Tuesday, 7 February 2017

1493 - The Columbian Exchange

Charles C Mann spoke about his book 1493, at the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation on 9 December, 2016. These are my notes from that lecture.

There was once a geological era, about 300 million years ago, when all the continents of the Earth were united into a single supercontinent, called Pangaea. Later this continent split up, forming the continents we have today, primarily separating into two large land masses – the Americas on one side and Eurasia and Africa on the other side, separated by the Atlantic ocean one way and the Pacific the other. These two oceans passed huge species barriers. When Columbus sailed from Spain to the Carribean, in 1492, he effectively recreated (or reunited) Pangaea – his ships and its successors bridged the Atlantic, thus providing for a massive biologcal exchange.  Animals, plants and germs from Eurasia traveled into Americas. Alfred Crosby coined term Columbian exchange to describe this.

No domesticated animals like cattle sheep goats chicken horses or their equivalents existed in the Americas, in 1492. This triggered a massive epidemiological imbalance – the native epidemic diseases of Europe were more numerous and more deadly than those of the Americas, and caused a massive genocide of Native Americans, i.e. Red Indians, who had no immunity to European diseases.

The Cold Snap in Europe from 1550s to 1750s, was followed by Dutch paintings of children skating on iced over rivers in April. These rivers have not iced up in the recent two centuries. The massive death of people in the Americas, meant they stopped cutting trees to burn them, so forests grew back and sucked out so much Carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, that they caused the Cold Snap, a mini Ice Age. (This is usually not mentioned in newspaper reports about Global Warming).

Europe was poor while China India and Ottomans were rich, until Silver was discovered in South America by Spaniards, mostly in Peru. In fact they discovered a hills of silver.This trebled the world supply of silver. Europe could now buy Asian goods with their silver.

Wheat went from Europe to the Americas and potatoes and chilis from the Americas to Europe. Mann shows photographs of wheat farms, then says, he talked to a group in New York and had to explain that this was wheat - they've never seen farms or wheat plants!

Mann then showed photos of the several varieties of potatoes that are sold in the Andes, to which they are native. He couldn’t believe they were all potato varieties! Neither can we! Ridge and furrows system of ploughing, with snow in furrows suitable for potatoes. Europe and eastern USA are more suitable for potatoes than Andes.  This caused a food revolution - Europe could feed itself, for the first time ever.
Potato varieties in the Andes!
Suddenly Europe had more stable governments, since there were no hungry mobs. Potato was the fuel of European empires, said Mann. We don’t usually consider the political implications of vegetables; its not something that seems to interest historians.

In the 1840s,  Europeans discovered islands off the coast of Peru with 200 feet of guano (bat and bird dung), which had very high nitrogen content, and were extremely popular as fertilizer. These mounds of guano were mined by Chinese slaves –this was the beginning of a European green revolution.

Potato blight killed million people in 1845, then another million in 1846. Ireland was worst affected. This was the last major famine before the invention of photography.

Indian culinary history is not as well developed as it should be given its culinary greatness. Gujarati traders probably brought in some crops from Africa, not just Portuguese.

China is a country that has to grow rice with almost no flat land and very little water. China has only only 7% of world's fresh water, but grows water hungry crops anyway! Maize is grown all over western China in terraced hills - this began only in the 18th century and is very much an ecological disaster!!!

China was still trying to recover from the introduction of American crops in 1850s. India was politically fragmented, so such crop adoption was not uniform. But everything was and is done top down in China, so a bad political decision can have an impact that lasts quite long.

Malaria was gifted to Americas via the Columbian exchange. Plasmodium, the germ that causes malaria, can hide in liver or spleen of healthy human for years and then suddenly resurge. It hides in red blood cells where immune system cant detect it and spreads all over body.

Central and West Africans have more immunity against Falciparum than any other people. Also against yellow fever. Falciparum thrives in tropics, can't handle temperate zones. During the Colonial era, there was a Parliamentary enquiry in Lodon- why British soldiers died in African territories (but not so much in the Americas)? The answer was lack of genetic immunity against African diseases.

Adam Smith asked why slavery existed? Indentured workers were quite common in Europe until slavery was introduced, which wiped out Indentured Labor. Mann posits that Malarial Immunity helped growth of slavery - living slaves were better than dead indentured workers, and since Africans who had the genes to resist malaria outlasted the white and native American population who had almost no immunity against these diseases, germs and genes played a major role in the continuance of slavery.
MS Swaminathan and Charles C Mann at the MSSRF
Dr MS Swaminathan added that most Indian food crops like rice wheat mango are not of Indian origin. Globalization of natural resources and husbandry can be quite beneficial for everyone, not just create a system of winners and losers. He congratulated Charles Mann for an excellent speech and excellent pictures, and the wonderful book 1493.

Gopu’s Notes
1. The theory of Tectonic plates and Pangaea are recent developments in Geology
2. Alfred Russel Wallace discovered a species barrier with no seeming geographic logic, in the islands of Indonesia. This is now called the Wallace line.
3. The discovery of guano islands off Peru is a major part of Thomas Hager’s book The Alchemy of Air, which then goes on to describe the Haber Bosch process for producing  artificial nitrogen fertilizer.
4. Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel examines the inequal epidmeological consequences of one aspect of the Columbian exchange and its ultimate causes. I strongly recommend this book.
5. Carbon dioxide and global warming are the reason why Life (and clouds) exists on earth – as opposed to the barrenness of Mars.
6. On the positive side, Mankind is winning the war against diseases. Almost all diseases are on the retreat. This is wonderful news, which doesn't sell magazines or ads, so it won't make it to headlines or public knowledge.
7. Mann's malarial hypothesis of slavery is quite original. But history may be a bit more complicated than that. Indian indentured labor became quite popular when slavery was finally abolished in the British Empire and its colonies, before abolition in the USA. Slavery was not entirely about farm labour, either.
8. This essay (in Tamil) explains how Egypt utilizes water for agriculture. And perhaps has lessons for India.
9. Dr MS Swaminathan was instrumental in furthering the green revolution brought about by  Norman Borlaug.

News links
1.     The Hindu’s report on this lecture
2.     New York times review of this book 1493

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