World 1648 CE

Europeans have pioneered maritime trading systems which, for the first time, span the entire globe. These lead to vast changes in both Eastern and Western Hemispheres.

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World history in 1648 - the West rising

By this date Europeans are making their presence felt across the world. Their impact on the Americas has been catastrophic, but up to now their impact on the great centers of civilization in Eurasia has been confined to the coasts.

European exploration and trade

The first voyage of the explorer Christopher Columbus in 1492 has transformed the trajectory of world history by linking the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. Indeed European explorers (mainly Portuguese, Spanish and Italian) have visited all the oceans of the world, except perhaps the Antarctic. They have discovered that India, South East Asia and China are reachable from Europe by sea; but most dramatically, they have stumbled across the massive landmasses of North and South America.

On the back of these discoveries, maritime trade networks have been set up, spanning the oceans of the world. These networks allow the produce of far flung lands to flow back to European ports. European trading bases are now to be found along the coasts of Africa, India and South East Asia, and even (as tiny toe-holds) in China and Japan.

The Americas

These developments are dwarfed by the European conquests in the Americas. In South and Central America, the great Inca and Aztec civilizations, heirs to millenia of cultural development, have been wiped off the face of the earth. In their place, huge empires ruled from Spain and Portugal now hold sway. In North America, northern Europeans, mostly English and French, are intensively colonizing smaller territories, along the eastern coast.

Wherever they settle, the Europeans have transplanted their home cultures to these new lands, so that they become vast extensions of European civilization. This process has sadly been aided by the spread of European diseases amongst the native populations of the Americas, and, significantly helped by European brutality, these have led to a drastic drop in numbers amongst these groups.

The denuding of the Americas of their native inhabitants has led to the rise of the Atlantic Slave Trade. This brings enslaved African labour to work in the European-dominated economies of the Western Hemisphere. In due course, people of African descent will come to form a major component of the new population mix in the Americas.


The spreading of its trade tentacles around the world has made Europeans richer. However, within their own homelands they have been experiencing major upheavals. The Renaissance has revolutionized their culture. It has put them more closely in touch with their heritage from ancient times, the civilizations of Greece and Rome, and in so doing made them question much about their contemporary world view. This has encouraged them to find new ways of seeking knowledge, and the foundations of modern science are being laid in these centuries.

The religious upheaval known as the Reformation has split western Europe into two hostile camps, one Roman Catholic, the other Protestant. The bitter religious wars that have flowed from this have reshaped the politics of the region. Many countries are seeing the rise of strongly authoritarian kings, who concentrate as much power as they can in their own hands, largely at the expense of the old feudal nobility. Others countries are seeing (often painfully) the beginnings of a more democratic approach government – also at the expense of the old feudal nobility.


While western European countries have been extending their reach across the oceans, the Russians have been spreading across Central Asia and into East Asia. They reach the Pacific Ocean about now. This expansion is carried out mostly by thousands of ordinary farmers, but coming up behind them comes the authority of the Russian state. The control this imposes on the region means that, from this time forward, the nomadic steppe peoples of Central Asia will no longer pose a threat to the settled peoples of Europe or East Asia.

South Asia

Though not themselves hailing from the steppes, rulers of Central Asian descent are still a force to be reckoned with. In India, the Mughal empire has imposed its rule on much of the sub-continent. Under them, an eclectic Indo-Islamic culture is reaching fruition in such magnificent masterpieces as the Taj Mahal; and also finding expression in the rise of the new Sikh religion, which seeks to reconcile Hinduism and Islam.

East Asia

In East Asia, another group tracing their descent to the steppes is conquering China. The Manchu are now displacing the Ming emperors as the rulers of this huge country. It is a time of great disruption for the Chinese, and the new Manchu – or Qing – rulers face immense challenges in imposing their control. However, they will eventually establish a firm rule to become the last imperial dynasty of Chinese history.

Both Japan and Korea have also experienced violent upheaval over the past century, but both have now emerged under stable regimes. The Japanese Tokugawa shoguns are notable for having excluded as much foreign influence as they possibly can from their country, whilst the Koreans have found security by looking to China for protection.

South East Asia

Muslim sultanates now dominate the coasts and islands of South East Asia, forming a single cultural area which scholars label the “Malay World”. However, this region is now being penetrated by European traders.


European ships have also carried out their first reconnaissance of the waters around Australia and New Zealand. This is the precursor to these land masses being brought into the mainstream of global history.

In the central Pacific, the Easter Island statue-building activity reaches a climax in the construction of colossal monuments, but has by now come to a sudden, and probably catastrophic end.

The Middle East

Far to the west, the Ottoman empire is one of the great empires of world history. It has brought peace to much of the Middle East, and also rules a large slice of Europe. Europeans view this great Muslim power with fear – and have good reason to do so.

The other major Middle Eastern power is Persia, home to a vibrant Islamic civilization.


In Africa, trade networks are spreading and new kingdoms arising, especially in central and southern parts. The impact of the slave trade on African populations is as yet slight, but it is growing.

Next map: the world in 1789

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