A Nation Among Nations
1THE OCEAN WORLD AND THE BEGINNINGS OF AMERICAN HISTORY
Until recently the basic narrative of American history began with a chapter on exploration and discovery. That formula has changed--but only slightly. With the belated acknowledgment that earlier migrants, the first American peoples, had already been living in the Western Hemisphere for thousands of years when Christopher Columbus arrived and when the Pilgrims established Plymouth Plantation, the theme of the typical first chapter has been changed to emphasize European "contact" with Americans or, in some versions, the European "invasion of America." These rephrasings offer a truer interpretation of the encounter but do not change the story much. Either way, the extraordinary events of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries are reduced to being a prequel to an American national history. Likewise, to begin with the migration of the first Americans across an Asian-American land bridge, which should change the frame of American history, amounts in practice to no more than a prelude, acknowledged and then dropped. The proto-nationalist and linear narrative persists, shaped and misshaped by its teleological anticipation of the later emergence of the United States. Thus reduced, this early phase of American history loses much of its significance and capacity to explain later developments. And the usual story about "settlement" that follows "discovery," "contact," or "invasion" is not only linear but very narrowly channeled.The event that occurred in 1492, whatever it is called, was about space, oceanic space. Space was redefined, and movement across oceansmade possible entirely new global networks of trade and communication. Recognizing this spatial aspect of American beginnings enlarges our story. The actual "discovery" was greater in significance than the exploration of a landmass unknown to Europeans or even than the beginnings of the United States. The real discovery was of the ocean, which entered history, creating a new world.The consequences of discovering an oceanic world shaped the history of every continent. On every continent a new world emerged, with consequences for each. The story of North America and of the United States is part of that larger, more important history, not vice versa.While all the educated classes of the European Renaissance knew the earth was spherical, the world as they understood it did not include the oceans. It was not yet global. For Christendom, indeed for adherents of the Abrahamic religions more generally, the Afro-Eurasian world that was unified by the Mediterranean Sea was an "island world" inhabited by the descendants of Adam and Eve, the human family. God, it was thought, had on the third day commanded the sea to pull back, exposing a portion of the earth's surface for the use of humans.1 This biblical cosmology was illustrated on the border of one of the most famous surviving maps of the era, that of Fra Mauro of 1459.2 The great fourteenth-century North African Muslim historian and philosopher Ibn-Khaldun made the same point in words: "The water withdrew from certain parts of [the earth] because God wanted to create living beings on it and settle it with the human species."3 Beyond the ocean was an unknown, often terrifying space. It was even regarded as a kind of anti-world. Map borders often showed monstrous beings beyond the ocean, and countless medieval accounts and encyclopedias described them. This "other" located beyond the human world was present in the daily iconography of Christianity, routinely carved into the tympana of European cathedrals, where they still attract our notice.4Meanwhile, the greater part of Afro-Eurasia had been unified by the Mongol Empire in the thirteenth century, and its extent facilitated expansive trade. This vast empire reinforces the point being made here: this was a land empire, limited by the sea, and when the Mongols attempted an invasion of Japan in 1281, the combination of superior Japanese seamanship and a terrific storm resulted in their disastrous defeat.The later significance of Columbus--though he did not grasp it--was that his voyages opened an extraordinary global prospect, first for Europeansand in time for us all. After Columbus, as the Mexican historian Edmundo O'Gorman wrote in 1958, it became possible for humans to see for the first time that "the whole surface of the terraqueous globe, both water and land, ... is a continuous whole."5 The relation of land and water was revolutionized. The world and the earth (or planet) were made one. Human understanding of the world could now grasp its global dimensions, and in 1540 a Spanish humanist, Juan Maldonado, writing in Latin, offered a fantastic account of a flight to the moon, from which he visualized the entire surface of the earth. A dozen years later Francisco López de Gómara-in his Historia General de las Indias (1552)--explained that "the world is only one and not many."6 This vast expansion of the terrain of humanity enlarged the horizon of human ambition.The people of all continents, not only Europe, learned over the next century that "the world is an ocean and all its continents are islands."7 Global awareness and communication, which we may think of as the striking development of our own time, preceded America and made it possible. Within a quarter century of Columbus's final voyage, the world had been encompassed. Centuries later, Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, friend and adviser to Theodore Roosevelt, succinctly described the significance of this: the ocean ceased to be a barrier and became "a wide common, over which men may pass in all directions."8 Ironically, given this celebration of the human commons, Mahan was architect of the empire that, he believed, should consolidate America's strategic and commercial domination of the ocean.The territory that later became the United States participated in the oceanic revolution, was one of its consequences, and shared its larger implications. Much of the meaning of American history is therefore entangled with this reinvention of the world, entangled in histories it shares with other peoples. Each, however, experienced this common history in its own particular way. Though for centuries what became the United States was marginal to those histories, in time, especially in our own time, not only is it very much at the center, but it is a powerful engine of global historical change. So the history of the United States is not and cannot be a history in and of itself. Its context until well into the twentieth century was the ocean world. And it cannot be appraised except as a part of this revolution in human existence--a revolution comparable in significance to the invention of agriculture or cities.Thinking he had reached the Asian shores of the known world,Columbus did not refer to the "new world," though he occasionally used the phrase "otro mundo," "another world."9 It was the humanist scholar Peter Martyr who--in a letter of 1493--first employed the phrase "novus orbis." 10 More famously, Amerigo Vespucci, another humanist from Florence who was serving as the Medici agent in Lisbon, used the term "Mundus Novus" in an account of a voyage that brought him to the Western Hemisphere--initially a letter written upon his return in 1502 to his Medici patron and subsequently published.11 This earned him recognition on the famous Waldseemüller map of 1507, which showed the hemisphere as a simple, distinct entity. On this map, one finds for the first time the word "America," the letters stretching roughly from today's Central America to Brazil, the area where Vespucci is supposed to have first seen the "New World."Vespucci is fairly credited with recognizing that this new world had large implications for European cosmology. He grasped that he had seen "things that are not found written either by the ancients or modern writers." 