Monday, September 5, 2011

I've been reading Charles Mann's new book 1493, the sequel, natch, to his awesome historical book 1491. 1491 was about evidence that the pre-Columbian Native American societies were far richer, more populated, and complex than we think of them -- that what is now the Amazon jungle was heavily cultivated by millions of Indians who were wiped out by disease before any but the very first white travelers saw them. 1493 is about the huge changes in the world after the New and Old Worlds became linked: how the tons of silver from the Potosi mine in Bolivia bankrupted the Qinq Dynasty in China, how the potato changed Europe, how corn allowed the Chinese to move into the hill country.

Until ships crossed the Atlantic, according to Mann, there was no malaria in the New World, and the most advanced cultures were all in the warm, wet parts of North and South America; after malaria, those cultures took a serious beating while the colder, dryer areas jumped ahead. Mann makes a convincing case that malaria was a chief factor in African slavery. Malaria was deadly to whites and Indians, but Africans were partly immune to malaria, from living with it for thousands of years. In the American north, poor whites from Europe could be counted on to do the dirty work, but in the American South, and in South America, they died in huge numbers, while African slaves tended to survive.

I love looking back at the past through the lens of a book. Often when we think about the past, it's hard to understand why people did the things they did. Kings make what seem to be idiotic decisions, entire cultures destroy their own lands... didn't they know better? But as you get to know the past better, it becomes clear how people always did what seemed to make sense at the time. There are always factors you don't know about.

I guess that's one of the things that drew me to telling Morgan's story. The canonical story makes her out to be an evil witch. But what's her side of the story? Why did she behave the way she did? What makes someone so vengeful that they're willing to pull down their whole world around their heads? What wrongs would have to have been done to a young woman to make her behave the way we're told she did. I hope I came up with interesting answers in the book.



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