1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created
by Charles C. Mann
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
1493 / 978-0307265722
I really enjoyed Charles Mann's 1491, but after struggling to get through 1493, I'm afraid to re-read the first and find that my opinion may now be reversed.
1491 was for me a wonderfully compiled and comprehensive look at the Americas before Columbus arrived and everything was inexorably changed. I appreciated the information presented in the book, as well as the manner in which it was presented -- I was strongly affected by Mann's tone with that volume and how he seemed to take a great deal of care in writing his narrative respectfully as well as engagingly and accurately. We, the readers, may have been treading on the bones of history, but there was (for me) a sense that we were doing so with reverence.
1493, on the other hand, seems to suffer from the success of the first.
We'll start with the title, which seems to imply that 1493 will be what 1491 was: a comprehensive look at the Americas in that pivotal year, only instead of taking a snapshot immediately before Columbus' arrival, we'll look at immediately after. Unfortunately, this isn't really the case; 1493 is about what Mann calls "the Columbian Exchange", by which he means the fact that people, animals, plants, insects, microorganisms, etc. were ferried all over the world by travelers (like, but not limited to, Columbus) into new ecosystems, where they wrought serious changes to the local ecology and economy.
This isn't a bad thesis, and certainly there are a number of interesting facts here, but it means we're talking about a globe-spanning topic with millions of individual unique examples, without any single narrative to really tie things firmly and interestingly together. Perhaps the book would have worked better if it were limited to the Americas, as 1491 had been, and just looked at what the Europeans introduced into the American ecosystem -- and possibly a look at what the Europeans brought back from America with them. That would have been a more cohesive narrative, I think, than trying to tie the African slave trade in the 1700s in with a look at the effects of sweet potatoes on Communist China in the 1900s.
Even if you're willing to stick with the narrative wherever it takes you -- and without being bored sometimes at the ratio of encyclopedic facts to engaging narrative -- there's additionally a huge tonal shift between this book and its predecessor, and for me at least this was a serious obstacle. 1491 had a very respectful tone, and was very self-aware of its own shortcomings. Mann open acknowledged that he was something of a dilettante historian, and that he was only stepping forward with his book in order to fill a literary gap that he felt needed filling. There were troubling untruths being told in service to the Columbus myth and he felt that the record needed to be set straight on certain issues.
Yet here in 1493, it feels like Mann has shed his respectful demeanor and taken on a tone that seems terribly self-aggrandizing. Just to select from the first chapter alone, he spends a tremendous amount of time setting up a Golden Mean Fallacy: 'some people claim THIS, other people claim THAT, but the truth is here in the middle'. This isn't necessary, it detracts from the narrative, and it pads the book out to a tedious length for no reason that I can see other than so Mann can pat himself on the back for being Right while others are Wrong rather than just getting to the meat of the subject matter. Here is one quote where he handles different aspects of the Columbus myth:
"Unsurprisingly, native people rarely endorse this view of their history, and Colón's part in it. An army of activists and scholars has bombarded the public with condemnations of the man and his works. They have called him brutal (he was, by today's standards) and racist (he wasn't, strictly speaking--modern concepts of race had not yet been invented); incompetent as an administrator (he was) and as a seaman (he wasn't); a religious fanatic (he surely was, from a secular point of view); and a greedy monomaniac (a charge, the admiral's supporters would say, that could be leveled against all ambitious souls). Colón, his detractors charge, never understood what he had found."
I don't understand why Mann wants to bash on the people he sees as ideological opponents (an "army of activists"? Really?), instead of just talking about Columbus from the ground up. He would have been better served to do so, really, because this kind of summing up of the opposition seems so lazy as to make me worry about the scholarship of the rest of the book. For instance, Columbus isn't called "racist" because his detractors mistakenly believe he subscribed to the same understanding of race as we do today; they call him "racist" because he didn't have a problem with enslaving and casually genociding people who weren't sufficiently like himself to deserve his empathy. They are, in other words, applying the term to his actions rather than to his supposed train of logic in service to those actions. For Mann to pretend otherwise troubles me: either he really doesn't understand Columbus' detractors, or he does understand and he's deliberately misrepresenting them. I find that a matter for concern.
Later, in the same chapter, Mann will casually dismiss local disapproval with the Columbus monument in Santo Domingo as nothing more than misplaced anger at dictator Rafael Trujillo, and will go so far as to lecture the residents on what they should consider the 'true' meaning of the Columbus monument:
"Residents of the walled-off slums around the monument told reporters that they thought Colón deserved no commemoration at all. A thesis of this book is that their belief, no matter how understandable, is mistaken. The Columbian Exchange had such far-reaching effects that some biologists now say that Colón's voyages marked the beginning of a new biological era: the Homogenocene. The term refers to homogenizing: mixing unlike substances to create a uniform blend. With the Columbian Exchange, places that were once ecologically distinct have become more alike. In this sense the world has become one, exactly as the old admiral hoped. The lighthouse in Santo Domingo should be regarded less as a celebration of the man who began it than a recognition of the world he almost accidentally created, the world of the Homogenocene we live in today."
So, just to be clear, Dominicans who regard the local monument to Columbus as a reprehensible commemoration to Columbus are wrong because they "should" view the monument as recognition of the fact that some people -- including, but not limited to, Columbus -- piloted a lot of different ships to a lot of different places over a lot of different time periods, and some of the results of those events are things like sweet potatoes and their effect on Communist China. Clearly.
I wanted -- so much! -- to like 1493. I expected to like it so much that even after receiving a free copy through Vine, I purchased an e-book version as well so that I could have both. I did this because I liked the scope, the cohesion, and the tone of 1491 immensely. But the scope of 1493 is so vast as to be almost infinite, the narrative cohesion is non-existent in places and is often abandoned in favor of lists of facts, and the tone seems to indicate that the author thinks he understands history better than anyone else, in the wake of one extremely popular and successful book. Because of that, I personally did not find 1493 to be entertaining, enlightening, or respectful of the subject matter, and I really cannot recommend it.
NOTE: This review is based on a free Advance Review Copy of this book provided through Amazon Vine.
~ Ana Mardoll