The beginning of the 16th century marks an important transition in world history. Advances in technology caused a great shift from trade based on land travel to travel over the world’s oceans. In the previously land-communication dominated world, many human people groups had remained isolated from contact with people on different continents – especially those who lived in the Americas, the African interior, and the Pacific Islands. As advances in shipbuilding gave human beings the ability to embark for the first time on lengthy sea voyages, ships sailing from European ports brought together the continents of the world and the people living there into a network of change and cultural exchange. This new era in human history is characterized by the beginning of a process of increased globalization that created connections between people living in formerly isolated regions. As we will see in this chapter, the consequences were enormous.


A 1608 sailing handbook, showing navigational equipment of the time, including an hourglass, astrolabe, globes, and cross-staff. (Source: Wikimedia)

Before 1500, Eurasian trade had involved mostly luxury goods along the land-based Silk Route. Improvement in sea transportation made the gradual development of the modern mass trade of bulky “necessities” possible, thus transforming the lives of ordinary people and occasioning the rise of a wealthy merchant class in Europe. Along with the increased contact between human beings, there was also a cross-distribution of animals and plants, as pigs, horses, cattle, and sheep from Eurasia were brought to the Americas and tobacco, cotton, corn (maize), and potatoes were introduced to Eurasia from the Americas. Historians refer to this as the “Columbian Exchange.” Christian missionaries from Europe, who traveled to Africa, Asia, and the Americas on the sea-voyaging ships, sought to convert the peoples with whom Europeans came into contact, thus establishing Christianity as a global religion. In addition, as this chapter will explain, the Atlantic Slave trade was part of the 16th century inter-continental exchange.

Historians frequently refer to the 16th century as “the early modern age.” By this, they mean that during this period of time we can observe early indications of changes that will be fundamental in creating the world in which we now live. New demographic, economic, and intellectual patterns emerged so that, by the end of the century, European nations had established themselves as important actors on the world stage.

Europeans, however, were not the only actors in the 16th century Age of Exploration.  Russia moved into Asia as its soldiers and merchants marched across Siberia to the Pacific Ocean.  China expanded into Inner Asia by claiming authority over Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet.  The Ottoman Empire likewise flexed its military muscles as it took control of the Middle East, North Africa, and southeastern Europe.  Traders from the Mughal Empire in India were active in Central Asia, Persia, and Russia.  Japanese merchants likewise sought to establish commercial relations with people living in Southeast Asia.

imageA soldier fires an arquebus using a wooden tripod (Source: Wikimedia)

As human beings increasingly interacted with people vastly different from themselves, they encountered new ideas, cultural habits, and social values.  Both conflict and cooperation, as the following pages reveal, followed.  Other technological developments proved important in the changes that occurred.  The arquebus, a portable rifle supported on a tripod or forked rest that had been developed in the 15th century, was used extensively in the 16th century.  This rifle, called a musket in the 16th century, changed the nature of military conflict, and proved to be important in the spread of large Empires.  Another 15th century invention, the printing press, greatly increased the ability to exchange information and proved vital to the advance of scientific knowledge as medicinal texts began to be widely circulated throughout Europe.

In this chapter, we will seek to understand all that has been mentioned above as we uncover the political, economic, and intellectual foundations of our modern world. Our study begins by looking at the various geographical regions of the world in the 16th century. The initial “global overview” discusses important rulers, cultural trends, and developments that impacted the lives of people. The final chapters of Part 1 focus on three important 16th century events: the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, the European exploration of the Americas, and the Atlantic Slave Trade.


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