Europe and the world in 1492

Europe and the world in 1492

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In 1492, Christopher Columbus succeeds, thanks to the support of the Spanish sovereigns, the first crossing of the Atlantic Ocean and (re) discovers America. He succeeds the Portuguese navigators who had reached the Indian Ocean and the Orient at the end of the 15th century. These European explorations led to a great opening up, a sort of first "globalization" which put in relation the four great civilizations (Chinese, European, Muslim and Hindu) of the time. A world which is not limited to a "concert of European nations" but which follows a period when humanity lived in isolation. The year 1492 becomes what historian Bernard Vincent calls "The year of the world".

1492, "year of the world"

It's in History of the world in the 15th century (Fayard, 2009) that Bernard Vincent uses this expression. This year, which marks the end of the Middle Ages according to traditional chronology, is indeed decisive, and not only for Europe. In January 1492, the Catholic Monarchs, Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, took Granada, capital of the Nasrid emirate and last Muslim place on the Iberian Peninsula. In March, the same rulers order the expulsion of the Jews from Spain by the decree of the Alhambra. On August 3, 1492, the three ships of Christopher Columbus left Palos de la Frontera for the Indies; on October 12, they were off the shores of Guanahani Island (San Salvador).

While these are major events in the history of the world, they are not the only ones. The election of Rodrigo Borgia to the throne of Saint Peter in August 1492 had consequences on the peninsula, and beyond. Italy, which is not a country but a mosaic of principalities and republics, is destabilized by rivalries. The city of Florence loses its prince, Laurent the Magnificent (April 8, 1492), and will quickly fall under the control of the very radical Savonarola. The other great families of Italy, the Sforza, the Gonzagas, the Colonna, the Orsini, ... not to mention republics like Venice, and the kingdom of Naples, are in constant tension, despite the peace of Lodi (1454). This situation leads straight to the wars in Italy two years later.

Indeed, on the other side of the Alps, on February 8, 1492, King Charles VIII had his wife Anne of Brittany crowned, Queen of France. This union marks the attachment of the Duchy of Brittany to France, and the end of the ambitions of several European sovereigns. It also allows the King of France to consolidate his power, and therefore to soon turn to Italy, and in particular the Kingdom of Naples.

If the year 1492 is therefore important for Europe in more ways than one, the rest of the world is also turning. Thus, the Buddhist kingdom of Pegu (southern Burma) loses its prince, legislator and builder, Dhammaceti; and the Songhay Empire (West Africa) saw Sunni Ali Ber disappear, bringing the Askiya to power a year later.

The Mediterranean at the end of the 15th century

The fall of the Nasrid emirate of Granada in 1492, a few months before the election of Alexander VI, sent Muslims to the other side of the Mediterranean, at least to its western half. The Latins have already had a foothold on this shore since the capture of Ceuta by the Portuguese in 1415, not to mention the latter's journeys around Africa in the following decades. In the western Mediterranean, at the end of the 15th century and at the beginning of the 16th century, it was Spain which dominated politically and militarily since it exerted its influence until the kingdom of Naples, so important in the affairs of the Borgia and partly at the origin of the wars in Italy. These delayed for a time what was considered at the time as a crusade by the Catholic Monarchs: the passage across the Strait of Gibraltar, the attack on the Maghreb. This led to the conquest of Melilla in 1497, followed by those of Oran (1509), Bougie (1510) and even Tripoli the following year. The main victims of the Spanish push are the Hafsids, the last great dynasty of the Maghreb after the disappearance of the Merinids and the weakening of the Abdelwadides of Tlemcen.

In the eastern Mediterranean, it is obviously more complex for the Latins. The Ottoman push seems inexorable since the capture of Constantinople in 1453, and the Italian cities lose their possessions one by one. Thus, between 1499 and 1503 (death of Alexander VI), a war between the Turks in Venice causes the loss for the Serenissima of the Peloponnese, including Moron and Coron in the Ionian Sea. The Turkish fleet was so sure of itself that the Sultan could send his privateers (including the young Piri Reis) to cruise off the Maghreb at the turn of the century. Soon there were only a few places left in the Eastern Mediterranean for the Latins: Chio and Cyprus, who paid tribute to the Ottoman Sultan, as well as Rhodes (held by the Hospitallers) and Venetian Crete.