12 By 1498, Columbus, too, had an inkling of this idea. The letter in which he used the phrase "another world" bears fuller quotation, for it shows Columbus, no less than the humanist, considering the lands he visited as "another world from that in which the Romans and Alexander and the Greeks labored to gain dominion."13 But neither of them understood the significance of their discovery, which was not in the land they saw, but rather in the ocean that had made it accessible. They both missed the revolutionary transformation of the ocean from a barrier into a connector of continents, a medium for the global movement of people, money, goods, and ideas. By 1519-22, when Ferdinand Magellan (or his crew, since he did not survive the voyage, and one of his five ships, Victoria) circumnavigated the globe, the dimensions of this new ocean world had been fully experienced: the world was global, and it was unified by its oceans.Rather quickly this new world included a novel form of power. Vasco da Gama's actions in South Asia might be seen as pointing quite directly to the foundations of a new kind of imperial power. His arrival in Calicut, on the Malabar Coast of southwestern India, in May 1498 shocked no one. He was greeted there by Moorish traders from Tunis, who knew of Christendom and spoke both Castilian and Genoese. By the end of the summer, da Gama had met there a Jewish merchant from Poland who spoke Hebrew,Venetian, Arabic, German, and a little Spanish.14 Moreover, da Gama had known about Calicut before he embarked; a key entrepôt for the spice trade managed by Muslim merchants, it was his destination.15 And the merchants he met in Calicut knew about Europe. Da Gama found cities and an active commercial and political life in the Indian Ocean region, unlike Columbus in the "new world." This notable point was made by the Portuguese king in a somewhat gloating letter to Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain in 1499: his explorers, the king wrote, found "large cities, large edifices and rivers, and great populations among whom is carried on all the trade in spices and precious stones, which are forwarded in ships ... to Mecca, and thence to Cairo, whence they are dispersed around the world. Of these [they] have brought [back] a quantity."16Da Gama's arrival was not significant for the discovery of unknown places or cultures; his having sailed around Africa was not unimaginable to traders used to seaborne commercial relations on the east coast of Africa. It was important, as the king's letter indicated, for commerce. But we must recognize a larger historical significance in da Gama's presence in the Indian Ocean. His second voyage, a few years later, marked the incorporation of the ocean into the domain of state power. He returned with heavily armed ships, establishing a military regulation of the Indian Ocean. With such militarization, the sea became a place of power as well as of movement. The beginnings of modern "sea power" can be traced to this moment.17For the various societies populating the shores of the Indian Ocean whose ships plied its waters, the ocean had been an edge and a passage. Now it was a field for the exercise of power over the "essential social interactions of trade."18 Ever so quickly oceans became a medium for the lineaments of European power, which would in time enable the establishment of a series of European colonial empires in Asia. Sea power, invented by the Portuguese in Asia, became, as Mahan later argued, a dominating form of state power--the product and also the security of empire--well into the twentieth century. And the contests among empires for oceanic trade and naval power were, as we shall see, the context for the American Revolution and the later emergence of the United States as a world power.
It was trade, not militarism, that drew the attention of Adam Smith to the creation of the oceanic world. In The Wealth of Nations (1776), Smith wrote that "the discovery of America, and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind." Smith was sympathetic to the American colonies, which were moving toward revolution as he wrote. He supported their opposition to British imperial fiscal and trade policies, against which his famous book was directed. But he did not ascribe world-historical importance to the American resistance. No Tom Paine he. For him, the big historical event between 1400 and 1800 was the oceanic interconnection of the continents, which opened "a new and inexhaustible market" that, Smith believed, promised to transform the world. "It gave occasion to new divisions of labor and improvement of art, which, in the narrow circle of ancient commerce, could not have taken place."Smith's was not a simpleminded celebration of what we would today call the globalization of capital and trade. He acknowledged uncertainty about the ultimate effects of the emerging global economy. While it was clear to him that the effect of global trade on Europe was to increase both "enjoyments" and "industry," he worried about the future. He recognized and was critical of the enslavement and exploitation that accompanied the expansion of trade. "To the natives ... both of the East and West Indies, all the commercial benefits which can have resulted from those events have been sunk and lost in the dreadful misfortunes they have occasioned."19However expansive Smith's appraisal of the oceanic revolution, he captured its implications only in part. The geography of trade shifted from the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean to the "ocean sea," and this displacement was enormously consequential for the peoples of southern Europe, the Levant, Africa, central and South Asia, and the Americas. In 1300 much of Islamic Africa and the Mongol land empire embracing China, the Middle East, and India was flourishing, with greater wealth, power, and art than European Christendom. This contrast dramatically altered with the oceanic revolution. Had Portuguese and Spanish sailors not ventured out onto the ocean and established oceanic trade connections that included both the Americas and Asia, Christendom would have remained marginal in world history, on the periphery of the Afro-Eurasian world.20The oceanic revolution coincided with a vital and creative moment in European thought and culture--the Renaissance, the "New Science," the Protestant Reformation, and Catholic renewal. These revolutionary innovations, too, affected the expansion of Europe. The relation of European values and these cognitive developments to the expansion of Europe's maritime reach and trade are much contested by economic and cultural historians, but the outcome is unmistakable: several emerging nation-states in western Europe were enriched and empowered, while others, Native Americans and Africans, paid a horrific price.21Deadly diseases carried from Europe killed as many as three out of four Americans, perhaps nine out of ten in the Caribbean and Southern Hemisphere--the greatest human demographic disaster in the historical record.22 In this biological exchange, Europeans contracted syphilis, a global event that makes the additional point that the age of discovery contains a still unwritten but important history of gender relations and sexuality.23 The European quest for land in the Americas confronted those Native Americans who survived the diseases of initial contact with a multi-century battle for physical, cultural, and political survival. And the European search for labor on that land resulted in the sale of between eleven and twelve million Africans into the gruesome Atlantic slave trade--many of whom perished in transit or soon after. The result was, among other things, a demographic crisis for the peoples of Africa and the Americas.24The era of oceanic exploration was a time of curiosity, of appraising peoples.25 Cultures were compared, contrasted, and even partially inhabited. Languages were learned. When the Christians of Europe ventured out onto the ocean, they also invented anthropology--the study of the condition of being human.26 Increasingly formalized knowledge was incorporated