The New Age After the 1500s After 1500 there were many signs that a new age of world history was beginning, for example the discovery of America and the first European enterprises in Asia. This “new age” was dominated by the astonishing success of one civilization among many, that of Europe. There was more and more continuous interconnection between events in all countries, but it is to be explained by European efforts. Europeans eventually became “masters of the globe” and they used their mastery to make the world one. That resulted in a unity of world history that can be detected until today. Politics, empire-building, and military expansion were only a tiny part of what was going on.
Besides the economic integration of the globe there was a much more important process going on: The spreading of assumptions and ideas. The result was to be “One World.” The age of independent civilizations has come to a close. The history of the centuries since 1500 can be described as a series of wars and violent struggles. Obviously men in different countries did not like another much more than their predecessors did. However, they were much more alike than their ancestors were, which was an outcome of what we now call modernization.
One could also say that the world was Europeanized, for modernization was a matter of ideas and techniques which have an European origin. It was with the modernization of Europe that the unification of world history began. A great change in Europe was the starting-point of modern history. There was a continuing economic predominance of agriculture. Agricultural progress increasingly took two main forms: Orientation towards the market, and technical innovation.
They were interconnected. A large population in the neighborhood meant a market and therefore an incentive. Even in the fifteenth century the inhabitants of so called low countries were already leaders in the techniques of intensive cultivation. Better drainage opened the way to better pasture and to a larger animal population. Agricultural improvement favored the reorganization of land in bigger farms, the reduction of the number of small holders, the employment of wage labor, and high capital investment in buildings, drainage and machinery. In the late sixteenth century one response to the pressure of expanding population upon slowly growing resources had been the promoting of emigration. By 1800, Europeans had made a large contribution to the peopling of new lands overseas.
It was already discernible in the sixteenth century when there began the long expansion of world commerce which was to last until 1930. It started by carrying further the shift of economic gravity from southern to north-western Europe, from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, which has already been remarked. One contribution to this was made by political troubles and wars such as ruined Italy in the early sixteenth century. The great commercial success story of the sixteenth century was Antwerp’s, though it collapsed after a few decades in political and economic disaster. In the seventeenth century Amsterdam and London surpassed it.
In each case an important trade based on a well-populated hinterland provided profits for diversification into manufacturing industry, services, and banking. The Bank of Amsterdam and The Bank of England were already international economic forces in the in the seventeenth century. About them clustered other banks and merchant houses undertaking operations of credit and finance. Interest rates came down and the bill of exchange, a medieval invention, underwent an enormous extension of use and became the primary financial instrument of international trade. This was the beginning of the increasing use of paper, instead of bullion. In the eighteenth century came the first European paper currencies and the invention of the check.
Joint stock companies generated another form of negotiable security, their own shares. Quotation of these in London coffee-houses in the seventeenth century was overtaken by the foundation of the London Stock Exchange. By 1800 similar institutions existed in many other countries. It was also the time of some spectacular disastrous investment projects, one of which was the great English South Sea Bubble. But all the time the world was growing more commercial, more used to the idea of employing money to make money, and was supplying itself with the apparatus of modern capitalism.
One effect quickly appeared in the much greater attention paid to commercial questions in diplomatic negotiation from the later seventeenth century and in the fact that countries were prepared to fight over them. The English and Dutch went to war over trade in 1652. This opened a long era during which they, the French and Spanish, fought again and again over quarrels in which questions of trade were important. Governments not only looked after their merchants by going to war to uphold their interests, but also intervened in other ways in the working of the commercial economy. One advantage they could offer were monopoly privileges to a company under a charter; this made the raising of capital easier by offering some security for a return.
Such activities closely involved government and therefore the concerns of businessmen shaped both, policy and law. The most impressive structural development in European commerce was the sudden new importance to it of overseas trade from the second half of the seventeenth century onwards. This was part of the shift of economic activity from Mediterranean to northern Europe. By the late seventeenth century. Rising populations and some assurance of adequate transport (water was always cheaper than land carriage) slowly built up an international trade in cereals. Shipbuilding itself promoted the movement of such commodities as pitch, flax or timber.
More than European consumption was involved; all this took place in a setting of growing colonial empires. By the eighteenth century there were already present an oceanic economy and an international trading community which does business — and fights and intrigues for it — around the globe. In this economy an important and growing part was played by slaves, most of them black Africans. In Europe itself, slavery had by then all but withered away. Now it was to undergo a vast extension in o …