Economically, the 15th century was not, as has long been believed, a period of decline, on the contrary. The dynamism and the rivalry of the Italian cities, Genoa and Venice in the lead, but also of the Valencians and the Barcelonans, allowed a real commercial boom, to which the Muslim Maghreb was integrated thanks to the presence of Christian fondouks in the Hafsid ports, or even Nasrid before the fall of the emirate (in Malaga for example). The opening to the Atlantic dates from the second half of the century, with Portuguese voyages around Africa, but also with the consequent increase in traffic to northern Europe and to English and Flemish ports. The Ottoman thrust in the eastern Mediterranean gradually isolated the latter from these trade flows. The discovery of what is not yet America confirms the shift of the center of gravity towards the west of the Mediterranean, and even more towards the Atlantic. In addition, the Spanish conquests in the Maghreb at the beginning of the 16th century undermined trade relations between the two shores of the Mediterranean. The wars in Italy did not help matters, since they weakened, for example, Venice, already worried about the Ottoman push, when Louis XII won against the Republic of the Doges the victory of Agnadello (1509). The Mediterranean then becomes again a space of conflict, where the Latins / Ottomans antagonism will mark the 16th century.

The Ottoman Empire in 1492

The capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453 caused a real shock in the West. The fight against the Turks becomes a priority, in particular for the popes, Calixte III, the uncle of Rodrigo Borgia, in the head. But, in 1492, the situation had slowed down somewhat, and the threat seemed less pressing and less immediate, with the front stabilizing in the Balkans. This is mainly due to internal turmoil in the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, Sultan Bayazid II (or Bajazet) saw his brother Djem oppose him for the succession of Mehmet II, in 1481. Djem took refuge in Rhodes and became a political issue to weaken the Ottoman sultan, a return that could threaten its legitimacy. Barely elected, Alexander VI offered his protection to Djem, then had it both ways: in 1493, he agreed with the King of Naples to deliver the Turk to him in the event of an attack by the Sultan; and a year later, he negotiates with the latter to return his brother to him for a heavy ransom. The problem was finally settled at the end of this year 1494: the Pope delivered Djem to the King of France Charles VIII, who had just entered Rome. A few weeks later, the Sultan's brother died of illness in Naples. Alexander VI can then show himself as a champion in the fight against the Turks, even reminding Louis XII of his duties in this regard when he came to power in 1498. However, the wars in Italy continued, even worsened, this which benefits the Ottomans. The latter attacked the possessions of Venice, against which they won a war in the Ionian Sea in 1503.

In the east, Sultan Bajazet has more difficulty because of the Turkmen and Safavid threat, and the murky game of the Mamelukes of Cairo. The Safavids, under the influence of Shah Ismail, took Tabriz in 1501, then Baghdad in 1508, before directly threatening Anatolia. In 1512, the weakened Ottoman sultan was overthrown by his son Selim, who presented himself as a champion of Sunni Islam against the Shiism of the Safavids, and in competition with the Mamluks. He defeated the first in 1514, in Chaldiran, then turned to the second; Cairo fell in 1517 and the Ottoman Empire would long become the greatest power in the eastern Mediterranean.

Russia of the first Tsars

The Black Sea was controlled by the Ottomans at the end of the 15th century and, since Mehmet II, the Mongols have been vassalized in Crimea. Further north, we are witnessing the rise of the Muscovites, especially with the coming to power in 1462 of Ivan III, says Le Grand. He unites the Russias with the capture of Novgorod in 1480, expels the Mongols of the Golden Horde from Moscow the same year, and is proclaimed "sovereign of all the Russias", while taking the Byzantine title of tsar (Caesar) , in 1493. His successor Vassili III (1505-1533), father of a certain Ivan the Terrible, continued the movement by annexing the other principalities, such as Pskov in 1510 or the Lithuanians of Smolensk in 1514.