into their conceptions of colonization, and it facilitated dispossession, slavery, and even genocide. And mistakes about the cosmological position, character, and intentions of others in the new global world could be immediately consequential: the Aztecs, who were initially uncertain about the religious significance of Cortés and his Spanish soldiers, paid dearly for their hesitation. Perhaps the arriving Europeans miscalculated on Roanoke Island, thus accounting for the still unsolved mystery of the disappearance of the English settlers between 1587 and 1591.Big questions were asked. Were the beings found beyond the oceanGod's people? Or were they an "other" belonging to the netherworld, the negation of the Christian world? Were they humans or monstrous beings, like those decorating the cathedrals? If they were not the children of Adam and Eve, who were they, and what rights did they have? Were there multiple creations? To discover an otro mundo, a world with other peoples, forced people to reconsider what was human. These questions would be revisited well into the nineteenth century, whether one was seeking to mount claims to human rights or to offer defenses of racism, slavery, and colonialism.THE ISLAND WORLDIn the centuries before Columbus, the peoples of Afro-Eurasia, oblivious to the Western Hemisphere, thought of themselves as inhabiting the entire world tout court. The human world as they knew it was an island surrounded by an ocean. For the Greeks this was the oikoumene, or "human house."27 Beyond this house, according to Dionysius, a Greek geographer writing in the first century of the Common Era, was the "vast abyss of the ocean" that "surrounds earth on every side."28 "Ocean" is a Greek word meaning the "great outer sea" that encompassed the earth, which the Greeks believed was spherical. The Mediterranean was the "inner sea" at the center of this island world.29 The word "Mediterranean" derives from Greek and Latin roots that mean "middle Earth/land," while in Arabic, the other great Mediterranean language, the sea was named by a word with a similar meaning, al-Abyad al-Mutawasit, "the middle white sea."30The Greeks knew much of this world and had mapped it. It is they who named the Indies, by which they meant "all lands east of the Indus."31 With their sophisticated understanding of geometry, they estimated what the globe's circumference was with remarkable accuracy. Strabo, the Greek historian and geographer who lived in the age of the Roman emperor Augustus, even understood the concept of sailing west to get to the East. Citing the third-century B.C. geographer Eratosthenes, he observed,"If the Atlantic ocean was not an obstacle we might easily pass by sea from Iberia to India, still keeping the same parallel."32At the time of Jesus considerable trade and communication already connected the whole of Afro-Eurasia. The Roman writer Seneca notedthat "all boundaries have shifted," for the "all-travelled world lets nothing remain in its previous station: the Indian drinks from Araxes' cold water, the Persians drink from the Elbe and the Rhine."33 Between 200 B.C. and A.D. 400 trade routes linked the Roman Empire and the Han dynasty in China (much later denoted the Silk Road). There was so much early contact that the Western name for China came from the dynasty that preceded the Han, the Xin. Cross-cultural interactions extended from the China Sea to Britain, from the Caucasus to North Africa and South Asia. Culture, goods, and diasporic communities of traders traversed these long distances.34Although the curricular story of "Western civilization" in our schools makes much of the fall of the Roman Empire, in fact from the fifth century A.D. onward the Mediterranean world flourished, whether under the rule of Constantinople or the Omayyad dynasty in Damascus.35 Vital trade between and among several Muslim kingdoms and dynasties and Christian traders, especially the Venetians, brought prosperity to all participants. Later, when Sultan Mehmet II conquered Constantinople in 1453, the foundations were laid for a vast Ottoman Empire that came to surround much of the Mediterranean, reaching into Europe, Africa, and Asia. Mehmet II envisioned Constantinople as an Islamic successor to Rome, the center of "the empire of the world."36 Worldwide trade and the cultural exchanges that accompanied it were facilitated by the Muslim dynasties, reaching a high point with the reign of the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-66). Through their participation in this trade Europeans recognized both their dependence on the Muslim traders and the wealth that direct trade with Asia promised. Arab science also gave them maps and technologies that would enable their exploration of possible sea routes to the East.The oceanic revolution was to transform the relations of the Atlantic powers to Mediterranean ones and, indeed, of Christendom to Islam. Over time, oceanic trade marginalized the Mediterranean world and weakened the Islamic empires. No wonder that Ottoman leaders, even though not explorers themselves, had great interest in the Portuguese and Spanish voyages; the first illustrated book published in the Ottoman Empire, in Istanbul, was Mehmet Efendi's Book of the New World (1583).37But at the time of Columbus, the Atlantic Ocean was, as FernandBraudel remarks in his great history of the Mediterranean, an "annex" to the inland sea. The Mamluks and Ottomans, along with lesser Muslim dynasties, held this world together. Extended trade routes in the Mediterranean formed the core of the world's "dominant economy."38The Ottoman Empire nearly circled the Mediterranean but, like the Roman and Byzantine empires before it, was basically a land empire. And while the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, and South China Sea sustained important maritime trade, perhaps surpassing that of the Mediterranean in volume, it was coastal, not oceanic.39 The great Ottoman trade links were caravan routes that with the help of coastal shipping reached as far as Java in the east, Turkestan and Mongolia to the north, Poland and Hungary to the west, and into today's Eritrea and sub-Saharan Africa to the south. Ottoman trade with western Europe, a source of wealth for both Europe and the Ottomans, was typically carried west from Istanbul and other Ottoman ports in Venetian or Genoese ships.Touching nearly all other empires, dynasties, and kingdoms of its time, the Ottoman Empire was at once extensive and paradoxically insular. 40 It not only connected the three divisions of the Afro-Eurasian island world but also constituted a civilization that encompassed the whole. Part of Islam's historical significance derives from the fact that for Muslims following these trade routes across Eurasia, Islam afforded a common reference point that facilitated trade, travel, and cultural communication while granting autonomy to a vast number and variety of minority cultures and peoples. At a time when Roman Christianity was a distinctly European religion, persecuting heretics and inattentive to eastern and Coptic Christians scattered in a wide arc of the Levant and eastern Europe, Islam embraced a range of peoples and gave local space to diverse religions and cultures.41When the great Muslim traveler Ibn Battuta undertook his extended journeys between 1325 and 1354--estimated at more than seventy thousand miles--his experience was quite different from the Italian Marco Polo's adventure fifty years earlier, in 1271-95. Marco Polo had gone from a known culture into the unknown; there was no cultural continuity and very little knowledge that connected Venice to the court of the great khan in China. By contrast, Ibn Battuta, who began in Tangier, the place of his birth, remained largely within Dâr al-Islam ("the abode of Islam"), a single cultural universe marked by established lines of communication.For example, early in his journey, in Alexandria, he met a "pious ascetic" who said: "I see that you are fond of travelling through foreign