On September 9, 1522, eighteen gaunt men, candles in hand, walked barefooted to the shrine of Santa María de la Victoria in Seville to give thanks for their safe return. It was just over three years since they had commended themselves to the Virgin in that same shrine, on the eve of their departure as members of an expedition which was intended to reach the spice islands by sailing west, rather than east, and somehow finding a way around, or through, the great landmass of America. During the course of those three years they accomplished their mission, but at a terrible cost. Mutinous crews were struck down by cold, hunger, and scurvy; their commander, the Portuguese-born Fernando Magellan, was killed by angry islanders on a Pacific beach; and, of the five ships which formed part of the original expedition, only one, the Victoria, limped home to Seville with its much diminished crew. But these lone survivors had done something that had never before been accomplished. In their battered little ship, under the command of a dour Basque captain, Sebastian Elcano, they had circumnavigated the world.

Thirty years separated the departure of Columbus from Palos, in Andalusia, and the return of the Victoria to Seville’s port of San Lúcar de Barrameda. At the start of those thirty years, Europe was still largely confined between the twin barriers of an impassable Atlantic Ocean to the west, and of a remote and alien Asian landmass to the east. By the end of them, Europeans had rounded the coasts of Africa to reach India and the Moluccas; they had encountered lands and peoples, quite outside the realm of their preconceived ideas and expectations, on the far side of the Atlantic; and now, after navigating a storm-swept passage to the south of Patagonia, they had crossed the great expanse of the Pacific Ocean and found their way back home.

The immediate effect of these three decades of unprecedented achievement was to give those Europeans who were interested in such matters a new and overwhelming sense of the size of the world. Columbus, it soon became apparent, had grossly underestimated the distance between Europe and Cathay; and Antonio Pigafetta, the Italian knight of Rhodes who had sailed aboard the Victoria on its epic voyage, recorded with awe that, after leaving the Straits of Magellan, “If we had sailed always westward, we should have gone without finding any island other than the Cape of the Eleven Thousand Virgins, which is the cape of that strait at the Ocean Sea.”1 The Europeans, in other words, had found space, and found it on an unimagined scale. But, paradoxically, even as their world expanded, it also began to shrink. A globe encompassed became a globe reduced.

Indeed the very attempt to map the lands and seas of the world through the device of the globe may have helped to reduce unmanageable space to manageable proportions. The first known terrestrial globe was that of Martin Behaim of Nuremburg, dating from 1492. The first globe to record Magellan’s route was made, also in Nuremburg, around 1526, and appears in Holbein’s famous painting of The Ambassadors (London, National Gallery) of 1533. In selecting as his device a globe surmounted by an eagle, the Emperor Charles V was paying unconscious tribute to this new European conceptualization of space—a conceptualization that became increasingly routine as the sixteenth century progressed. To see the world in terms of a globe was to hold it in one’s hands. In 1566, when St. Francis Borja sent his son the gift of a sphere, the youth wrote back in his letter of thanks to his father: “Before seeing it, I had not realized how small the world is.”2

A globe held in the hands is a globe controlled, and to be able to follow, with the twist of a sphere, the voyages of fellow Europeans and see at a glance the lands they had settled was to participate, however vicariously, in that sensation of power already generated by the voyages themselves and by the conquests of peoples and territories. The arrogance of the European as he contemplated the newly mapped world was nicely caught in the engraved frontispiece to the Milicia y descripción de las Indias published in 1599 by a Spanish captain, Bernardo de Vargas Machuca, which portrayed him holding a pair of compasses over a globe, while the accompanying motto consisted of the immortal words: A la espada y el compás/Más y más y más (“To the compass and the sword, more and more and more and more”). Domination and expansion—these were to be the leading themes of the post-Columbus generations of Europeans as they moved to exploit the legacy of 1492.

