Western Civilization, HIS 101
Europeans had traveled overland to Asia intermittently. The most famous account of such a journey in the Middle Ages was the Travels of Marco Polo (1254-1324), which described an overland journey to the court of Kublai Khan, the Mongol Emperor of China, and seventeen years of service to the Emperor. With the breakup of the Mongolian Empire and the rise of the Ottoman Turks, who were followers of Islam, Western merchants were denied direct access to Asia. Indeed, the closing of the over-land routes to the spices of Asia led to the voyages of discovery.
The fall of Byzantium to the Ottoman Turks in
1453 disrupted the flow of commerce to Western Europe.
Spices, silks, and other luxury items no longer reached Western markets
because the Muslims refused to trade with the Venetians and other Westerners.
The economic decline of Northern Italy began once the Mediterranean was
again dominated by the followers of Islam.
The center of trade and commerce shifted to the countries on the
Atlantic. First the Portuguese,
then the Spaniards, Dutch, French, and English explored the oceans in search of
wealth, souls, and glory.
The European exploration of the world and
subsequent colonization used to be described as a glorious achievement.
Contemporary histories treat this subject more soberly by pointing out
the high price paid by those who were discovered. Most of the existing Amerindian cultures were destroyed. The
African slave trade took on a new dimension with at least ten million persons
forcibly removed from their homelands to work as slaves on plantations on the
newly discovered American continent. The
European impact on Asia, while apparently less severe, has yet to be fully
Nonetheless, however one wants to assess the legacy of the Voyages of
Discovery, for about five hundred
years, from 1450 to 1950, Europeans dominated the world.
They created the first global economy in all of history.
They laid the foundations for the first world civilization which is in
the process of evolving.
Even before the fall of the Second Rome, Prince HENRY THE NAVIGATOR (1394
- 1460) established a school for sea captains and sponsored naval expeditions
down the coast of Africa. Henry was
the third son of King John I o Portugal (c.1385 - 1433).
Prince Henry was apparently
searching for the legendary Christian kingdom of Prester John.
He hoped to find an ally against the Muslims and to gain access to
African gold through direct trade with sub-Saharan Africa--bypassing Arab
The fall of Constantinople merely increased
these motivations and added the imperative to find an alternate route to the
pepper, nutmeg, and other spices of the Indies.
By the time of Prince Henry’s death in
1460, the Portuguese had settled the Azores, Madeira, and Cape Verde island
chains in the south Atlantic and had reached Sierra Leone on the coast of
As they explored down the coast of Africa, the Portuguese established trading stations and began trading in slaves and gold. Slaves were used first mainly as domestic servants, but, with the colonization of the Cape Verde islands in the 1460s, slave labor was used on the sugar plantations.
The technological knowledge needed for longer
ocean voyages was gradually acquired. In the 1440’s, the Portuguese developed
broad-beamed sailing vessels called CARAVELS. These ships could be sailed great
distances from the shore until they caught the favorable winds and currents to
carry them in the direction they desired. Caravels could also withstand the
recoil of cannon on their decks, which gave them a comparative advantage over
the smaller, more lightly armed vessels encountered in the Indian Ocean. The
astrolabe had long been available to help measure latitude, or degrees of
distance from the equator. Techniques for measuring longitude, or distances east
or west of a location, were not to be perfected until the eighteenth century.
Both skill and luck played roles in the
discovery of an all water-route around Africa to India. Bartholomew Dias
(c.1450-1500), while sailing along the Atlantic coast of Africa in 1487, was
blown off course by a storm and unintentionally rounded the tip of Africa. On
his way home he spotted what he called the Cape of Storms, but what came to be
known as the Cape of Good Hope, at the southern end of Africa. When the
Portuguese heard of Columbus’s claim to having reached the Indies by sailing
west across the Atlantic, they sent Vasco da Gama (c.1460-1524) on an expedition
to reach India by sailing around Africa. Da Gama, with the assistance of Arab
and Indian pilots, reached Calicut on the southwestern Indian coast in 1498. He
found it difficult to trade in Calicut. The woolens and trinkets he brought were
not desired by the Indians, and the Arab traders of Calicut were not receptive
to new rivals. Nonetheless da Gama did manage to collect a cargo of spices that
was worth, when he returned to Portugal in 1499, many times the cost of
outfitting his expedition.
