69 pages 2 hours read

Charles C. Mann

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2011

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Summary and Study Guide


1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created (2011) by Charles C. Mann explores the widespread influence of the Columbian Exchange and how it altered the course of history by ushering in a new era known as the Homogenocene. This work of nonfiction is a companion to Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Mann is an American journalist whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, Science, and Wired.

This SuperSummary guide refers to the 2012 Vintage reprint edition of 1493.


1493 opens with the story of Cristóbal Colón, more commonly known as Christopher Columbus. When Colón landed in Hispaniola, he encountered Indigenous peoples living in sophisticated societies. Eager to capitalize, Colón's actions ushered in the Columbian Exchange, the trade of goods, microorganisms, plants, people, and diseases between the eastern and western hemispheres. Mann’s book explores how the Columbian Exchange created a new age of globalization and a distinct biological era, the Homogenocene.

Mann begins by recognizing Colón, Legazpi, and Urdaneta—Spanish voyagers—for their contribution to globalization. Colón started the Columbian Exchange by establishing trade between the Americas and Europe. Legazpi and Urdaneta were responsible for founding and instituting a trade port in the Philippines between Spain/Europe and China. The establishment of these trade routes create ecological, humanitarian, and economic consequences.

Part 1 focuses on tobacco and disease. The cultivation of tobacco across the planet had huge impacts on the landscape. Monocultural farming of tobacco led to soil erosion and extensive flooding. As Colón, Spanish conquistadors, and European colonists flooded the Americas, they brought malaria and yellow fever with them, spreading these diseases across the globe. The humanitarian price was great, and one disastrous consequence was the Atlantic slave trade.

Part 2 focuses on the Pacific and trade between Europe/Spain and China. Spanish tradesmen found that they had one thing they could bring to the Americas and offer to China in return for its numerous desirable goods: silver. Raw silver changed the political course of China’s history. Sweet potatoes and tobacco altered the Chinese landscape and introduced had major ecological consequences. As food supply increased, the human population grew to meet it, creating a cycle that eventually led to ecological disaster.

Part 3 reveals how European influence spread across the globe because of the Columbian Exchange. European agro-industrial practices brought inorganic pesticides, fertilizers, monocultural farming, and an emphasis on profit. These techniques became the norm all over the world, often to ecological and humanitarian detriment. Guano from the Andes became the number one source of fertilizer in Europe and elsewhere. Potatoes spread from South America to Europe, eliminating famine, while potato blight and insects traveled via the Columbian Exchange to introduce further famine and destroy the crops the Columbian Exchange had previously introduced.

Part 4 emphasizes the impact of the spread of African people around the world in conjunction with the Atlantic slave trade. Mann asserts that much of modern history was designed and built by African hands. The African diaspora had profound effects on culture, food, farming, and history. Those Africans who managed to escape enslavement formed diasporic communities, forging alliances with Indigenous peoples, Jews, and other European outcasts.

In the Coda, Mann emphasizes the importance of the Columbian Exchange and its ecological and cultural impact on the world. He suggests that Colón’s original voyage did more than just connect Spain to the Caribbean. It set out a series of threads, connecting everything, and ushering in a new evolutionary age. In this age, everything is strikingly similar; plants, humans, insects, and animals walk indistinguishable landscapes, searching for identity where identity has been absorbed into one, all-consuming topography.

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