Winter has officially begun with full force in Chicago — I’m typing this during the warmest part of the day, at a balmy 12 degrees Fahrenheit. Despite how pretty campus looks when covered in snow, walking outside is an ordeal that requires one to adopt a marshmallow-like aesthetic while also covering their face like a Tuareg man.
I guess the weather isn’t that bad, and it’s definitely an exciting, new experience. However, on the bitterly cold two-minute walk from the bus stop to the dining hall, I asked myself, “Why did humans decide to build a city here, of all places? The first European colonists in this area must have spent a winter or two here — why didn’t they take the logical decision to build their settlement somewhere else? Why is it so damn col– oh we’re at the dining hall now?” My questions obviously weren’t too serious, but they got me thinking about this passage from Charles Mann’s book 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created:
“Babies born on the day Columbus founded La Isabela, the first consequential European settlement in the Americas – January 2, 1494 – came into a world in which direct trade and communication between western Europe and East Asia were largely blocked by the Islamic nations between, sub-Saharan Africa had little contact with Europe and next to none with South and East Asia, and the Eastern and Western hemispheres were almost entirely ignorant of each other’s very existence. By the time those babies had grandchildren, slaves from Africa mined silver in the Americas for sale to China; Spanish merchants waited impatiently for the latest shipments of Asian silk and porcelain from Mexico; and Dutch sailors traded cowry shells from the Maldive Islands, in the Indian Ocean, for human beings in Angola, on the coast of the Atlantic. Tobacco from the Caribbean ensorcelled the wealthy and powerful in Madrid, Madras, Mecca, and Manila. (…)
When Columbus founded his settlement of La Isabela, the world’s most populous cities clustered in a band in the tropics, all but one within thirty degrees of the equator. At the top of the list was Beijing, cynosure of humankind’s wealthiest society. Next was Vijayanagar, capital of a Hindu empire in southern India. Of all urban places, these two alone held as many as half a million souls. Cairo, next on the list, was apparently just below this figure. After these three, a cluster of cities were around the 200,000 mark: Hangzhou and Nanjing in China; Tabriz and Gaur in, respectively, Iran and India; Tenochtitlan, dazzling center of the Triple Alliance (Aztec empire); Istanbul (officially Kostantiniyye) of the Ottoman empire; perhaps Gao, leading city of the Songhay empire in West Africa; and, conceivably, Qosqo, where the Inka emperors plotted their next conquests. Not a single European city would have made the list, except perhaps Paris, then expanding under the vigorous rule of Louis XII. Columbus’s world was centered around hot places, as had been the case since Homo sapiens first stared in amazement at the African sky.
A century and a half later, that order was in the midst of change. It was as if the globe had been turned upside down and all the wealth and power were flowing from south to north. The once-lordly metropolises of the tropics were falling into ruin and decrepitude. In the coming centuries, the greatest urban centers would all be in the temperate north: London and Manchester in Britain; New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia in the United States. By 1900 every city in the top bracket would be in Europe or the United States, save one: Tokyo, the most Westernized of eastern cities. From the vantage of an extraterrestrial observer, the change would have seemed shocking; and order that had characterized human affairs for millennia had been overturned, at least for a while.
Today the tumult of ecological and economic exchange is like the background radiation of our ever more crowded and unstable planet. It seems distinctly contemporary to find Japanese loggers in Brazil and Chinese engineers in the Sahel and Europeans backpacking in Nepal or occupying the best tables in New York niteries. But in different ways all of these occurred hundreds of years ago. If nothing else, the events then remind us that we are not alone in our current jumbled condition. It seems worthwhile to take a look at how we got to where we are today.”