With the Renaissance in full swing, the sixteenth century was an era defined by reformation and conquest, as the world was slowly beginning to rest loose from the Middle Ages and take shape into something more recognizable to modern eyes. The era became defined by a sudden race to the New World, with the intrepid Spanish and Portuguese explorers and conquerors looking for fame, fortune, and favor back home. In this article, we will look at 7 key events that took place during the 16th Century.
1. The Magellan Expedition (1519-1522)
Eager to establish a quicker trade route to Asia through the Americas, the Spanish appointed Portuguese-born Ferdinand Magellan with the task, which set sail in September 1519. The fleet he commanded consisted of some five ships and 270 men, and discovered a safe passage through Chile known today as the Strait of Magellan, before continuing on to the Spice Islands (modern-day Indonesia). Magellan died in the Philippines in 1521 at the hands of natives refusing conversion, leaving the final leg of the trip to Juan Sebastián Elcano, who was appointed his replacement. Completing the voyage and returning to Spain almost three years to the day after setting off. It was a success not just for Spain’s economy, but was also the first recorded circumnavigation of the globe.
2. The Fall of Tenochtitlan and the Aztecs (1521)
The Spanish-Aztec war of 1519-1521 began with Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés arriving in modern-day Mexico, with plans to find personal fortune and colonize the New World reported by Christopher Columbus a few decades earlier. The Spanish were few in number, but with big ambitions, and rallied together a coalition of indigenous enemies of the Aztecs, eventually taking Aztec Emperor Montezuma II hostage. As tensions rose, Montezuma was killed (probably by the Spanish, although reports vary) and Cortés and his men laid siege on the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan for 93 days, killing thousands of warriors and civilians. Modern-day Mexico City now stands on its ruins.
3. The Siege of Rhodes (1522)
When Suleiman the Magnificent became sultan of the Ottoman Empire, he began a series of conquests that would stretch its borders from Algeria in the West to the Persian Gulf in the East, and from Yemen in the South up to Hungary in the North. His reign was the zenith of the Empire. One of his first conquests was of Rhodes, righting the wrong of the failed first attempt by his predecessors in 1480, in which as many as 70,000 Ottoman men were embarrassed by a few hundred Knights. Suleiman took no chances, taking around 100,000 men on the second attempt. Some 6 months of artillery, blockades, and bombardment later, with tens of thousands of deaths on both sides, Suleiman and the Ottomans got their victory. The Knights of Rhodes were allowed to leave peacefully, but controlling Rhodes allowed the Ottoman’s command of the Eastern Mediterranean, and a starting point for a push into Europe.
4. The beginning of the Scientific Revolution (1543 onwards)
The Enlightenment was still a couple of hundred years away, but the seeds were first sown in the 16th century. Theories and ideas first established by people like Ptolemy and Aristotle two thousand years ago, and unchallenged since were finally being disproved and replaced as eager minds looked to separate science as a distinct branch separate from theology and philosophy. The Scientific Revolution is considered to have begun in 1543 with Copernicus’ work On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, which suggested, for the first time, a new way for us to view our place in the universe. By the end of the century, Tycho Brahe made discoveries that built on this, helping us understand stars and the bodies in space.
5. The Reformation of Europe (1517-1555)
Although earlier attempts at reformation were made, it was not until the German Martin Luther published “ninety-five theses” in 1517 that real progress was made. Luther’s excommunication triggered an upheaval of religious tradition in Europe, and the rise of Protestantism, with far reaching political and cultural effects, as reformers questioned the Catholic Church’s unbridled power to define the practice. This snowballed out of Germany and across Europe, most notably with John Calvin in France, and Henry VIII in England, who cut ties between the Church of England and Rome between 1529 and 1537. Although many dates can be offered as to when the Reformation ended, the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 was its official acceptance as an alternative to Roman Catholicism.
6. Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire (1532-1572)
After gaining a strong foothold in the New World and conquering much of modern-day Mexico, conquistador Francisco Pizarro arrived on the Pacific Coast of South America eager to gain his own fortune. Eventually, Pizarro and his small band of 170 or so men came across the gigantic Inca Empire (probably the largest in the world at that point, with a population of around 16 million). The Incas were already ravaged by civil war and European disease when Pizarro’s men arrived, yet this was not the quick campaign like the Aztecs, with the wiping out of the Incas taking four decades to complete. The Spanish used the same tactics as Cortés a decade earlier, capturing the Inca Emperor Atahualpa for ransom before eventually killing him. The final resistance, along with the final Inca monarch Thupa Amaru, was wiped out in 1572, and the Spanish conquest was complete.
7. Japan is unified (1590)
During the latter stages of what we now know as Japan’s “Warring States period”, feudal lords waged wars with one another for over 100 years, creating social upheaval, death, and uncertainty. Oda Nobunaga, the powerful warlord of the Oda clan, set out to unify the nation in the 1560’s, overthrowing the weakened ruling shogun and conquering most of Japan’s largest island Honshu. When Oda was betrayed and died in 1582, his leading general Toyotomi Hideyoshi took his place, and with the Siege of Odawara in 1590 eliminating the Later Hōjō clan and the last of any serious threat to his power, Japan was again unified.
If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out 7 Historical Events that took place in the 15th Century.