The reign of Ivan the Great is decisive for Russia beyond conquest. He tries to have the title of tsar (previously reserved for Byzantine emperors or khans) recognized by German diplomats, to treat on an equal footing with the Germanic emperor, and he gathers around him a court which brings together the Russian nobility . Then, Ivan III sets up his dynasty, which causes some succession disturbances. While the Russian sovereign's control over his people is certain, as Baron Herberstein's testimony in 1517 attests, he is not an "official" emperor, that is, a crowned emperor. This is not yet the time when Russia can present itself as the new empire succeeding Byzantium, especially against the Ottomans. The Crimean Tatar khanate remains a thorn in her side. Nevertheless, it weighs undoubtedly over Eastern Europe.

The Germanic Empire and its neighbors

Eastern and central Europe in the second half of the 15th century was undergoing radical change, in part because of the major changes in Russia and the Ottoman Empire, without forgetting of course Italy and its long complicated relationship with the emperor. Germanic, as well as the rivalry with France. Within the Holy Empire, the Habsburgs eventually prevailed after the Luxembourg with first Frederick III (1452-1493), last crowned emperor in Rome, then Maximilian I, who reigned until 1519. Charles succeeded him. Quint. The Empire is supposed to form a "personal union" (through matrimonial alliances and territorial treaties) with Bohemia and Hungary, not without difficulties. In Poland, the Jagiellons have ruled since the end of the 14th century, a family of Lithuanian origin, who fought over Bohemia and Hungary with their neighbors until the end of the 15th century.

The Scandinavian kingdoms are also linked in different ways to the fate of the Empire. There is a cultural unity between Denmark, Norway and Sweden, and a political unity is established, not without difficulty, at the end of the fourteenth century (Kalmar assembly, 1397). The three kingdoms are therefore united, despite some crises during the 15th century, and an explosion in 1523 with the exit of Sweden.

This space between the Black Sea and the Baltic is characterized by a hesitation between the election of princes and heredity, and by constantly shifting borders in the 15th century, and until the beginning of the 16th. In 1517 finally broke out the conflict of the Reformation, which was to be decisive for the region during the rest of the 16th century, and beyond.

France and England in 1492

The end of the Hundred Years' War in 1453 confirmed the mutation of the two main states of Western Europe: France and England. For the first, it is the young son of Louis XI, Charles VIII, who ascends the throne in 1483. He inherits an enlarged France and where the royal authority was reinforced after the struggles against the Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold (defeated in 1477). Ambitious, Charles VIII agreed with England and Ferdinand of Aragon to turn to Italy where he claimed the throne of Naples (through the Angevin dynasty).

It was the start of the Italian wars, in 1494, which were ultimately unsuccessful, in part because of the pope's double-game. The King of France died accidentally in 1498, at the Château d'Amboise. He was succeeded by his turbulent cousin, Louis d'Orléans, who became Louis XII. Barely a year after taking the throne, the king resumed his predecessor's policies and attacked Italy. He enjoys the support of the Pope, from whom he obtained the annulment of his marriage in order to be able to marry in turn ... Anne of Brittany! In addition, he has Cesare Borgia at his side, whom he made Duke of Valentinois and married Charlotte d'Albret. Louis XII, who first aimed at Milan, was more successful than Charles VIII, since his campaigns in Italy were somewhat successful until finally he too failed, in 1512, because of the policy of alliances. successful by Julius II, rival and successor of Alexander VI to the pontificate. Three years later, the French are back in Italy with the young king François Ier, who succeeded Louis XII in 1515. It is the victory of Marignan, the capture of Milan, and an insolent success until his great rival, Charles V, enters the dance ...

