From the perspective of Sultan Bayazid II, the Ottoman ruler in Istanbul, Columbus’ expeditions may have been a distant diversion. In fact, they belonged to a set of profound changes in relations between Islamic and Christian territories on a world scale. For the 500 years before 1492, the fortunes of Europe depended heavily on Muslims — Arabs, Turks and others — who in various guises linked Europeans to the rest of the Eurasian system of trade and empire.
Long past 1492, the massive Muslim presence to Europe’s southeast constituted a major factor in European trade, war and foreign relations. After 1492, however, Europeans outflanked their Muslim rivals in the Atlantic and Pacific, while meeting them on almost equal terms in the Indian Ocean. Such eastward powers as Venice and Russia continued grudgingly to bargain with their Muslim neighbors well past 1492, but Iberians led an aggressive European effort to obliterate Muslims through expulsion, massacre or forced conversion, to contain their empires, and to invade their commercial space.
As Aragonese, Castilian and Portuguese adventurers succeeded on some fronts and worked out accommodations on others, seafarers and conquerors from Holland, France and Great Britain followed them. Except in East Asia, Europeans of one stripe or another became the dominant powers in most of the world’s mainland temperate regions. Outside of South America, however, north Europeans displaced Iberians from much of the territory the latter had first opened up to European exploitation. The great moves began during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as the Ottomans expanded while Mongol and North African Muslim powers splintered. Columbus’ voyages to the Caribbean therefore mark the midpoint of an enormous shift in the relations between Asia and Europe, between Muslims and Christians, between ancient circuits of trade and newly fashioned seaways.
Until the fourteenth century, Europe had lived as the northwestern periphery of a vast economic system extending into the Pacific and pivoting on the Mongol-dominated territories of Central Asia. Before then, empires rose and fell in Europe, notably around the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, but only the Roman Empire occupied as much as half of the European space and incorporated it firmly into the Eurasian system of trade, politics and culture. Neither the thin, wavering strands of commerce nor the scattered pockets of productive agriculture could sustain enough extraction to support large armies, priestly hierarchies, elaborate bureaucracies or sumptuous royal courts.
In northwestern Europe, not even daring, rapacious Norsemen could assemble a substantial empire. Norse raiders conquered and settled in the British Isles, Normandy, North America and what later became Russia, but only in Iceland did they establish a substantial colony that remained subordinate to their Scandinavian base. Viking virtuosi of seaborne warfare resembled the Mongols on their steppe. They lacked, however, both a major trade route to protect (for a price) and adjacent grain-growing kingdoms from which to extract tribute (on threat of sacking and killing). It was the Vikings’ successors who solved the problem of basing empires on sea power. They did so at first by preying on maritime trade routes along which Muslims had long worked as active intermediaries.
As Byzantine, Persian, Arab and then Ottoman empires displaced the Romans and once again subordinated Europe’s southeastern half to the silk-trading Baghdad-Hanchow axis, the rest of Europe fragmented and became peripheralized. Nevertheless, from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries, the whole Eurasian system ran so energetically that much of Europe prospered: Commerce flourished, population expanded and cities grew, especially in those sections of the continent most strongly connected to the great belts of Eurasian trade. In the year 1000, the world’s largest cities were probably Constantinople, Cordoba, Kaifeng, Sian, Kyoto, Cairo and Hasa; in that ranking, Europe’s Seville, Palermo and Kiev lagged far behind. At the millennium, then, the world’s largest cities lay largely outside of Europe, while Europe’s largest cities spun in the orbit of Islam.
By 1300, the list began with Hangchow, Peking, Cairo and Canton, with Paris, Granada, Constantinople, Venice, Milan and Genoa among the top 20. Around 1500, the world’s largest cities were very likely Peking, Vijayanagar, Cairo and Hangchow — two in China, one in India, one in Muslim Africa — with Paris, Istanbul, Adrianople and Naples leading the European hierarchy but still much smaller than their Asian counterparts. Although in 1700 Japan’s Edo probably led the globe, for the first time three of the world’s ten largest cities were European: Istanbul, London and Paris. A clear shift of the hierarchy toward northern Europe occurred between AD 1000 and 1700, especially after 1500.
