1493 and the Hidden History of Industrial Capitalism

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

By Charles C Mann

Vintage Books (2012)

Book Review

1493 is a fascinating book tracing a totally neglected aspect of the rise of capitalism and industrial civilization – namely the transfer of new crops, livestock, trees, diseases, guano (nitrogen-rich bird poop, silver and diverse ethnic groups to every continent except Antarctica. Based on his detailed investigations, Mann cites numerous examples of major historical events and movements that can be directly traced to this “Columbian Exchange.”

Mann begins by tracing the history of tobacco, which was first transferred from the lower Amazon to Jamestown Virginia, and from there to China. An immensely popular drug of addiction, it provided the cash England needed to support colonization of the South-eastern US.

He next focuses on the potato, which was transferred from the Andes in South America to Northern Europe, where it replaced wheat as the staple crop in Ireland, northern Germany, Belgium and Russia (potatoes flourish in colder climates and on more marginal land than wheat and are four times more productive). Thanks to the introduction of the potato, Europe was finally able to end the famines that occurred every ten years. At a time, when China, India and various African and South American civilizations were far more advanced than Europe, the main factor holding back European development was its inability to feed its population.

Next Mann covers the important of sugar (originally domesticated in New Guinea) to the West Indies and the importation of coffee and bananas (to South America) from Africa.

African Slaves Resistant to Malaria

He devotes a whole section to the transfer of diseases, which played a significant role in wiping out America’s indigenous population, to the New World. I was previously aware that new settlers also brought malaria with them. This often fatal illness was endemic to England in the 1500s – thanks to misguided schemes to reclaim wetlands for agriculture. The high prevalence of malaria meant that 8 out of 10 settlers in Jamestown and other southern colonies could be expected to die in the first 18 months. Mann makes a case that the natural resistance present in slaves from West and Central Africa** was a main factor in England (a historically antislavery nation) turning to slaves in their desperation to establish a labor force to work the tobacco fields.

Silver, Sweet Potatoes and the Downfall of China

The chapter on the role of the Columbian Exchange in the downfall of China as the most prosperous, politically developed and culturally sophisticated country in the world is also extremely enlightening. I was totally unaware that between 1/3 and 1/2 of all the silver mined in 16th century Peru was transported to China via the Philippines for use in their monetary system. Nor the importance of sweet potatoes and maize (which, like potatoes, thrive on marginal land) in feeding poor farmers displaced by China’s dynastic wars. China is still the number one world producer of sweet potatoes.

Why the US was the Last to Free Their Slaves

For me, the most interesting section was the one on slavery, particularly the chapter on the “maroon”*** revolts and guerilla warfare that forced Central and South America to abolish slavery long before the US did. Except for Florida, escaped slaves in the US tended not to form rebellious maroon enclaves. The reason, according to Mann, was their difficulty surviving on their own in a colder climate and the opportunity for legal freedom if they fled to the North.

In Florida, escaped slaves formed alliances with the Seminole Indians. Their guerilla bands conducted continual attacks (with covert British support) on Georgia – until 1839 when Florida maroons were granted their freedom if they agreed to resettle of the Mississippi.

*The Columbian Exchange was the widespread transfer of plants, animals, culture, human populations, technology, and ideas between the Americas and the Old World in the 15th and 16th centuries, related to European colonization and trade after Christopher Columbus’s 1492 voyage.

**Approximately 97% of people indigenous to West and Central Africa are resistant to malaria owing to the presence of the Duffy Negative Antigen.

***Maroon is a term applied to fugitive black slaves.

The Origin of the White Race

I’ve just discovered another excellent film series at the  African Element website. This 20 minute clip, Episode 4, is about Bacon’s Rebellion and how the British ruling elite invented race to to confuse poor white’s about their working class status.

Slavery in Black and White
Darius Spearman (2012)

Film Review


Bacon’s Rebellion

The concept of whiteness and race is only about four hundred years old. It originates in preferential race laws that were passed after Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. The latter consisted of an alliance of poor white settlers, former indentured servants and Africans who drove Governor William Berkeley out of Jamestown (the capital of colonial Virginia) and burnt it to the ground. A similar rebellion occurred in the Maryland colony around the same time.

Prior to the discovery of the New World, enslavement occurred exclusively in the context of war and military conquest. Ireland was the first plantation colony. During the fifteenth and sixteenth century, large numbers of Irish peasants were driven off their farms as the aristocracy converted them to sheep pasture. With no means of support, landless Irish peasants migrated to London, where they provided for themselves through begging, casual labor and petty crime.

Large numbers ended up in prison. They could win their release by agreeing to a seven to eleven year period of indentured servitude in the American colonies. There they commingled with African indentured servants, who enjoyed equally atrocious living and working conditions.

Classic Divide and Rule

Following Bacon’s rebellion, the Virginia colony sought to drive a wedge between poor blacks and whites by passing a series of laws awarding European indentured servants specific privileges. Among others, this included 50 acres of land (on their release) and the ability to testify in court and enter into contracts.

Simultaneously the legal status of African indentured servants also changed, with the passage of Slave Code laws in Virginia and other colonies. These laws enabled masters the right to claim Africans and their offspring as permanent chattel slaves or property. The legal justification was that Africans weren’t English and didn’t enjoy the protections of English common law.

It was a classic example of divide and rule. Convinced of their innate superiority over Africans, poor white settlers shunned any associate with them, making any cross-racial collaboration (against the British aristocracy) highly improbable.