In England, the Tudor dynasty has been on the throne, along with Henry VII, since 1485. The king is not interested in war and is mainly concerned with consolidating the bloodless kingdom. Diplomatically, he built good relations with Spain (marrying his son Arthur with Catherine of Aragon), but also France, Scotland and the Holy Empire. He was succeeded by his son Henry VIII in 1509 (Arthur died prematurely), who in turn married Catherine of Aragon thanks to the agreement of Pope Julius II. A fiery king and warrior, Henry VIII took a dim view of French ambition; he joined the league of Julius II against Louis XII, then entered into a relationship between rivalry and respect with François Ier. He then began a skillful diplomatic game between the latter and Charles V, when the latter became emperor in 1519 ...

Africa in history

The lack of sources often makes it difficult to know the history of medieval Africa, but we know nonetheless thanks to Muslim geographers and merchants, then to Portuguese navigators, that Africa was made up of many kingdoms and principalities at the end of the Fifteenth century. If the Maghreb suffered the blows of Spain and Portugal, and Mamluk Egypt those of the Ottomans, black Africa seems more isolated from the rest of the world. For Europeans, it would even be the homeland of the legendary Priest John.

However, thanks to the trade routes, in particular those of gold passing by Sijilmassa (Morocco), Africa is connected with part of the world, and even more with the installation of Portuguese counters and the development of the slave trade. In addition to the weakened Mali Empire, West Africa is under the rule of a great kingdom, that of the Songhay (Gao capital), whose peak corresponds to the reign of Sunni Ali Ber. The latter, as we mentioned above, died in 1492, when he conquered great cities like Timbuktu (1468). He was succeeded by his rival, Muhammad Sarakollé Touré (1493-1528), who founded the Askiya dynasty. Other powerful kingdoms are found in the Lake Chad region, including the city-states of the hawsa country (including Kano and Katsina, then the kingdom of Kebbi in the early 16th century) and Kanem-Bornou. Kongo, meanwhile, was discovered by the Portuguese in 1483, and its king converted to Christianity! His son, Affonso Ier Nzinga Mvemba, even went to Lisbon in 1512.

East Africa, turned towards Egypt but especially the Indian Ocean, is a little better known to Westerners, thanks in particular to Christian Ethiopia, which sent an embassy to Europe in the middle of the 15th century. Despite everything, other kingdoms are known in this part of Africa: in the north of Sudan the kingdom of Funj appeared in 1504 and, further south, along the coasts of the Indian Ocean, Swahili sultanates developed. he flourishing commercial activity first attracted the interest of China, with Admiral Zheng He who went there during his great expeditions in the 15th century, then the Portuguese, who took Zanzibar in 1503 (date of the death of 'Alexander VI), after having experienced some misadventures in 1498 against the Sultanate of Mombasa. The Portuguese finally established their authority by subduing the powerful Kilwa in 1507.

The interior is less well known, except for the emergence in the late 15th century of the Monomotapa. It supplants Great Zimbabwe which previously united a gigantic territory (comprising present-day Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia), linked to the Indian Ocean by trading posts at Kilwa, Quelimane or Sofala.

The Indian Ocean and the arrival of the Portuguese

In the 15th century, the Indian Ocean experienced great dynamism as evidenced for example by the expeditions of Chinese admiral Zheng He between 1410 and 1433. The Arabian Peninsula saw the importance of the port of Aden decrease with the fall of the Rasûlids, in the middle of the 15th century, which benefited the Muslim merchants nakhudhas, from southern India. But it is obviously the arrival of the Portuguese, with the reign of Manuel I (1495-1521), which is decisive for the region, when Vasco da Gama in turn crosses the Cape of Good Hope in 1497, after Bartolomeu Dias' cut short attempt ten years earlier. The Portuguese navigator had only four ships with him, and experienced some difficulties in Mombasa, before dealing with Malindi and finally reaching Calicut in May 1498. Other expeditions followed in the first years of the 16th century, but much more imposing and above all much more warlike. Back in Calicut in 1502, Vasco da Gama this time used the cannons. The Portuguese blocked the entrance to the Red Sea in the same year by occupying Socotra, leading the Mamluk Sultan to ask Pope Alexander VI to put pressure on Manuel I to unblock the situation! A Muslim fleet, helped by the Venetians, defeated the Portuguese at Chaul (India) in 1508; but the following year, the Muslims in turn were defeated by a coalition of the Gujaratis of Diu (Gulf of Cambay) and the Portuguese. The latter then have a free hand in the Gulf of Oman, and can finally take Hormuz in 1515, thanks to Afonso de Albuquerque, already victorious in Goa in 1510 and Malacca in 1511.

