Crisis, Recovery, Exploration and Colonization

Although Eurasian people planned to only exchange merchandise, diplomats and ideas, an unintentional exchange was disease, notably the Bubonic Plague which devastated the populations of Europe and Asia for several centuries. It had more effect on history than any other outbreak of disease.

The outbreak of the Plague was preceded by a period of global cooling for a period of five hundred years known as the "Little Ice Age." This period, from 1300 – 1800 saw average temperatures much cooler than normal which led to shorter growing seasons and a decline in agricultural production in many areas. At times, famine and starvation resulted. In some northern areas, agriculture was impossible because of below standard temperatures. This led Norse settlers to abandon the colony they had established in Greenland several hundred years before.

The onset of the plague occurred during the Little Ice Age. It first appeared in Yunnan province of China where it may have been endemic for centuries. The Plague bacillus thrives in the stomach of fleas which in turn lived on Asian black rats. Ships of the day were typically infested with rats, and thus the disease traveled easily throughout Europe. The plague took two forms: Bubonic. Which could only be spread by flea bites, and pneumonic which was spread from person to person. The total lack of sanitation in European cities and close quarters (it was not uncommon for poorer families to sleep six to eight people in one bed; even hospitals placed two patients in the same bed). The first symptom of the disease was a swelling the size of a walnut or apple in the armpit, groin, or neck. This was the buba, or boil. (If it were lanced and the pus thoroughly drained, the victim had a slight chance of recovery.) Later, black spots appeared under the skin, followed by violent coughing and spitting up blood. At this stage, death could be anticipated in two to three days.

A contemporary description of a plague victim by a French Scientist is hardly compassionate:

All the matter which exuded from their bodies let off an unbearable stench; sweat, excrement, spittle, breath, so fetid as to be overpowering; urine turbid, thick, black, or red.

Mongol military patrols inadvertently spread the plague from Yunnan in the early fourteenth century An epidemic in China in 1331 killed 90 per cent of the population of one province. Other areas reported deaths of two thirds of the populace.

Merchants and others also inadvertently spread the disease by trade routes to points west of China. The bacillus thrived in oases and trading cities of central Asia where rodents were abundant. It reached Black sea ports and in 1347, Italian merchants fled Black Sea cities and unwittingly brought the disease with them. It soon broke out in Western Europe. One third the population of Europe died in the great Plague pandemic of 1347-48. Some areas suffered little or no losses, others lost more than half their population. Agnolo di Tura, a contemporary, .describes the effect of the plague on his home town:

…the victims died almost immediately. They would swell beneath their armpits to their groins, and fall over while talking. Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another…And none could be found to bury the dead for money of friendship…And in many places great pits were dug and piled deep with the multitude of the dead. I, Agnolo di Tura buried my five children with my own hands.

The plague seems to have only been spread by Asian Black Rats. European Brown Rats would not host the fleas which carried the disease and seemed resistant to it. In some areas, entire villages and towns were wiped out by the plague. Some areas were spared, particularly Scandinavia and parts of extreme Northern Europe and Asia where rats cannot survive. India and large portions of sub-Saharan Africa, for reasons unknown, escaped the pandemic completely.

In areas hit hard by the plague, it took over a century for recovery of the population to take place. The loss of population disrupted societies and economies throughout Eurasia. The disease caused massage labor shortages which soon developed into social turbulence. In Western Europe, urban workers demanded higher wages and many left home in search of better working conditions. In response, political authorities froze wages and forbade workers from leaving their homes. When peasants in the countryside also attempted to leave to better their conditions, landlords reimposed labor requirements and denied them permission to move. Disgruntled peasants and workers rebelled, causing revolts that rocked towns and the countryside in Western Europe. The revolts were put down, but only after extensive bloodshed.