lands." Battuta affirmed the point, and the man continued: "You must certainly visit my brother Farid ad-Din in India, and my brother Rukn ad-Din in Sind, and my brother Burhan ad-Din in China, and when you find them give them greetings from me." Ibn Battuta reported that his "journeys never ceased until I had met these three that he named and conveyed his greetings to them."42 Marco Polo's more isolated European culture did not provide him with the resources necessary for such a conversation and such contacts.43The Ottomans did not want to assimilate or reform the cultures of the minority groups within their empire; they were satisfied with and depended on collecting taxes from them. They also sought non-Muslim male children who could be enslaved and serve the sultan; sometimes these men became powerful officials. On these terms, the Ottomans established a "pax turcica" that enabled a caravan trade converging on Istanbul to grow eastward for silk from China and, on more southern routes, pepper and spices from Southeast Asia; to the west it connected with Europe, mostly through Italian intermediaries who carried trade along the Atlantic coast and as far north as the Baltic Sea, and from Africa to the south came gold and slaves.44The scope and energy of Islamic mercantile and artistic activity far exceeded anything in western Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Indeed, the centers of wealth and artistic activity in Europe owed their vitality to commercial and cultural relations with the Ottoman Empire. The system worked, but that the Muslim traders were profiting richly from the trade was painfully evident to the Europeans. Moreover, the line between legitimate business practices and piracy was difficult to draw in both the Muslim and the Christian worlds.45 So the merchants of Europe resented their dependency; they felt captured by these trading patterns even as they profited from trade with the Ottomans and, to a lesser extent, with the Safavid, Mughal, and Songhai empires and from the China trade that passed through Ottoman hands.Thus it was not their superior wealth or technology or civilization that accounts for the Europeans' expansion across the oceans. I am prepared to argue the opposite: that a sense of weakness, marginality, and inferiority impelled them toward invention and boldness on the high seas.This interpretation of the discovery of the ocean world takes the beginnings of European settlement in North America away from a simple progressivist narrative of Western civilization triumphant and culminating with the United States. It can fairly be argued--and has been--that Europe's emergence was the consequence of its interaction with the societies of Africa, Asia, and America after 1492.46Europeans felt besieged by the richer, expansive Islamic world. The well-known moment when the Spanish expelled the Muslims from Spain in 1492 has encouraged an easy assumption that the Islamic world then was both unitary and weakening, but that was not at all the case. Islam contained many societies, and the dynamic Ottoman and Mughal empires were reaching the height of their power. Even as Muslims lost the Iberian Peninsula, other Muslims were gaining a foothold in central Europe, establishing Ottoman power in Hungary and Austria. Indeed, Captain John Smith of Jamestown fame had, before his adventure in Virginia, fought with the Hungarians against the Ottomans and as a consequence spent time in an Istanbul jail.The Ottomans were confident, sure of their power and cultural accomplishments. From the Ottoman perspective large parts of Europe were marginal, just as central Asia or sub-Saharan Africa was to Victorian Englishmen. 47 Genoa and Venice, however, were both well known and respected in the eastern Mediterranean; these cities had acquired great wealth in connecting the Ottoman trade with western Europe. The Genoese presence in Constantinople is still evidenced by the Galata Tower they built there, while the city-state of Venice was the center of Mediterranean commerce in the fifteenth century. Venetians focused on the eastern Mediterranean and the caravan routes available to them there, but the Genoese, being squeezed out (largely because they had joined the failed defense of Constantinople against the onslaught of Mehmet II in 1453), sought new opportunities and alternative routes, turning first to the Maghreb and then out onto the Atlantic. A Genoese map published in 1457 shows a European ship in the Indian Ocean, suggesting their ambition to find another path to the East.48In these ventures they collaborated with the Iberians, especially the Portuguese. The Genoese merchant and maritime community in Lisbon was substantial, including Christopher Columbus in the 1480s, and it helped to fund Portuguese exploration and commercial enterprises.Genoese also supplied exceptionally skilled sailors, who partially manned the Portuguese ships that sailed the African route to the Indies. And when the Portuguese developed sugar plantations, they did so in collaboration with the Genoese.49This moment on either side of 1500 reveals a remarkable conjuncture in the history of capitalism and of the global economy. When the Italians invested in developing an oceanic economy to gain leverage in their Mediterranean trade relations with eastern markets, they were laying a foundation for the displacement of the earlier economy that had served them and the Ottomans so well. Equally important, by investing in sugar production and deciding to use African slaves, they laid the groundwork for the "plantation complex" that was to transform the global economy again in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.50 The two together enabled North Atlantic economies to achieve dominance with a global reach in the nineteenth century.51The European move onto the ocean had huge geopolitical consequences, shifting power to the North Atlantic. The Mediterranean world, with its connections to overland trade routes, lost its centrality,52 and the Ottoman Empire progressively lost territory, decade by decade, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Some historians have interpreted this as a decline of the Ottoman Empire but these losses carried the possibility of strengthening the center. In any case, the fracturing of Ottoman authority on the periphery produced a power vacuum that European diplomats of the time called the "Eastern Question."An Austrian diplomat in 1721 famously characterized the Ottoman Empire as the "sick man of Europe,"53 but the Ottoman fate was determined not so much by its religion and culture as by its having been a land empire in an age of oceanic commerce and sea power. In fact, the Ottoman dynasty outlasted the Habsburg dynasty's Austro-Hungarian Empire by a few years, the second being dismembered at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, and the first, reduced in size, surviving until the revolution led by Kemal Atatürk brought it to an end with the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923. The weakening of each of these largely agrarian, land-based empires is a geopolitical story, not a cultural or religious one, and it began in the seventeenth century, when they were first challenged and eventually displaced by new state formations. The future belonged to nations whose sailors and merchants mastered the ocean andits commerce.54 Small trading nations with small home territories often found success in this new world.GOING GLOBALBeginning in the twelfth century, people around the world, on every continent, began to benefit from a process of global warming. The result was population growth, more extensive empire building, and new levels of cultural vitality.55 In the fourteenth century the Empire of Mali was at its height, recognized for its wealth and power throughout the Mediterranean world. Across the Atlantic, the Aztec Empire consolidated its power, ruling over a vast region of client states with a capital, Tenochtitlán, that in 1325 had perhaps a quarter-million