These Europeans who moved out across the world during the course of the sixteenth century, trading, settling, evangelizing, and—all too often—killing tended to see themselves as superior beings, providentially enjoying, and, where possible, diffusing, the supreme blessings of Christianity and civility. To the non-European peoples, on the other hand, into whose world they had trespassed, they naturally appeared in a very different light. Arriving in their curious high-prowed ships, they looked, with their pointed beards, their bulbous doublets, and tall hats—the “hat men” as they were called in India3—like strange, and often sinister, intruders, unpleasantly prone to seize what was not rightfully theirs. Although, in the perspective of time, they can be seen as pioneers of global unity, breaking down the barriers of separation and bringing all the peoples of the world into contact with each other, they erupted into non-European space as if they already owned it, bringing untold misery, death, and destruction in their train. Embarking all unaware on a process that would lead to the creation of one world, they gave every impression of wanting to mold that world in the image of themselves. An early sixteenth-century Spanish humanist said as much when he wrote of Columbus that he “sailed from Spain…to mix the world together and give to those strange lands the form of our own.” 4


Europeans were to prove less successful in giving those “strange lands” the form of their own in Asia than in the Americas, where the great organized empires of the Aztecs and the Incas succumbed before their onslaught. However elaborate those empires, and however sophisticated many of their cultural and technical achievements, their isolation from other centers of civilization left them dangerously vulnerable to attack by peoples whose attitudes, behavior, and technologies were a cause of mystification and astonishment. Europe and Asia, on the other hand, had a longstanding, if mutually wary, relationship, and the same was true for North Africa. For a long time the Portuguese, who were followed to Asia by the Dutch and the English, were able to do little more than establish coastal enclaves for themselves, from which they were forced to compete on roughly equal terms with peoples whose political, military, and commercial skills matched or excelled their own.

Everywhere these sixteenth-century Europeans went, however, they created lesser or greater disturbances, setting up ripples that were liable to grow into whirlpools. Only Australasia would remain excluded, for the better part of three centuries, from these ripples of disturbance that marked the opening of a new and multiplying range of connections among peoples dispersed over wide portions of the globe. If, by 1600 or even 1700, this was still very far from being a European world, it was nonetheless a world in which Europeans, both by design and by accident, were acting as the precipitants of change.

European overseas expansion meant, in the first instance, a movement of peoples. During the sixteenth century some 240,000 men and women migrated from Spain to America while roughly the same number of Portuguese (largely young men) migrated to Asia, the overwhelming majority never to return.5 Europeans, however, even if still no more than a trickle of them, were not the only peoples to be caught up in the process of overseas migration. Africans, too, were to be swept up involuntarily in a movement generated by the settlement of growing numbers of Europeans on the farther shores of the Atlantic.

By the fifteenth century, Portuguese traders along the coast of West Africa had become aware of the profits to be made in purchasing Africans and shipping them abroad—either to Lisbon for domestic service in Spanish and Portuguese households, or to the newly settled Atlantic islands where sugar was being planted. By a process of natural extension this lucrative trade in African slaves spread across the Atlantic to those areas where, for one reason or another, the indigenous peoples of America proved unsuited to the kind of labor required by European settlers eagerly exploiting the mineral and agricultural resources of their newly occupied lands. As a result, during the sixteenth century a network was woven of commerce in human chattels—a network that bound together in mutual complicity chieftains and traders in the Kingdom of Kongo and the African interior with merchants in Seville and Lisbon, settlers in Mexico and Peru, and sugar growers in Brazil. Already by 1600 some 275,000 black slaves had been transported to Europe and America, and five times as many would be shipped in the century that followed.6

This great transoceanic movement of human beings meant the development of new racial mixtures, as Europeans, Asians, Africans, and indigenous Americans cohabited and intermarried, producing offspring of such a wide variety of colors that in eighteenth-century Spanish America there was a vogue for series of paintings depicting different racial combinations, each with its own particular name. The effect of the contact of peoples in this dawning Oceanic Age, however, was not confined to the transfer of genes. There was another and more sinister legacy, for the contact of peoples meant the spread of disease.


