Hello, Cruel World

Consider the potato. It’s Irish, right? Or British? Both cultures eat chips with almost anything, and the potato was long a cash crop for Ireland. There was that potato famine in the 19th century that killed some 2 million people across Europe. Yet the potato is native to Peru, and it arrived in France only in 1775 because of a bread shortage. Okay, so what about tobacco? That’s as North American as it comes. But it was high demand for tobacco in China that led to the crop’s increased production — and to European settlers opening the slave trade. What about malaria? That originated in Europe and Africa. It’s also what disabled much of British Gen. Cornwallis’ army in coastal Virginia and led to his eventual surrender to George Washington. Are all these things connected? Sure. They’re part of what happened when Christopher Columbus left Europe and reconnected continents that had been separate for some 200 million years. Charles C. Mann, who appears tonight, makes sense of it in 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. Mann did extensive research for the book, traveling to many of the areas he writes about. “The Columbian Exchange,” as it’s known, transferred numerous plant, animal, and microbial passengers around the globe — in addition to humans with their own religious, personal, and commercial agendas. Mann links this colossal convulsion to modern-day disputes over immigration policy, trade agreements, and culture wars.
Tue., Sept. 27, 6 p.m., 2011

 
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