residents; it was the world's largest city when Cortés arrived early in the sixteenth century.But the fourteenth century was not kind to Europe or China. These two parts of the island world suffered devastating losses of life from famine and the plague. If the Mongol conquests had established safe trading routes that brought new levels of prosperity, the great caravans following them across central Asia spread the terrible Black Death. More than sixty million Chinese died, and Europe lost one-third of its population.No one knows exactly how it began. It seems likely, however, that social disruptions following the roaming conquests of the Mongols made many societies susceptible to this devastating contagious disease. It is certain that their trade routes became channels for its worldwide distribution. It was carried from Southeast Asia, where it probably began, to China, and across central Asia to Europe. The plague disrupted regular trade, and the caravan routes became identified as conduits of the Black Death. The spread of the plague was one reason that Europeans began looking in the fifteenth century for alternatives to the land routes to the East. Perhaps the sea would be safer.In the fifteenth century Europe's new energy was revealed in its commitments to exploration and increases in long-distance trade, and also in artistic, scientific, and technological innovation. Such developments can rarely be explained, but perhaps the innovations were a response to the challenge of Islam as well as to the disruptions of established social practicesand cultural assumptions that the plague had caused. Yet this striking new social energy was evident not only in Europe. There were indications of it from China to Portugal, from the Aztec Empire to the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal empires in central Asia, to the Songhai Empire in West Africa. While Europe brought its new energy to the ocean, the house of Osman consolidated its massive Ottoman land empire, and the Muscovy Empire began its expansion to the east, reaching the Pacific in 1639.Looking for the most likely leader of the move onto the ocean in the early fifteenth century, one would not have focused on Europe. The Chinese, not the Portuguese, might have seemed to be the most likely to encompass the globe by sea and establish a global trading empire. The great Chinese fleets then had ships far larger than those of Columbus (four hundred feet long to the mere eighty-five feet of the Santa María) that were exploring the coasts of Southeast Asia, South Asia, and East Africa. It has been proposed that Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch who was a powerful Chinese admiral, circumnavigated the globe between 1421 and 1423, almost exactly a century before Ferdinand Magellan's voyage.56 Whatever the full extent of this early Chinese move onto the ocean and of the client-state trading partners Zheng He established, Chinese policy shifted in 1433: as the result of internal political and fiscal changes, government subsidies for such maritime activities ended, and without government support, which was essential for the very large ships, private traders turned to regional trading in smaller ships.57Even with this reduction of maritime activity, China remained the economic engine of Asia. Its robust economy (and, to a lesser extent, the economies of other Asian empires) prepared the Asian foundation that made the ocean actually work as a field for global commerce.The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) had witnessed a transition to a "silver economy" by the end of the fifteenth century. The reason for this development was partly government policy (making silver legal for paying taxes in the 1430s), but silver was also needed for China's growing economy and seems to have had significant value as an economic "good" as well as a medium of exchange. As a result, silver came to have a much higher value (compared with gold or any other measure) in China than anywhere else in the world; between 1540 and 1640, its value was 100 percent higher than in Europe. Japan had supplied China with silver, but China,with about a quarter of the world's population and perhaps 40 percent of its economy, had an enormous demand for it, and the demand was eventually supplied by the silver mines of America, which between 1500 and 1800 produced roughly 85 percent of the world's silver; between 1527 and 1821, as much as half of the output went to China. This animated not only the Chinese economy but global commerce as well. When the Chinese relaxed restrictions on maritime trade in 1567, the Asian demand for silver and the global flow of bullion increased dramatically, perhaps doubling almost instantly.58 As a result, an apparently inexhaustible market emerged for the seemingly limitless production of the silver mines of Mexico and Peru.The movement of silver from Acapulco to Manila (founded in 1571 precisely to manage this trade) created a global economy built on Pacific as well as Atlantic sea-lanes.59 Without silver from the Spanish colonies in South America and the Ming dynasty's policy that gave it trade value in exchange for the sophisticated manufactured goods from China and, to a lesser extent, India, it is unlikely that Europeans could have become such successful global traders.60 But silver now became the currency of the global trading system and Europeans the well-rewarded intermediaries. Without these Asian developments, the prospects for settlement and development in the Americas would have been less promising; public or private investments there would not have been made. Spain's success in the New World therefore depended not only on its securing control of the mines of Peru and Mexico from the disease-weakened Native Americans but also on the expanding economies of Asia.61 Ironically, the flow of silver into China caused rapid urbanization and speculation there, and inflation made China ever more dependent on the constant flow of silver, which meant that the Ming dynasty became vulnerable to the inevitable interruptions in the global movement of bullion. The resulting economic and social instability seems to have contributed to its collapse in 1644.62
In his history of capitalism in the early-modern period, Fernand Braudel declares that Portugal was "the detonator of an explosion which reverberated round the world." Having conquered the Moors in their part of the Iberian Peninsula in 1253, the Portuguese also consolidated a surprisingly modern state, accomplishing what Braudel calls a "bourgeois revolution"in 1385. If the phrase is anachronistic, the point holds: the newly established monarchy was organized in alliance with Portugal's mercantile class, and the result was a market-friendly state. Lisbon was an outward-looking, cosmopolitan city eager for trading opportunities.63Evidently influenced by Genoa, the Portuguese focused on trying to find a way around the Venetian and Ottoman monopolies over the Mediterranean and land routes to the Indies.64 This focus was one reason why they declined Columbus's petition for a transatlantic voyage. The other was their better knowledge of geography. Following ancient Greek estimates of the circumference of the earth, they thought correctly that Columbus had underestimated it by 20 percent, an error, the Portuguese rightly understood, that would make it unlikely that his plan would bring him to Asia.They had grasped early that "if you are strong in ships, the commerce of the Indies is yours," as their advocate for the sea, Prince Henry the Navigator, put it. They were strong in ships, and they captured the seaborne pepper and spice trade for more than a century.65 Portuguese progress down the west coast of Africa was not dramatic; it was incremental and persistent. Portuguese sailors and merchants were as cautious as they were skilled.66 In 1415, the Portuguese established an African claim at Ceuta, just south of Gibraltar; their first fortified trading post in West Africa came in 1445 on the coast of