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5.1 The Protestant Reformation

In the sixteenth century, many European Christians were critical of practices within the Catholic Church. Some scholars in northern Europe had turned to Christian humanism as a means of making people more pious and thus achieving religious reform. Martin Luther, a German monk, began the Protestant Reformation when he publicly objected to the church’s sale of indulgences. Luther was excommunicated, but the printing press enabled his ideas to spread throughout Europe. Luther taught that faith alone was needed for salvation and that scripture was the only source of Christian authority.

Luther’s ideas became popular among many, including Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin in Switzerland. Followers of John Calvin, called Calvinists, spread his teachings to the Netherlands, Scotland, France, and England. A variety of Anabaptist churches were also established that rejected infant baptism. In England, Henry VIII rejected the pope’s authority after the pope refused to grant him an annulment. As Protestantism gained adherents, religious wars erupted throughout Europe. The Council of Trent, called by the Roman Catholic Church in 1545, reaffirmed some aspects of church doctrine while also passing reforms that attempted to eliminate some of the problems that led to the Reformation. Wars over religion continued for many years.

5.2 Crossing the Atlantic

With the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453, Europeans found themselves forced to deal with Muslim middlemen to access the prized goods of South and East Asia. European countries thus began seeking an all-water route to the eastern lands they called the Indies, aided by navigational technologies from the Middle East and motivated by religious zeal and desire for profit. The Portuguese were the first to explore the Atlantic, claiming islands off the coast of Africa and voyaging down its western shore. In 1488, the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa.

The Spanish monarchs Isabella I of Castille and Ferdinand II of Aragon financed the voyages of Christopher Columbus, who landed in the Caribbean in 1492 believing it was part of the Indies. He did not find great wealth there, but Spanish exploration continued. Hernán Cortés conquered the wealthy Aztec Empire in Mexico and Francisco Pizarro the silver-rich Inca Empire in Peru.

To protect their respective interests, in 1494 Spain and Portugal negotiated the Treaty of Tordesillas, which drew a line through the Atlantic awarding the Americas, with the exception of Brazil, to Spain. Animals, foods, and other resources flowed in both directions along the Columbian Exchange, forever altering the culture and economies of North and South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Diseases also traveled west with the Europeans and wiped out as much as 95 percent of the Indigenous peoples in the Western Hemisphere. Both Europeans and Indigenous peoples had developed rich, diverse, and vastly different cultures, societies, and religions prior to contact.

5.3 The Mercantilist Economy

According to mercantilist theory, to achieve power, nations must maximize their store of precious metals by importing as few goods as possible while profitably exporting products to other countries. In embracing the theory, European governments imposed tariffs, granted monopolies, and subsidized industries. They also sought to acquire colonies to supply natural resources and serve as markets for domestically manufactured goods. England, France, and the Netherlands thus joined Spain and Portugal in establishing colonies in the Americas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. From these, they extracted goods such as furs, hides, tobacco, and most profitably sugar. Critics like David Hume and Adam Smith charged that mercantilism led to inflation and harmed consumers. Smith argued that wealth was not finite, that all nations could prosper, and that the economy should be regulated naturally by competition among producers rather than being managed by governments.

5.4 The Atlantic Slave Trade

To extract wealth from their colonies, over the course of the late fifteenth through the early nineteenth centuries, European nations shipped approximately twelve million enslaved African people across the Atlantic Ocean on the Middle Passage. Some ten million arrived alive to satisfy the labor needs of European planters, who grew cash crops like sugar, rice, and tobacco. These agricultural goods were shipped to Europe, and finished products made from them were shipped to Africa to purchase more captives from other Africans. This three-legged exchange made up the triangular trade. The slave trade brought some areas of Africa damaging population losses, and the importation of European goods also harmed African industries.

The majority of enslaved people labored in the Caribbean and Brazil growing sugar. The work was hard and dangerous, and many died. Nevertheless, enslaved people established ties with one another and found ways to maintain their human dignity and aspects of their culture. Europeans profited immensely from their labor, and many industries were enriched by either the slave trade or the sugar production that depended on it.

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