The Hanseatic League (or Hansa) was a mercantile organization founded by traders and merchants from Northern Europe in the thirteenth century. It dominated trade in the region between the Netherlands and Poland and imposed monopolies on many of the most important exports from the region including fish and wool. It also brought tremendous wealth and power to Northern cities such as Hamburg that are often overlooked during the Medieval period and the Mediterranean Renaissance (Wiesner-Hanks, 21).
This was one of the first examples of large-scale trading organizations that led to a more connected European economy and wide-spread trade that came to characterize the early modern period. Perhaps most significantly, it represents the level of organization in Northern Europe and its ability to control and promote the important industries of the North counter the common belief of a Southern European dominance during the late medieval and Renaissance eras. Northern Europe was clearly connected to large trading networks through their many ports and their ability to ship their abundant natural resources on the waterways.
While the Hansa’s importance petered out in the 16th century, this type of mercantile organization and large-scale trading network endured as one of the building blocks of the early modern maritime economy (Wiesner-Hanks, 21). It foreshadowed the rise of companies like the Dutch East India company that operated on a much wider scale. It also foretold the rise of Northern Europe as the economic heart of Europe later in the 18th and 19th centuries. The end of the middle ages and the beginning of the early modern period marked a shift from the dominance of the Mediterranean as the main route for shipping and commercial production, into a focus on the Atlantic world that characterized the age of exploration and conquest (Wiesner-Hanks, 241).
Naval Expansion during the Protestant Reformation
In 1588, Spain sent out a fleet of around 130 ships that they called ‘la felícissima armada’ or ‘the most fortunate fleet,’ to attack Britain and transport troops to her shores. This failed attack took on a legendary place in British national history, though its impacts were relatively limited (Wiesner-Hanks, 195). But while this episode may be given an outsized position in the history books, the coming importance of naval warfare epitomized by the defeat of the Spanish Armada has not been overstated.
Navies had been increasing in importance and equipment since the late Middle Ages when merchants and traders began to be involved in arming trading vessels to protect shipping routes and communication lines as well as ports and towns (Wiesner-Hanks, 96). This necessity was increased by the ferocity of religious wars sparked by the Protestant Reformation that led to both international conflicts, and civil wars throughout Europe during the middle of the 16th century (Holt, 63). Navies were advantageous as they could be kept in active service during peacetime when it was expensive and infeasible to keep standing armies. Mariners could simply turn their hands toward maritime trade when there were no wars to be fought which led to greater experience in many skilled positions (Wiesner-Hanks, 96). These navies were expanded by the use of conscription during wartime (especially in Northern Europe) and the use of prisoners to work in galley fleets (ships that required men to row them) especially in Southern Europe (Wiesner-Hanks, 96). During the 17th century, many nations expanded their navies focusing on heavily armed warships instead of casually maintained merchant vessels with a few guns in response to the growing number and size of wars fought on the seas (Wiesner-Hanks, 325). This adaptation became most important for nations like England that relied almost entirely on their navy for protection and later expansion, giving way to the common epigraph that Britannia Ruled the Waves.
Much of the increase in naval power was in recognition of the need to protect maritime trade routes that were fast becoming an economic backbone of Europe (Wiesner-Hanks, 96). These lines of trade and communication had become far more valuable with the broadening of the known world and the increase in market availability.
European Mercantilism in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans
During much of the period known as the Middle Ages, it has often been believed that Europeans focused inwards, foregoing a knowledge of the outside world in the harsh years of plague and religious intolerance. This misconception, however, greatly underestimates the importance of voyaging and trade during the late Middle Ages the and they ways in which they impacted the age of discoveries, led by the voyages of Italian Marco Polo, that was to follow in the early modern period. Prior to the Renaissance, trade routes crisscrossed much of the known world with merchants trading across ports in the Mediterranean Sea, Indian Ocean and even the South China Seas (Wiesner-Hanks, 241). These connections led to the strong international trade systems that characterized the early modern world, and the increased ability of Europe to facilitate much of this trade. The 1490s saw a rapid expansion in potential trade routes with Spain’s discovery of the Americas and Portugal’s rounding of the Cape of Good Hope. Not only did this open the entirely new realm of the New World for European exploration (and eventually exploitation), but also allowed Europeans to enter the Asian goods markets while cutting out the many middlemen that had previously been used for the long sea and land voyages that transported goods to Europe (Musgrave, 163).