present-day Mauritania. They did not stop there. They sailed south, dreaming of the east, and established more such enclaves, called feitoria in Portuguese and corrupted into the English "factory."It is often said that Europeans limited themselves to coastal enclaves in Africa because of the problem of local diseases there. That was surely a factor, but so was the strength of the polities they encountered.67 It is worth noting that the first Portuguese territorial colonization was at São Tome and other offshore islands that they found uninhabited. The enclaves the Portuguese established on the mainland took little land and demanded only limited authority because the African polities, with their coastal navies and possession of the home ground, were able to negotiate from a position of strength. Historians are increasingly realizing that Europeans did not dominate on the ground; in this early phase, empire was shaped by accommodation and by the mutual pursuit of economic or other interests.Before the arrival of the Portuguese in the 1490s, the Indian Ocean had been the center of a vast system of trading cities connected to all known regions of the island world. The city of Malacca, founded in 1380, had as many as fifty thousand inhabitants at the start of the sixteenth century, and a Portuguese visitor declared that as a center of trade it "has no equal in the world."68 A trans-regional trade system between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean, linked by the Red Sea, went back to ancient times, when the Egyptians had built a canal from the Nile to the Red Sea. This trade, encouraged and facilitated by the Ottomans, was known to the Portuguese, but only indirectly.Portuguese ambitions in India were initially contested by the Muslim rulers there, whose power was equal to that of the Portuguese. But they did not press the issue, since they had more important strategic interests elsewhere, while the Portuguese were determined to establish themselves. It has been speculated that had these Indian Muslims displaced the early Portuguese enclaves, any Christian "factories" in India might have been postponed indefinitely.69 Instead, they traded with the Europeans. Now the Portuguese had direct access by sea to the Mughal Empire and the trade of the East, and for about a century they monopolized the European market for pepper and spices.70The Portuguese also anticipated the later development of the Atlantic sugar economy. During the Crusades, Christians had discovered the sweetness of sugar, originally a product of Bengal but long manufactured in the Levant. Production of this delicious luxury now moved across the Mediterranean, initially under the auspices of an expansive Islam, which brought its cultivation as far as Spain. Later Italian investors expanded its cultivation, and sugar production was established in Cyprus, Sicily, and the Maghreb. In the fifteenth century the Portuguese collaborated with Italian investors and growers to develop sugar plantations on the Atlantic islands of Madeira and Sao Tome, while the Spanish established plantations on the Canary Islands.Both Arabs and Europeans used African slaves in this work. Agricultural slavery was a novelty, which may have been propelled by the labor shortages produced by the legacy of the Black Death.71 It is important also to keep in mind, however, that between 1530 and 1780 at least a million white Christian Europeans, mostly from the Balkans and Caucasus, were enslaved by the Muslim Arabs of the Barbary Coast. Most ofthese slaves, typically captured in various conflicts, were put to work in cities and towns or on ships as sailors.72 The difference in the mode of unfree labor imposed on Europeans and Africans warrants emphasis. Slavery in Muslim societies was generally not agricultural. Europeans were familiar with a different form of unfree agricultural labor, serfdom, but they did not employ it on sugar plantations in the Americas. Serfdom was a form of village or communal labor, while slavery in the emerging plantation complex was based on individual slaves, though they typically worked in gangs. Gang labor as a form of slavery had not existed in Africa or the eastern Mediterranean or the Muslim world, except in the salt marshes of the Tigris-Euphrates valley.73The new pattern of unfree labor in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic islands was thus a major innovation. It pointed toward the industrial organization of the future, not back to the patterns of slavery known in African villages. Here was the root idea of the plantation system that was later to develop on a large scale in Brazil and later yet on the Caribbean islands.PEOPLE FROM THE SEAThe oceanic revolution touched peoples of all continents in many ways--cultural, cosmological, and economic. Every continent experienced the unprecedented arrival of an unexpected people from the sea--and these seafarers came to know other peoples. On every continent, the arrival of the harbingers of a new world elicited a similar phrase: they were always the people from the sea; the Chinese called them "ocean barbarians."74The novelty of the seaborne arrival of the Europeans was greater for Americans than for the various peoples of Afro-Eurasia who already had trading relationships, even if at a distance, with other continents. The shock of the new is evident in the words of an ordinary fisherman from a shore village who was taken in 1519 to the Aztec capital to report to the ruler, Montezuma, who wanted information about the landing of Cortés. He told him, "When I went to the shore of the great sea, there was a mountain range or small mountain floating in the midst of the water, and moving here and there ... My lord, we have never seen the like of this."75The native peoples of the Western Hemisphere, the first Americans,had been isolated from the island world. While they had extensive north-south trading networks, they had not ventured out onto the ocean. Given that the Aztecs did not deploy the wheel for mercantile purposes (using it only on children's toys) and the Incas had only llamas as beasts of burden, they might have considered making more extensive use of maritime transport, but they did not, keeping to coastal navigation mostly devoted to fishing, not trade. But with the arrival of the Europeans they were pulled into the ocean world. The new world of America formed by the arrival of the Europeans offered opportunities for new trade and new items of trade, including manufactured iron implements and textiles, to say nothing of weapons. Also, alliances were possible. Very early, for example, the Tlaxcalans on Mexico's Gulf Coast recognized in Cortés an ally who might (and did) enable them to strike back at the Aztecs who had turned them into a client people. As it turned out, the Spanish profited from the alliance more than the Tlaxcalans did, a pattern that would be repeated.Unlike the Western Hemisphere, Africa had all along been part of the island world, with plenty of trade and intercultural relations with Asia and Europe. All three shared the Mediterranean trade routes, and the Swahili port cities on the east coast of Africa opened out to the Indian Ocean.76 Da Gama had recognized their importance and lingered there before going on to India. Along various routes, African gold and slaves went to the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, but communication between sub-Saharan Africa and the Mediterranean world was limited; west equatorial Africa was on the distant periphery of the Muslim trading empires.77 Still, caravans of five thousand and more camels regularly traversed the Sahara, carrying goods as well as Muslims going on the pilgrimage to Mecca. "Ships of the desert" from the Maghreb coast crossed the Sahara to Timbuktu, connecting the Mediterranean with the Niger River, giving access to the network of trade routes in West Africa.78 But the Atlantic was a barrier for Africans, as it was for Americans and Europeans. The opening of the oceans made a new world