Pretty much every human society puts itself at the center of history. Communities (and modern nation-states are no exception!) tend to understand the present primarily through how it affects them, and they tend to interpret the significance of major events in the past in terms of how those events lead to their community’s creation and its current condition. Sometimes those of us who live in the United States can fall into the trap of viewing European expansion westward as inevitable. We can almost picture Europeans like little kids with their noses pressed up against the glass of history’s toy store, just waiting for the opportunity to set sail to the west and usher in a new chapter of the human story.
But the truth is that through the mid-fifteenth century, inhabitants of the Eastern hemisphere weren’t looking west much at all! Rulers in Europe, Africa, and Asia were focused on securing inland territory. The idea of an ocean-spanning empire was pointless, given the limitations of available geographical knowledge and available sailing technology.
Besides, what would eventually drive Western Europeans into the ocean and bring our part of the world into a new global story could be obtained easily enough without risking ocean travel. Certainly, water-based trading was important for portions of both Europe and Africa, but the Mediterranean Sea, not the Atlantic Ocean, was the commercial sea hub of medieval Europe and Africa. And any meaningful connection between Europe or Africa and Asia was over land.
Yet, even before Europeans began looking westward, conditions and events were preparing both Europe and Africa for eventual participation in a new Atlantic World. The “Atlantic World” is a term that historians use to try to explain how the histories of North America, South America, Europe, and Africa converged around the end of the fifteenth-century with significant consequences for all four continents. Thinking in terms of an+ Atlantic World emphasizes the reality that regular interactions between the four continents following Columbus’ voyages meant that none of these areas developed in isolation from each other any longer. In other words, we cannot understand North or South American, European, or African history without having at least some sense of what is happening on the other continents around the same time from end of the fifteenth century through at least the end of the nineteenth (depending on what historian you ask).
Whoa! We’re getting ahead of our story, aren’t we? Europe and Africa don’t even remember that North and South America exist at this point, and vice versa! But I wanted to introduce you to the concept of an Atlantic World early on because it illustrates a key principle for understanding United States history properly: no nation develops in isolation. We are no exception. The choices and actions of other nations have always had a profound impact on American history, as we’ll see through this blog series. That is not to say that Americans have played no part in shaping their own destiny (not to mention the destiny of others!); rather, it is to say that no national destiny is shaped in a vacuum. With apologies to John Donne, no nation is an island.
Okay, but where should we begin the next portion of our story, now that we have finally left the shores of North America and traveled back to the “Old World”? Let’s start with trying to understanding why Europe ends up heading west in the first place, initiating the early stages of the Atlantic World in the process.
As the mid-fifteenth-century approached, Europe’s desire for trade goods was on the rise. Since before the birth of Christ, Europeans had known about and craved Asian trade goods. Silk and jewels were certainly popular. Spices may have been the most popular of all; they were valued for their ability to flavor food, as well as for perceived medicinal qualities. For a while, these goods flowed freely enough along something called “The Silk Road,” a series of caravan routes that connected Asia, Africa, and Europe for over a millennium.
There are many reasons for this increase in trade demand, but let’s boil it down to two (at the risk of giving my world history colleagues a minor heart attack): First, the purchasing power of the average European had increased dramatically following a century and a half of political, economic, and social changes ushered in by such disparate events as the Black Death and the Renaissance. Second, the rulers of Western Europe were well on their way to establishing the strong monarchies that we often associate with the early modern period of European history. To build these kingdoms, they looked to the wealth of trade.
However, as demand was increasing, supply was decreasing! By the mid-fifteenth century, the Silk Road was no longer a viable option for trade. A particularly prosperous period of trade had occurred between 1200AD and 1360AD under the reign of the Mongol empire. The Mongols provided political stability to the regions around the Silk Road, making trade along the route safe and incredibly profitable. After the Mongolian empire fell apart, however, no power arose that could successfully fill the void. The lands along the Silk Road became increasingly unstable and unsafe for traders. The final blow for the Silk Road came in 1453, when the Ottoman Turks finished their conquest of the Byzantine Empire by taking the city Constantinople, an important hub on the road. In retaliation for the Crusades, the Ottomans boycotted trade with Europe, effectively ending access to Asian goods by land.
In light of the closing of the Silk Road, what trade with the East that remained was increasingly controlled by a few Italian port cities. While these cities (in particular, Milan, Venice, and Florence) grew incredibly wealthy from this virtual monopoly on Asian trade goods, they charged steep prices to Europeans further west. Thus, Western European rulers, especially those on the Iberian Peninsula, who wanted to use trade as a means of enriching themselves needed to find a way to circumvent these merchants and regain access to Asian goods.
It is to these efforts that we will turn next week.