1493 refers to the year after Christopher Columbus “discovered” America and as the second part of the title suggests, the book describes how Europe’s discovery of the Americas revolutionized trade, ecology and life on earth. That sounds like an enormous project, which it is, and it may sound like rather dry stuff, which it isn’t at all. This is one of the best non-fiction books I have ever read, and although I have no particular background in the study of American history or trans-Pacific commerce or slavery, there was nothing in this voluminous book that I didn’t find interesting.
From this very readable book, I learnt so much that I should have known, so much that I never knew that I even could have known, and I learnt to reflect differently on some historical, ecological and economic matters. Globalization really is nothing new, nor is man’s destruction of the environment. This account of the past 500 years puts many contemporary issues into perspective.
Almost every page contains fascinating information, analysis, stories and characters, most of it new to me; for example
– how malaria influenced not only the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but also the north-south divide on slavery in the US,
– that already 400 years ago cheap Chinese exports put European manufacturers out of business,
– that the highest city in the world (Potosí) was once also the richest and most brutal city at the same time,
– that China’s population could only grow so fast once they had imported corn and potatoes from America because these plants could grow on soil that rice couldn’t,
– that female infanticide in China was already a problem in the Qing dynasty, pre-dating the one-child policy,
– how the British settlers in North America might have brought about the Little Ice Age, an early example of man-made climate change,
– that Charles Goodyear was in prison while working on the process of vulcanizing rubber,
– that tens of thousands of African slaves escaped in America and started their own communities, even kingdoms,
– that Pacific islands with a layer of up to 150 feet of bird poo provided the fertilizer to feed Europe, and that this guano was harvested by Chinese slaves.
I could go on and on and on. Many colorful characters bring the stories to life, but despite the adventurous characters, this is not an adventure story. It’s a brutal story of death, destruction, disease, enslavement and exploitation.
There was only one thing which I missed: while the discovery, cultivation and trade of tobacco is covered in interesting detail, almost no mentioning is made of the other big American invention, which makes our lives better: chocolate.