1493: Uncovering The New World Columbus Created

  • Charles C. Mann
  • Knopf
  • 360 pp.

In a follow-up to his earlier book, 1491, the author examines the arrival of hybrid society and the birth of globalization.

Reviewed by Y.S. Fing

One of the great contributions Michel Foucault made to Western scholarship and intellectual history was what he called “inversion.” Simply put, this notion means that if one studies power at the furthest extent of its reach, the dynamic between the powerful and the oppressed is quite different from how it appears to the mainstream of any given culture. The effect of this notion has resonated since the late 1960s. Howard Zinn took up the mantle of inversion in A People’s History of the United States. Annette Gordon-Reed has done so with her fascinating studies of the Hemmings family of Monticello. With 1493, we have Charles C. Mann’s complete inverted vision of the world since Columbus’s first voyage.

Some call this “revisionist history.” They don’t like the idea that potatoes are more historically important than Napoleon. They think the American Revolution was more significant than the Anopheles mosquito. Their intellectual preference is to see power as a downward, repressive force. But Foucault and the brilliant scholars who trailed him, with new technologies in their toolboxes, make extremely strong cases.

The term Mann uses to summarize the development of the modern, global world is “The Columbian Exchange.” This exchange includes viruses, animals, plants, people and ideas, and they moved quite freely, despite all attempts to restrain them. The people in power, starting with Isabella and Ferdinand, and including Columbus and Cortes, had the least control over exchanges conducted by individuals acting on their behalf.

And the exchanges teemed with life and death and sex and food. Seeds were inadvertently or surreptitiously transported. Male soldiers couldn’t keep their hands off the nearest women. The mining and distribution of silver brought Asia and America and Europe together. The production of sugar and tobacco brought Africa into the mix. In case you didn’t know it, globalization started in 1493.

Mann synthesizes his vast scholarship with erudition, and is never polemical. He recognizes contrary opinions among scholars and often finds middle ground. For example, late in the book, when Mann tackles the fraught debate on race (specifically in New Spain/Mexico), he acknowledges that he is summarizing “a persuasive analysis by Maria Elena Martinez” at the University of Southern California. Immediately after this he states:

“Some scholars surely would roll their eyes at her views, or at least my truncated   version of them. But few would doubt that as colonial society grew more diverse, colonial authorities tried to put the genie back into the bottle.”

The implications of this are powerful. At first, there wasn’t much worry about race. Then, some hundred and twenty years after colonization (and still before the first successful English colonies were even established) racial categories became enforced in “a quibbling, bureaucratic assault by Spain against its unruly offspring.” Here we have an example of downward repressive power. But it was a futile and brutal exercise that most modern-day Americans, Europeans, South Africans and South Americans have rejected as counterproductive. They know everybody is a mixture. Mann’s term for this mixed, diverse, global world is “The Homogenocene,” the literal breakdown of which is “time of same origin.” He is not so mystical, but we are all one.

In the four major sections of the book, he takes us around the Atlantic (with tobacco and malaria), the Pacific (with silver, piracy and corn), Europe (with potatoes, pesticides and rubber) and Africa (with race and slave rebellions). His Works Cited is nearly 50 pages long and includes many Chinese source books. The work is monumental and the conclusions are almost ridiculous to deny.

In fact, denial of them suggests a relation to power that is steadily losing its hold on the world. Mann points to the fact that between 1500 and 1840, “11.7 million captive Africans left for the Americas.” In the same period of time, “3.4 million Europeans emigrated.” Mann makes clear that “A hybrid society was coming into existence, first in the Caribbean, then everywhere else in the Americas.”

The central locus of this hybrid society was Mexico City, “the first urban complex in which a majority of the inhabitants had been born across an ocean.” In this “teeming, polyethnic” city lived a man of some significance who helped build the first Catholic church in the New World, named Juan Garrido, a perfect microcosmic example of the idea of inversion.

“It says something about that chaotic time [the 1530s] and place that this remarkable figure — a slave turned conquistador, an African who became a confidant of Cortes, a Muslim-born Christian who married an indigenous-born Christian — should drop from sight ... forgotten in the hubbub and tumult of the new world he had helped bring into existence.”

Returning to light such a life from the dust and paper of scholarship is both noble and a new enlightenment. We don’t have to say that one study of power is better than another. We can see from differing perspectives, which Mann helps us to do, and we can therefore know better.

Y.S. Fing, an instructor of English at a community college in the D.C. area, is the author of such unpublished works as “Socialize Yourself: A Teacher’s and Student’s Guide to College-Level Composition” and “Event Horizons: Aphorisms on the Life of D. Selby Fing” (www.dselbyfing.com).

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