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The Fall of Constantinople

The resourceful Dutch, having finally achieved their independence from Spain, became very active in North America at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Sailing under the auspices of the Dutch East India Company, English-born Henry Hudson (c. 1565-€“1611) first explored Greenland (1607) and then the Arctic seas north of Russia. In 1609, in search of a sea Passage to Asia, he traveled up the river which today bears his name, as far as present-day Albany. In 1610, Hudson undertook another voyage, again in search of a Northwest Passage. He sailed through what is now Hudson Strait, spent the winter of 1610-€“1611 in James Bay, and then discovered Hudson's Bay. There, in June 1611, his mutinous crew marooned Hudson, his son, and six loyal crewmen and they presumably died. Because Hudson had claimed much of what is now New York, the Dutch established a settlement on Manhattan Island in 1624. It was taken over by the English four decades later.

Following hard on Hudson's effort, the newly formed "Governor and Company of the Merchants of London" made a number of attempts to find a Northwest Passage. During two voyages between 1610 and 1616, Thomas Button (?-€“1634), and Robert Bylot (fl. 1610-€“1616) with his pilot William Baffin (1584-€“1622), thoroughly surveyed the previously unexplored western and northern reaches of Hudson's Bay, but without success. In 1616, Bylot and Baffin reached Smith Sound, at the northern end of what became Baffin Bay. No other mariner would get this far north again until 1853. An unsuccessful Danish effort led by Jens Munk in 1619-€“1620 resulted in the death of all but three of his men. In a vessel loaned by King Charles I of England, Luke Fox (1586-€“c. 1635) reached a point just south of the Arctic Circle in 1631, and demonstrated conclusively that sailing north from Hudson's Bay would not lead to a Northwest Passage. Thomas James (c. 1593-€“c. 1635) made one final attempt to find a passage in 1631-€“1632. Thereafter, English efforts to find the elusive passage were abandoned for nearly two centuries. Benjamin Franklin and other Philadelphia investors did mount one exploratory effort in 1753-€“1754, led by Charles Swaine, which had little success. It was not until 1905 that the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, in his privately funded vessel, the Gjoa, finally succeeded in navigating a passage where so many of his predecessors had failed.

Between the end of the 15th century and the 20th century, colonial powers from Eurasia dispatched explorers in an attempt to discover a commercial sea route north and west around North America. The Northwest Passage represented a new route to the established trading nations of Asia. In 1493 to defuse trade disputes, Pope Alexander VI split the discovered world in two between Spain and Portugal; thus France, the Netherlands, and England were left without a sea route to Asia, either via Africa or South America. The British called the hypothetical route the "Northwest Passage". The desire to establish such a route motivated much of the European exploration of both coasts of North America.

The Fall of Constantinople was a siege in which the Ottoman Empire under the command of Sultan Mehmed II attempted to capture the capital of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople which was defended by the army of Emperor Constantine XI. The siege lasted from Thursday, 5 April 1453 until Tuesday, 29 May 1453 (according to the Julian Calendar), when the city fell to the Ottomans. The event marked the end of the political independence of the millennium-old Byzantine Empire, which was by then already fragmented into several Greek monarchies.

The loss of the city was a massive blow to Christendom; the Pope called for an immediate counter-attack in the form of a crusade, but when no European monarch was willing to lead the crusade, the Pope himself decided to go; his early death eliminated the possibility of a counter-attack. With Constantinople beneath his belt, Mehmed II had acquired a great, rich city albeit one in decline due to years of war. The Capital allowed the Turks to establish a permanent supply base in Christian Europe. Further advances into Hungary and the principalities bordering the two kingdoms would have been difficult, if not impossible, without the harbors of Constantinople bringing in supplies and serving as a fortified center from which to administer the empire and strategy. In addition to the military and political benefits bestowed upon the Turks with its capture, it also brought the trade in Eastern Spices through Muslim intermediaries into a declining period. Europeans would continue to trade through Constantinople into the 16th century but high prices propelled the search for an alternative route. An increasing number of Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch ships began to attempt to sail to India via the southern tip of Africa. Indeed, had Columbus not believed that he would reach Asia to negotiate trade rights by sailing west--the mission as he presented it to his patron, the King of Spain--he would not have found the New World.

The city in 1453 was a series of walled villages separated by vast fields encircled in whole by the fifth-century Theodosian walls. When the Ottoman troops first broke through the defenses, many of the leading citizens of these little townlets submitted their surrender to Mehmed's generals. These villages, specifically along the land walls, were allowed to keep their citizens and churches and were protected by Mehmed's special contingents of Janissaries. It was these people who formed what the Ottomans called a Millet, a self-governing community in the multi-national Ottoman Empire of which Constantinople was to become the capital. Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque, although the Greek Orthodox Church remained intact, and Gennadius Scholarius was appointed Patriarch of Constantinople.

