Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Bridging the Ocean Blue: The World Made New by Marc Aronson and John W. Glenn

In 1491, not one person in Italy had ever seen a tomato, nor was there a single potato in Ireland, a chili pepper in all of Asia, or a kernel of corn in Africa. In turn, no living American had ever ridden a horse, milked a cow, or eaten a bowl of rice.

It's curious to think that the Age of Exploration is rightfully noted not because of the glory of conquest, but because it made the world safe for hot chocolate, pizza, and eggplant Szechwan. Yet authors Marc Aronson and John W. Glenn's The World Made New: Why the Age of Exploration Happened and How It Changed the World (Timelines of American History) show how these major modifications of lifestyle sustain the thesis that this era should perhaps be known as the Age of Globalization. Aronson and Glenn do an impressive job of portraying the milieu of Asia and Europe which produced the explorers and conquistadores and the likewise complex culture of the Americas which influenced the old world so profoundly.

The book is divided into three sections--Causes: Why Was There an Age of Exploration?; What Happened: The Explorers; and Consequences: How the Explorers Changed the World. As to the causes in Europe, Aronson and Glenn name religious fervor, fed by the expulsion of Muslims from Spain in 1492, competition between the royal courts and city states of Europe, desire for wealth, fed by the spice and silk trade, and desire for glory, fed by the legends of King Arthur, Siegfried, Roland, and El Cid. Additionally, from the defeated Muslims Europeans gained knowledge of a much wider world and tools to advance their navigation skills. Meanwhile in the Americas, there were vast cities, larger and cleaner than those of Europe, highly sustaining food products, and of course, gold and silver, which eventually fueled the trade which changed both the New World and the Old World forever.

With timelines, old maps, and plentyyof absorbing illustrations, the authors succinctly cover the major explorers and conquests in some detail, from Columbus' voyages through the conquests of Pizarro and Cortes to Sir Francis Drake's raids upon Spain's century-old settlements in the Caribbean and Florida, spanning what they describe as "the Atlantic, once a forbidden ocean barrier... now more like a familiar lake." Europe's old kingdoms now warred in the new world as they had in the old, and the cultures of the two worlds, like their genetic lineage, were united forever.

Aronson's and Glenn's most engaging section, however, is the third--Consequences: A World Joined. The changes were vast. Diseases destroyed most of the native populations of North and South America as conquerors and colonists and their European animals--cows, chickens, pigs--brought their germs with them. The two-way spread of cultivars--tobacco, rice, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, squash, sugar cane, wheat, chocolate, coffee--all criss-crossed the Atlantic and found fertile fields on both side of the sea, changing the world's diet, agriculture--and economy-- monumentally. Gold and silver extracted from the empires of the Americas replaced salt, silk, or spices as the world's medium of exchange. Vast migrations followed the conquerors and colonists to mix their languages, genes, and culture. The human race gained an opportunity to try on new personas: Native Americans came to rival the Mongols in horse culture, European city dwellers became frontier farmers, aristocracies rose and fell, and new forms of governance were born. People realized that there was always something new--new knowledge, new opportunities to thrive, new products to make, new people to meet--and the concept of a globalized society was born.

In their conclusion, the authors ask the reader to imagine that Earth awakes one day to find fleets of extraterrestrials from another galaxy in our skies. The waves of conquest, disease, and new experiences to follow would be analogous to what lay before the people of the Americas in 1492.

The shock of that encounter would be felt everywhere on earth. And yet, for the first time we would be linked to that far solar system. We and they would form a kind of bridge across the universe, and who knows what we, together, might create?

Backed up by an illustrated biographical dictionary, glossary, sources and web sites, and index, The World Made New: Why the Age of Exploration Happened and How It Changed the World (Timelines of American History) is a highly readable, thematic, fascinating, and moving account of the era in which we all still live, one which for middle readers (and adults) will make history as immediate and enticing as the sausage pizza or beef taco which that era has given them for lunch.

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