out of Brazil. Soon much
of southeast Asia is covered with this foreign tree.
1979: The golden apple snail is sent from Brazil to Taiwan to launch an escargot industry there. It escapes,
proliferates, and becomes a major menace to the island’s rice crop.