The "Church of the Holy Wisdom", or Hagia Sophia, was converted into a mosque Many Greeks, such as John Argyropoulos and Constantine Lascaris, fled the city and found refuge in the Latin West, bringing with them knowledge and documents from the Greco-Roman tradition to Italy and other regions that further propelled the Renaissance, although the influx of Greek scholars into the West began much earlier, especially in the Northern Italian city-states which had started welcoming scholars in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.[citation needed] The chancellor of Florence Coluccio Salutati began this cultural exchange in 1396 by inviting Manuel Chrysoloras, a Byzantine scholar to lecture at the University of Florence. The Italians' hunger for Latin classics and a reintroduction of the Greek language was a major intellectual factor underlying the Renaissance. Those Greeks who stayed behind in Constantinople mostly lived in the Phanar and Galata districts of the city. The Phanariotes, as they were called, provided many capable advisers to the Ottoman rulers.

Scholars consider the Fall of Constantinople as a key event ending the Middle Ages and starting the Renaissance because of the end of the old religious order in Europe and the use of cannon and gunpowder. The fall of Constantinople and general encroachment of the Turks in that region also severed the main overland trade link between Europe and Asia, and as a result more Europeans began to seriously consider the possibility of reaching Asia by sea.

European explorations of the New World started in earnest within a half century of the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453, when importing merchants felt the squeeze of high tariffs on the flow of trade goods coming westward on long caravans. The Portuguese charted a route around Africa's Cape of Good Hope, but bad weather, pirates, and long months at sea hampered the efficient flow of goods. Any nation that could discover a far shorter route to the East with a Northeast or Northwest Passage over the top of the world could claim a monopoly and reap enormous fortunes.

Late in the 15th century, Christopher Columbus's four voyages to the Caribbean kicked the race into high gear. Various Spanish expeditions soon claimed most of Latin America and vast stretches of land in the southern and western regions of what much later would become the United States. In 1534, on a quest to find the Northwest Passage, the French navigator Jacques Cartier launched the first of three voyages to the northern wilderness he misnamed "Canada," the Mohawk word for "village." He returned with kidnapped Indians, a shipload of fool's gold, and tantalizing stories of the New World. His voyages gave France its claim on the vast northern country, where each year the French now came to fish the Grand Banks and trade for pelts.

Almost five hundred years later in Europe, a new spirit of curiosity was sparked by the Renaissance and trade with the distant Indies and China. Christopher Columbus, a Genoese sailor seeking a new route to the East Indies, sailed west across the Atlantic Ocean, finding land probably at what he called San Salvador on October 12, 1492. News of his voyage opened the door to an age of exploration, with other Europeans following in search of riches. The name "America" was given to the continents in 1507 by the German geographer Martin Waldseemüller, who derived the term from the name of Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512). When writing about his own travels to the New World in 1499, Vespucci claimed to be the first to recognize that the Americas were continents previously unknown by Europeans.

The fame of what Columbus had done was soon spread through Europe, and adventurers flocked to the New World - some for honor, some for enterprise and others for gain. In general, however, the great object of pursuit was gold and other precious commodities, as will become more evident in the progress of our history.

The French, too, engaged in attempts to make discoveries. What they did, however, was at first principally about the mouth of the St. Lawrence and the islands of Newfoundland and Cape Breton. By the year 1505 or 1506, they were quite familiar with this region, and Denys, of Honfleur, had drawn a map of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. As early as 1508 the French had become much engaged in the fisheries on the northeast coast of the present United States, and, as if to follow up the wicked example of the Portuguese and involve the first settlers in cruel wars, had carried away to France some of the natives. They appear also to have meditated the establishment of colonies in the New World.

In 1520, two slave ships were fitted out at St. Domingo, which proceeded to the coast of South Carolina, and, having decoyed the native Indians on board, suddenly set sail and carried them to St. Domingo. It is not surprising that the savages of the continent, from one end of it to thc other, became suspicious of white men.

In 1540, Ferdinand de Soto made a tour through Florida, northward to Georgia, and thence westward, across the Cherokee country and Alabama, to the country of the Chickasaws, where he spent the winter. In the spring of 1541, he discovered and crossed the Mississippi, and travelled in Arkansas and Missouri. He died in 1542, and his companions passed through Louisiana to Mexico. The details of this expedition are full of interest. The Indians of these regions, at this period, were numerous, and their manners and customs present much that is curious.

Among the discoveries of minor importance, made towards the close of the sixteenth century, were those of Bartholomew Gosnold, an Englishman. In a voyage to Virginia, as the whole coast was then called, he discovered and named Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, and Elizabeth Island; he attempted to form a settlement on the latter, but without success.

The 1610s were a pivotal decade in exploration. The names of explorers from this period, such as Henry Hudson, Samuel de Champlain and Walter Raleigh, are still known today. Before 1610, Hudson had already explored the coast of Greenland and Norway. His third voyage, in 1609, took him to the New World. Sailing on behalf of the Dutch, Hudson explored the coast of North America, from present-day Nova Scotia south to Chesapeake Bay and sailed up what would become known as the Hudson River.

On his fourth voyage, starting in 1610, Hudson sailed up to Iceland, along the coast of Greenland, down to the northern coast of modern-day Quebec and into what is now known as Hudson Bay. The long journey forced Hudson and his crew to winter there. When it became apparent in the summer of 1611 that Hudson wanted to go further into the New World, instead of returning home, his crew mutinied. Hudson, his son and loyal crew members were set adrift in a small boat without food or water. The great explorer and his companions were never seen again.

Robert J. Starszak. Uniting the States. History Magazine. October/November 2006.


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