Europe and the World

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EUROPE AND THE WORLD. Between 1450 and 1789 the relationship between Europe and the rest of the world changed dramatically, as the inhabitants of what had been a poor, remote corner of Eurasia became poised to dominate the world politically, culturally, and economically. The nature and extent of this change can be traced in various ways. A world map of the mid-fifteenth century, for instance, is strikingly different from a mid-eighteenth-century mapnot only because of the amount of information available to the later mapmaker, but also in the techniques employed to display that information. The effects of European wars on the world outside Europe also changed significantly during these centuries, as did the relationship between European Christendom and Islam, particularly the Ottoman Turks. Within Europe, new products and crops brought back from other continents significantly changed everyday life. Above all, by the mid-eighteenth century, Europeans controlled the sea, the size and extent of which had been unknown to them in the fifteenth century.

In 1459 Fra Mauro, a Camaldolese monk in Venice, produced a mappa mundi, or world map, at the request of King Afonso V of Portugal. This map, a disk six feet in diameter that was designed to be placed in a public space, followed the medieval tradition of showing the Earth's surface as almost entirely land and dividing it into three regions, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Fra Mauro's data came from a number of sources, both old and new. For example, his knowledge of Asia was drawn from the writings of Marco Polo (12541324) as well as those of a contemporary, Niccolò dei Conti (c. 13951469), who had visited India. The map contained not only geographical information, but historical and ethnographic information as well. Places of historical significance were emphasized, and various peoples were shown wearing their usual dress. What the map did not do was provide guidance for a traveler on the road or at sea.

Europeans' knowledge about the world grew tremendously between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, as new worlds were opened up and the shape of the previously known world could be determined more precisely. The contrast between Fra Mauro's map and an eighteenth-century map of the world is striking. Eighteenth-century maps illustrate a world that was known to be largely water. The landmasses that almost entirely filled Fra Mauro's map shrank, while new onesthe Americasappeared. The newer maps located the surface of the Earth on a grid of latitude and longitude and provided a traveler, especially one at sea, with accurate information about distances. Unlike earlier maps, eighteenth-century maps paid careful attention to the outlines of the continents, because the information they contained often came from the reports of seamen. At the same time, eighteenth-century maps were plainer than earlier ones, because they concentrated on presenting geographical information and left blank areas as yet unexplored by Europeans. Historical, ethnographic, and other kinds of data included by Fra Mauro now appeared in books and journals rather than as an integral part of maps. As knowledge of the world expanded, maps shrank in size so that they could be folded up and inserted into books; unlike Fra Mauro's representation of the world, which had to remain in one place, these newer maps were portable.

Fra Mauro's mapdespite the medieval cartographic conventions it employedhinted at an important factor in the early modern transformation of the relationship between Europe and the rest of the world. The patron who requested the map, Afonso V of Portugal (ruled 14381481), was already involved in overseas expansion, continuing a Portuguese program of exploration down the west coast of Africa. His goal was a water route to Asia, via the west rather than the east, that would break the Muslim monopoly of trade with the Far East, even as the Turks were coming to dominate eastern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean. The turn to the west as a way of reaching Asia had several important consequences that radically changed the relationship of Europe to the world.

By developing an Atlantic route to Asia, the Portuguese began the process that led to the discovery first of the Americas and then of the Pacific Ocean. These discoveries radically changed the European understanding of the surface of the Earth, demonstrating that it was largely water and that the Americas, a previously unknown landmass, huge and heavily populated, existed on the other side of the Atlantic. Initially, Europeans attempted to incorporate this new information into their existing worldviewthe world as depicted by Fra Maurobut gradually they became aware that this was not possible. The new information demanded a reexamination of the European conception of the Earth and its inhabitants.

A significant consequence of the turn to the west was the devastation of the peoples of the Americas, and subsequently those of many Pacific islands, as Europeans introduced diseases such as smallpox. The prior isolation of these populations left them prey to pathogens associated with Eurasian and African societies. At the same time, syphilis struck Europe in devastating fashion, suggesting to contemporary observers and many modern scholars that it came from the Americas.

Another consequence of European overseas expansion was the redirection westward of the African slave trade, long controlled by Arab traders supplying the Muslim world. The establishment of Portuguese factories (trading posts) on the west coast of Africa provided a new outlet for slaves, who were sent to Portuguese plantations on the Atlantic islands. This new market was to increase in size as more European nations established settlements in the Americas and so required a supply of labor.

