Modern history

Worlds Collide

In the 1520s and 1530s, Spain and Portugal chartered traders to ship enslaved Africans to the Caribbean, Brazil, Mexico, and Peru. The success of this trade relied heavily on the efforts of European cartographers, who began to chart the coastlines, rivers, and inland territories of the Western Hemisphere described by explorers and adventurers. Their maps illustrated the growing connections among Europe, Africa, and the Americas even as they also reflected the continued dominance of the Mediterranean region, the Middle East, India, and China in European visions of the world. Yet that world was changing rapidly as Europeans introduced guns, horses, and new diseases to the Americas and came in contact with previously unknown flora and fauna. The resulting exchange of plants, animals, and germs transformed the two continents as well as the wider world.

Europeans Cross the Atlantic

The first Europeans to discover lands in the western Atlantic were Norsemen. In the early ninth century, Scandinavians colonized Ireland, and in the 870s they settled Iceland. A little more than a century later, seafarers led by Erik the Red reached Greenland. Sailing still farther west, Erik’s son Leif led a party that discovered an area that they called Vinland, near the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The Norse established a small settlement there around 1000 C.E., and people from Greenland continued to visit Vinland for centuries. By 1450, however, the Greenland settlements had disappeared.

Nearly a half century after Norse settlers abandoned Greenland, a Genoese navigator named Christopher Columbus visited the Spanish court of Ferdinand and Isabella and proposed an Enterprise of the Indies. He planned to sail west across the Atlantic to Cipangu (Japan) and Cathay (China). Because Italian city-states controlled the Mediterranean and Portugal dominated the routes around Africa, Spain sought a third path to the rich Eastern trade. Columbus claimed he could find it.

Columbus’s 1492 proposal was timely. Having just expelled the last Muslims from Granada and imposed Christian orthodoxy on a now-unified nation, the Spanish monarchs sought to expand their empire. Queen Isabella, ignoring the advice of two royal committees that had rejected Columbus’s plan, decided to fund his initial venture. With her support, the Genoese captain headed off in three small ships with ninety men. They stopped briefly at the Canary Islands and then headed due west on September 6, 1492.

Columbus had calculated the distance to Cipangu based on Ptolemy’s division of the world into 360 degrees of north-south lines of longitude. But in making his calculations, Columbus made a number of errors that led him to believe that it was possible to sail from Spain to Asia in about a month. The miscalculations nearly led to mutiny when Columbus’s crew had not sighted land after more than four weeks at sea. Disaster was averted, however, when on October 12 a lookout spotted a small island. Columbus named the island San Salvador and made contact with local residents, whom he named Indians in the belief that he had found the East Indies. These “Indians” offered the newcomers food, drinks, and gifts. Columbus was impressed with their warm welcome and viewed their gold jewelry as a sign of greater riches in the region.

Although the native inhabitants and Columbus’s men did not speak a common language, they communicated sufficiently to explore San Salvador as well as a larger island nearby, present-day Cuba. The crew then sailed on to an island they named Hispaniola. Nothing they saw resembled contemporary descriptions of China or the East Indies, but Columbus was convinced he had reached his destination. Leaving a small number of men behind, he sailed for Spain with samples of gold jewelry and tales of more wonders to come.

Columbus and his crew were welcomed as heroes when they returned to Spain in March 1493. Their discovery of islands seemingly unclaimed by any known power led the pope to confer Spanish sovereignty over all lands already claimed or to be claimed 100 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. A protest by Portugal soon led to a treaty that moved the line 270 leagues farther west, resulting ultimately in Portugal’s control of Brazil and Spain’s control of the rest of what would become known as South America.

Europeans Explore the Americas

Columbus made two more voyages to the Caribbean to claim land for Spain and sought to convince those who accompanied him to build houses, plant crops, and cut logs for forts. But the men had come for gold, and when the Indians stopped trading willingly, the Spaniards used force to claim their riches. Columbus sought to impose a more rigid discipline but failed. On his final voyage, he was forced to introduce a system of encomiendas, by which leading men received land and the labor of all Indians residing on it. Although he boasted to the Spanish crown that he had “placed under their Highnesses’ sovereignty more land than there is in Africa and Europe,” Columbus had lost the support of the Spanish authorities by the time he died in 1506. The islands he discovered were quickly dissolving into chaos as traders and adventurers fought with Indians and one another over the spoils of conquest. By then, no one believed that he had discovered a route to China, and few people understood the revolutionary importance of the lands he had found.