The Portuguese king gave Pedro Cabral
(c.1468-1520) command of a fleet the following year, 1500, that was supposed to
duplicate the voyage of da Gama. Cabral, however, sailed too far west and
discovered Brazil before he eventually reached India. The Spanish and the
Portuguese had agreed in the 1494 TREATY OF TORDESILLAS to divide up the rights
to the non-Christian world. The Spanish could claim everything west of a line
370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands, and the Portuguese could claim all
non-Christian lands east of that point. Since Brazil jutted out into the western
Atlantic, the Portuguese found themselves with a claim to territory in the
The Portuguese Empire
Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512), an Italian
navigator working at different times in both the services of Portugal and of
Spain, explored the coast of Brazil. He gave saints’ names to many areas along
the shore. His own first name was adapted as AMERICA for the new continent by a
German mapmaker who published an account of Vespucci’s voyages. In Brazil,
Portugal established large colonial plantations to satisfy the European demand
for sugar. Captaincies, resembling feudal estates, were granted to some twelve
individuals favored by the crown. At first, the Indians were used for slave
labor on these plantations. When the Jesuit missionaries succeeded in
restricting the supply of Indian slaves available to the colonists, the
importation of slaves from Africa was greatly increased and did not cease until
the middle of the nineteenth century. In 1549, a governor-general was appointed
at Bahia, which was to be the capital until 1763. The Portuguese successfully
fought off French and Dutch intrusions, and Brazil was to remain a Portuguese
colony until it declared its independence in 1822.
story in Africa and Asia was quite different. What the Portuguese did on these
continents was to build a trading empire. Commercial and naval bases were
established at strategic locations along the coasts of Africa and Asia. The
Arabs had long dominated trade in the Indian Ocean and brought spices and other
goods to the Venetians and other Italian city states, who in turn sold them to
the rest of Europe. The Portuguese, who set out to destroy this trading pattern,
experienced no compunction in killing the hated followers of Islam. In 1509, off
Diu Island near the western coast of India, the superior fire power of the
Portuguese overcame a Muslim fleet of 100 ships—five times the size of the
de Albuquerque (1453-1515), who was appointed governor-general of India in 1508,
was a chief architect in building the trading empire. He captured Hormuz, which
con-trolled the Persian Gulf. Along the Indian coast, he seized Goa, which
became the center of Portuguese activity in the Far East. Portugal lacked the
population and the financial re-sources to create large colonies in
heavily-populated Asia. But it did succeed in diverting much of the spice trade
to its ships and created an all-water route around the tip of Africa for
transport of this valuable cargo to Europe. The Arabs did not merely lose trade.
Albuquerque is reported to have cut off the noses of women and the hands of men
he met along the Arabian coast!
Portugal and Spain were united from 1580 to
1640. The Dutch, who were at war with Spain, used the union to justify seizing
much of the Portugal’s eastern empire and Holland supplanted Portugal as the
dominant European trader in the East.
Spain owed its great empire in the Americas
to the explorations of Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), who was seeking to
reach the Indies by sailing west—across the Atlantic Ocean. Columbus, born in
Genoa, Italy, was the son of a weaver and was largely self-educated. Most
learned people of the time understood that the earth was round. More uncertain
was its size. Columbus underestimated the extent of the globe, believing Japan
was only 2,760 nautical miles off
the Canary Islands, when in fact it was more than four times that distance.
Columbus first sought backing for his expedition from King John II of Portugal
(1481-1495). The Portuguese, realizing that Asia was farther west than Columbus
thought, refused his request for financial support. It was only then that
Columbus turned to Isabella I* of Castile (1474-1504). After seven years of
fruitless persuasion, Columbus was ready to move on to France when an agreement
for Spanish funding of the expedition was reached. Though the funds were modest,
he outfitted three small ships with a crew of about 90.
Columbus and his three ships set out from
Palos, Spain on August 3, 1492. After stopping off in the Canaries, Columbus and
his men reached an island in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492. He named the
island San Salvador (Holy Savior) and called the natives Indians, since he
believed that he had reached the Indies. (At that time the Indies was a rather
inclusive term. Even Japan was then considered to be part of the Indies.)
Columbus made a total of four voyages to
America. The first encampment he established on the island of Hispaniola (now
divided into Haiti and the Dominican Republic) was destroyed, in his absence, by
the Indians who resented the Europeans’ lust for gold and women.
