History's Understory

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, by Charles C. Mann ’76 (Knopf)

Reviewed by Paul Statt ’78


[Nonfiction] Close your eyes and picture this: You’re staring from the deck of a small ship at the land now known as Virginia. The year is 1607, and you are Capt. John Smith. What you see in your mind’s eye is probably something like the images that open Terrence Malick’s 2005 film The New World: a virgin forest of stately trees bathed in that certain slant of light. What you’re ignoring is the understory.

In the science of forestry, the understory is the mix of seedlings and saplings, shrubs and herbs and all the smaller trees that grow happily in the shade of the bigger trees or wait patiently for wind or fire to expose them to the sun.

In the discipline of history, “understory” doesn’t mean anything. I wish it did, because the word would elegantly describe Charles C. Mann’s 1493, which is about some of the people, animals and plants ignored by “world history.” Mann’s previous book, 1491, drew attention to Native American societies before the European conquest. (The reason that the English walked so easily through the Virginian understory was that it was anything but virgin: it had been worked for generations by the natives.) Now, in 1493, Mann lays out the ecological and economic interplay of the European and, importantly, African arrival in America; Mann’s epic ambition spans continents, themes and five centuries of history.

As in 1491, Mann focuses on ecology, but in 1493, there is also much to be said about economics. The earlier book asked us to rethink most of what we thought we knew about pre-Columbian ecosystems; the new one asks us to consider changes brought by the transport of non-native species around the world. Mann’s thesis is radical: These changes altered the planet’s ecological shape, and also its political shape, as European societies became dominant over China, previously the most developed economy in the world.

Mann convinces the reader that the process of economic globalization (which some consider the path back to paradise and others predict will be the death of us all) is both older and newer than we thought. It is a neat trick. As an academic work, 1493 is a gloss, an update and a popularization of the work of historian and geographer Alfred W. Crosby, who put forth the Columbian Exchange theory. This theory argues that ever since Columbus sailed the ocean blue, plants, animals, people and ideas have been exchanged more freely among continents. Like the authors of such books as Cod (1998), Salt (2003), Banana (2008) and the epitome of the genre, Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things (2008), Mann writes the stories of things: the Virginia forests, tobacco, the potato, rubber, quinine, silver ore, silk.  

1493 is a rollicking pleasure to read. As if he needed a “dateline” for each story, Mann travels to China, the Philippines, South America and elsewhere to provide first-person anecdotes. Professing “journalism” rather than “scholarship” bolsters Mann’s courage to go far out on a limb and offer bold explanations, which he poses as questions. Did malaria cause the Emancipation Proclamation? Were American crops responsible for Chinese population growth? There are so many good stories here that you could profitably read 1493 as an “extraordinary origins of everyday things.” Unlike most pop historians, however, Mann accumulates anecdotes in support of a broader truth: that we are now, and have been since Columbus, living in a geological age some call the Homogenocene Epoch, in which biodiversity is diminishing and ecosystems are becoming more similar to one another. It’s not just that we buy coffee in the same shop in every city in the world: that sameness is the fate of plants and animals, too.

How did the Homogenocene happen? Mann writes a lot about smuggling. Sweet potatoes are smuggled into China. Silk is smuggled into Spain. Silver into China. Tobacco everywhere. Mann is something of a smuggler himself, hiding intellectual contraband between the leaves of this popular history. 1491 explored what it would mean to ascribe agency, in the sociological sense, to the people of the pre-Columbian western hemisphere. Mann calls several players in 1493 “agents of the Columbian Exchange:” Juan Garrido, the African who carried wheat to Mexico; Henry Wickham, who smuggled rubber trees from Brazil to England. This is a curious and significant locution: Columbus himself can hardly be called an agent of the exchange; he had no idea what he was starting.

There is also an important understory to the Columbian Exchange, as Mann writes:

American history is often described in terms of Europeans entering a nearly empty wilderness. For centuries, though, most of the newcomers were African and the land was not empty, but filled with millions of indigenous people. Much of the great encounter between the two separate halves of the world was thus less a meeting of Europe and America than a meeting of Africans and Indians—a relationship forged in both the cage of slavery and in the uprisings against it. Largely conducted out of sight of Europeans, the complex interplay between red and black is a hidden history that researchers are only now beginning to unravel.

Mann notes that the “the agro-industrial complex [that] rests on the Columbian Exchange” is “celebrated by agronomists for its bounteous harvests and denounced by environmentalists for its toxicity.” The same could be said about economic globalization.

Are we humans in control of the world we have made, or is it in control of us? I finished 1493 feeling paradoxically both diminished and empowered. Accused of advocating science that made humankind seem small, Charles Darwin replied, “There is grandeur in this view of life.” In a masterful allusion, Mann writes, “There is grandeur, too, in this view of the past; it reminds us that every place has played a part in the human story, and that all are embedded in the larger, inconceivably complex progress of life on this planet.”

Statt, former media relations director at Amherst, is a communications consultant in Philadelphia.