Monday, September 26, 2011

"1493" by Charles C. Mann: A Half-Ass Review

By happy circumstance, I happened to concurrently read "Everything is Obvious Once You Know the Answer" by Duncan J Watt along with "1493" by Charles C. Mann. Since I have on my own (honest!) formulated a lot of the same thoughts that Watt presents, I will shamelessly paraphrase him:

The difference between prediction and prophecy is the ability to foresee not only what will happen, but also what its meaning will be.

"They" say that hindsight is 20/20. "They", as is usual with the purveyors of conventional wisdom, are full of shit.

Not only is the future shrouded in fog, but so is the present and especially the past.

In order to understand what is going on, in order to piece together the narrative of history, one has to not only apprehend every single event and circumstance, but also place these in context within future events. Thus, history is like prophecy - if prophecy is, like Aesop's Fables, providing a moral to the story.

But the moral can change, not only over time, but by whom is the teller of tale. So, with this in mind...

Mann pushes two themes throughout the book, or rather, two flavors of the same theme.

The theme is globalization - the flavors the origins and ramifications thereof.

Once the Basque ship's captain Legazpi meets up with Chinese junks in the Philippines, to trade Chinese silk and porcelain for Bolivian silver, we are on our way to global trade. Or rather, once Friar de Urdaneta figures out the return trip to Mexico via the Northern Pacific, it's more or less a complete circuit. "Pangaea stitched together again", the idea of the one-world supercontinent split asunder and then made whole, perhaps not quite the accurate metaphor geologically or biologically, but prodigious enough.

More importantly, the Columbian exchange of every variety of life, changes everything. It causes massive deaths and dieoffs which occur to this very day. It causes (beginning through the export of Old and New World crops and animals, an exponential increase in the numbers of humanity which is only now (perhaps) reaching a plateau.

I've often written of the Singularity. This is not a form thereof, more a Black Swan event, but the impact of the Columbian exchange certainly has the biggest characteristic of a Singularity - All Bets Are Off. No one could have any idea, none whatsoever, what the emergent consequences would be. Certainly nothing like it has been seen since the beginnings of Neolithic culture, and the Agricultural Revolution.

Mann does a wonderful job in summarizing the impacts, or rather, updating the narrative first put forward by Alfred Crosby in his books "The Columbian Exchange", and "Ecological Imperialism", to name just two of many, many others Mann uses. (In the acknowledgement at the end of the book, Mann states "If 1493 brings new readers to these books, I will be more than satisfied". I, for one, will provide him this satisfaction. He would be hard press to write a more engaging collection of historical goodies to set off the seeking instinct within me.

...I'm sorry, but I have to throw my dog-eared segments in here.

The Difference Between Fantasy and Magical Realism
Portugal transplanted an entire colony from North Africa to northeastern Brazil:
 "The transition was eased by grants of cash, livestock, and several hundred slaves... within a decade of arrival the colonists - malarial, famished, living in wretched huts they were too poor to repair - were begging the crown to relocate them. Ultimately, almost all of the surviving Europeans slipped away. The remainder soon died. Through no act of their own, the slaves found themselves at liberty... They were free as long as they pretended they weren't. The Portuguese administration wanted to be able to report to the king that his subjects were guarding Brazil's northern flank. The slaves were willing to say they were doing it, if that meant they were left alone. Everyone was happy: the maroons (mixed descendents slaves, Indians, and the few seasoned Europeans) pretended they were Portuguese subjects in a Portuguese colony and the Portuguese pretended the maroons were guarding the border".

A Hollywood Treatment for the Conquistador/Samurai Buddy Movie
The "hidden" history of Asians in the New World is worthy of a few good yarns. Somewhere in a dark corner of my mind, this information was once planted from a book I once read. Nevertheless, once it was made known again, I am fascinated with the idea the Hollywood treatment for the following:
"Known collectively as chinos, Asian migrants spread slowly along the silver highway from Acapulco to Mexico City, Puebla, and Veracruz. Indeed, the road was patrolled by them - Japanese samurai perhaps in particular. Katana-swinging Japanese had helped suppress Chinese rebellion in Manila in 1603 and 1609. When Japan closed its borders to foreigners in the 1630s, Japanese expatriates were stranded wherever they were. Scores, perhaps, hundreds, migrated to Mexico. Initially the viceroy had forbidden mestizos, mullatos, negroes, zambaigos, and chinos to carry weapons. The Spaniards amde an exception for the samurai, allowing them to wield their katanas and tantos to protect the silver shipments against the escaped-slaves-turned-highwaymen in the hills."
The Other Black Gold
Mann spends a lot of time in the Amazon with UCLA geographer Susanna Hecht. Hecht contends that "three fundamental materials were required for the Industrial Revolution. Steel, fossil fuels, and rubber". While I'd disagree that these are needed to get it all going, I'd certainly agree that they are needed for its fruition into the electrification phase. Without vulcanized rubber, all sorts of items become extremely difficult to build. Insulation for wiring for one. Belts to transmit motion from engines to appliances for another. Tires. Inflatable tires.
"Equally important but less visible, every internal combustion engine contains many pipes and valves that channel, usually under pressure, water, oil, gasoline, and exhaust vapor. Unless the parts are manufactured perfectly, engine vibrations will cause liquids and gases to vent dangerously from joints. Flexible rubber gaskets, washers, O-rings almost invisibly fill the gaps. Without them, every home furnace would be at constant risk of leaking natural gas, heating oil, or coal exhaust - a potential death trap".
Even today, synthetic rubbers made from petroleum feedstocks do not even closely approximate the performance of natural rubbers. And rubber, latex, comes from only one tree - Hevea brasiliensis. More about this in a moment.

