In the fi fteenth century, the world began to become far more interconnected than it
had been before, but the new lines of connection were created in direct response to existing
networks. For centuries, ships had traveled across and around the Indian Ocean
carrying valuable cargoes, and in the fi fteenth century the Portuguese connected with
this rich trading network by sailing around the southern tip of Africa. Portuguese captains
and merchants also made great profi ts trading with West Africans. In response to
these Portuguese successes, and also because of their desire to counter Muslim power,
the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella agreed in 1492 to provide fi nancial backing
for Columbus to sail westward in hopes of reaching Asia directly.
As we all know, Columbus instead landed on the islands of the Caribbean, and when
news of his voyage reached Europe, other mariners and adventurers supported by other
European monarchs began to explore the coasts of what was quickly dubbed the “New
World.” The Spanish built the largest empire in the western hemisphere, although Portugal
also established a large colony in Brazil after Pope Alexander VI divided the world
in the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. England claimed much of mainland North America
because of the voyages of John Cabot, although there were no successful English colonies
in the Americas until the seventeenth century.
European voyages, trading ventures, and colonization had a wide range of impacts
on different parts of the world in the sixteenth century. In much of the Indian Ocean,
eastern Africa, island Southeast Asia, and eastern Asia, existing trading networks, religious
and intellectual traditions, and structures of power changed relatively little.
On the west coast of Africa, European weapons and trade goods changed the balance
of power, particularly as the slave trade began to expand, which encouraged warfare,
siphoned off productive workers, and destroyed kinship groups. In the Americas, the
Spanish quickly conquered the large and prosperous Aztec and Inca empires through
superior military technology and alliances with other local peoples; this conquest was
facilitated by the rapid spread of European diseases, which killed the vast majority
of the population in many places. The Spanish set up agricultural plantations, built
Christian churches, and mined precious metals in an empire with a mixed population
of Europeans, Africans, and indigenous people. Gold and silver mined in the Americas
fueled the expansion of global trading connections, which transported food crops,
animals, and people in all directions and created enormous profi ts for European merchants.
Arenas of confl ict among European nations were no longer limited to Europe
itself, but increasingly involved sea lanes and colonies. Overseas conquests gave Europe
new territories and sources of wealth, and also new confi dence in its technical and
PART SUMMARY, 1450–1600
contributing to infant and child mortality that remained high, with only half the people
born making it to age ten. The precariousness of life was one reason for the continued
importance of religion, as a matter of both personal observance and powerful institutions.
Europe was religiously divided in 1600, but the decades of religious wars that had
hardened those divisions had not lessened people’s sense of the centrality of spiritual
matters and the quest for salvation. Though Renaissance humanists praised the genius
and contributions of certain individuals, the family remained people’s primary source
of identity and support. Expanding wealth allowed some individuals and some families
to increase their social stature, but did not upset a hierarchy in which being born noble
was the best assurance of power and prosperity. Hierarchies of wealth and inherited
status continued to intersect with hierarchies of gender, for whether one was born male
or female shaped every life experience and every stage of life.
Had Pope Pius II, whom we met in chapter 1 commenting on Vienna, suddenly been
transported from 1450 to 1600, he would no doubt have immediately noticed that his
authority as pope was geographically diminished in Europe, but now extended to lands
he had never imagined existed. Other than this, it is diffi cult to know whether he would
have found the changes or the continuities more striking. As we begin to examine Europe
after 1600, the second half of this “early modern” period, we will need to keep the
balance between change and continuity in mind, between the “early” in that term, and
1 What were the most important
commodities carried in the Indian Ocean
trading network, and why did these
attract new players in that network in
the fi fteenth century?
2 How did Columbus’s preconceptions
about what he would fi nd if he sailed
westward shape his voyages?
3 How were European voyagers, beginning
with Columbus, similar in terms of
motivation, fi nancial backing, crew, and
course of their voyages? How and why
did they differ from one another?
4 Why did the expansion of sugar production
lead to an expansion of the
slave trade, and how was New World
plantation slavery different from slavery
elsewhere in the world?
5 How were European conquests in the
Americas facilitated by political changes
that had occurred before their arrival?
How were they facilitated by the germs
the Europeans brought with them?
6 How would you compare the impact
of the European voyages on Asia,
Africa,and the Americas in this era?
7 Looking at the period 1450–1600 as a
whole, what would you judge to be the
most important changes, and why? The
most important continuities?