Recovery in China: The Mongol Yuan dynasty of China fell on hard times in the fourteenth century. Financial mismanagement led to economic difficulties and political conflicts led to assassinations and factional fighting among the Mongols themselves. With the plague raging, the Yuan dynasty collapsed in 1368. The Mongols packed up, abandoned China en masse, and returned to the steppes. This left China in a state of turmoil. The new Emperor of China was Hongwu; born to a family so poor he had spent his early life as a beggar. He had been orphaned and entered a Buddhist monastery so that he could eat; but came to the attention of military commanders because of his size and strength. He led forces which toppled the Yuan dynasty, and became Emperor Hongwu in 1368. He proclaimed the Ming ("brilliant") dynasty which lasted until 1644.

Hongwu eliminated all vestiges of Mongol rule and established a typical Chinese government. He had little interest in scholarly matters, but reestablished the Confucian educational and civil service system, thereby assuring a supply of talented government officials. He also centralized Chinese rule more tightly than at any time in history. In 1380 he executed a minister whom he suspected of treason, and then abolished all ministries altogether. Thereafter, he and his successors ruled directly without the aid of ministers.

Ming emperors insisted on strict obedience to policies of the central government. To enforce their policies, they relied on mandarins, a class of officials who acted as emissaries to ensure imperial policy was implemented. The emperors also relied on eunuchs for governmental service. They were popular as they did not generate families or build power bases that might lead to treason. Ming Emperors relied on eunuchs much more than had previous dynasties, anticipating that those whose fortunes depended exclusively on the emperor’s favor would work especially hard to advance the emperor’s interests.

Ming Emperors also worked toward economic recovery. They conscripted laborers to rebuild irrigation systems which had been in disrepair during Mongol rule, and agricultural production surged as a result. They also promoted the production of porcelain, fine silk and cotton textiles. Chinese merchants traded frequently in Japan and southeast Asia. AT the same time, domestic trade in China surged.

A cultural revival also occurred during the Ming dynasty. Hongwu attempted to eradicate all signs of Mongol influence by discouraging the use of Mongol names and wearing of Mongol attire. He and his successors actively promoted Chinese cultural traditions, particularly Confucian and non-Confucian schools. His successor, Yongle, organized the preparation of an encyclopedia that compiled all significant works of Chinese history, philosophy and literature. The Yongle Encyclopedia ran to almost 23,000 manuscript rolls, each the size of a medium sized book. Plans to issue a printed edition were abandoned because of the expense.

State building in Western Europe: The plague had devastating effects on the governments of Western Europe also. Although the Holy Roman Empire survived in name, power effectively lay with the German princes and Italian city states rather than the Emperor. France and England fought the Hundred Years War over control of lands in France. Both sides were devastated by the conflict; but at its end, neither side had gained territory. Regional states however began to strengthen their authority by the mid fifteenth century. Two important elements made this possible:

Fresh sources of revenue, usually through taxes levied directly on citizens and subjects which supplemented the revenue that rulers normally received from subordinates.

The maintenance of large standing armies, normally composed of mercenaries, equipped with firepower, and paid by state funds.

The process of state building began in Italy. Profits from trade and industrialization had enriched major cities such as Milan, Venice, and Florence. These areas needed large bureaucratic establishments to manage their affairs and military forces to protect their interests. They began to meet these needs by levying taxes directly on citizens and issuing bonds (a method of borrowing money) which they repaid from tax receipts. They thus were able to strengthen their authority within their own boundaries.

The Kings of France and England also began to levy direct taxes, largely due to the costs of the Hundred Years War. Taxes were levied on hearths, salt, sales, plow teams, etc. English Kings did not establish a standing army, but could raise forces if rebellion threatened. In France, King Louis XI maintained a permanent army of 15,000 troops, most of them professional mercenaries with firearms. The nobility did not have the means to maintain such an army, so Louis held an edge over those who might wish to challenge his authority.

In Spain, the marriage in 1469 if Ferdinand of Aragon to Isabella of Castile united the two wealthiest and most important principalities in the area. Their primary source of income was a sales tax, which supported a large standing army. Their forces managed to complete the reconquista by conquering Granada. Muslims who remained were given the choice of converting or leaving the country. They later seized southern Italy and controlled most of the Italian peninsula by 1559. Hoping to find markets for Spain in Asia, they sponsored the expeditions of Christopher Columbus, who hoped to find a westward route to China.

