Title: 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

Author: Charles C. Mann

Completed: Apr 2022 (Full list of books)

Overview: Last year I read 1491, the book that tells the other half of the story. It was an enjoyable read, but long enough that I wasn’t interested in diving into the second half right away. Like the first book, this told a story of an interconnected world with exchange taking place globally in a way that feels far too modern to have started over 500 years ago.

It was a good read, but certainly felt more like a book I should read rather than a book I was excited to read.


  • Much as rich nations like Japan and the United States today buy little from sub-Saharan Africa, China had long viewed Europe as too poor and backward to be of commercial interest.
  • Across the street from the monument is another, more popular park, named after José Rizal, a writer, doctor, and martyred anti-Spanish revolutionary who is a national hero in the Philippines.
  • Ruddiman’s idea was simple: the destruction of Indian societies by European epidemics both decreased native burning and increased tree growth. Each subtracted carbon dioxide from the air. – (A potential cause of the mini ice age around that time)
  • So critical to European success was the honeybee that Indians came to view it as a harbinger of invasion; the first sight of a bee in a new territory, the French-American writer Jean de Crèvecoeur noted in 1782, “spreads sadness and consternation in all minds.”
  • Every year about 225 million people contract the disease, which even with modern medical care can incapacitate for months. In Africa it afflicts so many people so often that economists believe it is a major drag on development; since 1965, according to one widely cited calculation, countries with high rates of malaria have had annual per capita growth rates 1.3 percent less than countries without malaria, enough to ensure that many of the former lost ground to the latter.
  • The implication is mind-boggling: people who fled to vivax country would have been better off staying home with the bubonic plague.
  • On the simplest level, slaves were more expensive than servants. In a well-known study, Russell R. Menard of the University of Minnesota tallied up the prices in Virginia and Maryland of slaves and servants whose services had to be sold after their masters’ deaths. In the last decades of the seventeenth century, the average price of a prime-age male African slave was £25. Meanwhile, the servants’ contracts typically cost about £10.
  • Publicly outraged by bondage and with no domestic slave industry to protect, the English were Europe’s least likely candidates for slavemasters. In consequence, the English colonies initially turned to indentured servants and largely avoided slaves. Indentured servants comprised between a third and a half of the Europeans who arrived in North America in the first century of colonization.
  • Adam Smith predicted in The Wealth of Nations that laborers would see the available land around them and leave their jobs, “in order to become landlords themselves.” They would hire other workers in turn, who would “soon leave them for the same reason they left their first master.” Not for more than a century did other economists fully draw out the implications of Smith’s idea. If employers constantly lost workers to the lure of cheap land, then they would want to restrict their freedom of movement. Bondage was the inevitable end result. Paradoxically enough, America’s wide-open frontier was, from this perspective, an incitement to slavery.
  • For Europeans, the economic logic was hard to ignore. If they wanted to grow tobacco, rice, or sugar, they were better off using African slaves than European indentured servants or Indian slaves. “Assuming that the cost of maintaining each was about equal,” Curtin concluded, “the slave was preferable at anything up to three times the price of the European.” Slavery and falciparum thrived together.
  • Accentuating the gap, wealthy Carolinian plantation owners could afford to move to resorts in the fever-free mountains or shore during the sickness season. Poor farmers and slaves had to stay in the Plasmodium zone. In this way disease nudged apart rich and poor. Malarial places, the Rutmans said, drift easily toward “exaggerated economic polarization.” Plasmodium not only prodded farmers toward slavery, it rewarded big plantations, which further lifted the demand for slaves.
  • From the beginning the Union army was bigger and better supplied than the Confederate army. As at Bull Run, though, the North lost battle after battle. Incompetent generalship, valiant opponents, and long supply lines were partly to blame. But so was malaria—the price of entering the Plasmodium zone. During the war the annual case rate never dropped below 40 percent. In one year Plasmodium infected 361,968 troops.
  • Manila was thronged by missionaries, heads afire with the zeal to bring the Roman Catholic church to Asia. They forced Filipino and Malay natives to adopt the cross, but this was a side project. The true goal, at least at the beginning, was to conquer and convert China. Believing that Cortés (conqueror of Mexico) and Pizarro (conqueror of Peru) had needed only small bands of committed men to seize entire empires for Christ, these clerics and soldiers initially imagined that a few thousand Spaniards could repeat these feats in China.
  • In the textbooks, government appears mainly as an outside factor that imposes tariffs, quotas, levies, and so on, influencing the outcome of private trade, often reducing the net economic benefit. But the state does this because trade has two roles: one highlighted in economics textbooks, where private markets allow both sides to gain economically, and one that rarely appears in those textbooks, in which trade is a tool of statecraft, the goal is political power, and both sides usually do not win. In this second role, the net economic benefit of trade is much less important than the political benefit to each side, and the government interventions that exasperate economists can be useful, even vital tools to achieve national preeminence.