Over the two centuries following 1300, the Black Death intermittently severed the connection between Europe and Asia while fragmentation of the Mongol empire placed formidable barriers on overland trade routes. China withdrew from its previously expansive maritime trade, and sailing vessels of Atlantic powers began to press the galleys that had previously dominated the Mediterranean. Europeans started to use the gunpowder that had come from Asia. The Ottoman capture of Constantinople in 1453 (the first and exemplary major deployment of siege artillery in Europe) defined the confrontation of Christendom with Islam while cementing a love-hate relationship between Muslim Turkey and Orthodox Russia.
All these changes made Europe more of a connected, autonomous unit than it had ever been before. Europe and adjacent sections of that vast complex took a century or more to recover from the demographic devastation wrought by the Black Death. After having maintained a fast pace between the tenth and thirteenth centuries, then collapsing halfway through the fourteenth, population growth only accelerated again during the sixteenth century. Soon the whole Eurasian system began to grow again. Henceforth, Europe occupied a far more prominent position in relation to the rest of the world than ever before, more prominent than during the Roman Empire.
The end of the fifteenth century therefore brought a watershed in European economies and politics. Columbus’ explorations of 1492 began the definitive integration of the Americas into the orbit of Europe. Soon Spaniards were extending to the Caribbean experiments in plantation cultivation of such tropical crops as sugar that they and their Portuguese neighbors had been conducting on closer Atlantic islands such as the Canaries, and were buying African slaves to do the heavy labor. In counterpart to the European flora and fauna (e.g., dandelions, horses and measles) that spread across the Americas, mainland American products soon became mainstays of European life. To its fifteenth-century American adventure Europe owes not only Coca-Cola, tango and jazz, but also maize, potatoes, tobacco and syphilis.
Not that Europe passed through the golden gate into today’s world in or around 1492. The political texture of 1492 differed wonderfully from our own. At that point, the kingdom of Aragon, buoyed by Catalan seafaring, extended from the Iberian mainland to Sardinia and Sicily. The Catholic pope ruled one of Italy’s major states. An enormous kingdom of Poland exercised superficial sovereignty over much of Eastern Europe, while the territory we now call Russia was fragmented into zones controlled by the prince of Moscow, the republic of Pskov, the Golden Horde, the Krim Tatars and many another conqueror from the Eurasian steppe. Much of “Germany” lay nominally under Hapsburg suzerainty, but actually consisted of nearly independent bishoprics, free cities, duchies and other tiny jurisdictions.
On the map of 1492, we might claim to recognize England, Ireland, Scotland and France in something approaching their contemporary boundaries, but that would require us to ignore large subsequent eastward conquests by France, not to mention the troubled formation of what we now call, with some exaggeration, the United Kingdom. Altogether, some 200 state-like units, many of them overlapping in territory and many of them comprising patchworks of semi-autonomous governments, divided up the European map of 1492.
Nor did Europe dominate the world. In 1492, China wielded formidable weight in the East. The lands and seas of Islam lay astride the world’s central commercial and cultural connections, and Islamic influence was still expanding between Southeast Asia and Africa. On the Indian Ocean and the overland routes to Asia, Europeans long followed or compacted with Muslim merchants before they started to displace them. Columbus’ search for a westerly route to “the Indies” was no idle fancy, but an enterprise with visibly substantial payoff if it worked. By 1492, European ships were fending off the expansive Ottoman Empire while breaking into the Muslim commercial space of the Indian Ocean. By 1492, Vasco da Gama had reached India from Portugal. Portuguese, then Spanish, then Dutch traders and sailors started to dominate non-European seas. In 1500-1501, Pedralvarez Cabral’s fleet sighted Brazil before circling east to India and then returning to Portugal. Between 1519 and 1522, one ship of Ferdinand Magellan’s fleet circumnavigated the globe, though Magellan himself lay dead in the Philippines.