The Portuguese found themselves facing them mainly Muslims. Indeed, Islam progressed in these regions throughout the 15th century, following the Timurids, and as far as Bengal and Kashmir. It is in this context that Zahir ud-Din Muhammad comes in, says Babur. Born in 1483, descendant of both Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, he inherited Turkestan in 1494. Three years later, he conquered Samarkand, which he nevertheless had to cede to the Uzbeks in 1501. Not discouraged, however, he s' attack on the Afghans of the Lodi dynasty of Kabul in 1504, before reconquering Samarkand in 1511, allied to the Safavid Shah Ismaïl, the sworn enemy of the Ottomans met above. The following years are contrasted for Babur but, his power consolidated, he manages to set up what later becomes the Mughal Empire of India.

In addition to the powerful kingdom of Malacca, which appeared at the beginning of the 15th century, Southeast Asia is made up mainly of city-states and port-cities, and a few kingdoms inspired by the Chinese Ming model, as in Vietnam with the reign by Le Thanh Tong (1460-1497).

China, Japan and Korea

The Middle Empire experienced decisive upheavals in the heart of the 14th century when the Yuan, the Mongol dynasty, was ousted from power by the Ming of Zhu Yuanzhang, said Hongwu (1368-1398). The new dynasty, after some succession troubles, stabilized with the rise to power of Hongwu's fourth son, Yongle, who pursued an expansionist policy, similar to the expeditions of Admiral Zheng He. His successors (Hongzhi and Zhengde) on the contrary decide to fold China in on itself and its immediate region, which is decisive in the history of the world since at the same time the Europeans, and first of all the Portuguese, invest all the seas of the globe ( in 1517, Tomé Pires was Portuguese ambassador to Canton). Huge territory of more than 100 million inhabitants at the beginning of the 16th century, the Chinese state is characterized from that moment by a very bureaucratic functioning, a reorganization of the army (but which is weakened at the end of the 15th century ), literate emperors but stuck in protocol, and the start of economic and cultural changes that would only bear fruit in the second half of the 16th century. We can therefore consider that the long 15th century in China is in many ways the opposite of the 15th century in the West.

In Japan, at the beginning of the 15th century, the shogun Ashigaka Yoshimitsu received from the Emperor Ming the title of King of Japan (1401), thus opening trade with China, which joined the very active piracy. Japan was then in the so-called Muromachi period, and from the second half of the century experienced unrest between the shogunate and the feudal lords Daimyo, what Japanese historiography calls the gekokujo, which led to the Onin Wars in the 1470s. To this were added major peasant revolts, sparked in part by famines. This led at the beginning of the 16th century to the creation of peasant and warrior leagues, and to a total decay of the state, which the Portuguese noted when describing a country split into "kingdoms" still in conflict. This situation lasts throughout the first half of the 16th century.

Korea of ​​the 15th century, for its part, experienced both an economic boom and the assertion of a central power with the monarchy of Yi, or of Choson (the Morning Calm), inaugurated by Yi Song-gye in 1392. At the same time At the end of the 15th century, however, the monarchy began to be contested by senior officials and "censorship councils", which weakened the state. Sonjong (1469-1494), Yonsan’gun (1494-1506) and Jungjong (1506-1544) must regularly launch purges in an attempt to assert their authority. The dynasty nonetheless pacifies its relations with its neighbors, Ming China in the lead, and fights Japanese piracy, allowing its transformation into a market force. Throughout the region, trade is growing and the Asian seas are connected like a sort of Mediterranean into which the Portuguese skillfully integrated during the 16th century.