This is not to say that Europe had an equally important role in all trading areas during this period. While it is generally accepted that Europeans dominated commercial activity and trade in the Atlantic world, they were comparatively peripheral in the Asian markets and trade within the Indian Ocean until the 18th century (Wiesner-Hanks, 268). In Asia, merchants and companies directed trade, unlike governments in other parts of the world. This meant that the Europeans often had a weaker hand. This was compounded by the fact that Asia was characterized by very strong governments with sophisticated militaries that were often lacking in other parts of the world. Europeans also entered this market in a weaker position to trade. They were looking to trade in Asian luxury goods which were far superior to European manufactured goods during this time. Given this, and the fact that Europe had comparatively few natural resources, Europe was forced to pay for their goods in bullion imported from the Americas, which did not stimulate their economies in the way that traditional trade in goods might have (Musgrave, 169-172). All in all, despite the massive and rapid expansion in the realm of European trade, European domination was far less apparent than is commonly believed. In fact, it was not until the colonization of India and the partition of Africa in the 19th century that European economic preeminence in the world became firm.
Spanish Exploration and Conquest in the Americas
When Christopher Columbus landed in the Caribbean in 1492, he may not have found a heretofore undiscovered land, however, he did set into play a series of events that would forever alter the shape of history. Early accounts of the Spanish conquest often proposed a heroic myth of European superiority where relatively small numbers of Spaniards were able to defeat vast numbers of indigenous warriors due to exceptional characters and more advanced technology (Restall, 3). These early accounts were certainly heavily biased, however, these narratives have defined the basis of our understanding of the Spanish conquest for much of the intervening 500 years (Restall, 12).
One account that seems to diverge from this narrative (though it was certainly self-aggrandizing) is Bernal Díaz’s account of the conquest of Mexico which offered a far less heroic portrayal of the infamous conquistador Hernán Cortés. This work gave an account of the conquest of Tenochtitlán, the capital of the Aztec empire and their interactions with King Montezuma, and, though it was not published until after Díaz’s death, it has become a cornerstone for historians attempting to piece together the history of the fall of the Aztecs (Díaz, 44). The conquest of Mexico became symbolic of the larger Spanish conquest of the Americas and the success of Cortés served as an inspiration for future conquistadors looking for fame and wealth in the New World, eventually leading to Spanish domain over much of the Americas (Restall, 17). Of course, all of these accounts have historically focused on individual achievements and the accomplishments of exceptional men, while ignoring other, far more important factors (disease brought to the Americas being foremost among these) and tend to overstate the importance of Spanish conquistadors. In recent decades, we have come to understand the conquest of the Americas as vastly more complicated and uncertain than the early chroniclers suggested, yet these works have characterized our perceptions of Spanish conquest for centuries. They were part of the Spanish propaganda of economic and political dominance that they hoped to, and largely did, achieve through conquest in the New World.
Turning the Tides: Information Exchange throughout the Maritime World
It is often noted that the expeditions of Europeans throughout the world and their contacts with other cultures led to a tremendous flow of information. Yet, this is too often viewed as a one-way street, with Europeans passing along knowledge, guidance, and technology to ‘less Enlightened’ people. While we often speak of the material goods that Europeans gleaned from these areas, crops from the Americas, gold from Africa, and porcelain and silk from Asia, considerably less attention is paid to the knowledge and ideas that were brought to Europe from different cultures. It has been noted that the Scientific revolution encouraged a more cohesive scientific and cultural community across Europe. This led to an expansion in communication between intellectuals in different parts of Europe and the increased travel of the nobility and aristocracy for exploration and intellectual betterment (Wiesner-Hanks, 368-369). Later Enlightenment thinkers, likewise, repeatedly avowed the importance of guiding other ‘lesser’ societies to Enlightenment by imposing European systems of government and economies on them (Wolloch, 352).