Columbus founded other settlements, but he
was not a good administrator and in the end lost the confidence of the Spanish
crown. The king and queen wanted more wealth and were disturbed by his treatment
of the natives. Columbus, who never found the great amount of gold he expected
in the Indies, sought to compensate economically by using the Amerindians as
slaves. As early as 1494, he shipped 550 Indians to Spain for sale. Other
Indians were raped, mutilated, and murdered. The Indians had no immunity to the
diseases brought by the Europeans. Consequently, the Indian population in the
Caribbean area quickly declined. There may have been a million natives when
Columbus first arrived. By 1520, the number of natives was closer to 30,000; by
1648, the Indian population in the Caribbean was almost nil.
When he died in 1506, Columbus still believed
he had reached Asia. While he failed to reach his own goals, his discovery
helped to make the Americas a part of the European orbit.
Magellan Finds the Western Route to Asia
Ferdinand Magellan (c. 1480-1521) was the
Portuguese native, who found the safe passage through the Americas to Asia. In
the service of the king of Portugal, Magellan had previously sailed to Asia by
way of Africa. He had been wounded in battle in Morocco fighting for his
country. When the Portuguese king refused to increase his pension, Magellan offered his
services to the new Spanish king, Charles I (1516-1556), who also became Charles
V of the Holy Roman Empire.
The plan Magellan proposed was to sail across
the Atlantic, find a passage through the American continents to the Pacific
Ocean, and then go across the Pacific to the Moluccas or Spice Islands (now part
of Indonesia). Portugal had already established trade with the Spice Islands,
but Magellan thought it was possible that the islands were within that half of
the non-Christian world granted to Spain by the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas. (He
mistakenly believed the Moluccas to be much closer to the Americas than they
The Spanish king approved the plan and
Magellan left Seville on September 20, 1519, with five ships and a crew of about
270. They reached Brazil in December of 1519, but it was not until October of
1520 that they found the passageway, later called the Strait of Magellan, which
would lead to the Pacific Ocean. Magellan reached the Philippines, where he
converted some of the natives to Christianity. Engaging in a fight against
natives who opposed his convert group, he was killed on April 27, 1521. Magellan
and his crew had not had an easy time before that. Mutiny had reared its head,
as well as shipwreck and starvation, on the long trip across the Pacific.
Only two ships remained to sail from the
Philippines to the Spice Islands, where they were indeed able to purchase a
cargo of spices. One of these ships was later captured by the hostile
Portuguese. The other ship, the Victoria, under the command of Juan Sebastian
del Cano (d. 1525), continued around the world by way of Africa. When it arrived
in Spain on September 8, 1522, only 17 Europeans and 4 East Indians had survived
the journey! The loss of so much life was hardly worth a modest cargo of spices.
But Europeans now understood the vastness of the oceans they were determined to
subdue. Other Spanish adventurers sought to dominate the peoples of the newly
Cortes Conquers the Aztecs
In 1519, the same year Magellan set out from
Spain to find the Spice Islands, Hernan Cortes (1485-1547) departed Cuba to
explore the mainland. He landed on the coast of Mexico and established the city
of Vera Cruz. Cortes’s force, at most, numbered 600 men and I6 horses.
Nevertheless he was able to capture the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, near
present-day Mexico City, with a population of probably 200,000. A combination of
daring, Indian allies, advanced technology, and luck led to his success.
Cortes burned his ships after he landed at
Vera Cruz so that his troops could not turn back. The Aztecs controlled an
empire of 489 cities ranging from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The empire had
been established and held together by force. Not only did the conquered peoples
pay tribute in food and precious metals, but also in human prisoners who were
sacrificed to the Aztec god, Huitzilopochtli. Subjugated tribes hated the Aztecs
and some, such as the Tlaxcala, became the willing allies of Cortes. The horses
and guns of the Spaniards terrorized and intimi-dated Indian opponents.
When Montezuma II (c.1502-1520), the leader
of the Aztecs, heard of Cortes’s approach, he first lavished gifts on the
Spaniards, which only served to whet the appetite of Cortes for conquest. When
the gifts did not serve as a deterrent, Montezuma permitted Cortes to enter the
capital in November 1519 and received him at court. The Indian leader was taken
prisoner and later died under mysterious circumstances. Allegedly Montezuma’s
will to resist was weak-ened by an Indian legend that Quetzalcoatl, the
feathered serpent god, would one day return to reclaim his lands from the
Aztecs. Cortes was taken to be Quetzalcoatl.