Nonetheless, Columbus’s voyages inspired others to head across the Atlantic (Map 1.2). In 1497 another Genoese navigator, John Cabot (or Caboto), sailing under the English flag, headed into the northern Atlantic in a tiny ship with only eighteen men. He reached an island off Cape Breton, where he discovered good cod fishing but met no local inhabitants. Over the next several years, Cabot and his son Sebastian made more trips to North American shores, but England failed to follow up on their discoveries.

More important at the time, Portuguese and Spanish mariners continued to explore the western edges of the Caribbean. Amerigo Vespucci, a Florentine merchant, joined one such voyage in 1499. It was Vespucci’s account of his journey that led Martin Waldseemuller to identify the new continent he charted on his 1507 Universalis Cosmographia as “America.” Meanwhile, Spanish explorers subdued tribes like the Arawak and Taino in the Caribbean and headed toward the mainland. In 1513 Vasco Nunez de Balboa traveled across the Isthmus of Darien (now Panama) and became the first European to see the Pacific Ocean. That same year, Juan Ponce de Leon launched a search for gold and slaves along a peninsula to the north. Although he did not find riches there, he named the region Florida, meaning “flowery land,” and claimed it for Spain.

MAP 1.2

European Explorations in the Americas, 1492-1536 Early explorers, funded by Spain, sought trade routes to Asia or gold, silver, and other riches in the Americas. The success of these voyages encouraged adventurous Spaniards to travel throughout the West Indies and across South America and southern North America. It also inspired the first expeditions by the French and the English, who sought treasures farther north.

Ferdinand Magellan launched an even more impressive expedition in August 1519 when he, with the support of Charles V of Spain, sought a passageway through South

America to Asia. In the first fifteen months, Magellan faced bad weather, disappointments, hostile Indians, and open mutiny. But he managed to maintain his authority, and in October 1520 his crew discovered a strait at the southernmost tip of South America that connected the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Ill with scurvy and near starvation, the crew reached Guam and then the Philippines in March 1521. Magellan died there a month later, but one of his five ships and eighteen of the original crew finally made it back to Seville in September 1522, having successfully circumnavigated the globe. Despite the enormous loss of life and equipment, Magellan’s lone ship was loaded with valuable spices, his venture allowed Spain to claim the Philippine Islands, and his journals provided cartographers with vast amounts of knowledge about the world’s oceans and landmasses.

Mapmaking and Printing

Waldseemuller’s 1507 map reflected the expanding contacts among Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Over the following decades, as ships from Europe sailed back and forth across the Atlantic, cartographers charted newly discovered islands, traced coastlines and bays, and situated each new piece of data in relation to lands already known.

The dissemination of geographical knowledge was greatly facilitated by advances in information technology. The Chinese had developed a form of printing with wood blocks in the tenth century, and woodcut pictures appeared in Europe in the fifteenth century. In the 1440s, German craftsmen invented a form of movable metal type in which each letter was created in a separate mold. This allowed printers to rearrange the type for each page and create multiple copies of a single manuscript more quickly and more cheaply than ever before. Between 1452 and 1455, Johannes Gutenberg, a German goldsmith, printed some 180 copies of the Bible with movable type. Although this was not the first book printed using the new system, Gutenberg’s Bible marked a revolutionary change in the production and circulation of written texts.

Innovations in printing helped publicize Portuguese and Spanish explorations, the travels of European adventurers, and the atlases created by Waldseemuller and other cartographers. Italian craftsmen contributed by manufacturing paper that was thinner and cheaper than traditional vellum and parchment. Books were still expensive, and they could be read only by the small minority of Europeans who were literate. Still, mechanical printing rapidly increased the speed with which knowledge was circulated, allowing a German mapmaker like Waldseemuller to read the journals of the Italian mariner Vespucci. Of course, not everything that was printed was accurate, but the ability to exchange ideas encouraged their expression and ensured the flow of information among scholars and rulers across Europe.

