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1607 Cycle Four

The World of 1607 - Cycle IV

Sub-Saharan African Kingdoms

Akan gold necklace, 17th-19th century, Ghana.

Akan gold necklace, 17th-19th century, Ghana. Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation Collection.

In the early 17th century, the part of Africa in regular communication with the Atlantic world was a vast and varied land. Roughly twenty million people lived in Atlantic Africa in 1607, most in villages of varying sizes, but there were some quite large towns and cities as well.  At least 150 political units appear in historic documents.  Africans followed a wide range of traditional ideologies, religions, and systems of thought. In much of Atlantic Africa, local religions revolved around a veneration of ancestors, who held supernatural power after their deaths.  However, in Sudan many people were Muslims, while in central Africa Christianity had made significant inroads.

Eastern Borderlands of Europe: The Ottomans as a World Power

Sultan Ahmet I (r. 1603-17) ascended the Ottoman throne at the age of 13. Almost a century had passed since his ancestor, Sultan Selim I, in 1517, established  the dynasty’s rule on three continents, making the Ottoman state the most powerful Muslim polity in the world.  Envoys from the courts of Europe, Africa, and Asia had become regular visitors at the Ottoman court, seeking alliances and trading privileges. Ahmet I, also pursuing allies and trade goods, conducted diplomatic relations with Venice, England, France, Poland, and Persia, among other nations. The ethos of the Ottoman state combined glorification of the semi-nomadic, mounted warrior antecedents of the Turks with the adaptation of an elaborate, urban, literate palace culture.

Trouble in Russia, 1607-1613

While the Virginia colony was being established, Russia was preoccupied by a major political and social crisis.  Czar Fedor died in 1598 without a male heir and was succeeded by  his brother-in-law Boris Godunov.  An able and enlightened ruler, Godunov, endeavored to stimulate agriculture and even sent several young men to Germany and Britain to learn Western languages, skills and culture.  However, in 1601-03, catastrophic harvests brought famine and epidemics to Russia, and a long period of rebellion and turmoil followed. Godunov died in 1605, and several different groups and individuals fought to control Russia. The political situation did not stabilize until 1613 when Mikhail Fedorovich Romanov, the first of the Romanov czars, came to power.

Science in and From the World of Islam

To a large extent, the origins and authorities for medieval and Renaissance science in Europe are Arabic. Even the famous astronomer Nicholas Copernicus was prompted to advance his new theories of planetary motion by mathematical models first expounded by Arabic astronomers.  Only as the 16th century turned into the 17th, did European science start to radically depart from that of the Islamic world.  A feeling of cultural superiority allowed Europeans to forget their debt to Arabic-Islamic scholars. Europeans began to study Arabic, Turkish, and Persian for missionary purposes, trade, and intellectual curiosity rather than to advance science and philosophy from contact with contemporary Islamic scholars.

New Worlds, New Scientific Instruments: Cosmology, Mathematics,
and Power at the Time of Jamestown

Diptych sundial, 1610, Germany.

Diptych sundial, 1610, Germany. Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation Collection.

While exploring Virginia by canoe in 1607, Captain John Smith was ambushed by Powhatan Indians, who spared his life when they saw his pocket sundial. Its spinning compass needle, clear glass cover and circular markings fascinated them. This lucky break confirmed Smith’s belief that mathematical instruments were vital to the survival of Jamestown. During the 16th century, scholars developed new mathematical methods of navigation, surveying, cartography, fortification, gunnery, time-finding and assaying. To apply the new methods, new scientific instruments were invented and older ones improved.  These tools made possible the exploration and colonization of the New World.

Church and State

The Reformation dramatically reshaped the relationship between the English church and state. Henry VIII’s break with Rome in 1530 made the king the supreme head of the church.  James I, the Stuart successor to Henry’s daughter Queen Elizabeth, was an ardent proponent of divine right of rule, in which kings were responsible for the good order of church and state. Jamestown was named to honor King James, and few of its early settlers would have challenged his authority in matters of religion.  While the Virginia colony was founded as a commercial enterprise, and profit was a strong incentive, planters and promoters saw themselves first and foremost as Christians.  In  A True Declaration of the Estate of the Colonie in Virginia, published by the Council of the Virginia Company in 1610, investors were exhorted to settle in Virginia because God commanded that “the Gospell should bee preached, to all the world, before the end of the world.”

The Age of Expansion: Treasures Saved From the Sea

The revolutionary changes in shipbuilding and navigation that took place in the 14th and 15th centuries turned the ocean from an obstacle into a medium uniting continents and civilizations. By the beginning of the 17th century, the world was already perceived as a whole, and there were few inhabited areas accessible by sea where European travelers had not gone.  The spectacular widening of geographical horizons led to the establishment of new trade relationships; the founding of the vast colonial empires of Spain and Portugal; and the more modest colonial enterprises of the French, English and Dutch.  The world embarked upon the initial phase of globalization, and a world economy began to take shape.