Before there was anything on the world maps for what we now know as North America, Central America, and South America, the people on this planet weren’t doing a whole lot of mixing. So this book outlines the start of a new chapter. 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.
It’s kind of hard to believe now, but before the 1490s…
- no tomatoes in Italy
– no chilies in Thailand
– no bananas in Central America
– no potatoes in Ireland
– no horses, cows, sheep, or domestic cats in the Americas
– no tobacco in Europe
– no manioc in Africa
– no chocolate anywhere
– no rubber anywhere
These are a few things that came about because of “The Columbian Exchange,” what happened after the Spanish conquistadors landed in the Caribbean and the Americas, followed by the English and Portuguese. The exchange went both ways and often involved exchanges that wreaked havoc: diseases, imported mosquitoes carrying new strains of malaria, and invasive species of animals and plants.
What many don’t realize, however, was that the whole discovery of lands and peoples of the Americas was really an accident. A byproduct of trying to find an alternate route to the big prize: China. One Spanish trader in Manila wrote, some 500 years ago, that the Chinese made items “much prettier articles than are made in Spain, and sometimes so cheap I am ashamed to admit it.”
Trade with China was always the big goal of these scouting ships: plundering the New World for gold and silver was a happy surprise. In the case of the company establishing a foothold in what is now Virginia, investors were duped with maps showing the whole continent of North America being about as wide as Florida at its narrowest. After crossing that, they’d be on their way to Asia!
The most shocking thing to me in reading the book 1493 is the incredible number of people who died in the process. Sure, most of us know that the original native Americans from current Maine to Patagonia often met death on a grand scale from smallpox and other diseases. That was much of the depressing subject matter of 1491—these regions were much more populated before the whities arrived. It was no picnic for the settlers and conquerors either though. While the diseases Columbus’ crew brought to Hispaniola may have wiped out the local population, a majority of the Spaniards who landed there perished too.
A few more dramatic examples:
* England shipped more than 7,000 people to Jamestown in Virginia between 1607 and 1624. Around 80% of them died, many within the first year after arrival.
* A Castilian expedition with 400 men landed in Florida in 1528, looking for gold. After most of them died, a few set off in small boats for Hispaniola, but ended up in what is now Texas. Just 14 made it, the number soon dropping to 4. (Eight years later those 4 reached Mexico City by foot.)
* Yellow Fever spread from the tropics all the way up to Massachusetts in the mid-1600s, leaving many black slaves unaffected but wiping out those with European blood. At the center of the sugar industry in Barbados, where 6,000 people died within a five-year period.
* England sent fleets with troops to Haiti to capture its cities and restrict the shipments of sugar to France in the 1790s. Roughly 10% per month died the first year, 22% per year the second, from Yellow Fever and Malaria. They sent 13,000 soldiers in 1796 and in a few weeks 6,000 of them were dead.
The book 1493 is full of well-researched stories and tidbits that will make you see the whole world in a different way, as well as your garden and your favorite restaurant menu. (What does it mean to “eat local” when no plant on local farms originated in the region?) Did you know that malaria helped the winning side in both the U.S. War of Independence and the Civil War?
There are also a lot of “some things never change” revelations. Environmental degradation and deforestation in China has been a serious problem for more than 400 years. Manila was a horrible city in the 1500s, with similar squalor as you see now, just on a smaller scale. There were multiple times the rubber harvest in Brazil got into trouble—before seeds were smuggled out to Asia—as the monoculture farming of the trees made them susceptible to disease. The booms and busts of Manaus and Potosi seem eerily familiar to ones in modern times. (Fun fact: in 1611 Potosi, Bolivia was probably the richest city in the world.)
This is a fascinating read, with stories that are often more fantastic than those in works of fiction. As in the story of the potato, which led to a doubling of Europe’s population in just one century. It’s thick and jam-packed with info on everything from guano to Garifuna, yes, but you’ll feel smarter after you finish without feeling dumb while you’re reading it. Get 1493 at Amazon – where the paperback is actually cheaper than the Kindle version (?!?), at Barnes & Noble, or at the Apple store.
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