The peoples of the Americas had their own ways of charting land, waterways, and boundary lines and for circulating information. The Maya, for instance, developed a system of glyphs—images that represented prefixes, suffixes, numbers, people, or words. Scribes carved glyphs into large flat stones, or stela, providing local residents with histories of important events. In settled farming villages, this system communicated information to a large portion of the population. But it could not serve, as printed pages did, to disseminate ideas more widely. Similarly, the extant maps created by the Maya, Aztecs, and other native groups tended to focus on specific locales. Still, we know that these groups traded across long distances, so they must have had some means of tracing rivers, mountains, and villages beyond their own communities.

The Columbian Exchange

Even as maps documented Europeans’ expanded knowledge of the Americas, they could not capture the experience of contact between peoples separated for centuries by the Atlantic Ocean. Most important, the Spaniards were aided in their conquest of the Americas as much by germs as by maps, guns, or horses. Because native peoples in the Western Hemisphere had had almost no contact with the rest of the world for millennia, they lacked immunity to most germs carried by Europeans. Disease along with warfare first eradicated the Arawak and Taino on Hispaniola, wiping out some 300,000 people. In the Inca empire, the population plummeted from about 9 million in 1530 to less than half a million by 1630. Among the Aztecs, the Maya, and their neighbors, the population collapsed from some 40 million people around 1500 to about 3 million a century and a half later. The germs spread northward as well, leading to catastrophic epidemics among the Pueblo peoples of the Southwest and the Mississippian cultures of the Southeast.

These demographic disasters—far more devastating even than the bubonic plague in Europe—were part of what historians call the Columbian exchange. But this exchange also involved animals, plants, and seeds and affected Africa and Asia as well as Europe and the Americas. The transfer of flora and fauna and the spread of diseases transformed the economies and environments of all four continents. Initially, however, it was the catastrophic decline in Indian populations that ensured the victory of Spain and other European powers over American populations, facilitating their subsequent exploitation of American land, labor, and resources.

The diseases that swept across the Americas came from Africa as well as Europe. Indeed, it was Africans’ partial immunity to malaria and yellow fever that made them so attractive to European traders seeking laborers for Caribbean islands after the native population was decimated. African coconuts and bananas had already been introduced to Europe, while European traders had provided their African counterparts with iron and pigs. Asia also participated in the exchange, introducing Europe and Africa not only to the bubonic plague but also to sugar, rice, tea, and highly coveted spices.

America provided Europeans with high-yielding, nutrient-rich foods like maize and potatoes, as well as new indulgences like tobacco and cacao. The conquered Inca and Aztec empires also provided vast quantities of gold and silver, making Spain the treasure- house of Europe and ensuring its dominance on the continent for several decades. Sugar was first developed in the East Indies, but once it took root in the West Indies, it, too, became a source of enormous profits and, when mixed with cacao, created an addictive drink known as chocolate.

In exchange for products that America offered to Europe and Africa, these continents sent rice, wheat, rye, lemons, and oranges as well as horses, cattle, pigs, chickens, and honeybees to the Western Hemisphere (Map 1.3). The grain crops transformed the American landscape, particularly in North America, where wheat became a major food source. Cattle and pigs, meanwhile, changed native diets, while horses inspired new methods of farming, transportation, and warfare throughout the Americas.

The Columbian exchange benefited Europe far more than the Americas. Initially, it also benefited Africa, providing new crops with high yields and rich nutrients. Ultimately, however, the spread of sugar and rice to the West Indies and European cravings for tobacco and cacao increased the demand for labor, which could not be met by the declining population of Indians. This situation ensured the expansion of the African slave trade. The consequences of the Columbian exchange were thus monumental for the peoples of all three continents. 

MAP 1.3

The Columbian Exchange, 16th Century When Europeans made contact with Africa and the Americas, they initiated an exchange of plants, animals, and germs that transformed all three continents. The contact among these previously isolated ecosystems caused dramatic transformations in food, labor, and mortality. American crops changed eating habits across Europe, while foreign grains and domesticated animals thrived in the Americas even as diseases devastated native populations.


• What were the short-term consequences in both Europe and the Americas of Columbus's voyages?

• How did the Columbian exchange transform both the Americas and Europe?

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