for them as for everyone else.79The North African kingdom of Morocco was more involved with the sea than were other parts of Atlantic Africa, and in 1603 King Ahmad al-Mansur suggested to Queen Elizabeth of England that they jointly colonize America. Both monarchs, he pointed out, reviled the Spanish, and they could together expel them from America and "posesse" the land and "keep it under our dominion for ever." He presumed that England would not find the "extremetie of heat" in the Spanish Empire in America suitable,and suggested that the actual settlement be undertaken by Moroccans rather than the English.80 It did not happen, of course, yet that such a proposal could be made suggests the previously unimagined possibilities prompted by the oceanic revolution.When the Portuguese arrived on the Guinea coast in the early fifteenth century, the geography of trade and patterns of cultural contact shifted, as did the material conditions of trade. The experience of personal movement itself changed dramatically; being a passenger on an oceangoing vessel is quite different from being one on a "ship of the desert." Ships can carry far more and larger goods than caravans can, and the number of intermediaries is greatly reduced, likewise the number of taxing jurisdictions. But even this considerable change in the material culture of trading did not immediately suggest the magnitude of the transformation that followed the arrival of the "men from the sea," as West Africans called Europeans.Yet the shock of difference when European met African was less than we might expect. Portugal and Kongo had similar rates of agricultural productivity and similar living standards; both had dynastic kingdoms organized by kinship and clientage; trade and political relations were well managed. The cosmologies of the Europeans and Africans were profoundly different, however. For example, in the Kongo cosmology white people were believed to live under the ocean, which made it plausible to have white men arrive from the sea. And while Afonso, the Christian king of Kongo in the early sixteenth century, had extensive diplomatic relations with Portugal, France, and the Vatican, they were conducted, as Wyatt MacGaffey has observed, "on the basis of a shared and double misunderstanding." The cosmologies differed, but the frameworks of interpretation were complementary.81 There were enough seeming parallels in the cultural repertoire of the two peoples that pretending convergence allowed for fruitful miscommunication.Similar patterns of interaction occurred in North America, where the Nahuatl speakers of Mexica could communicate and trade with Europeans on the basis of false assumptions about each partner's fundamental concepts.82 The interaction of Europeans and Native Americans in the Great Lakes region operated similarly. A "middle ground" was established where conversants incorrectly but usefully deployed items from the cultural repertoire (as they understood it) of the other.83Africans and Portuguese recognized and embraced new opportunitiesto trade a variety of goods. The incremental changes associated with the new oceanic world had cumulative consequences. By the early sixteenth century it was clear that trade was transforming not only the economies but the societies involved, and the changes accelerated. Soon Europeans and Africans were drawn increasingly into a monstrous trade in human bodies. King Afonso of Kongo had early doubts; in a letter to the king of Portugal in 1526 he wrote, "We cannot reckon how great the damage is and so great, Sire, is the corruption and licentiousness that our country is being depopulated."84That was only the beginning. The Portuguese and then the Dutch and British began trading for slaves, and innumerable individual decisions made by Africans and Europeans created a system of exchange that expanded over the next three centuries to dimensions beyond all expectations and even comprehension. This commerce in human beings brought power and wealth to a few African traders; the nobility of Kongo was able to live in a "grand style."85 More important, the trade brought misery and death for millions of Africans. In Africa itself it weakened social institutions--from family, to clan, to village, to economies and polities. The loss of so many men skewed the gender ratio, promoting polygamy but also increasing the number of dependents for each provider.86 There was also a multigenerational process by which African craftsmen lost their skills. In 1500 Portugual imported West African cotton textiles; by 1600 the flow had reversed.87 That a trade as large as that in slaves could be managed in Africa by Africans is a discomfiting but real testament to the effectiveness of African social institutions, but its success--the export of more than eleven million people, plus the children they would have contributed--impoverished the institutional life of West and Central Africa.88There was also a much older slave trade to the east, from East Africa, the Sahara, and the Red Sea regions to various Muslim societies. Conjectures about numbers are less secure, but during the first thousand years of Islamic slavery (650-1600), between four and five million Africans may have been enslaved; estimates for the period 1600-1900 range from four to six million.89Not initially but very soon and then exclusively, Europeans looked to Africa as a source of human bodies. At first the Portuguese took African slaves to supplement the declining supply of white slaves from the Caucasus,but gradually the quest for labor evolved into a racial system of slavery. It is worth noting that in 1500 Africans and persons of African descent were a minority of the world's slaves and by 1700 a majority.90 The numbers are important, but so are the differences in the experience of slavery. Unlike the white or African slaves in the Muslim world, by 1700 (before then for many) Africans in the Atlantic world were treated more as units of labor than as humans, a reduction that not only was morally repulsive but also tragically narrowed the image and meaning of Africa. The legacy of slavery, which necessarily looms so large in our collective historical memory, obscures a fuller history and richer knowledge of Africa and Africans and still clouds our understanding.Thus it comes to many as a surprise that in the fourteenth century Africa represented wealth. The continent was known for its crafts and famed for its gold, which sustained the powerful empires and court cities of the interior. The Mediterranean world's main source of gold was the Empire of Mali, which extended more than a thousand miles east to west. The mythic story was told and retold of Mansa Musa, the Malian ruler legendary for his wealth. When he traveled to Mecca for the hajj in 1324, the gold he brought with him--and spent--during his time in Cairo flooded Egypt's economy, resulting in a devaluation of gold specie by perhaps as much as 25 percent and producing financial havoc. By reputation he was known and respected in Europe; a Catalan mapmaker in 1375 portrayed him as a European ruler in dress and the accoutrements of power.91Had Europeans explored the African interior in the fourteenth century when the Empire of Mali was at its peak, rather than a century or more later when Mali had overexpanded and then declined, might the image of Africa have been more positive and the history of Europeans and Africans different? Having heard so much about Mansa Musa's wealth, the beauty of his court, and the power of his empire yet finding so little may have disappointed the Europeans and prompted them to exaggerate all that seemed to be missing, encouraging their conclusion that Africans lacked civilization and were incapable of political life.92Whether for this or other reasons, Europeans invented a new name for Africans. No historian has satisfactorily explained why the Portuguese resorted to the word "Negro" (which was incorporated into the English language by the mid-sixteenth century, the Oxford English Dictionary