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Book Review


John E. Wills Jr., The World from 1450 to 1700. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. xii + 176. $19.95 (paperback)


     John E. Wills' The World from 1450 to 1700 presents a concise history of the making of the early modern world, which weaves together key historical developments during this period. This book provides an excellent teaching resource, as a narrative history that focuses on global patterns, connections, and parallel historical events in shaping the early modern world.  Instructors could use this text to supplement or replace a textbook. It is perhaps most suitable for students who have already learned the basic chronology of this period.

     Organized chronologically and thematically into seven chapters, The World from 1450 to 1700 presents early modern history from a non-Eurocentric perspective. Wills introduces the period by describing the strength and dynamism of fifteenth-century Islamic Empires across Eurasia. This sets the stage for the post-1492 era, marked by the advent of transatlantic trade, migrations, and the growth of global colonial regimes. The following chapters discuss the Columbian Exchange, religious movements, the restructuring of political power, migrations, warfare, internal struggles, and intellectual developments.

     The book starts by describing the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, and its significance in the context of transformations in Islamic power and influence in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, after the Mongol conquests. It reviews the spread of Islam in Southeast Asia, conflicts within the Islamic World, the rise of Sufism, and the rise of Ottoman power. By beginning with the history of Islamic empires, rather than with the Columbian voyages, this text contextualizes the following period of European colonial expansion in the Atlantic World, and avoids presenting a linear narrative of European progress. Wills describes connections and conflicts between Christian and Muslim empires, emphasizing trade relationships between Muslims and Christians in the Mediterranean World, and conflicts between the Ottoman and Spanish Empires.

     The second chapter recounts Columbus' arrival in the Americas, and subsequent interactions between Spanish newcomers and Native American inhabitants in the Caribbean and mainland Americas. Wills discusses consequent ecological transformations including disease epidemics that decimated Native American populations, conflicts between the Spanish Empire and the Aztec and Inca Empires, and the emergence of creole cultures. Wills draws connections between Spanish voyages to the Americas and Portuguese ventures in Africa and India. This analysis reveals parallels between Spanish encounters with Native American polities, and Portuguese encounters with monarchs in Africa, India, and China.  Wills provides a detailed analysis of Jesuit interactions with Chinese and Japanese merchants, scholars, and state officials.

     Religious transformations between 1530-1570, including the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation in Europe, the Hindu bhakti (devotion) movement and emergence of the Sikh religion in India, and Neo-Confucianism in China, are the focal point of Chapter Three. Wills draws comparisons between the Protestant Reformation and Neo-Confucianism, and connects these movements to earlier religious revisions including the Tibetan Buddhism and Kabbalah.

     In the next chapter, Wills considers the relationship between "profit and power" between 1570-1610, focusing on statecraft in Italy and northern Europe, and the rise of the Tokugawa regime in Japan. It examines the consolidation of royal power in England and its rising role in overseas trade under Queen Elizabeth, and the spread of Dutch power in the Indian Ocean World. Wills describes various conflicts and interactions between the Dutch and their neighbors in Europe, and also shows how they interacted with local rulers that they encountered in Southeast Asia, including the kingdom of Ayutthaya, the Nguyen territories (in what is now Thailand and Vietnam, respectively), and the Aceh Sultanate in Sumatra.

     Chapter Five traces the explosion of migrations in the seventeenth century and the emergent settler colonies and diasporas, including European and African migrations to the Americas, migrations of Muslims and Hindus from across the Indian Ocean World, and migrations of Armenian, Chinese, Portuguese, and Dutch traders in Southeast Asia. The text provides insight on diasporic communities of European religious exiles, enslaved Africans, and the Jewish Diaspora, following the exile of Jews from Spain in 1492.

     The sixth chapter focuses on global struggles manifested in warfare, rebellion, and plague between 1630 and 1670. Wills explains various interpretations of the "crisis of the seventeenth century," and outlines the "times of troubles" experienced in empires in China, Russia, and Western Europe (119). Wills draws connections and highlights various differences in key developments of this era including the transition from the Ming to Qing Dynasty in China, wars of religion in Europe, and autocratic rule under Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great in Russia.

     The final chapter emphasizes global connections that began to form in the decades prior to 1700, leading to the formation of an early modern world. Some of the defining aspects of this time include the vast territorial expansion of the Russian and Chinese Empires, and the " broader 'Scientific Revolution,'" which "took place in Europe, but became in later centuries a worldwide phenomenon and even before 1700 was the product of global interactions" (145). Wills discusses major European scientific advancements, focusing on astronomical discoveries attributed to Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton, and shows their connection to astronomical research in Japan, India, and the Ottoman Empire. He shows how religious authorities in the Islamic World and Christian Europe both opposed scientific learning.

     The World from 1450 to 1700 is recommended for students and teachers who seek a broader understanding of global themes in the early modern world. The insight of a trained East Asianist brings much needed perspective to traditional Eurocentric accounts of this period. However, the narrative is lacking in its analysis of race and gender, with the notable exception of Chapter Two, which describes how new cultures emerged as a result of "racial mixing" across the globe: relations between Native American women and colonists in Spanish America; marriages between Portuguese soldiers and native Indian widows after the conquest of Goa; and (often coerced) relations between Portuguese sugar planters and their female slaves in Brazil (39). Examining the role of racial and gendered ideologies, and drawing comparisons across cultures, would be a fitting addition to the book's discussion of several topics, for example, by noting gendered hierarchies in religious movements, witch-hunts in Europe and the Americas, and foot-binding in Ming China.

Urmi Engineer teaches Global History at California State University, Monterey Bay. Her research covers the environmental, social, and cultural history of disease and medicine in the Atlantic world. She can be reached at


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