Monday, August 15, 2011


A Fresh Air interview with Charles C. Mann about his new book "1493" (released August 9, 2011) has put it at the top of my must read list.

He talked about the transformations wraught in the post-Columbian era. For example, he discussed the dramatic environmental impact of earthworms as an invasive species that turned many forest ecosystems dependent on masses of leaf litter into bare evergreen forests. He also addressed the important role of the introduction of malaria into the warmer parts of the New World (which West Africans survived better than European indentured servants who died at rates of up to 40% in the first year or so from malaria) on slavery and the social structure of the American South.

The publisher's summary, in part, reads as follows:

Driven by the economic goal of establishing trade with China, he accidentally set off an ecological convulsion as European vessels carried thousands of species to new homes across the oceans.

The Columbian Exchange, as researchers call it, is the reason there are tomatoes in Italy, oranges in Florida, chocolates in Switzerland, and chili peppers in Thailand. More important, creatures the colonists knew nothing about hitched along for the ride. Earthworms, mosquitoes, and cockroaches; honeybees, dandelions, and African grasses; bacteria, fungi, and viruses; rats of every description—all of them rushed like eager tourists into lands that had never seen their like before, changing lives and landscapes across the planet. . . . [T]he Columbian Exchange underlies much of subsequent human history. Presenting the latest research by ecologists, anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians, Mann shows how the creation of this worldwide network of ecological and economic exchange fostered the rise of Europe, devastated imperial China, convulsed Africa, and for two centuries made Mexico City—where Asia, Europe, and the new frontier of the Americas dynamically interacted—the center of the world. In such encounters, he uncovers the germ of today’s fiercest political disputes, from immigration to trade policy to culture wars.

One of the deep questions in history is the issue of causation. How did our world get the way it is today and why? What decisive decisions and events shaped it. The Columbian Exchange analysis Mann conducts addresses those questions, pointing out little heralded ecological and unnoticed causes that may have been as critical as decisions on war and affairs of state by political leaders.

Of course, shedding light on something like the impact of malaria on the slave trade doesn't absolve of responsibility or explain, for example, why the institution European indentured servitude developed in the shadow of contract law, while African slavery became a dehumanized chattle institution.

A look at this episode also recalls the fact that at the time of the slave trade, while Africa lacked many guns and transoceanic ships, the slave trade with food producing agricultural societies well past the iron age and organized into chiefships and small states, rather than with stone age hunter-gatherers. Indeed, the Pygmy and San and Khoisian hunter-gathers of Africa at the time (nor Australian aboriginal hunter-gathers and Native American hunter-gathers later on) were largely not enslaved. Even in the Americas, societies that were already agricultural and food producing, rather than hunter-gatherer societies were incorporated into the new political systems created by the arriving Europeans. Native Americans and New Zealand Maoris didn't have guns at first, but swifted acquired them and integrated them into their cultures and ways of war. Why was Africa so heavily plundered, despite a relatively small gap in technology and political organization when the triangular trade started?


Maju said...

Africa? Firearms. The technological gap was "small" maybe but Black Africa had not the industry or technology to build firearms.

Africa in the slave trade era is the perfect example of how you can destroy a whole continent by merely controlling the arms trade... and selling those arms only to those who cooperate with your "business design".

In addition to lack of firearms they also lacked horses, but this aspect was surely less important (in some areas they even organized cavalry troops on cows).

Africa was only nominally more advanced than America because even if they had steel instead of just copper (and this was critical in the Bantu expansion) in all other aspects they were not much more advanced, being much like the European Bronze Age but with steel instead of bronze and without horses.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

In many instances historically, invaded people managed to get firearms they had no capacity to produce themselves, and there were hundreds of years to set up smuggling and a tradition of trans-saharan trade to facilitate it.

The more I look at it, the more surprised I am that there wasn't more firearm smuggling/trading by the African nations impacted (if for nothing else, for their own internal struggles).

I'm not sure horses were very pivotal either way in West Africa.

Social organization and shipping seem to be the only decisive advantages.

Maju said...

Only those who sold slaves got firearms, that's the whole point, wreaking havoc among those realms with some ethics.

Capitalist corruption at its worst.