Edmundo O’Gorman’s pioneering study of European ideas about the New World was fi rst
published in Spanish; an expanded and modifi ed version appeared in English as The Invention
of America: An Inquiry into the Historical Nature of the New World and the Meaning of its
History ( Bloomington: Indiana University Press , 1961). In the past several decades, it has been
joined by numerous others: Tzvetan Todorov , The Conquest of America: The Question of
the Other, trans. Richard Howard ( New York : Harper and Row , 1984); Peter Hulme, Colonial
Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean, 1492–1797 ( London: Methuen, 1986); Urs
Bitterli, Cultures in Confl ict: Encounters Between European and Non-European Cultures, 1492–
1800, trans. Ritchie Robertson ( New York : Polity Press , 1989); John F. Moffi tt and Santiago
Sebastián, O Brave New People: The European Invention of the American Indian ( Albuquerque :
University of New Mexico Press , 1996); David Abulafi a , The Discovery of Mankind: Encounters
in the Age of Columbus ( New Haven : Yale University Press , 2008). For analyses of encounters
in other parts of the world, see Stuart Schwarz, ed., Implicit Understandings: Observing,
Reporting and Refl ecting on the Encounters between Europeans and Other Peoples in the Early
Modern Era ( Cambridge: Cambridge University Press , 1994); O. R. Dathorne , Imagining the
World: Mythical Belief versus Reality in Global Encounters ( Westport, CT : Bergin and Garvey ,
1994), and Asian Voyages: Two Thousand Years of Constructing the Other ( Westport, CT :
Bergin and Garvey , 1996); Nancy Bisaha, Creating East and West: Renaissance Humanists and
the Ottoman Turks ( Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press , 2004). Encounters with and
representations of Africans have been the focus of fewer studies; the best introduction to this
issue from a European perspective is Kim F. Hall, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and
Gender in Early Modern England ( Ithaca, NY : Cornell University Press , 1995).
A good introduction to post-colonial thought is the aptly titled Post-Colonial Studies: The
Key Concepts, by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffi ths, and Helen Tiffi n ( London: Routledge, 2008).
Antonio Gramsci’s notion of hegemony is discussed in Joseph V. Femia, Gramsci’s Political
Thought: Hegemony, Consciousness and the Revolutionary Process ( Oxford : Clarendon Press ,
1981), and in Gramsci’s own work, Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci
(New York : International Publishers , 1971). On transnational history see “American Historical
Review Conversation: On Transnational History,” with Chris Bayly, Sven Beckert, Matthew
Connelly, Isabel Hofmeyr, Wendy Kozol, and Patricia Seed, American Historical Review 111/5
(2006): 1441–64. On Atlantic history, see Bernard Bailyn, Atlantic History: Concept and
Contours ( Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press , 2005), and Jack P. Greene and Philip D.
Morgan, Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal ( New York : Oxford University Press , 2008).
For the Indian Ocean, see K. N. Chaudhuri, Trade and Civilization in the Indian Ocean: An
Economic History from the Rise of Islam to 1750 ( Cambridge: Cambridge University Press ,
1989), and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, The Portuguese Empire in Asia, 1500–1700: A Political
and Economic History ( London: Longman, 1993). Subrahmanyam has also written a study of
Vasco da Gama , The Career and Legend of Vasco da Gama ( Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press , 1998). An insightful new study of the Ottomans in the Indian Ocean is Giancarlo Casale,
The Ottoman Age of Exploration ( New York : Oxford University Press , 2010). Two older studies
that are very valuable are J. H. Parry , The Spanish Seaborne Empire ( New York : Knopf, 1966),
and C. R. Boxer , The Portuguese Seaborne Empire, 1415–1825 ( New York : Knopf, 1969).
For European expansion before Columbus, see the classic works of J. H. Parry , The Age of
Reconnaissance ( Berkeley: University of California Press , 1963), and Carlo Cipolla, Guns, Sails,
and Empires: Technological Innovation and the Early Phases of European Expansion ( New York :
Minerva Press , 1965), and the newer studies, Felipe Fernández-Armesto , Before Columbus:
Exploration and Colonization from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, 1229–1492 ( London:
Macmillan Education , 1987), and J. R. S. Phillips, The Medieval Expansion of Europe ( Oxford :
Oxford University Press , 1998). Fernández-Armesto has also written an excellent biography of
Columbus, Columbus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992). For a broad survey of European
colonization, see Geoffrey Vaughn Scammell, The First Imperial Age: European Overseas
Expansion, c. 1400–1715 ( London: Unwin Hyman , 1989). A good brief survey of the slave trade
is Herbert S. Klein, The Atlantic Slave Trade ( Cambridge: Cambridge University Press , 1999).
For the role of Africans in European colonial networks, see Philip Curtin, ed., The Rise and
Fall of the Plantation Complex: Essays in Atlantic History ( Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press , 1990); John Thornton , Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World,
1400–1680 ( Cambridge: Cambridge University Press , 1992); Linda Heywood and John
Thornton , Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585–
1660 ( Cambridge: Cambridge University Press , 2007).
For global connections after Columbus, Charles Mann, 1493: Uncovering the New World
Columbus Created ( New York : Knopf, 2011), is a lively work written for a popular audience
but based on research by historians, archeologists, and biologists. It builds on the ideas of
Alfred W. Crosby , The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492
(Westport, CT : Greenwood , 1972), and Crosby himself has a new edition of his broader
study, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe ( Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press , 2004). A collection that focuses especially on the silver trade between
the Americas and Asia is Dennis O. Flynn and Arturo Giráldez, eds., China and the Birth of
Globalization in the 16th Century ( Aldershot: Ashgate, 2010).
For more suggestions and links see the companion website www.cambridge.org/wiesnerhanks .
1 R. H. Major , ed. and trans., Select Letters of Christopher Columbus ( London: Hakluyt Society ,
1847), pp. 1, 4.
2 Ibid., p. 15.
3 Martin Waldseemüller , Introduction to Cosmography (1507), trans. in George Kish, A Source
Book in Geography ( Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press , 1978), p. 319.