Focus: A Process Already Underway (4-5)

Historians have long argued that the plague caused lasting labor shortages, slashing revenues on feudal estates and so forcing aristocrats to seek alternative income through warfare.  The result: a century of incessant conflict across France, Italy, and Spain. But few historians have explored the broader geopolitical impact of this demographic disaster.  After nearly a millennium, it seems to have ended the Middle Ages with its system of localized states and relatively stable regional empires, while unleashing the gathering forces of merchant capital, maritime trade, and military technology to, quite literally, set the world in motion.
As Tamerlane’s horsemen swept across Central Asia and the Ottoman Turks occupied southeast Europe (while also capturing Constantinople, the Byzantine empire’s capital, in 1453), Iberia’s kingdoms turned seaward for a century of exploration. Not only did they extend their growing imperial power to four continents (Africa, Asia, and both Americas), but they also created the first truly global order worthy of the name, commingling commerce, conquest, and religious conversion on a global scale.
Starting in 1420, thanks to advances in navigation and naval warfare, including the creation of the agile caravel gunship, Portuguese mariners pushed south, rounded Africa, and eventually built some 50 fortified ports from Southeast Asia to Brazil.  This would allow them to dominate much of world trade for more than a century. Somewhat later, Spanish conquistadores followed Columbus across the Atlantic to conquer the Aztec and Incan empires, occupying significant parts of the Americas.
Just weeks after Columbus completed his first voyage in 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued a decree awarding the Spanish crown perpetual sovereignty over all lands west of a mid-Atlantic line so “that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the [Catholic] faith.” He also affirmed an earlier Papal bull (Romanus Pontifex, 1455) that gave Portugal’s king rights to “subdue all Saracens and pagans” east of that line, “reduce their persons to perpetual slavery,” and “possess these islands, lands, harbors, and seas.”
To settle just where that line actually lay, Spanish and Portuguese diplomats met for months in 1494 in the tiny city of Tordesillas for high-stakes negotiations, producing a treaty that split the non-Christian world between them and officially launched the Iberian age. In its expansive definition of national sovereignty, this treaty allowed European states to acquire “barbarous nations” by conquest and make entire oceans into a mare clausum, or a closed sea, through exploration. This diplomacy would also impose a rigid religious-cum-racial segregation upon humanity that would persist for another five centuries.
Even as they rejected Iberia’s global land grab, other European states contributed to the formation of that distinctive world order. King Francis I of France typically demanded “to see the clause of Adam’s will by which I should be denied my share of the world.” Nonetheless, he accepted the principle of European conquest and later sent navigator Giovanni da Verrazzano to explore North America and claim what became Canada for France.
A century after, when Protestant Dutch mariners defied Catholic Portugal’s mare clausum by seizing one of its merchant ships off Singapore, their jurist Hugo Grotius argued persuasively, in his 1609 treatise Mare Liberum(“Freedom of the Seas”), that the sea like the air is “so limitless that it cannot become a possession of any one.” For the next 400 years, the twin diplomatic principles of open seas and conquered colonies would remain foundational for the international order. Modified from Tomdispatch

Alfateh Ziada

Email: zeyadaaa123
Alfateh Ziada

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Alfateh Ziada

Alfateh Ziada

Focus Email: zeyadaaa123

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