Saturday, July 16, 2011

Charles Mann's new book: 1493

Check out this article in the Amherst Bulletin about local author Charles Mann's upcoming book: 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.
A consistent theme throughout Mann's work is the idea that the trade of animals and plants between the Eastern and Western hemispheres led to a series of dramatic biological changes that forged a new world, both ecologically and economically.

These changes also gave Europeans an advantage over the native peoples they encountered in places like the Americas, Mann contends. The introduction of European crops and animals made the Americas more comfortable to Europeans colonists while also making it harder for indigenous people to continue their traditional ways of life, he said.

That idea plays a central role in "1493." He writes that Spanish explorer Miguel Lopez de Legazpi managed to accomplish something that Columbus tried but failed to do - establish overseas trade with China. In 1571 Legazpi founded Manila in the Philipines and from there traded silver mined by African slaves in South America for Chinese silk and porcelain.

The event is notable because it marks the first time that the world economy was completely intertwined, Mann said. But it also had a larger, unintended effect.

In the 1590s a Chinese merchant, Chen Zhenlong, brought sweet potatoes, introduced to the Philippines by the Spanish, to China. Until that point Chinese agriculture had been rice-intensive and centered around the deltas of the Yangtze and Huang He rivers. The vast majority of the country was dry and unsuitable for such crops, Mann said.

But the sweet potato changed that. The tuber thrived along dry hillsides. Its arrival coincided with the introduction of maize to China, which entered the country through Portuguese traders at Macao. The crop proved similarly suited to China's dry climate.

"Suddenly, not only are you growing stuff in the areas where you couldn't grow anything before, but it's fantastically productive," Mann said. "It was always a populous place, but this was the moment when China became China, the watchword for huge numbers of people. And it had a whole lot to do with the introduction of the sweet potato and maize."

Yet the Chinese made a series of beginners' mistakes in planting the new crops, Mann said. They planted them vertically along the hillsides, instead of horizontally. They deforested much of the land to make way for new crops. The result was erosion and massive flooding. Mann said he talked to one researcher who likened the situation to "one Katrina a month for 20 years."

The flooding helped weaken the Qing Dynasty, Mann said, opening the door for the British to essentially walk into the country unopposed before the dynasty's ultimate fall in 1911.

"That's what I mean when you talk about the biological consequences outstripping the financial consequences. It was important for China to have the silver trade," Mann said. "But the sweet potato and maize had far greater consequences." --read more
We'll be hosting a reading for 1493 with Charles Mann this upcoming October - Thursday, the 27th. Be sure to mark your calendars!


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