Europe and Asia, united by land, had for millennia shared each other’s epidemics, and it was the Europeans who succumbed to disease when increasing numbers of them sought to make a life for themselves in an unfamiliar Asian climate and environment. In America, however, it was a different story. Isolated from the great pandemics that periodically swept the Euro-Asian landmass, the native peoples of America proved terrifyingly vulnerable to newly imported European diseases—smallpox, measles, influenza—to which Europeans had developed some degree of immunity. The consequence was that, within a century of Columbus’s landfall, the indigenous population of mainland America had shrunk by about 90 percent, and the Tainos who populated the Antilles at the time of his arrival had become extinct. The Europeans may have carried back with them from the Americas the scourge of syphilis, but in exchange they wiped out a world.7

The union of peoples, therefore, meant a union of germs, as death danced its macabre dance around the globe. But death came in many forms, and not least by war. In their dealings with non-European peoples, Europeans displayed from the beginning a marked predisposition to seize their territories, and to back up their commercial ventures by force of arms. It was to the sound of gunfire that European merchants fanned out across the world. In the words of the Malay Annals describing the Portuguese attack on Malacca in 1511, “the noise of the cannon was as the noise of thunder in the heavens and the flashes of fire of their guns were like flashes of lightning in the sky: and the noise of their matchlocks was like that of groundnuts popping in the frying-pan.”8

The superior military technology of the Europeans brought them immediate advantages, especially in America, where the shock effect of guns and horses played a significant psychological role in the early, and critical, stages of the Spanish conquest. But Asia already belonged to the gunpowder culture, and Europe’s initial superiority in military technology soon showed itself to be a diminishing asset. The Ottoman armies rapidly adopted and mastered European hand guns and field guns; by the late sixteenth century many soldiers in the armies of the Mughals were armed with muskets; and, further east, the Chinese possessed their own indigenous firearms, while the Japanese imported and successfully copied European cannon.9 Guns, no less than germs, were spreading across the globe.

The aggressive behavior of these gun-carrying Europeans—described as “white Bengalis” by the astonished inhabitants of Malacca when the first Portuguese vessel arrived in port10—was a source of bewilderment and consternation everywhere they went. “What is it,” the king of the Tartars is said to have asked a party of Portuguese, “that you are looking for in those other lands? Why do you expose yourself to such great hardships?” After the Portuguese spokesman had done his best to explain, the old Tartar shook his head and remarked: “The fact that these people journey so far from home to conquer territory indicates clearly that there must be very little justice and a great deal of greed among them.”11

The greed of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Europeans for gold, silver, spices, and subsequently for land, was indeed what had induced them, in the sage words of the Tartar, to “fly all over the waters in order to acquire possessions that God did not give them.” It was an impelling force, and one that enabled them, as they mastered the world wind system,12 to develop a series of trading routes that came to span the globe.

One maritime route, pioneered by the Portuguese, ran around the coast of Africa and across the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea, to compete directly, and with increasing success, against the overland spice and silk routes that had long linked Europe to the markets of the East. Another, the monopoly of the Spaniards, ran from Seville to the Caribbean and thence to the ports of Vera Cruz in Mexico and of Cartagena in Colombia. This was the route that supplied the American colonists with European goods, and made possible the return shipment, by way of exchange, of the Mexican and Peruvian silver needed to replenish the coffers of European princes and merchants, and to pay for the deficit trade between Europe and Asia. In the Indian Ocean as much as in Europe or America the Spanish silver real, minted in the mines of Zacatecas or Potosí, became a coveted unit of exchange. To the Spanish Atlantic, revolving around the regular annual flow of American silver to Europe, was joined a Portuguese Atlantic—the Atlantic of sugar and slaves—running from Lisbon to West Africa and the Azores, and thence to Brazil. Into this Iberian-dominated Atlantic the English, the Dutch, and the French, arriving first as interlopers, would infiltrate with increasing success.