Europe’s War States
From the world’s perspective, Europe was becoming a major pole of economic and political activity. From a narrowly European viewpoint, the late fifteenth century initiated a shift in the commercial center of gravity from the southeast to the northwest, from the Mediterranean and Black Seas to the Atlantic. Although Iberian states led that reorientation, it soon involved French ports, the Low Countries, the Baltic and then the British Isles. In 1496, for example, Flanders and England signed the Intercursus Magnus, a commercial treaty according mutual privileges and recognizing the importance of the wool and textile trade that already linked them. The Atlantic, long a far edge of peripheries, was coming into its own.
In 1492 the dual monarchy of Castile and Aragon — the linked but not merged inheritances of Ferdinand and Isabella — completed the conquest of Granada. The conquest eliminated the last substantial vestige of once great Muslim empires from Iberia. Under threat of death, those Spanish Jews who did not convert, at least nominally, to Catholicism began their diaspora across Europe and around the Mediterranean. Jews gathered in what had been outposts of their vast communication system: Poland, Lithuania, the Netherlands, the Indian Ocean, the Ottoman empire. Some gathered across the Strait of Gibraltar in what is now Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Unconverted and unmassacred Muslims also fled there and to nearby Muslim territory.
Responding in part to the threat of a united Spain, France began a fateful military invasion of Italy only two years later. Spain sent competing forces into Italy almost immediately, and the previously contentious but relatively autonomous Italian city-states found themselves pawns of great power politics. That French bid for Italian hegemony initiated the era of wars on a European scale.
The French Valois and Spanish Hapsburgs alone waged war with each other 11 distinct times between 1494 and the 1559 Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis. As of 1492, the character of warfare and the international system were changing rapidly. During the wars of Burgundy in the 1470s, Swiss infantry massed into pike-squares and demonstrated its ability to defeat skilled cavalry. That strategic shift, plus the widening use of extensive fortifications in defense against siege artillery, greatly increased the financial and manpower requirements of armies, not to mention the demand for military architects and Swiss mercenaries. Those wars in turn built the European state system, constructed the platform for European conquests outside of the continent, and helped form the centralized, differentiated, autonomous and bureaucratic states that eventually came to predominate in Europe and then in the world as a whole.
At the same time, the expansion of European trade along the sea lanes of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans offered a powerful stimulus to capital accumulation, which in turn gave war-making states growing wealth on which to build their armed forces. What Immanuel Wallerstein calls the capitalist world-system, centered on Europe, began to take shape. Events of the great year 1492 did not, of course, cause all those momentous processes. Yet the rapid change in Iberia’s position and the breakthrough across the Atlantic, for which 1492 was critical, pushed them vigorously.
The world of Islam continued to play an important part in European history, not only as a source of ideas, as a target of trade and as a continual object of warfare, but also as a presence in southeastern Europe. The Ottomans had taken Constantinople in 1453, Bosnia in 1462, Albania in 1467, the Crimea in 1474 and were threatening Hungary; by 1526, they were to occupy Buda. They were battling Venice for control of Dalmatia, Albania and the Morea. At their peak, in the mid-sixteenth century, the Ottomans ruled almost all of the Balkan peninsula, including significant parts of what is now Hungary. In fact, Ottoman expansion and contraction set the major rhythms of Balkan revolutions after 1492. Only since World War I have the region’s inhabitants ceased to live in strong connection with the power based in Istanbul.
In our own time, as Western-allied Israel struggles with Arab neighbors, as North African states deal with the European Community, as Turkey again becomes a major diplomatic player in the former Soviet Union, the relationships of enmity, alliance and interpenetration between Europe and the Islamic world that have prevailed through most of the last millennium again take center stage. In that regard, 1492’s voyages to America were no more than distant diversions.