In actuality, however, the exchange of information was far more reciprocal than is commonly explored and non-Europeans had a wealth of knowledge to share with European explorers, merchants, and later, colonizers. This transmission of knowledge to Europe can be seen in a letter sent home by Lady Mary Wortley Montague, an English aristocrat and ambassador’s wife, living in the Ottoman Empire, to a friend in England. She writes of an early method for vaccinating children against smallpox which she intends to try to prevent serious illness in her own children.
“People send to one another to know if any of their family has a mind to have the small-pox; they make parties for this purpose and when they are met… the old woman comes with a nut-shell full of the matter of the best sort of small-pox, and asks what vein you please to have opened. She immediately rips open that you offer to her, with a large needle (which gives you no more pain than a common scratch) and puts into the vein as much matter as can lie upon the head of her needle, and after that, binds up the little wound with a hollow bit of shell, and in this manner opens four or five eins…Then the fever begins to seize them, and they keep their beds two days, very seldom three. They have very rarely above twenty or thirty [sores] in their faces, which never mark, and in eight days time they are as well as before their illness”(Wortley Montague, 109-110)
This technique was, indeed, brought back to England though it was not widely employed until the end of the 18th century (Wiesner-Hanks, 300). Yet, this case illustrates the effects of the shrinking world during this period and the ability of Europeans to gain valuable information (knowledge that could save lives) from other cultures. More efficient nautical routes and consistent trade were allowing the dissemination of ideas through a world-wide network that led to a freer exchange of knowledge. A web of communication that worked in all directions and, in hindsight, stem the tide of ideas on European Superiority.
The Russian Empire and the Politics of Maritime Power
In addition to economic and military considerations, politics and prestige were often an important driver in the quest for maritime dominance during the period that saw the rise of the nation-state. This is epitomized by the endeavors of Russia’s first emperor, Peter I, or Peter the Great (r. 1682-1725) embodied the transition of Russia into a ‘Europeanized’ power during the early 18th century. He was determined that Russia should gain international recognition among the great powers of Europe and worked to bring the culture and reputation he felt would lend greater credence to Russian superiority. He did this primarily through an attempt to bring Russia more closely in line with Europe, particularly Western Europe. This is most clearly remembered in his erection of St. Petersburg as a grand European city on the Baltic. To research and promote this project, Peter traveled extensively in Europe and hired experts from major Western European cities into Russia to complete architectural and engineering plans for the grand city (Wiesner-Hanks, 357).
Despite his imitation of Europe, Peter was not content with emulating the power and prestige of other European nations; he wanted to show Russian dominance and present himself as a significant European leader. Peter, of course, already had significant resources at hand as the tsar of the largest European nation, with an enormous population of serfs. However, one point in which Russia consistently fell behind was in naval and maritime power. While this may seem ironic given the enormous length of the Russian coasts, Swedish dominance in the Baltic Sea and the strength of the Ottoman Empire in the Black Sea, served to isolate Russia from the rest of Europe (Wiesner-Hanks, 357). This circumstance gave Peter the impetus for a massive reorganization of the military, introducing conscription and the training of military officers to offer Russia a chance of defeating the disciplined Swedish military in the Baltic (Wiesner-Hanks, 357).
Peter was, likewise, very interested in investment in overseas colonies similar to those held by many Western European nations in the Americas and the East Indies. Shortly before his death, he sent Vitus Bering and Alexei Chirokov on a mission east to explore the potential for Russian expansion beyond the Kamchatka Peninsula. Because no European explorers had yet to explore the Northwest coast of the Americas, it was unknown what lay east of Russia. Indeed there were many rumors that Russia was in fact connected to the Americas through a land bridge, and Peter was interested in claiming this land for his Empire. Setting off in 1724, Bering and Chirokov had to travel the length of Russia before constructing ships on the coast of Kamchatka. While they discovered little beyond Siberia on their first voyage, it was during their second expedition in 1741 that Bering and Chirikov finally found land in the Americas, spotting islands in Southern Alaska. Despite Bering’s death on the return voyage, Russia laid claim to this new territory which offered a wealth of resources until it was sold to the United States in 1867.