  • two British inquiries in 1839 intimated that the average Irish laborer’s per capita daily consumption of potatoes was twelve and a half pounds.
  • When farmers plant pieces of tuber, rather than seeds, the resultant sprouts are clones; in developed countries, entire landscapes are covered with potatoes that are almost genetically identical. By contrast, a Peruvian-American research team found that families in a mountain valley in central Peru grew an average of 10.6 traditional varieties—landraces, as they are called, each with its own name. Karl Zimmerer, now at Pennsylvania State University, visited fields in some villages with as many as twenty landraces. The International Potato Center in Peru has sampled and preserved more than 3,700. The range of potatoes in a single Andean field, Zimmerer observed, “exceeds the diversity of nine-tenths of the potato crop of the entire United States.”
  • France was especially slow to adopt the new crop. Into the fray stepped nutritionist, vaccination advocate, and potato proselytizer Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, the Johnny Appleseed of S. tuberosum.
  • the average yearly harvest in eastern England from an acre of wheat, barley, and oats was between 1,300 and 1,500 pounds. By contrast, an acre of potatoes yielded more than 25,000 pounds—about eighteen times as much.
  • the potato can better sustain life than any other food when eaten as the sole item of diet. It has all essential nutrients except vitamins A and D, which can be supplied by milk; the diet of the Irish poor in Smith’s day consisted largely of potatoes and milk.
  • Before the potato and maize, before intensive fertilization, European living standards were roughly equivalent with those today in Cameroon and Bangladesh; they were below Bolivia or Zimbabwe. On average, European peasants ate less per day than hunting-and-gathering societies in Africa or the Amazon.
  • Textbooks commonly present American history in terms of Europeans moving into a lightly settled hemisphere. In fact, the hemisphere was full of Indians—tens of millions of them. And most of the movement into the Americas was by Africans, who soon became the majority population in almost every place that wasn’t controlled by Indians. Demographically speaking, Eltis has written, “America was an extension of Africa rather than Europe until late in the nineteenth century.”
  • But obtaining the wealth of the Americas would involve subjugating people who had committed no offense against Spain. As Fernando and Isabel saw it, Indian lands were not like the Islamic empires whom they and their royal ancestors had fought for centuries.
  • Isabel didn’t agree. Slowly growing angry, she watched shackled Taino trickle into the slave markets of Seville. In an outburst of fury in 1499 she ordered all Spaniards who had acquired Indians to send them back to the Americas. Death was the penalty for noncompliance.
  • Cortés’s first ranch hand, possibly the first cowboy in the mainland Americas, was an African slave. Thousands of others followed.
  • At the time many Spaniards believed that parents passed on their ideas and moral characters to their children, with the effect amplified by the atmosphere of the home. A mother who was born Jewish or Muslim somehow would instill the essence of Judaism or Islam in her offspring, even if she never exposed them to the religion. If the children lived in a family with Jewish or Muslim customs like not eating pork or frequent bathing, the inner stain would be darker and more ineradicable. Conversely, the stain was reduced, though not eliminated, if the child had a Christian parent and ate Christian food and learned Christian habits. In this view, Africans were to be feared not because of their African genes, but because their ancestors had embraced the immoral heresy of Islam, which would lodge in their descendants’ hearts.
  • 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 thus was less a meeting of Europe and America than a meeting of Africans and Indians —a relationship forged both in 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.
  • Because labor was the main form of property in West Africa, rich West Africans almost by definition owned a lot of slaves. Plantations were rare in that part of the world—coastal West Africa’s soil and climate typically won’t support them—so big groups of slaves rarely were found working in fields as was common in American sugar or tobacco plantations. Instead slaves were soldiers, servants, or construction workers, building roads and fences and barns. Often enough they did almost nothing; wealthy, powerful slave owners kept more slaves than they needed, in the way that wealthy, powerful landowners in Europe would pile up unused land. In addition, much slave labor consisted of occasional work performed as a tax or tribute.
  • Yanga’s people were presented with their own domain: San Lorenzo de los Negros. Later renamed Yanga, honoring its founder, it was the Americas’ first sunset town: Europeans were legally prohibited from staying the night there. Yanga and his descendants prospered so much that local Spaniards eventually paid them the ultimate compliment and moved in, ignoring the ban on whites. As a result, the town of Yanga is now almost completely “Mexican.”
  • the same malaria and yellow fever that had done so much to promote African slavery here helped Africans to destroy it. Napoleon, his hopes for a Caribbean empire in ruins, sold the United States all of France’s North American territories: the Louisiana Purchase.
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