In 1565 the last remaining section of what was to be a global transoceanic trade was fitted into place when the first Spanish galleon sailed back across the Pacific from Manila to unload a cargo of cinnamon on the coast of Mexico. This voyage marked the beginning of the regular sailing of the “Manila galleon” between Acapulco and Manila. Outward bound from Mexico it carried the silver needed for the purchase of the products of China and the East—silks, porcelains, and spices, jade and mother-of-pearl—which were brought by fleets of junks to the Philippines, and then shipped in the Spanish galleon to Acapulco, from where they would be dispatched to the luxury markets of America and Europe.13 Saluting Acapulco in his poem of 1604 on the greatness of his native Mexico, the poet Bernardo de Balbuena wrote: “In thee Spain is joined with China, Italy with Japan, and ultimately a whole world in disciplined commerce.”14

Balbuena’s words vividly suggest how, with the development of these long-distance trading systems, all four continents—Europe, Asia, Africa, and America—were moving into a closer reciprocal relationship as suppliers and recipients. Oriental luxuries—Persian carpets, Chinese porcelains, Javanese pepper and cloves—found their way in growing quantity into the homes of the European elite. African ivories, carved in ways that reflected the presence and the tastes of the Portuguese, who had penetrated far into the interior and intermarried with Africans to form Afro-Portuguese communities, were brought back to Europe as prized curiosities (see illustration). European manufactures—textiles and firearms—penetrated the markets of Asia, where Portuguese was becoming the language of international maritime trade.15 But Asia’s appetite for commodities from Europe, other than silver, was much smaller than the insatiable European appetite for the products of the East. In spite of the arrival of Portuguese merchants in the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean, and the Straits of Malacca, they and their fellow Europeans in the sixteenth century were simply one more group of competitors, if outlandish ones, jostling in on long-established local trading networks, and buying and selling as best they could.

For all the dynamism and aggressiveness of the “hat men,” they were swallowed up in the vastness of Asia, with its teeming populations and its long-established ways. To the extent that they were accepted there, they were accepted for their silver, and this silver would not have been available to them in such quantities without Spain’s exploitation of the mines of Mexico and Peru. Insofar as the sixteenth century saw the inauguration of a “world economy,” it was the Spanish conquest and settlement of the silver-producing regions of Central and South America that made possible the beginnings of economic integration on a global scale.

Cruelly wrenched from its isolation by the arrival of the Spaniards, America—symbolized in the allegories of the four continents that began to appear from the 1570s as a naked woman with feather headdress, seated on an armadillo, and sometimes surrounded by the exotic flora and fauna of a strange new world16—was tied hand and foot to Europe in ways that Asia could never be. Occupied, governed, evangelized, and exploited by Europeans, the Antilles and the vast mainland regions of Central and South America were drawn inexorably into the orbit of a European world determined to remake them in its own “superior” image. Native Americans were introduced to the technology of iron and the wheel. New crops and animals were imported from Europe. For the settlers the absence of bread was tantamount to starvation, and wheat was planted where maize once grew. “The Indians,” observed a Spanish official, “should not be made to grow wheat, for this causes them great hardship. They do not understand how wheat is grown, and do not have plows.”17 Little by little the Spaniards “improved” on American nature, with their sugar plantations, their vineyards, and their olive groves—nostalgic reminders of the world they had left. Similarly, they imported their own animals—horses, sheep, cattle, pigs, hens, and goats—drastically upsetting in the process both the pattern of indigenous life and work, and the ecological balance of the conquered lands.18

The transfer, however, was not all one way. In opening America to the imports of Europe, Europe opened not only itself but the rest of the world to those of America—not merely precious metals, or emeralds from Colombia and Venezuelan pearls, but plants and foodstuffs which in the course of time would add enormously to the range, and nutritional value, of the European—and African—diet. None, except perhaps tobacco, had an immediately dramatic effect on the habits of Europeans, but beans, maize, and—above all—the potato made the transatlantic crossing, with profound long-term consequences for the eating habits, and the demography, of a Europe that stretched from Ireland to the Urals.