The Decline of the Spanish Empire: Spanish Political Economy in the 17th Century
During the early 17th Century, Europe underwent a large-scale currency crisis due in large part to the near constant state of war during the century. In no place was this more apparent than in Spain where the real (the Spanish currency) had undergone tremendous inflation as result of the importation of silver from Spain’s New World holdings that had flooded the market with new coins (Elliot, 329). To make matters worse, the imports of silver began to drastically decrease during the 30 years war as a result of overexploitation in America, repeated appropriation by the Spanish government, and the resultant lack of confidence among Spanish merchants (Elliot, 339). These factors led to a decrease in Spain’s power in the Atlantic world during this period. One of the clearest examples of this diminished power was Spain’s inability to successfully govern Brazil despite controlling Portugal. They were repeatedly unable to wrest control from the Dutch who had controlled Brazil since 1630 (Elliott, 333).
These circumstances had profound impacts on Spain that forever changed the power structure of Europe and the Atlantic World. The economic breakdown of Spain coupled with its weak monarchy led to an increased fragility in the framework of the already tenuous monarchy. Disagreements about taxes, protection, and government control led to to unrest and revolt in many Spanish provinces. The loss of Portugal in 1640 as result of an internal revolt was one of the final nails in the coffin of Spanish dominance in the Atlantic World (Cowans, 180). Portugal went on to become a key player in the slave trade and one of the strongest maritime powers during the remainder of the 17th century, eclipsing the former power of Spain.
The Transatlantic Slave Trade
Economics of the Slave Trade
No exploration of maritime history in the early modern period would be complete without a look at the largest driver of maritime trade during the later part of this period, the trade in human slaves. The history of African slavery in the Americas began not long after the European discovery of the West Indies. Early Spaniards in the New World attempted to keep native Americans in slavery to work, both in mines and large-scale agricultural ventures, through the encomienda system, however this proved unsustainable given the unprecedented death rates among the natives. Instead the Spaniards (and soon the Portuguese) turned to the use of African laborers to work in the emerging sugar industry in the West Indies and Brazil (Wiesner-Hanks, 260).
With the expansion of exploration and colonization by other nations in the Americas, the profitable slave trade exploded with most Western European nations taking part in the expansion of slave trading. The slave trade is often conceptualized in the simplified idea of the ‘triangular trade,’ a trading network that brought European manufactured goods to the West coast of Africa where European merchants exchanged these goods for slaves. These slaves were then carried across the Atlantic on a dangerous voyage that has become known as the infamous ‘Middle Passage’ on the way to the Americas. The final leg of this journey brought raw materials such as sugar or cotton from the new world back to Europe for the production of manufactured goods. Of course, unsurprisingly, this international trading network was much more complicated than this simplified triangle. There was tremendous trade within Europe during this time that was tangentially related to the slave trade. Iron, for instance, which was an important trade item for the English and Dutch in the slave trade, had to be sourced in Sweden or Germany, two areas that did not independently participate in the transatlantic slave trade but affected it through their metal exports (Evans & Rydén, 42). Inter-African trade was also common during this period with slave raiders often trading slaves over large areas, both along the coast, and from interior areas within the continent. Later, with the ascendance of the British colony in North America, and later the United States, the triangular trade began to look more like a square with the growth of industry in the Northeastern U.S. where ships were built, and perhaps more importantly, rum was made from the sugar brought up from the Caribbean before being shipped back across the Atlantic.
The Slave Trade And The Enlightenment: An Argument For Abolition?
In the 17th century, the Enlightenment burst forth on the stage of European Intellectual life. It was a movement that stood out from the Renaissance by its focus on breaking free of the past, looking for more reasoned answers to questions, both new and old (Wiesner-Hanks, 367). The Enlightenment led to discussions, debates, and the development of new ideas, particularly in the areas of politics, religion, and ethics. It was out of this age that we have inherited modern ideals of equality, democracy, secular states, and even gender parity (Taylor, 84). Slavery, and the slave trade, were vigorously debated topics during this period, with various philosophers discussing the morality of keeping slaves, and weighing it against the clear economic benefits of the slave trade for Europe. On the one hand, the rhetoric pursued by many Enlightenment thinkers was highly egalitarian such as Philosopher Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat’s calls for universal human rights, and language critical of the slave trade found in Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie (Wiesner-Hanks, 383). Yet, on the other hand, many Enlightenment philosophers used the new ideas and reasoning techniques to cement support for slavery. David Hume, for example, asserted that scientific developments of the modern era had proved Africans to be inferior to Europeans given their geographical origins, which he used to justify their continued enslavement (Wiesner-Hanks, 387). Other philosophers during this period seemed uncomfortable with slavery, yet were unwilling to openly challenge the institution, or to call for the abolition of the slave trade. In perhaps his most famous work, Candide, Voltaire portrays slavery in its monstrous reality when his protagonist meets a Black man in Surinam who gives a very accurate description of what life is like for slaves in South America. “They give us one pair of linen trunks twice a year as our only clothing. When we work in the sugar mills and catch our fingers in the grinder, they cut off our hand. When we try to escape, they cut off our leg” (Voltaire, 81). Yet despite this blunt description of the institution, Voltaire was known for including racist comments in his other works and never publicly called for the abolition of slavery (Gordon, 13).
