For Columbus Day: more nuanced views of Columbus
Two new books offer perceptive takes on Christopher Columbus and the long-range impact of his famous discovery.
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Bergreen's focus on detail robs his book of some of its storytelling power, but he provides great insight when he pulls back to take a wider view of a man whose "accomplishments seem anything but fore-ordained or clear-cut. An aura of chaos hovers over his entire life and adventures, against which he tries to impose his remarkably serene will."Skip to next paragraph
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His arrival in the New World certainly wasn't set in stone (or seawater). The land appeared just as mutiny threatened to turn him into a footnote and, perhaps, lead to a very different world that might not have ever included us.
But, of course, the mutiny didn't come. In "1493," Mann takes a global tour as he explores what the discovery wrought for the planet.
Look at what it meant for the world's people: "For millennia, almost all Europeans were found in Europe, few Africans existed outside Africa, and Asians lived, almost without exception, in Asia alone." Columbus ushered in "an unprecedented reshuffling" of the human race.
Mann has a remarkable ability to weave a narrative out of seemingly unconnected strands of history. Slaves, sugar, silver and silk are all threads in this literary quilt of a book, along with rubber ("black gold"), potatoes and tobacco.
The new world brought misery, of course, for millions of people across the globe, particularly Africans and natives across the Western Hemisphere. But the story is more complicated than one of a single man who ruined lives by turning the world into one. Plants and crops traveled the earth, revolutionizing agriculture and society itself. They often brought comfort and health even as global war and planet-hopping diseases did the opposite.
"Incredibly," Mann writes, "living standards doubled or tripled worldwide even as the planet's population climbed from fewer than 1 billion in 1700 to about 7 billion today."
As Bergreen puts it in "Four Voyages," Columbus didn't understand what he'd found that October day in 1492. It wasn't Asia. But he convinced others he'd done what he tried to do, and he paved the way for two worlds to become one. Humanity would share ideas, food, people, germs and much more.
The legacy of this sailor -- a man who was aggravated and aggravating and amazing -- lives on in each one of us, every day. In a way that was never possible before him, we are citizens of the world.
Randy Dotinga is a regular contributor to the Monitor’s books section.