By incorporating a hitherto isolated America into the beginnings of a global economic and ecological system, the Columbian voyages made a contribution of overwhelming importance to the creation of a single world. But if this was to be a world united, was the unity to be imposed on European terms? The expansionary character of European civilization, its lust for wealth, its desire to dominate and to convert, certainly pointed in that direction. Yet from the beginning there was resistance, sometimes open and sometimes concealed. Militant Christianity faced a formidable rival in militant Islam, championed in North Africa and on the fringes of Europe by an Ottoman Empire which, in the sixteenth century, was at the height of its power. In the complicated religious world of the Indian subcontinent Christian teaching made only very limited headway, while China remained impervious and largely impenetrable to the West. Among the twenty million inhabitants of Japan, the Jesuits had made some 300,000 converts by the early seventeenth century, but the brief flirtation of the Japanese with the Western world ended in 1639 when the Portuguese were expelled and the country closed itself to Westerners and their pernicious offerings.

Even in Iberian America, where an intense missionary effort was buttressed by the full weight of the secular power, there was in many regions a sullen resistance that took a thousand forms. While the new faith gained enthusiastic converts, especially in Mexico, the tendency among the indigenous populations was to appropriate those elements of the conquerors’ religion that suited their needs. Old deities and old shrines still retained their sacred aura and were assimilated into new and distinctively American forms of Christianity with their own syncretic rituals and systems of belief. Worship of the Virgin Mary might replace that of Coatlicue, but this had always been a world that took the metamorphosis of the gods in its stride.

It would take a vastly superior European technology, and a capacity for the control of space far beyond sixteenth-century logistical possibilities, for a united world to become even superficially a European world. Insofar as this was achieved at all, it would be achieved only in the nineteenth century. But—irrespective of the sheer technical difficulties in the way of global domination, whether political, cultural, or economic—sixteenth-century European civilization itself possessed certain characteristics that impeded its best efforts to “give to those strange lands the form of our own.”

In the first place, this was a civilization that had grown accustomed to the idea of diversity. Divided into competing political units—and also, from the sixteenth century, into competing religious units—Renaissance Europe was a pluralist society, with none of the monolithic central control that characterized the contemporary Ottoman and Chinese empires. While having no doubt of the superiority of its own religion and way of life, it was less dismissive of the “barbarians” beyond its own borders than was the Chinese world. Debates within the medieval Church had led to the conclusion that non-Christian societies legitimately enjoyed property and lordship, and that Christians could therefore claim no automatic right to dispossess nonbelievers of their lands.19 When the Spanish occupation of America reopened the debate, the leading Spanish scholastic of the age, Francisco de Vitoria, reaffirmed this doctrine, and argued that the indigenous Americans, by demonstrating their capacity for social life, had proved themselves “citizens of the whole world, which in a certain way constitutes a single republic.” 20

Once it was accepted that these newly encountered peoples were entitled, at least in theory, to space of their own, they were simply added in the European mind to the wide variety of peoples with whom the globe was shared. The Italians, after all, were different from the French, and the French from the English, and they all spoke different languages. Therefore it was taken for granted that these peoples, living in different climates and conditions, would have their own peculiar characteristics and ways of life, however strange or repugnant they might seem to European eyes. Their form of dress (or undress), their sexual mores, their differing styles of worship made them exotic specimens to be added to the many already to be found in that encyclopedic compilation by Johann Boemus, Omnium gentium mores, first published in 1520 before the peoples of America had seriously impinged on the European consciousness.21

Given this acceptance of human diversity, which was put down to climate and geography, there were limits to the necessity, as well as the feasibility, of imposing European norms on the peoples of the world. Strenuous, and surprisingly successful, efforts might be made by Spanish friars in Mexico to persuade the male inhabitants to clothe themselves in trousers, but this was because the loincloth offended Christian ideas of decency.22 In other areas of behavior, less offensive to Christian views of a proper way of life, there was less pressure to conform. Here the characteristic European response of disapproval was liable to be accompanied by curiosity.