The Americas in 1492

On August 3, 1492, Christopher Columbus left for his great journey. The continent that the Genoese and his Spanish and Portuguese successors will discover is far from virgin. In the North, historians have made a division according to geocultural areas, where populations are grouped into tribes, with all the same traces of quasi-democratic political entities, such as the Iroquois. In Mesoamerica and South America, the sources are more numerous. If, at the turn of the sixteenth century, the Mayans did not disappear but no longer held a powerful city, the Aztecs (or Mexicas) themselves experienced a contrasting situation. A powerful empire since the 1480s, they were nonetheless struck by doubt when the Conquistadors arrived in 1519. In the South, the Incas reigned over an empire that was more sure of itself, organized, strengthened, and which continued to s 'to expand.

The continent discovered by Europeans, in its diversity, is nonetheless connected to a large extent, even if the situation seems to have deteriorated in the second half of the 15th century, with for example reciprocal ignorance between the Aztecs and the Incas. . This will undoubtedly facilitate the conquest of the 16th century.

Sharing the world under the eye of the Pope

The expansion of the Iberians began at the beginning of the 15th century, and historians often cite the capture of Ceuta by the Portuguese in 1415 as a detonator. Portuguese who, isolated from the Mediterranean by their rivals in Castile, logically turned to the Atlantic: Madeira in 1420, the Azores between 1427 and 1452, before turning to the western coasts of Africa. As early as the 1440s, the Portuguese trafficked in slaves and gold, particularly from Liberia, while setting up trading posts in Mauritania. In 1487, Bartolomeu Dias crossed the Cape of Good Hope, followed ten years later by Vasco de Gama who, with his successors like Albuquerque, made the Indian Ocean into a Portuguese lake. On the other side of the world, in 1500, Pedro Álvares Cabral (re) discovered what would be Brazil, after the brief visit of the Spaniard Vicente Yáñez Pinzón.

The overseas expansion of Castile did not really begin until after the capture of Grenada in January 1492, even though the Canaries were partly occupied in the 1480s. The Genoese Christopher Columbus reached the island of Guanahani in October 1492, but did not touch the continent until 1498, during his third voyage, still without knowing that it was a “New” world. Spanish expeditions continued in the 16th century, with the conquest of Puerto Rico (1508), Cuba (1511), then of course the Aztec Empire from 1519, under the command of Hernan Cortés.

The division of the world between the Portuguese and the Spaniards, however, comes long before, partly explaining why the Portuguese have long focused on Asia and Africa, and the Spaniards on the Americas. On his return in 1493, Christopher Columbus passed through Lisbon, where he was received by King John II. He claims ownership of the navigator's discoveries based on the Treaty of Alcaçovas-Toledo (1479). Obviously, the Catholic Monarchs do not understand it that way and appeal to the arbitration of Pope Alexander VI, of Valencian origin. He published five bulls during the year 1493, confirming that the lands discovered by Columbus belonged to Castile. Due to the discontent of the King of Portugal, and having to simultaneously manage the French threat in Italy, Ferdinand and Isabelle accept a renegotiation. It takes place in Tordesillas, near Valladolid, and ends in June 1494. A limit is set “straight at 370 leagues to the coast of the Cape Verde Islands”; The West is for the Spaniards, the East for the Portuguese. The Treaty of Tordesillas was confirmed by the successor of Alexander VI, Julius II, in 1506.

The world of 1492 is therefore not focused solely on European issues and rivalries between a few states, which are not always extra. On the contrary, all parts of the world are experiencing decisive changes and above all are starting to connect with each other. We are already, at the dawn of the 16th century, in a first globalization.


- B. Vincent, 1492: the admirable year. Flammarion, 1997.

- P. Boucheron (dir), History of the world in the 15th century, Fayard, 2009.

- J-M. Sallmann, The great opening up of the world (1200-1600), Payot, 2011.

Video: The Colonization of America Documentary


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