Technology, History, and Travel

Tag: early modern

View of Vienna from Stephansdom.

From fortress to boulevard

The most picturesque part of Vienna, a city known for its beauty, is Ringstrasse, the Ring Road that encircles the oldest part of the city. The broad, attractive road wraps around three sides of the historic city center, with the Danube River closing the loop to the north. Many of the city’s most important cultural and civic buildings line Ringstrasse, including the opera house, Rathaus (town hall), the Austrian parliament, and an assortment of museums and libraries.

Ringstrasse is a legacy of the Austrian Empire, when Vienna was the capital of a multi-ethnic, polyglot empire eight times the size of Austria today. Emperor Franz Josef, who reigned from 1848 to 1916, spearheaded the development and beautification of his capital city early in his reign. In 1857, he authorized the most dramatic change to the city: demolishing the old defensive works to make room for Ringstrasse and the buildings alongside it.

But what were these defensive works that made way for Ringstrasse? When I first learned about Ringstrasse on a wonderful but brief visit to Vienna eleven years ago, I had the impression that they were medieval walls, made of stone. This didn’t really make sense to me, though, because medieval walls, such as those that still stand in Rothenburg, do not take up much space—not nearly as much as Ringstrasse and the neighboring buildings. In fact, Vienna had been defended by early-modern fortifications. The city’s medieval walls had been torn down and rebuilt in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to defend against the Ottoman Turks. A large open area in front of the defensive works, known as the glacis, was kept clear to offer a clear field of fire. The buildings of Ringstrasse were constructed on the land that had been kept open for the glacis.

Early-modern defensive works had a low profile and a large footprint. Consisting mostly of large earthen berms, the fortifications were designed to defend against the offensive weapon of the age: the smooth-bore cannon. The earthworks absorbed the impact of cannonballs, which could easily shatter stone defenses. These early-modern defenses were in vogue until the introduction of rifled-bore artillery, which made its debut in the American Civil War.

Many (but not all) early modern-fortifications had triangular projections at regular intervals along the berms or walls—the origin of the nickname “star fort.” The projections allowed soldiers standing on them to shoot at attackers from either side, trapping them in enfilading fire. An 1858 map of Vienna, drawn before the old defenses were demolished, shows triangular projections at regular intervals along the wall.

Another city that once had early-modern fortifications, but does no longer, is Frankfurt. The German city’s approach to using the land freed up by the demolition of the defenses was different from Vienna’s. The land once occupied by Frankfurt’s defenses is now taken up by a park that wraps around the historic city center. Even some of the triangular star-fort projections have been converted into parkland. They are visible on modern maps of the city—a telltale sign that this park was once an early-modern fortification.


Early English Travelers to India

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a variety of English travelers set out from England for India. Some, like Ralph Fitch, went to scout out what commercial opportunities might exist if England set up direct trade with the countries of India. Others, like William Hawkins and Thomas Roe, went as ambassadors to represent their monarchs in the courts of the Indian rulers. Reports by these travelers, along with accounts by other non-English European travelers in India, were all circulated in printed form in England. The reports vary in content and quality—from the dry, straightforward account of Fitch to the sensationalist narrative of W. Glanius, who relates how his expedition purportedly was shipwrecked in Bengal and forced by hunger to pilfer human graves for flesh.1 These accounts were filtered through the European travelers’ worldviews and are therefore of limited use as sources for sixteenth- or seventeenth-century Indian history. But the accounts can tell us what European travelers thought of the lands and peoples they encountered in their eastward travels. In the following blog posts, I will explore some of these European travel accounts, looking for the ways that travelers viewed Indian civilization.

The early English travelers to India were part of a broader trend known as the European age of exploration. The Iberian kingdoms of Spain and Portugal had kicked off the age of exploration in the late fifteenth century, when they set out to make permanent and direct commercial contacts with the resource-rich countries of the East. In 1498, Vasco da Gama’s fleet became the first European fleet to reach India.2 Although da Gama’s first expedition was less than successful, in subsequent expeditions the Portuguese gained trade concessions and annexed small territories in western India.

The British got into the act of exploration a century later. In 1600, the British East India Company was founded in London, to promote commercial contacts between England and India. At this time, the dominant political power in north India was the Mughal Empire. The third Mughal emperor, Jalaluddin Akbar, was largely responsible for the empire’s ascendancy. Akbar reigned from 1556 to 1605, first at Agra, then at a new capital known as Fatehpur Sikri. By the 1580s, the Mughal empire controlled much of the Indo-Gangetic Plain, parts of the Deccan, and parts of modern-day Afghanistan. The European travelers who visited north India came into contact with the Mughals and could not help but be impressed by the civilization’s strength and grandeur.

  1. W. Glanius, A Relation of an Unfortunate Voyage to the Kingdom of Bengala (London, 1682). []
  2. Prior to da Gama’s expedition, Europe had already had commercial contact with India for hundreds of years, albeit through Arab traders and other intermediaries. By establishing direct commercial connections with India, the Portuguese hoped to eliminate the cost of relying on intermediaries. []

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