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The world around 1600

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The 1600 was a time of great changes in the world. Trade and expansion dominated almost all societies. Ming China, the Songhai and Mughal Empires can be in contrast to European societies as they were ‘advanced societies’ technologically and scientifically. However these three empires collapsed due to invasions and revolts, whereas Europe, in the Middle Ages was secular, dominated by the church and the land owning nobility, whereas Europe grew in strength once the merchant class became dominant and weakening the power of the church. The merchant driven quest for new markets eventually led the colonization of Africa, China and India. Ming China had a strong civil based government within an advanced society. Mandarins ruled for 300 years by decrees who were political, economic and culturally strong.

The capital was Beijing .Women in Ming China were sometimes wealthy property owners who had influence in the society but the majority of women were kept home by fathers or husbands. Rural women worked in fields among men while urban women were employed as silk weavers and embroiders. Upper class women were well educated and left a legacy of poetry for future generations. Wealthy women were frequently subjected to foot-binding for feminine beauty and high standing in society. Ships were built to trade and explore, this was led by Admiral Zheng who sailed to Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Arabia and east coast of Africa. He sent silk, porcelain and tea to western Asia and Europe along the Silk Road. Traded by sea with Japan and countries around the Indian Ocean and returned home with spices, ivory exotic animals, and prisoners of war.

This influenced other countries in Asia which made people settle in South East Asia for trading purposes. The medicine, maths, and other sciences were very advanced, many books were published, and painted porcelain vases, landscape paintings and jade ornaments were very much appreciated. Education was wide and included both men and women. Ming China went through many changes after being attacked. The Great Wall of China was built for defence against the Mongols. The Empire was weakened by struggles for power between court officials coupled with economic problems with outbreaks of violence and famine in early 1600’s. The Songhai Empire in West Africa across the Sahara was a federation system, unlike the Ming China Empire.

The empires capital was Gao. King Askia Muhammed had military units. tax were collected by local chiefs who the king tribute and military support. The wealthy women were well educated and had control of their property and resources, not unlike to some Ming China women who were also wealthy and well educated and were able to exhort financial and political influence. Some women were traders, they were of equal importance to men in markets. Poorer women worked as servants in wealthier households. The empire built large armies to keep order which helped trade to run more smoothly, they traded in European cloth, weapons, gold, salt and horses in exchange for slaves, leather goods, and ivory from West Africa.

Trade was conducted along the Niger River with Jewish trading networks from Spain, this linked to extensive Muslim trading networks of Africa, Mediterranean and Asia. Huge caravans of trade goods would cross the Sahara desert. Timbuktu became a commercial centre where scholars, traders/ merchants came to trade. The Songhai Empire had one of the first universities in the World. Gao and Djenne, centres in learning had huge libraries. Islamic learning was brought by Arabs to Africa in the 18th century. This made Muslim learning and ideas very popular. Books were published and there were advancements in maths, medicine and science like Ming China. Astronomy was also well advanced. The empire made wells containing very sweet water to convey the flood of the Niger River to channel to the town.

Power began to shift when the Portuguese upset trade patterns which lead to the formation of small new kingdoms like Benin and Akian. The rulers lost control over trade and began to lose control of the empire in the 16th century. As with the Ming China Empire struggle for power led to weakening of the Empire. There was eventually a civil war in the Songhai Empire. The Songhai Empire was finally defeated by an invasion from Morocco using gunpowder in 1591. The Mughal Empire was led by Babur from Persia who invaded India in 1526. Later under Akbar (156-1605) the Golden Age for the empire came into being. Local sultans were conquered the capital was Delhi. The empire relied on the support of local rulers who remained in power but had to pay tax to the emperor. A similar system to that of the Songhai Empire. The government was efficient, and powerful.

