The theme of National History Day, Exploration, Encounter, Exchange in History for 2016 is broad enough in scope to encourage investigation of topics ranging from local to world history and across any geographic area or time period. Consider this theme an invitation to look across time, space, and geography to find examples in history of when people took a risk and made a change.
This lesson plan attempts to dissolve the artificial boundary between domestic and international affairs in the postwar period to show students how we choose to discuss history.
Follower of Gentile Bellini, Portrait of Mehmet II (1432–1481).
Credit: National Gallery, London. Yorck Project. Public Domain 1.0
"One must remember that the diplomat’s hope is in man’s reason and good will…. Even Machiavelli himself was not in practice Machiavellian.”
—Garrett Mattingly, Renaissance Diplomacy
During the Early Modern era (1450–1750), the expansion in maritime trade and the incorporation of the Americas into worldwide exchanges meant the world became increasingly interconnected. These connections led to a greater need for diplomatic relations with other states. Like many modern institutions, diplomacy as we know it today had its origins during this period.
This unit asks teams of students to play the role of diplomats in the Early Modern era. Each team is charged with a particular empire, and students compare the perceived national interests of their empires to the empires of other teams. In the process, they must consider multiple perspectives and anticipate the actions and reactions of their diplomatic peers.
Students will do the authentic work of diplomats by first gathering intelligence through selected primary and secondary sources, then by building relationships with other diplomats through a reception banquet, and finally by negotiating treaties in the interest of their empires.
This unit has been conceived as a process. To gain maximum benefit, it is suggested that the lessons be taught sequentially.
World historians do not always agree on periodization, as a review of textbook chronologies will show. Most, however, do concur that the mid-15th century was a key turning point in World History. European exploration and settlement of the Americas and the cultural and economic exchange that resulted profoundly transformed the world. The Columbian Exchange; the role of China as a both consumer and supplier in the world economy; the development of the plantation system and chattel slavery; as well as the rise of the modern corporation all emerged during this period, which most historians call Early Modern (1450–1750).
Diplomacy is a good way to teach students about the Early Modern era. Diplomacy as we know it today, has its origins during this period. Many of the well-known Early Modern primary source texts we have are in fact documents related to diplomacy. Having students think like diplomats requires them to consider other perspectives. Primary source documents and information become “intelligence” that student need to analyze from the perspective of not only one empire but of others, as well.
The Early Modern era was the first time many empires and kingdoms in Africa and Asia had to deal directly with representatives of European empires, who were persistent in their presence and demanded recognition as equals. These “hairy barbarians”—as they were called in Japan—insisted on trade on their terms, often with the threat of force behind it.
Diplomacy, however did not only take place between European and Asian or European and African monarchs. Increased interaction between Asian states, for example, occurred as well. Letters between the Ottoman Sultan and the Safavid Shah show how the religious schisms within Islam paralleled those within Christian Europe.
Our unit also is about more than European conquest. It is important for students to understand that a great deal of Early Modern history was being made by non-European empires even after Spain and European empires settled the Americas.
We should not forget that the Early Modern period is the time of the Muslim “Gun Powder Empires” (The Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughals), which dominated Central Europe to India. As historian Philip Curtain notes, the European economy was still less productive than the Indian economy, which during the time of Akbar was the wealthiest empire in the world. The Ottomans were the dominant military and political power in Central Europe and the Middle East. Although they struck fear in the hearts of Western Christian monarchs, Europe was only one of many concerns for the Ottomans, who were frequently at war with their Shi’ite Muslim neighbors the Safavids to the East.
In East Asia, the Qing Empire already had a well-established maritime trade network within East Asia. No doubt, Europeans were often intentional “disrupters” of the trade systems they joined, but in the Indian Ocean, up until the mid-18th century, Asians carried more trade in the Indian Ocean than Europeans did.
[One note on this unit: While the lessons cover a range of empires and kingdoms throughout Afro-Eurasia, they do not address two key American empires (Aztec and Inca) in existence at the time of the European conquest because, as political units, those empires ceased to exist by the early 16th century.]
As a summative assessment, student will write a compare and contrast essay of two Early Modern empires by responding to the prompt:
The Early Modern era saw the rise and expansion of global empires. Compare and contrast the economic policies and religious attitudes of one land-based empire and one sea-based empire during this time period. Address how these policies and attitudes were used by the empires to maintain and expand their power.
Have students research the crops and food that was exchanged as a result of Early Modern diplomacy and create a Columbian Exchange Cookbook.