The period before contact with the Americas marked the beginning of globalization. During this era, the world grew ever more interconnected through trade, politics, culture, and religion. In China, the rise of the Ming Dynasty in 1439 began a new era. Under the Ming Dynasty, the Forbidden City, the seat of Chinese rule in the following centuries and a lasting symbol of Chinese power, was built. The Chinese were the first to undertake substantial oceanic voyages in the Age of Discovery. Zheng He’s massive fleet dwarfed European expeditions of the period, both in the numbers and size of the ships. The armada explored much of the Indian Ocean region as far as Africa, mapping, charting, trading, and incorporating a great part of the region into a Chinese tributary system. Although a few historians have suggested that Zheng He’s fleet voyaged as far as Australia and the Americas, compelling documentary evidence for this is lacking.
In Europe, under the sponsorship of Prince Henry the Navigator, Portugal emerged as one of the leaders of the European Age of Discovery, in part because of technologies such as the compass, the astrolabe, and the caravel. The Portuguese established trading ports along the coast of West Africa as well as in India. After Columbus’s 1492 voyage, the Spanish found themselves exploring vast new lands. Competition between Portugal and Spain was alleviated with the Treaty of Tordesillas and the Treaty of Zaragosa. These two agreements effectively divided the earth into two zones of influence. Meanwhile, England and France took shape as nation-states, seeking to exert greater influence over their subjects. By the 1500s, England and France were sovereign states characterized by strong monarchies. These developments helped to pave the way for their overseas expansion in the seventeenth century; however, they had to deal with internal schisms caused by the Protestant Reformation before they could devote their attention to catching up with Portugal and Spain.
On the eve of the sixteenth century, Africa was a continent of tremendous diversity and home to hundreds of cultures, languages, and political states. In the centuries before the Age of Discovery, Africa saw the rise to preeminence of a number of impressive kingdoms: Ghana, Mali, and Songhay in the west, the city states of the East African coast, and in the south, Great Zimbabwe. Different regions in Africa experienced the changes of the era in different ways. Western and Central Africa were greatly influenced by the changes wrought by the slave trade. The Kingdom of Dahomey provides an example of one of the ways that African groups were influenced by and participated in both the Age of Discovery and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. The Trans-Atlantic slave trade was the middle portion of the Atlantic Triangle Trade network. At least ten million Africans were enslaved and forced to make the Middle Passage across the Atlantic to the New World. Mortality rates for the Middle Passage averaged around 12-13 percent.
Voyages of exploration captured the immensity of the earth in maps and images and created webs of connection between regions and peoples, bringing the world closer together. It is for these reasons that this period is often referred to as the Early Modern Era. For the first time, we see the emergence of a world that bears great similarity to ours of the twentyfirst century, a world interconnected through trade, politics, culture, and religion.