Suppression of the Slave Trade began in the early 19th century, most notably with the British abolition of the trade in 1807, which they attempted to enforce throughout the entire Atlantic. All slavery was formally abolished in most European colonies during the 1840s. Interestingly, much of the impetus for abolition came not from Enlightenment leaders, but instead from religious groups. The movement was led largely by religious groups often considered on the fringe of society such as the Quakers and the Methodists who felt that Christian morals forbade the continuation of slavery; a consensus many Enlightenment thinkers, both Christian and secular, had failed to come to (Wiesner-Hanks, 526). Notably, the United States, a nation founded on Enlightenment principles, retained legal slavery in parts of the country until 1863, several decades beyond most European nations.
European Colonialism and the Legacy of the Early Modern Period
The beginning of the 18th century saw the final years of the Enlightenment and the beginning of a new era defined by colonial expansion. If maritime history during the early modern period was characterized by exploration and conquest, the 19th century was to be characterized by colonization. By the end of the early modern period, Europeans had already colonized most of the Americas, and had forts and trading posts all along the West Coast of Africa and throughout Southeast Asia (Wiesner-Hanks, 494). The following century would see the European takeover of India, Australia, and the partition of Africa that gave Europeans dominion over much of the world. Yet the end of the slave trade during this period and the liberal ideals of the Enlightenment seem an unusual environment for the growth in colonialism.
If fact, this incongruity has led to a historiographical debate over the actions and intentions of progressive thinkers during the Enlightenment and the role that they played in the establishment and longevity of Empire. Jonathan Israel, a scholar of the Radical Enlightenment, for example, emphasizes racial motivation for European dominion throughout the world, stating that the moderate Enlightenment leaders “often inclined to theories of racial superiority and European…superiority in civilization and religion…This was the usual method of explaining and justifying colonial rule and economic control” (Wolloch, 354). This theory suggests that the liberal principles of equality and liberty that supposedly defined the end of the 18th century were simply ignored when it came to groups of racial “others” which allowed for the justification of colonization of non-white areas. There is, however, another camp of scholars who claim that Enlightenment leaders who supported colonialism did so from a rational (albeit highly Eurocentric) perspective. Historians such as Jennifer Pitts have argued that the support of colonial rule was not based on race, but rather on the theory that only through colonization could Europeans bring development and Enlightenment to non-European societies. These historians cite the works of John Stuart Mill who wrote in his Principles of Political Economy that “it may be said without exaggeration that the great extent and rapid increase of international trade,…is the great permanent security for the uninterrupted progress of the ideas, the institutions, and the character of the human race” (Wolloch, 355). Historians such as Pitts view these ideas of the Enlightenment as an effort to progress humanity albeit a very paternalistic endeavor.
Regardless of the motivation of 18th century intellectual leaders, colonialism did come to define our modern concepts of race and to greatly exacerbate levels of racial inequality throughout the world (Wiesner-Hanks, 521). Hopes of assimilation held by men like Mill began to disappear when faced with the realities of Colonial life and the strengthened belief in the immutability of race (Wiesner-Hanks, 527). Instead, highly racialized systems of government were established that lasted throughout the colonial period. Remnants of these systems could be seen well into the 20th century in the form of Apartheid in South Africa and Segregation and Jim Crow laws in the United States. These forms of racial domination and European imperialism can trace their roots directly to the voyages and conquests of the early modern period, as Europe found a way to dominate the oceans and to create its version of a modern world.
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