Project 500 Years
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Project 500 Years

Key developments of 1557

Schematic showing the transoceanic routes of Spanish (white) and Portuguese (blue) sailors c.1557

1557 CE was a pretty epic (and eerily familiar) year which saw pandemic and economic collapse… Here goes:

  • The year saw the start of an influenza pandemic that, because of the new frequency of transoceanic shipping, traveled fast and devastated areas across whole continents over the four years that followed. This seems to have been the first time that Europeans- and the many others whose lives they touched- encountered the ‘flu. The English-WP page on this pandemic says (with extremely thin evidence) that it first broke out in Asia. The page provides lots of information about its effects in Europe and the parts of the Americas and Africa reached by European (including Ottoman) sailors. It provides this summary of its effects in Europe: “Ultimately the 1557 flu lasted in varying waves of intensity for around four years in epidemics that increased European death rates, disrupted the highest levels of society, and frequently spread to other continents. “ (Among those whom it killed in England would be, in 1558, England’s Queen Mary… ) Read in particular the section on this page on the effects in the Americas, to whose shores the ‘flu was brought by Spanish and Portuguese sailors…
1514 drawing of Massawa by D. João Castro
  • An Ottoman force under Özdemir Pasha conquered the Red Sea port of Massawa, in today’s Eritrea. They took it from the Portuguese, who had held it since 1513, using it as a key route to get into the Abyssinian (Ethiopian) highlands to connect with their Christian allies there. After taking Massawa, Ottoman troops tried, but failed, to conquer the rest of Eritrea. So they placed the city and its immediate hinterlands under the control of a local dude whom they appointed “Naib”; and they built up the port and town of Massawa. English-WP says: “These buildings and the old town of Massawa remain to this day, having withstood both earthquakes and wars with aerial bombardment… In 1846, Massawa, and later much of the Northeast African coast of the Red Sea, came under the rule of the Khedive of Egypt with Ottoman consent.” In 1557, Massawa, its hinterland, and the Abyssinian highlands also all got affected by the ‘flu…
  • So the Portuguese lost in Massawa but over in China 1557 was the year they got formal permission from the Ming government to open their warehousing facility on the Macau peninsula.
  • Back in 1555 we’d learned that when Spain’s King Charles started his abdications, one of the reasons was said to have been the failing finances of the Kingdom(s) he ruled over… So in 1557, his successor, Philip, declared the first of a series of bankruptcies that Spain would declare over the decades ahead. I’m trying to learn more about this (e.g., here), but it’s clear that the extensive and very brutal empire the conquistadores had been carving out in the Americas was proving not to be the economic boon its original architects had hoped for. It also seems crystal-clear that the sudden influx of looted gold and silver that the conquistadores sent back contributed to horrendous inflation in Spain. An English-WP source says that those who suffered most from the 1557 bankruptcy were German bankers…
Map of America by Sebastian Munster of Basel
  • The conquistadores were nonetheless continuing their conquistadoring. They founded the settler-city of Cuenca in Ecuador. And further south, in Chile, a conquistador force that per normal contained a high proportion of suborned native fighters inflicted a decisive defeat on the native Mapuche people, whose fighters had put up a brave resistance over the preceding years.

Originally published at https://justworldnews.org.

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Helena Cobban

Helena Cobban

Veteran analyst of global affairs, with a focus on the Middle East. Senior Fellow, Ctr for International Policy. Fuller bio at my Wikipedia page.