Top critical review
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on 6 August 2012
Review of the paperback edition:
While the title appears to be nothing more than a marketing ploy to tie in with the author's earlier work, this is a remarkable easy to read narrative of the rise of global empires starting with the "discovery" of the Americas by Christopher Columbus. Focusing on the movement of people, ecology, and resources, the book looks at how Columbus' journey sparked off a process of globalisation, detailing how this happened - focusing on several examples such as the slave trade, potatoes, malaria, and rubber to name a few - and how its effects can still be felt in the present day.
The book has clearly been extensively researched - as see by the nearly 70 page bibliography (It is quite surprising, however, to see the works of David Day, and John Darwin missing from this list even though the author quite clearly engages with some of their arguments and covers overlapping areas) - and is supplemented throughout by personal testimonies (from local people, scientists, and historians) collected by the author. However, the work is poorly footnoted (even if it does contain nearly 70 pages of endnotes), and in numerous places one cannot determine the source of information that Mann has used. In addition, Mann relies extensively on quoting various historians and scientists whom he has had verbal or e-mail conversations with, considering this is a serious work one would have expected published works to be consulted and sourced for at least verifiability sake. In incorporating these discussions, Mann continually breaks up the flow of text to state "Historian/Scientist X told me ...", rather than better integrating their thoughts into the text and fully crediting them, quite rightly, in an endnote. In several sections Mann notes how pages of text rely mainly on one particular secondary source, and with few primary sources consulted throughout the work it feels, on the whole, that Mann is just reiterating other people's thoughts and arguments rather than presenting his own position.
It is, however, a result of this extensive research, and of the discussions the author has had with various authorities, that make this book so enlightening. The extensive information presented on the transfer of disease, people, resources, and plants and animals across continents is illuminating and extremely interesting. While each chapter deals with its own theme, they all share a similar design: various historical figures and events are linked together to tell the story, which is the theme of the chapter, stretching from the age of discovery to the present day. This approach provides fascinating and varied reading and highlights how events hundreds of years ago can still be impacting the world today. However, if one has read about the rise of global empires then entire sections of the book can feel like no new information is being presented.
There are a number of minor issues with this work. Due to Mann's writing style, containing a lot of first person narrative and slang usage (both of which have no place in a historical work), entire sections of the book feel like they could have been condensed as they are over-explained or contain detail that is just not needed. In places Mann displays a habit of including hyperbole claims to further his arguments, such as taking the War of Bavarian Succession out of context, and shows a nasty habit of referring to the 'United States' prior to its existence. While Mann acknowledges that 'Aztec' is a modern invention and should not be used (although Mann never refers to the then indigenous population as the Mexica), he ironically uses the modern politically correct spelling of 'Inka' throughout his work over the historically accepted 'Inca'. Additionally, during his chapter on the slave trade celebrating the various success slaves had at escaping and forming their own communities up and down the Americas, Mann does not balance out the issue and highlight that most - it would seem - never did escape, and those that did (outside of these more organised communities that he describes) when recaptured could and did receive extreme punishment, bordering on torture, in some plantations (See Trevor Burnard's work on the slave trade, another source that is not within Mann's bibliography). Finally, the photographs and maps are of very poor quality.
On the whole this is an excellent 'popular history', which brings some obscure historical theories, sources, and information to widespread viewing. The work feels like it lacks an overall argument, as well as Mann's point of view on the subjects he writes about. For those who have read anything on the rise of global empires - in part the story of the transport of people, resources, and disease - there may not be anything new for you in entire sections of the book; for those who are new to the subject then this work appears to be an excellent starting point. The work is not perfect, but provides a well-researched informative, entertaining, and educating read.