citing its first known use in 1555). But the consequence of using this neologismcan be understood all too well. Older names--Africans, or Moors, or, oldest of all, Ethiope--referred to a place and to a history. But "Negro" dissolved historical identity, and color replaced culture. The new name effectively denied the history and culture of Africa's people and distinctive polities. It undermined African claims to history, civilization, religion, culture, or, finally, as Cedric Robinson has emphasized, any "humanity that might command consideration." The ideological utility of this term is transparent: it was developed in concert with the creation of the Atlantic slave system.93The rise of the slave trade produced new coastal cities, shifting energy away from the old internal trade routes and craft centers. At the same time, specie from the New World swamped the gold trade of Mali and the Sudan, which led to further decline.94 These historically contingent developments facilitated the invention of the "Negro" and the European notion of a homogeneous Africa, an Africa that was no more than a source of slaves in the minds of slavers and, tragically, of many later critics of the slave trade.95The Portuguese in East Africa and Asia did not mainly seek territory, since they were traders who wanted to establish trading posts. The Portuguese negotiated to establish feitoria, or fortified enclaves, at Sofala (East Africa), Hormuz (Persian Gulf), Goa (India), and Malacca (Malay).96 Soon they were profiting immensely from the Indian Ocean trade--enough to consider the Western Hemisphere, which early on might have been theirs for the taking, of only secondary importance. But they did not transform Lisbon into a great European capital of global trade and banking, a failure to exploit the flow of capital associated with its trade that would in time prove costly. Power and wealth gained through trade in the Indian Ocean went to more northern cities, nearer the major markets--first Antwerp and later Amsterdam.97When Amsterdam used its wealth, mercantile skill, and naval power to establish its presence in the Indian Ocean, it displaced the Portuguese. The Dutch East India Company, established in 1602, quickly became one of the world's largest and wealthiest business enterprises. Amsterdam, capital of a small, federated, and newly independent state, was the last city able to build an empire as Venice and Genoa had done.98 True, the British Empire was launched and managed from London, but seventeenth-century London's economy was built on its position at theheart of a dynamic national economy.99 The future of European empires would now belong to strong nations.Portugal's century was the sixteenth, Amsterdam's the seventeenth. Causality is implied in this succession: the Dutch pushed the Portuguese aside, but that is only part of the explanation. When the political and economic elites in Japan, Burma, the eastern Ottoman Empire, and Oman withdrew support from the Portuguese, they became more vulnerable to the Dutch challenge.100 The first Dutch ship reached Japan in 1600, and beginning in 1601 the Dutch began trading directly and regularly with Canton (Guangzhou). Two years later, they landed in Ceylon and in 1605 captured the Portuguese fort in Malacca, making it the first base for the Dutch East India Company. Like that of the Portuguese, their interest was trade, not territory, and they established their trading posts without making territorial claims. They founded Batavia (today's Jakarta) in 1619, but the Dutch population there remained very small, much smaller than the substantial community of Chinese merchants who were settled there.One cannot but be struck by how few were the Europeans who established and sustained these first "empires" in the East Indies. And this points to an important truth: these empires were the result less of overwhelming force than of accommodation by local rulers and elites. The colors of empires on maps misleadingly imply a demographic and institutional presence of the European power abroad, suggesting firm and geographically extensive control did not exist. These early European empires were less about force than about negotiation, even if not always between equals.The Dutch like the Portuguese particularly valued their interests in the East Indies, but the Atlantic beckoned. In 1621 the Dutch West India Company was established to compete with the Portuguese in Africa and America--mainly in hopes of gaining a position in the slave trade and in the sugar colonies. The Dutch accomplished both objectives. And such was the global context of the settlement of New Amsterdam on Manhattan Island.Americans and American histories tend to put the Dutch settlement of New York at the start of a linear development of what would become the American metropolis. But that appropriates for American history what in fact belongs to Dutch history and to the history of oceanic commerce and capitalism. New Amsterdam was part of a global Dutch commercialstrategy, and the settlement on Manhattan was on the periphery of the periphery of the empire. Not only were East Indian interests more valuable and more visible from the Dutch point of view; but even in the Americas, Manhattan was minor compared with the far more important and profitable Brazilian sugar colony of Pernambuco, which they had wrested from the Portuguese. If the nineteenth-century American fable has it that the Indians sold Manhattan to the Dutch for the equivalent of twenty-four dollars, it is doubtful that the Dutch valued it at much more. They fought bitterly in global wars to hold on to their Brazilian, African, and Asian possessions but made little effort to maintain control of New Amsterdam when challenged by the English in 1664. In 1665 and again later, after recapturing the city in the Third Anglo-Dutch War, the Dutch returned New Amsterdam to the English, demanding instead Surinam, which they had also captured.France, a large territorial state, was slower to move out onto the ocean. Before the end of the seventeenth century, however, the French, too, had a global empire, with holdings in South Asia, the Caribbean, and North America. As for the Russians, who had been moving east across Siberia toward America, they mainly wanted animal furs--first sable, until they exhausted it, and then sea otter. They established semi-military settlements where they could create a brutal regime to "harvest" sea otter by means of "forced commerce" with the Aleuts. This had a devastating impact on the Aleut community, whose numbers were reduced from 200,000 in 1750 to about 2,000 in 1800.101Why, one wonders, was the American experience so much more brutal than other long-distance intercultural and market exchanges? And why did European territorial possession become so important there, and so quickly? For several centuries, Christendom had traded with Islam without settlement, save for small "trade diasporas." Europeans seemed to have no particular interest in exploring the land crossed by their caravans or, in the Indies, the hinterland of their "factories." (Later, of course, Europe's policies in Asia and Africa would be quite different.) Yet in America mapping and settlement were achieved within fifty years of Columbus's voyage.102 There seem to be two broad reasons, with a few added corollaries.First, the Americas seemed to be unpopulated or underpopulated. There is a tragic truth to this, for the very first European diseases to arrivein the Western Hemisphere substantially depopulated it, most dramatically in the Caribbean Islands and southward. This thinness of population seemed to the Europeans to be matched by a thinness of civilization--notably in the Caribbean, where their initial contact was made and lasting impressions formed. To them, this underpopulation and lack of "civilization" legitimated their conquest and Thomas Bender, professor of history and the humanities at New York University, is the author and editor of more than a dozen books. He lives in New York City.