An Aztec revolt forced Cortes to with-draw in
June 1520, but he returned with rein-forcements and retook the city in August
1521, after many of its defenders had died in an epi-demic. Cortes became the
governor of Mexico and received recognition from the emperor, Charles V.
Pizarro Conquers the Incas
Cortes was the most famous of a group of
Spanish adventurers in the new world of the sixteenth century, who came to be
known as CONQUISTADORS or conquerors. Another famous conquistador was Francisco
Pizarro (c.1475-1541), an uneducated Spanish adventurer who had been with Balboa
when he discovered the Pacific Ocean in 1513. Pizarro also had explored parts of
Peru on an expedition in 1526-28. In June 1530, after reaching agreement with
Charles V on terms for the conquest of Peru, Pizarro set out in three ships from
Panama with 180 men and 27 horses.
Peru was under the control of an Amerindian
tribe known as the Incas, who had begun to expand from Cuzco in the southern
Andes mountains in the late 1400’s. By 1530 their empire, which included an
estimated 12 million people, extended 2,500 miles from Ecuador to central Chile
and included parts of what are now Bolivia and Argentina.
The ruler of the Incas was Atahualpa (c.
1500-1533), who in 1532 beat his brother in a civil war for control of the Inca
empire. Atahualpa was at the regional capital of Cajamarca when he heard of
Pizarro’s approach. The Indian chief, probably out of curiosity, allowed the
Spaniards into his presence. Pizarro quickly took Atahualpa captive and held the
chief for ransom. Pizarro was paid a ransom in gold and silver estimated to be
worth $30 million—allegedly filling a room 22 feet by 17 feet to a height of
seven feet! After the ransom was paid, Pizarro treacherously strangled Atahualpa.
Then Cuzco, the Inca capital, was conquered. Though resistance continued among
relatives of the chief until the 1570’s, Pizarro was able to found a new
capital, Lima, in 1535 and to become a member of the Spanish nobility. His life
of privilege was cut short in 1541 when he was assassinated by the disgruntled
followers of a rival conquistador whom he had executed.
Spanish Colonial Government
Charles V and his son, Philip II, established
the structure of Spanish colonial government. A Council of the Indies was
established at the royal court in Spain to oversee colonial affairs. This
Council was wholly the creature of the crown. In the New World, authority was
divided between two viceroyalties. The viceroyalty of New Spain was established
in 1535. The viceroy, who was headquartered in Mexico City, had jurisdiction
over what is presently the southwestern United States, Mexico, Florida, Central
America, Venezuela, and the Philip-pines. The viceroyalty of Peru was
established in 1544. From Lima, its viceroy presided over the rest of South
America. The viceroys, who were personal representatives of the Spanish king,
were assisted by the audiencias or regional courts, which had both judicial and
administrative functions. There were ten of these audiencias in
sixteenth-century Spanish America. The audiencias were staffed by royal judges.
At a still more local level were the corregidores, who corresponded roughly to
The intention of the Spanish crown in
creating this detailed structure was to ensure its absolute control over the
colonies. In practice this was hard to achieve—given the great distances
involved and the determination of the conquistadors and their successors to
exploit the opportunities for power and wealth.
Other European Explorations
Other explorers helped to establish over-seas
claims for different European nations. Giovanni da Verrazano (c. 1485-1528) was
a Florentine navigator who sailed for France during the reign of King Francis I.
Verrazano, while searching for a passage to China, explored the Carolina coast
line and New York harbor. Jacques Cartier (1491-1557), a Frenchman, discovered
the St. Lawrence River, helping to establish France’s claim to what is now
eastern Canada. However, the real founder of New France, France’s North
American empire, was Samuel de Champlain (c. 1570-1635), who founded Quebec and
discovered Lakes Champlain and Ontario.
England’s claim to Newfoundland was laid in
1497 when John Cabot (c. 1451-1498) from Genoa discovered it. Cabot and his son,
Sebastian, sailed for Henry VII. Under Henry’s granddaughter, Elizabeth I,
there were a number of English adventurers who explored the world and robbed
their Spanish enemies. The most famous of these was Sir Francis Drake
(c.1541-1596), who emulated Magellan by sailing around the world in the period
1577-1580. He sacked towns both in Spain and in New Spain.