As European states became centralized, competition between them intensified and a series of small wars resulted. These wars encouraged the development of military and naval technology as each sought an advantage over the other. Technological improvements involved both naval and land forces. The end result was a greatly strengthened European military at a time when Europe began to venture into the rest of the world.

The European Renaissance: The term "renaissance" means "rebirth," and is used to describe the re-flowering of artistic and intellectual creativity during the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries in Europe. It corresponded, perhaps not coincidentally, to the period of population recovery after the Black Death, and the period of state building. Sculptors, Painters, and architects of the Renaissance drew their inspiration from Classical works rather than medieval works. The result was a transformation of European art.

Renaissance scholars known as humanists often looked to classical sources which they used to update moral thought. They often translated works of classical writers from the original classical Latin and Greek, rather than previous medieval translations, which were at times questionable. Humanist philosophy expressed the idea that human beings were the greatest creation of God, and therefore had innate worth. As a result, Renaissance sculptors and painters depicted human beings in realistic settings and in realistic detail. Many reflected Greek classical styles, as a result many paintings and statues are nude and anatomically correct. They often expressed emotion and human reaction in their subjects. Among the more famous Renaissance Artists:

Leonardo da Vinci: Mona Lisa; Madonna of the Rocks; the Last Supper.


Michealangelo Buonarotti: Paintings in the Sistine Chapel; Statue of David.

Donatello: Statue of David

Renaissance architects also designed buildings in classical style. Their most impressive accomplishments were domed buildings which enclosed large spaces but were open and airy. Many were inspired by the Pantheon, a Roman temple constructed in the second century. Among the more famous of the architects was Filippo Brunelleschi, who constructed the dome of the cathedral at Florence.

Humanists, as their name indicated, were interested in studies which soon became known as the humanities: Literature, history, and moral philosophy. They were not interested in secular or anti-religious movements that are thought of today as humanism. They were deeply committed to Christianity and much of their work reflects that fact. Among the more famous Humanists:

Desiderius Erasmus: who published a new edition of the Greek New Testament in 1516 along with a revised Latin translation. The translation then in use in Europe, the Vulgate, had been translated by St. Jerome, a Saint, and written in vulgar Latin, hence the name. The Church had forbidden translation, inasmuch as the translation by a saint was considered untouchable; however Erasmus found several errors in the Vulgate.

Thomas More, the English jurist who wrote Utopia, literally meaning, "no where." The work described a perfect kingdom that existed far away.

Francesco Petrarch: who first used the term "middle age" and "renaissance." He searched monastic libraries in Europe and found many Latin writings overlooked by scholastic writers.

Humanists preferred to read classical writing in the original languages rather than the difficult style of the scholastic writers. Their efforts were enhanced after the fall of Constantinople, when Greek scholars from that city traveled to Europe and brought their vast knowledge with them.

Humanist’s studies caused them to reconsider medieval ethics. Medieval philosophers had to be a monk or nun was the most honorable of callings, one whereby one withdrew from the world and dedicated one’s life to prayer. Humanists, often inspired by classical writers such as Cicero, taught that one could lead a morally virtuous life and still live actively in the world. They argued that it was perfectly honorable for Christians to enter into marriage, business relationships, and lead an active life in society. They attempted to reconcile Christian ethics with the increasingly urban and commercial society of Europe.

Exploration and Colonization: With recovery from the plague and demographic collapse came recovery of long distance trade in both Europe and China. The Ming emperors of China, after the expulsion of the Mongols, were not anxious to have foreigners in great numbers in their midst; however they did allow foreign merchants to trade in some cities under close supervision. There they traded gems, spices, and animal skins for Chinese products such as silk and porcelain. The emperors also rebuilt the Chinese navy and allowed Chinese merchants to participate in overseas trading ventures in Japan and southeast Asia.

For thirty years, the Ming government sponsored seven massive naval expeditions between 1405 and 1453. to establish a Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean basin. The expeditions were organized by Emperor Yongle to impose imperial control over foreign trade with China and to impress foreign people with the power and might of the Ming dynasty.

