A World of Change
Who knew about Jamestown? In 1607, There was too much else going on
One of the loveliest attractions in a city with a surfeit of them, the Pont Neuf in Paris is a delicate series of stone arches that spans the Seine. Though its name means "New Bridge," it is in fact the oldest in Paris, having opened the same year that English colonists landed in Jamestown, an ocean away. Bridging, as it does, the old and the new, the Pont Neuf is an apt metaphor for 1607a year of extraordinary transition around the world.
In Europe, political changes were underway in England and Russiapeacefully in the former, more chaotically in the latter. One major war had just ended and another was heading to a long, if temporary, lull. Science, still years before the Enlightenment, was in a state of flux, as were movements in the arts. Protestantism was breaking into multiple sects, Asia was looking to the end of the Ming Dynasty, and Japan's longlasting Tokugawa Shogunate was gaining strength. Only in the Muslim world was stability the theme: The three great Islamic states were arguably at the height of their influence and power.
It's doubtful that many residents of the world of 1607 would have taken notice that 105 English adventurers had established a settlement in Jamestown, given the myriad other events of the day. Here's what else was occupying the world, starting with the England the voyagers left behind.
Tensions. Four years before Jamestown, upon the death of Queen Elizabeth I, the Scottish king became James I of England. Tensions between Protestant England and Roman Catholic Spain had led, in part, to what Oxford historian John Robertson calls "an opportunistic war that drained England's resources." But Hapsburg Spainperhaps Europe's greatest powerwas also feeling the strain. Still embroiled in the 80 Years' War of Dutch independence, it declared bankruptcy in 1607, while still receiving silver revenues from its colonies in the New World. Yet Catholics were not a political force in England; the foiled Gunpowder Plot of 1605, in which a band of Catholics sought to blow up Parliament and kill James, was considered evidence of a continuing but diminishing threat. Nevertheless, Robertson says, "Catholics were seen as a danger. ... There were fears of Catholicism being imposed by a foreign power."
The English church doled out what Howard Hotson, an expert in European intellectual history, calls a "watered-down form of Protestantism." But Elizabeth had kept the Puritans happy with her muscular foreign policy toward Spain. James faced even greater Puritan pressure for reforms. Partly in response, he authorized an English translation of the Bible, the King James Version that is still popular today. It was a significant step in allowing the literate masses to interpret the scriptures themselves, unfiltered by any church.
Growing pains were also rattling England. A doubling of the population between 1500 and 1650 put pressure on food sources and kept prices high. There were no famines, and unlike in France, no massive peasant revolts, since taxes were relatively low. Still, about 40 peasants in Northamptonshire were killed by local landowners on June 8, 1607, when several thousand gathered to protest the enclosures of common land.
More generally, life was short and not very sweet. Killer diseasessmallpox, tuberculosisravaged towns, and hygiene was poor. A major plague hit London in 1603 and 1604, wiping out 20 percent of the population. Across Europe it was common to persecute Jews for carrying disease, and in Italy, suspected plague-carriers were tortured and burned.
Natural disasters also took a toll. On Jan. 30, 1607, perhaps 2,000 people died when flooding occurred on the coasts of the Bristol Channel. The floods were long blamed on high tides and extreme weather, but recent research suggests a tsunami may have hit.
In Ireland in 1607, the ramifications of a puzzling "escape" echoed into modern times. In the case known as the "Flight of the Earls," two members of the Gaelic aristocracy, along with 100 of their followers, fled the country for reasons that remain a mystery. While the rest of Catholic Ireland had apparently submitted to English occupation, resistance in the north was fierce; the Ulster earls had lost a nine-year war against the English, although they held onto a great deal of power and land. The English took advantage of the earls' self-exile, however, and began the Plantation of Ulster. Protestant Scottish and English settlers took over the seized lands, and Catholic memories and resentments seethed through the centuries. "There is a direct line of descent from the plantation to the Troubles," says Toby Barnard, an Oxford political historian, referring to the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland of the late 20th century.
Across the channel, Spain's financial problems weren't helped by an unexpected thumping by the Dutch in a four-hour naval battle off Gibraltar on April 25, 1607. The Dutch admiral died when one of his legs was smashed by a cannonball. But his bold attack worked: It destroyed or captured 21 Spanish ships, killing all 4,000 aboard. The victory led to a 12-year truce in 1609 in a war that had raged since 1568.
Although the English navigator Henry Hudson would eventually sail under the Dutch flag, claiming New York for that country, he made his first trip in search of a Northeast Passage to Asia in 1607 on behalf of a London company, venturing closer to the North Pole than any other explorer at the time. Thoroughly unsuited for such a trip, his ship just missed colliding with an iceberg. Hudson failed, of course, to find a passage East, but he did discover Spitzbergen Island and impressive schools of whales. His subsequent reports, in fact, led to the start of England's whaling industry.
The sense of certainty that Hudson brought to his searches was largely missing from the world of scientific exploration. Ever since the early 16th century, when Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus theorized that the Earth spun on an axis and revolved around the sun, "there was a sense of crisis," Hotson says. While many intellectuals and scientists agreed with his theory, no one could prove it. One early 17th-century believer, German mathematician Johannes Kepler, couldn't prove it, either, but eventually, Hotson says, "he groped his way to the Three Laws of Planetary Motion." Kepler finished his seminal workcorrectly stating that the planets move in elliptical orbitsin 1605 and published it in 1609.
In other matters celestial, Galileo Galilei in 1608 was working on improving the telescopean instrument he would soon use to discover four moons orbiting Jupiter. Although the Roman church later forced Galileo to recant his promoting of a heliocentric solar system, Hotson says the church was not necessarily antiscience and that Galileo's fate was more the exception than the rule. "Most scientists of the time," he says, "pursued their investigations from deeply religious convictions."