The Other Other Black Gold
Much has been made by various doofuses about the European expansion during (from a European standpoint) the Age of Exploration (say, 1000-1500CE) being the resuklt of European exceptionalism. There is far too much evidence in this book to suggest the huge amount of pure dumb luck that kept Europe - again and again - out of the Malthusian Trap. Without the potato, and guano, European soils would have been depleted - especially in Northern Europe where the soils and climate are not conducive for large populations. In fact, it is doubtful that (Northern) Europe could ever have escaped the cycle of famine that kept it such a primitive backwater for so long to stride upon the world stage as it did. More importantly, with the introduction of the Old World diseases of malaria and yellow fever, Europeans could never have developed the extractive systems with their own populations as the work force. For this, they needed Africans. There can be no doubt.
"...between 1500 and 1840, the heyday of the slave trade, 11.7 million captive Africans left for the that (same) period, perhaps 3.4 million Europeans emigrated. Roughly speaking, for every European who came to the Americas, three Africans made the trip... demographically speaking...American was an extension of Africa rather than Europe until late in the nineteenth century."
Now, the interesting thing is, for the same reason that Europeans do not colonize tropical Africa, for the longest time, they do not colonize tropical America. Tropical diseases, don't you see. And the only reason Europeans dominate to any degree between the Tropic latitudes, given their small numbers, is because they were tolerated due to favorable trade. Globalization, to a great degree, facilitated both the slave trade, and European conquest.
"One of the most persistent myths aboout the slave trade is also one of the most pernicious: that African's role was wholly that of hapless pawns. Except for the trade's last few decades - and arguably not even then - Africans themselves controlled the supply of slaves"
(The reason expounded in the book is that within African systems, land, property was held solely by the state. The only form of private, revenue-generating property recognized by African law were slaves. Although, the form of slavery in Africa is more akin to indentured servitude, or monetary rather than labor extraction, somewhat similar to serfs in Russia. For example:)
"Napoleon sent his army to seize Egypt. An African Napoleon would have sent his army to seize Egyptians". 
That being said, those who ended up enslaved, from an African standpoint, were criminals and prisoners of war - scofflaws, tax cheats, political exiles, unwanted immigrants, and the like. It is a wonder, in fact, given the number of ex-military POWs sent over, that more white plantation owners weren't slaughtered. In any event, the point is not to rationalize the practice, but to recognize that, quite simply the events in the New World - at least the tropical New World - could never have occurred  without Africans. There's a reason I brought this up. Like the rubber thing, I'll get to it.
I have many other dog-eared passages. I wish I had time to relate them all. But, back to the idea of historical narrative. I'm going to suggest that, as in the definition of prophecy given above, perhaps not enough time ('only' 500 years) has passed to truly understand the ramifications of the Columbian Exchange. I personally think the full ramifications will not be known for another thousand, or perhaps ten thousand, years. The meaning of events then we do not know, but I have my suspicions.

Since it seems apparent that the Industrial Revolution would have been prolonged, avoided, detained, or even nonexistent without the Columbian Exchange, it follows that Global Warming is also a consequence. And since many of the various tropical diseases to which Africans are (relatively) immune and Europeans are not (unless they "seasoned" - got sick and did not die) are still very much extant within the Western Hemisphere, one wonders who will be living where once things start to heat up.

I noted, in a previous essay, the not altogether ambivalent drawing of the Mason-Dixon line with respect to the survival and incubation of the malarial parasite. If we assume the worst climate change, say, something akin to the late Miocene, when even the poles were semi-tropical, how will these Europeans fare?

It could be that the 22nd century, and maybe beyond, is an African one.


  1. A Hollywood Treatment for the Conquistador/Samurai Buddy Movie - The "hidden" history of Asians in the New World is worthy of a few good yarns. Somewhere in a dark corner of my mind, this information was once planted from a book I once read.

    what historical high strangeness was Tom Laughlin pointing at? I know, not quite, but at the very least, to my adolescent mind, it touched upon that centuries spanning void mysteriously out of reach of our history books and curricula when spaniards ruled the west and southwest. Between that and Shogun, an Okinawado/Kendo instructor within walking distance of my home, Zatoichi and Yojimbo - I acquired my fanboy fascination with all things Edo. Guess I'll be hitting up the libary for some history books today.

  2. Nulan san,

    I knew this entry from Kurman Sensei (hey, I'm entitled, I'm a teacher) would catch your eye.

    Samurai in Mexico is worth at least a movie trilogy, if not an ongoing series like, oh, I don't know, Kung Fu?

  3. Word now is we took the Anthropocenic route in the year 1610.