Thursday, August 15, 2019

Three History Books

Three history books, in order published: “1421,” by Gavin Menzies (2002), has as its subtitle “The Year China Discovered America.” Second, “1491,” by Charles C. Mann, published 2005, has as its subtitle “New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.” Third, “1493,” same author, published 2011, has as its subtitle “Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.” Each describe the consequences of explorations and colonization between the ‘old world’ of Europe and Asia and the ‘new world’ of North and South America.  

Three hefty-sized history books about discovering the New World
Menzies’ book has to be read as an alternative history. He postulates – on a mountain of flimsy evidence – that the Chinese treasure fleet expeditions went FAR beyond reaching the west coast of Africa. The core truth: under the leadership of Zheng He, the Emperor’s Grand Eunuch, China sent ‘Treasure Fleets’ of trade ships, war ships and support vessels on seven multi-year expeditions to lands bordering the Indian Ocean. The purposes were diplomatic, military and trade. Estimates are that each expedition was staffed by as many as 30,000 people, occupying 100 to 250 ships, some as large as 200 to 400 feet long. (Columbus’ largest  was about 60 feet.)

Upon returning from the sixth expedition of 1421-23, Zheng He found that the Emperor had died, and that his successor had no interest in China’s reign over the sea. The Treasure Fleet journeys were discontinued (one last in 1433), ships destroyed, records of the journeys destroyed. The government’s attention turned toward defending against the Mongols in the north. In effect, China had given up being a sea-going power as too expensive, with little financial benefit and no strategic benefit. Foreign trade was forbidden, not to be restarted until more than 100 years later, when silk and porcelain could be traded for silver mined from the Spanish colonies in South America.     

Menzies controversially proposed that rather than being limited to the Indian Ocean, portions of the Treasure Fleet of 1421-23 rounded the Cape of Good Hope, thus entering the Atlantic Ocean. From there, they explored up and down the east coast of what became the Americas (including the Merrimack River!), as far north as Greenland and far enough south to reach the tip of South America, there to divide again, some going north along the west coast of the Americas, other touching Antarctica before sailing eastward to Australia, thence home. Apparently, the Chinese sailed everywhere – except Europe. All in all, entertaining reading, but not part of accepted history.

Machu Picchu, Peru
Click on photos to enlarge
In “1491,” Mann is in the universe of accepted history. He makes a strong case against the “empty America” image of an American near-pristine wilderness in which small native villages or nomadic tribes were populated by hunter/gatherer peoples lived in harmony with nature, but with a minimal or non-existent sense of history, religion or culture. This ‘Noble Savage’ stereotype colored Henry David Thoreau’s thinking; he wrote of “…in the primitive age of the world, a primitive man.”

In contrast, Mann describes densely populated regions – city-states in the north, Aztec and Inca empires in the south – with extensive agriculture, trade routes, and significant impacts on plant and animal life. Old estimates – that the total population of the New World was fewer than 10 million people – were replaced by Mann and others with estimates ten-fold higher.

Without steel for axes and saws, fire was a predominant tool for managing terrain. Fall-season deliberate burning of prairies, meadows and undergrowth in forests made for the spring grasses preferred by herbivores, which in turn were food for the native peoples. Here in the northeast – deer. Elsewhere in North America, elk and bison. In South America, hillsides became terraced farmland, while in the Amazonian rainforest the land was terraformed via canals and mounds. Aerial photography has revealed what is under ‘pristine’ rainforests.

Mann’s second book explores the consequences of what happened post-Columbus. European diseases killed 90% of indigenous peoples in the Americas. Very few diseases went the other way. “Old World’ diseases such as malaria and yellow fever also killed European immigrants to the Americas. Africans had a genetic resistance to malaria, which led to a preference for African-born slaves over European-born indentured servants or English criminals as plantation labor. Over a period of 400 years, an estimated 10 to 15 million people were enslaved in Africa and shipped to the Americas.

The deliberate or accidental movement of plant and animal species to other countries – importantly corn, potatoes and sweet potatoes from the Americas to elsewhere – led to population explosions in China and Europe. Three American-origin cash crops changed the world: tobacco plants, cocoa (for chocolate) and rubber trees. Rice, sugarcane and bananas were imported to the Americas. Horses and pigs are examples of large European species gone wild, earthworms and honey bees, same, but on a smaller scale. This globalization, sometimes called the “Columbian Exchange,” continues to this day, but now we tend to describe it as invasive species. It still goes in both directions. Across Great Britain, our grey squirrels are displacing the native red squirrels. 

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