The European encounter with the wider world not only provided access to the spice markets of Asiathe original goal of the explorationsbut also introduced Europeans to new products and crops. Sugar, long grown on the islands of the Mediterranean, became more available as the Portuguese grew it on the Atlantic and Caribbean islands. Potatoes and maize, both native to the Americas, became important elements of the European diet, contributing to the growth of the European population by providing an abundant supply of cheap, nutritious food, especially for the poorer classes.

From a military perspective, the most striking difference between Europe in 1450 and 1789 was in the relation of Europe to the Islamic world. In the mid-fifteenth century, Europe was encircled by a swath of Muslim states stretching from eastern Europe, through the Middle East, across North Africa, and into southern Spain, where the Muslim kingdom of Granada existed until 1492. From the fifteenth to the late-seventeenth century, the Ottoman Turks, the most aggressive Muslim society, advanced steadily through eastern Europe, capturing Constantinople in 1453, pushing up through the Balkans, conquering Hungary in 1526, and, in 1529, besieging Vienna for the first time. The Turks remained a constant threat to eastern Europe until their last, unsuccessful siege of Vienna in 1683. Defeated and exhausted, they began a withdrawal from eastern Europe during the eighteenth century, enabling Austria and Russia to expand in the Balkans and reversing the course of several hundred years of warfare. For the first time, the Ottomans were on the defensive against an expanding European world.

The impact of European warfare on the rest of the world also changed over the course of the early modern period. In 1453, the Hundred Years' War between France and England ended. The war had devastated France and helped to incite the subsequent Wars of the Roses (14551485) in England, but it had no significant consequences beyond Europe. In 1763, a new series of wars between France and Englandsometimes collectively known as the Second Hundred Years' Warcame to an end. These wars not only involved all of the major European powers, they had repercussions throughout the world. In North America and India, indigenous allies of the French and English fought under European officers and with European weapons in order to achieve European rulers' goals. When the war ended, the British Empire had become the dominant power throughout the world, not because it had the largest army, but because it controlled and policed the seas and had learned how to manipulate local ethnic and cultural divisions in order to divide and rule.

Closely connected to the wars that spread from Europe to the rest of the world was the notion that all mankind could be organized within a single international legal order. As European sailors moved out into the larger world, they faced situations that came to require legal resolution. European states exploring new routes to Asia carried over into their new overseas possessions their long histories of border disputes. To prevent such conflicts, Pope Alexander VI in 1493 issued three bulls collectively known as Inter Caetera, which divided the New World between Spain and Portugal. Within their respective spheres, Spain and Portugal enjoyed a monopoly on trade with native inhabitants, but they were also responsible for supporting and protecting Christian missionaries. Other nations that subsequently became interested in expansionthe English, French, and Dutchrefused to accept the papal solution to the problem of imperial conflict.

Several related legal questions revolved around the status of the inhabitants of the New World. How could the European conquest of the New World be justified legally and morally? Did the inhabitants of the Americas have the right to possess their lands in peace? Did they have to admit Christian missionaries? One consequence of these questions was the development of international law, a body of rules primarily regulating the relations among European nations, especially those involved in overseas activities, but also claiming jurisdiction over non-Europeans under some circumstances. These rules became the basis for constructing a legal order for all humankind.

In the final analysis, the discovery of the vast oceans and the ability of Europeans to dominate maritime trade routes were pivotal to Europe's changing relationship with the rest of the world. Unlike the land-based empires of ancient and medieval times, modern empires relied heavily on control of sea routes for economic and administrative purposes. As a result, small nations such as the Portuguese and the Dutch could establish profitable empires based on ships and sailors.

The European attitude toward the peoples of the rest of the world underwent a significant change between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. In the fifteenth century, Europeans were intimidated by a seemingly unstoppable Islamic juggernaut and awed by the existence of the sophisticated Asian world Marco Polo described. By the end of the eighteenth century, however, the Turks had been repulsed and were clearly beginning to lose their empire, and much of the romantic mystery associated with the East was being dispelled as more and more Europeans reported on it. By 1789, Europeans were reaching a point where their fear and awe were beginning to give way to a sense of superiority. Europeans increasingly saw themselves as the summit of human development; others, they believed, ought to follow their example or submit to their rule.

See also Cartography and Geography ; Colonialism ; Dictionaries and Encyclopedias ; Exploration ; Shipbuilding and Navigation ; Shipping ; Slavery and the Slave Trade .


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James Muldoon

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Europe and the World

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