The curiosity with which Europeans approached the non-European world was reflected in the journals of voyagers like Pigafetta or Verrazano, who described with fascination the customs of the peoples whom they came across in their travels. This curiosity suggests a degree of openness in sixteenth-century European civilization. At times it showed itself willing to be impressed, as Dürer was impressed by the beauty of the objects brought back from Mexico in Montezuma’s treasure, and by the skill of native craftsmen in working gold and silver. Such reactions suggested that Europe would not remain immune to the cultural influences of the non-European world, even if the principal reaction in the sixteenth century was more often astonishment or wonder than the desire to emulate.23

This responsiveness to certain aspects of non-European culture was reinforced in some quarters by a growing sense of guilt. While the arrogance that sprang from an innate sense of superiority was liable to predominate in the dealings of Europeans with non-Europeans, there were some, both at home and overseas, whose scruples of conscience made them question the behavior and motivations of their fellow Europeans. Above all it was a growing realization of the fate that was overtaking the inhabitants of the Indies at the hands of the Spaniards that provoked the first stirrings of conscience in European minds. These stirrings will be forever associated with the name of Bartolomé de las Casas, the Spanish friar who, after witnessing the sufferings of the Indians in the Caribbean and mainland America, devoted the rest of his long life to denouncing the behavior of his compatriots, and expatiating on the social and cultural achievements of the peoples who, even as he wrote, seemed set for extinction.24 When speaking of Yucatán, for instance, he wrote admiringly of the “marvelous government laws and good customs” of the Mayas, the organization of their markets, and the construction of their pyramids.

The combination of an awareness of diversity, an intense curiosity, and the growing sense of guilt that characterized sixteenth-century European thought at its best, was nowhere better represented than in the essays of that skeptical Frenchman, Michel de Montaigne, who was prompted by his reading of Gómara’s account of the conquest of the Indies to reflect on Europe’s record in its encounter with the non-European world:

So many goodly citties ransacked and razed; so many nations destroyed and made desolate; so infinite millions of harmelesse peoples of all sexes, states and ages, massacred, ravaged and put to the sword; and the richest, the fairest and the best part of the world topsiturvied, ruined and defaced for the traffick of Pearles and Pepper….25

As the silver of the Indies and the luxuries of the East flowed into a Europe which was growing accustomed to looking to worlds across the seas to minister to its appetites and needs, there could be no turning back to an earlier age of more limited, and less exploitative, contacts between European and non-European. For both good and ill, the age of European maritime expansion, so spectacularly inaugurated by the voyage of Columbus, had brought the world closer together in ways that would forever change it.

Montaigne’s contemporary and compatriot Lancelot de La Popelinière asked why it was that the Europeans of his age should have chosen to risk their lives, riches, honor, and conscience to “trouble the ease of those who, as our brethren in this great house of the world, asked only to live the rest of their days in peace and contentment.”26 La Popelinière’s question is one that still haunts us today. Europeans would shake the “great house of the world” to its foundations as they ransacked it in the pursuit of what they perceived as their own best interests. Greed, arrogance, dogma—all these played their part. But there was a more generous spirit alive also in that European civilization which, even as it destroyed, began to build a new, and more interdependent, world. That spirit was best expressed in the declaration of las Casas, which, along with the question of La Popelinière, reverberates down the centuries. “All the peoples of the world,” wrote las Casas “are men and there is only one definition of each and every man, and that is that he is rational.”27 That, too, was a legacy of 1492.

Copyright © 1991 by Yale University

This Issue

October 10, 1991