In 1607, friction between Catholics and Protestants was a given. But after the Reformation, there was no shortage of rivalries among Protestants themselves. Protestants considered the Bible historic fact but, as remains the case today, they differed greatly over how to interpret it. With no papal authority to arbitrate, myriad theologies emerged. Followers widely believed in witchcraft at the time, and witch hunts and witch burnings were commonplace. Even Kepler's mother was accused of witchcraft, before he successfully defended her.
The year 1607 also saw the debut of a historically important opera: Claudio Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, based on the Greek tragedy of Orpheus, the demigod who attempts to rescue his dead bride from the underworld. "Of all of the early operas, it's the one that remains in the repertory and is still performed," says Massimo Ossi, a musicologist at Indiana University. "It's got beautiful music and a strong storyline." Popular instruments of the day included harpsichords, lutes, organs, and cornettos. The violin, becoming popular, was considered cutting-edge. Most music performed up until this timesecular and sacredwas vocal, but purely instrumental music was growing in popularity, as was the notion of the instrumentalist as a virtuoso soloist.
By 1607, William Shakespeare was an established literary heavyweight. Although dating his works is difficult, King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra probably were performed that year. At the same time he may have been working on Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, and Pericles.
Dark side. Grace Ioppolo, a Shakespeare expert at Reading University, notes that the Bard of 1607 was jettisoning his histories and comedies in favor of much darker talesmany involving shipwrecks. In earlier plays, characters on journeys often found new lives or redemption. Now, says Ioppolo, "a lot of his characters go on journeys but do not find anything."
Shakespeare stayed sharp with keen competition from other notable playwrights, among them Thomas Middleton, Ben Jonson, and Thomas Heywood. At the same time, one of the great early-modern novels was taking Europe by storm: Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, first published in Spain in 1605.
In Russia, meanwhile, events went beyond the imaginations of even the most gifted novelists. Russia's first czar, Ivan the Terrible, had died in 1584 and was succeeded by his son Fedor, ushering in the "Time of Troubles," a period of "profound crisis," says Sergei Bogtatyrev, a lecturer in history at University College London. Fedor's throne was laterassumed by various aristocratic pretenders, the first of whom took control in 1605. A year later, he was felled by an assassin. Vasilli Shuiskii took power for the next four years, but his reign was shaken by a bloody revolt. Shuiskii stamped out the rebellion in 1607, but he was soon under attack by a second pretender. The political turmoil was aggravated by the so-called "little ice age," Bogtatyrev saysunusually cold, wet weather resulting in crop failures, skyrocketing food prices, starvation, and peasant revolts.
By 1607, China's Ming Dynastywhich had ruled since 1368was exhausted, though it clung to power for another 37 years. Since the mid-15th century, most of its emperors had been weak. One of them, the Wanli Emperor, was more than two thirds into his 47-year reign in 1607. Once an effective reformer, he now was largely ignoring court matters, further destabilizing the dynasty. The end came in 1644, when rebels seized the capital. The Mings called on Manchu tribesman for help, but while the Manchus obliged by ousting the rebels, they decided to take over themselves. Thus was the Ch'ing Dynasty born.
In Japan, the warlord Ieyasu Tokugawa took effective control in 1600 after winning one of the country's most important battles, the Battle of Sekigahara. The resulting Tokugawa Shogunate ruled Japan as a feudal, militaristic dictatorship until 1868. Ieyasu managed to unify Japan after decades of bloody clan warfare and shifting alliances. Cunning and ruthless, cautious or daunting as needs required, Ieyasu climbed through a mixture of battlefield success, diplomacy, and luck.
Staying power. Though he abdicated in 1605, he remained the shogunate's true leader until his death in 1616.
For the Muslim empires, it was a golden age. The three largest were relatively stable and at or near the peak of power. "All of the regimes had opulent courts, a bit like Versailles," says Amira Bennison, senior lecturer in Islamic studies at the University of Cambridge. The Ottomans, based in Constantinople (now Istanbul), lost a huge naval battle and control of the Mediterranean in 1571 to European powers, but Bennison disputes that the loss marked the start of the empire's decline. There were occasional border flareups with Hapsburg Austria, "but basically," Bennison says, "the Hapsburgs and the Ottomans agreed to disagree."
Next door in Persian Iran, the Safavid Empire was thriving under Shah Abbas the Great, who was midway through his 42-year reign. The Safavids were based in Isfahan, at the time one of the world's largest cities and renowned for its beauty. "Iran was flourishing commercially. It was the era of the silk trade," Bennison says.
Before the Safavids, Iran was a mixture of Shiite and Sunni Muslims; the Safavids were Shiite, and it was during their reign that Iran became almost totally Shiite. "It was the first strong identification of a state with a formal religion" within the Muslim world, Bennison says. Relations between the Safavids and the Ottomans were largely hostile. Abbas fought regular battles against the Ottomans and recaptured Baghdad (which had been lost to the Ottomans) around 1622. The empire itself would be conquered by the Afghans in 1722.
Elsewhere in Asia, the Moghul Empire had been created by the Timurid (Mongol) prince Babur in 1526, but it was his son, Akbar, who greatly expanded the empire to include much of India. When Akbar died in 1605, the empire came under the control of his rather ineffective son Jahangir, who had a taste for booze and opium. Yet, so stable was the realm built by Akbar that even Jahangir ruled with few problems for 22 years.
Halfway around the world, the stability of the Moghuls was long out of reach to the struggling Jamestown settlers. But around that time Spanish explorer Juan Martinez de Montoya founded another kind of town in an area just east of the Rio Grande. He called it Santa Fe, and it was the first European settlement in what would become the western United States. Another 304 years would pass before the two disparate communities would be bridged as part of one nation.
This story appears in the January 29, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.