This was a secure empire that practised religious tolerance. Unlike the Songhai and Ming China Empire the nobility and wealthier women in Mughal Empire were kept out of public sight in separate areas where they lived in harems. Some women were influential and educated, but men had control over political and economic developments. The noble or wealthier women funded the artistic achievements and assisted the poor. Unlike the Ming China Empire and the Songhai Empire, some royal women influenced the imperial policy. Rural women would work in the fields and were controlled by husbands. Trade increased under the Mughals and merchant communities grew in a way similar to the Songhai Empire. They traded with China and south-east Asia. Ships from Europe started to visit India as Indian goods were valued.

The English East India Company set up trading posts along the coast of India in 1600 and, like Songhai built up military power in order to facilitate smooth trade. There were 3 ports which were British namely Madras, Mumbai and Kolkata. The British bought cotton goods, silks, pepper, spices, and sugar in exchange for silver, copper, zinc and lead. The ports soon developed into forts which were defended by Seypoys. These extended control over most of India, which led to taxes the enforcement of English language and law. Like the Gao and Djenne in the Songhai Empire they were libraries of books written in Persian, Hindi, Arabic, Greek, and English. This was a centre for arts, science and astronomy similar to the Songhai Empire.

Architecture was admired and the concept of zero was invented. Astronomy was a very important science. Seamless celestial globes were made to help further astronomical studies. Changes began when new rulers ended the policy of religious tolerance leading to revolts from the Hindus and Sikhs weakening the Empire. India eventually became a British colony. European society was divided into several small kingdoms and states in which landowners had all the power unlike the three empires under discussion. By the end of the Middle Ages trade developed which bought new ideas and became to be known as the Renaissance. Towns developed and the middle class grew. Europe was essentially a feudal society of warfare and disorder.

Landowners were known as nobles. Serfs who were poor peasants who lived and worked on the farms owned by the nobles. Serfs were not able to read or write and knew little of the world they lived in. they had to do military service, manual labour, and pay taxes. Their lives were dominated by the church, monks and priests were the only ones who could read and write. During 14th century came the Black Death killed 1/3 of the European population, which a negatively impacted on the economy. Women had few legal rights, and like the Songhai women they were under control of their fathers and husbands. Very few were given basic education. Many women became nuns or tended the sick or lived in seclusion. Peasant women worked in agriculture and preformed domestic work or became servants for middle class households similar to the Songhai women.

Towns developed around markets and rivers. Travelling wasn’t very popular. Only Christians went on pilgrimage to holy places and soldiers went out on military missions. Italians began to send goods to Europe and networks of trade routes began to grow linking Asia and North Africa. They traded coffee, tea and spices. The Baltic Sea was an important area for trade. Trading alliances called the Hanseatic League were formed in a similar way to the Songhai and Mughal Empires. Ships carried copper, iron and fish from Sweden; cloth and manufactured goods were traded from Flanders and England. Southern Europe, the Mediterranean Sea was a major area of trade for Arab traders, West Africa, North Africa and China.

Flanders became a central point of trade. The expansion of trade created new interests in finding out about the World and new cultures particularly the Muslim. The Europeans started to develop into larger Kingdoms with France and England as feudal landowners. In France the rulers had absolute power while in England they had a parliament. The king had to work with the leading landowners of the country. By the end of the Middle Ages trade was rapidly expanding. New developments in science and technology were studied. Long distance trade started and the society moved away from the feudal system with overseas exploration and the conquest of parts of America, Africa and Asia Ming China, the Songhai and the Mughal empires fell from powerful trading and wealthy empires that controlled vast areas of the world, becoming colonial ‘slaves’, to a dominant economic and military power. Europe, due to a lack of internal cohesion, invasion and civil wars.

Europe based its power on trade and military power. This enabled the European countries to expand their sources of influence while searching for new markets and raw materials. Weakened African and Asian countries rapidly fell prey to European domination and eventual colonisation only ending in the 20th century. The influence of the European culture and politics is still, to some extent, felt throughout the world.


Jean, Pippa, and Nigel, J.B, P.V, N.W., 2011. In Search of History Grade 10 Learner’s Book (National Caps made easy) South Africa: Oxford University Press Southern Africa (PTY) Ltd, Cape Town

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