A favorite of Elizabeth was Sir Walter
Raleigh (c.1552-1618), who founded the unsuccessful colony of Roanoke Island in
North Carolina in the 1580’s. It mysteriously vanished. The first permanent
English settlement in North America was established at Jamestown, Virginia in
1607. The Puritans, who came over on the Mayflower, settled the Plymouth Colony
in Massachusetts in 1620.
It was an English navigator, Henry Hudson
(d.1611), who first explored, in 1609, the Hudson River in the service of the
Dutch East India Company. His exploration gave the Dutch claim to the river
valley that they made the center of their colony of New Netherland. In 1664, New
Netherland was taken over by the English, who gave the name New York to its
capital. The Dutch had called it New Amsterdam.
The Impact of Exploration
Today, we take such foods as corn (maize),
potatoes, peanuts, and chocolate for granted. These foods, as well as such
harmful products as tobacco and cocaine, were unknown to Europeans before the
discovery of the Americas. The Europeans, in turn, introduced many plants and
animals to the New World. Horses, cattle, pigs, and goats were brought in. The
use of these animals for food and transportation, as well as the introduction of
wheat, rye, and oats changed the New World environment radically—in many cases
overwhelming native plants and animals.
impact of European exploration and colonization upon the Amerindians was
pro-found. In what was to become the eastern half of the United States, the
settlers followed a policy of virtual extermination of Native Americans. Even
more devastating was the effect of diseases, previously unknown, brought from
Europe. The natives’ immune systems did not protect them from smallpox,
measles, diphtheria, and typhoid fever. In some areas, such as the Caribbean,
the native population was wiped out. In other areas, it was substantially
reduced. By 1510, the Indian population of Mexico had declined by 75 percent
from its preconquest level.
What plants and animals did the Europeans
introduce to the Americas?
There is also the matter of cultural
domination. Native religions were replaced by Christianity, though later
investigations have revealed that many native beliefs were mixed syncretically
with the new Christian religion. For example, in Mexico Our Lady of Guadeloupe
(the Virgin Mary) was endowed with some of the attributes of the Aztec fertility
goddess Tonantzin. Nevertheless, the overall impact was the destruction of
Native American culture as European religious, political, and social models were
introduced in a conscious effort to recreate the Old World order in the New
Africans were also impacted by European
expansion. Many were forcibly removed from Africa to become slaves in the New
World. The figure of ten million is frequently used as the estimate of those
enslaved in modern times—it might be even higher. The number touched by
slavery certainly exceeded ten million when those who died in the process of
capture or en route are taken into account. The horrors of the crowded slave
galleys are not easily exaggerated. Perhaps twenty percent died in passage—the
sick and the dead were simply cast over-board. Those who survived lost not only
their culture, but what today we would describe as basic human rights. Since the
slave trade occurred over several centuries, its impact on Africa itself is hard
to measure. While some Africans who participated in the trade may have
prospered, the social and political patterns of much of sub-Saharan Africa were
disrupted, both by the rise of the slave trade in the late 15th century and its
curtailment in the 19th century.
What impact did the slave trade have on
Europeans, themselves, were affected in
several ways. They were the prime beneficiaries of an expanding global economy.
They became the middlemen in the increased world trade. Most colonies were
regulated, through a system that came to be known as mercantilism, so as to
ensure a favorable balance of trade for the European mother country. The capital
subsequently accumulated in Europe helped to finance the Industrial Revolution
that made Europe even wealthier compared to the rest of the world.
There was also a price revolution in Europe.
Prices in Spain increased fourfold in the sixteenth century, and other European
countries experienced huge increases in inflation. For the poor, who had to pay
higher food prices, and those living on fixed incomes, this was a very bad
thing. For debtors and the new entrepreneurs, inflation presented opportunity.
The influx of gold and silver from the New World appears to have played some
role in this inflation. But the population of Europe was also on the increase.
Increased demand. correlated to the increased population, was also a contributor
to inflation. There were other consequences for Europeans as well. For instance,
their knowledge of the world increased, as well as their sense of superiority
over those non-Europeans they met and dominated.
On the positive side, it must be noted that
the European colonial powers built flourishing cities, founded universities, and
laid the basis for the modern states of South and North America, including the