The expeditions were led by the eunuch admiral Zheng He, a Muslim who commanded a fleet with sufficient fire power to overcome any resistance he might encounter. His first voyage consisted of 317 ships with 28,000 troops. A number of the ships were "treasure ships" with four decks which could carry five hundred or more passengers. They were the largest craft the world had ever seen.

Zheng He’s voyages took him to southeast Asia, India, Ceylon, the Persian Gulf, Arabia, and down the east cost of Africa as far as Kenya. He liberally distributed gifts of Chinese silk and porcelain and received in return such gifts as African zebras and giraffes that were returned to the Ming imperial zoo. They paid respect to local deities and in Ceylon erected a monument honoring Buddha, Allah, and Vishnu. He attempted to accomplish his mission by diplomacy; and there was little need for violence because his huge forces overawed his hosts. He did not hesitate to use violence, however, when he deemed it necessary. He was reported to "walk like a tiger." He suppressed pirates in China sea ruthlessly and flexed his military power in several areas when violence threatened.

The voyages of exploration ended in the mid 1430’s when Confucian ministers who mistrusted Zheng and the eunuchs who worked with him argued that government revenue might more wisely be spent on agricultural programs. Also, a new military threat from the Mongols called for additional financial support of ground troops. Sadly, imperial officials destroyed most of Zheng’s nautical charts and abandoned any plans for a Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean basin. The treasure ships rotted away and the technology of building them was forgotten.

European Expansion: Europeans also commenced voyages of exploration and expansion but for different reasons: their primary goal was to spread Christianity and develop commercial opportunities.

Portugal was one of the first Western European countries to venture forth. Prince Henry of Portugal, often called Henry the Navigator, formed a school of navigation, and encouraged exploration of the Atlantic basin. Portuguese sailors thus discovered the Madeira and Azores Islands which they colonies, and made an unsuccessful attempt to colonize the Canary Islands. (The latter were already occupied, and efforts to defeat them were unsuccessful.) They later discovered the Cape Verde Islands, and Principe off the west coast of Africa. Portuguese investors invested in sugar cane plantations in the islands and a ready supply of cane sugar was soon available.

Portuguese traders often traded for slaves on the West Coast of Africa, but with the increased volume in sugar cane trade, they consequently greatly increased the market for African slaves. Thousands of African people were transported to sugar plantations in the Islands, although some few worked as domestic servants in Europe. The use of slaves on the sugar plantations gave rise to a tremendous Atlantic slave market that existed for more than two hundred years, with slaves transported to North and South America as well as the Caribbean.

Other Portuguese mariners attempted to trade in Asia for silk and spices. A sea route to Asia would allow them to avoid Muslim and Italian intermediaries who controlled most of the Asian markets in Europe. Funded by Henry the Navigator Bartolomeo Dias reached the Cape of Good Hope in 1488 before a restless crew forced him to return home. He did prove that it was possible to round the Cape of Africa and reach the Indian Ocean. In 1497, Vasco Da Gama completed the trip with the help of a Muslim pilot who showed him how to take advantage of seasonal monsoon winds to sail to India. He arrived in Calcutta in 1498; and returned to Lisbon Portugal one year later. He carried an enormously profitable cargo of spices and pepper; so much so that the return on an investment in his voyage was 600 to one.

Portuguese profits from trade were sufficiently lucrative that they tried to prevent other nations Portuguese warships frequently overpowered vessels of Arabs, Persians, Indians, etc. Although they could not control the entire Indian Ocean trade, their involvement in the region marked the beginning of European imperialism in Asia.

Christopher Columbus (true name: Cristofero Colombo) convinced the Spanish to fund a voyage to Asia by sailing west. His voyage was funded by Ferdinand and Isabella, who outfitted one ship. Columbo outfitted the remaining vessels himself through private funding. His voyage carried him to the Caribbean, and opened the Western Hemisphere for exploration; although he did not return with the gold and spices he had promised.