Age of Exploration

The so-called Age of Exploration was a period from the early 15th century and continuing into the early 17th century, during which European ships were traveled around the world to search for new trading routes and partners to feed burgeoning capitalism in Europe. In the process, Europeans encountered peoples and mapped lands previously unknown to them. Among the most famous explorers of the period were Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Pedro ?vares Cabral, John Cabot, [[Juan Ponce de Le󮝝, and Ferdinand Magellan.

The Age of Exploration was rooted in new technologies and ideas growing out of the Renaissance, these included advances in cartography, navigation, and shipbuilding. The most important development was the invention of first the Carrack and then caravel in Iberia. These that were a combination of traditional European and Arab designs were the first ships that could leave the relatively passive Mediterranean and sail safely on the open Atlantic.


Exploration by land

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This map, made by Arab geographer al-Idrisi, was one of the most accurate world maps prior to the age of European exploration

The prelude to the Age of Exploration was a series of European expeditions crossing Eurasia by land in the late Middle Ages. While the Mongols had threatened Europe with pillage and destruction they also unified much of Eurasia creating trade routes and communication lines stretching from the Middle East to China. A series of Europeans took advantage of these to explore eastwards. These were almost all Italians as the trade between Europe and the Middle East was almost completely controlled by traders from the Italian city states. Their close links to the Levant created great curiosity and commercial interest in what lay further east. The Papacy also launched expeditions in hopes of finding coverts, or the fabled Prester John.

The first of these travelers was Giovanni de Plano Carpini who journeyed to Mongolia and back from 1244-1247. The most famous voyage, however, was that of Marco Polo who traveled throughout the Orient from 1271 to 1295. His journey was written up as Travels and the work was read throughout Europe.

These voyages had little immediate effect, however, the Mongol Empire collapsed almost as quickly as it formed and soon the route to the east became far more difficult and dangerous. The Black Death of the fourteenth century also blocked travel and trade. The land route to the East was always be too long and difficult for profitable trade and it was also controlled by Islamic empires that had long battled the Europeans. The rise of the aggressive and expansionist Ottoman Empire further limited the possibilities for Europeans.

Exploration begins in Portugal

Main article: Portugal in the period of discoveries

It was not until the carrack and then the caravel were developed in Iberia that European thoughts returned to the fabled East. These explorations have a number of causes. Monetarists believe the main reason the Age of Exploration began was because of a severe shortage in bullion in Europe. The European economy was dependent on gold and silver currency, but low domestic supplies had plunged much of Europe into a recession. Another factor was the centuries long conflict between the Iberians and the Muslims to the south. For them the ability to outflank the Muslim states of North Africa was seen as crucial to their survival. At the same time the Iberians learnt much from their Arab neighbours. The carrack and caravel both incorporated the Arab lateen sail that made ships far more manoeuvrable. It was also through the Arabs that Ancient Greek geography was rediscovered, for the first time giving European sailors some idea of the shape of Africa and Asia.

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The Santa Maria at anchor by Andries van Eertvelt, painted c. 1628 shows the famous carrack of Christopher Columbus.

The first great wave of expeditions was launched by Portugal under Prince Henry the Navigator. Sailing out into the open Atlantic the Madeira Islands were discovered in 1419 and in 1427 the Azores were discovered and both became Portuguese colonies. The main project of Henry the Navigator was exploration of the West Coast of Africa. For centuries the only trade routes linking West Africa with the Mediterranean world were over the Sahara Desert. These routes were controlled by the Muslim states of North Africa, long rivals to Portugal. It was the Portuguese hope that the Islamic nations could be bypassed by trading directly with West Africa by sea. It was also hoped that south of the Sahara the states would be Christian and potential allies against the Muslims in the Maghreb. The Portuguese navigators made slow but steady progress, each year managing to push a few miles further south and in 1434 the obstacle of Cape Bojador was overcome. Within two decades the barrier of the Sahara had been overcome and trade in gold and slaves began in with what is today Senegal. Progress continued as trading forts were built at Elmina and Sao Tome and Principe became the first sugar producing colony. In 1482 an expedition under [[Diogo C㯝] made contact with the Kingdom of Kongo. The crucial breakthrough was in 1487 when Bartolomeu Dias rounded (and later named it) the Cape of Good Hope and proved that access to the Indian Ocean was possible. In 1498 Vasco da Gama made good on this promise by reaching India.

Discovery of the Americas

Main article: European colonization of the Americas

Portugal's larger rival Spain had been somewhat slower that their smaller neighbour to begin exploring the Atlantic, and it was not until late in the fifteenth century that Castilian sailors began to compete with their Iberian neighbours. The first contest was for control of the Canary Islands, which Castille won. It was not until the union of Aragon and Castille and the completion of the reconquista that the large nation became fully committed to looking for new trade routes and colonies overseas. In 1492 the joint rulers of the nation decided to fund Christopher Columbus' expedition that they hoped would bypass Portugal's lock on Africa and the Indian Ocean reaching Asia by travelling east.

Columbus did not reach Asia, but rather found a New World, North America. The issue of defining areas of influence became critical. It resolved by Papal intervention in 1494 when the Treaty of Tordesillas divided the world between the two powers. The Portuguese "received" everything outside of Europe east of a line that ran 270 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands; this gave them control over Africa, Asia and western South America (Brazil). The Spanish received everything west of this line, territory that was still almost completely unknown.

Columbus and other Spanish explorers were initially disappointed with their discoveries. Unlike Africa or Asia the Caribbean islanders had little to trade with the Spanish ships. The islands thus became the focus of colonization efforts. It was not until the continent itself was explored that Spain found the wealth it had sought in the form of abundant gold. In the Americas the Spanish found a number of empires that were as large and populous as those in Europe. However, the Spanish conquistadors, with the aid of the pandemics of disease their arrival unleashed, managed to conquer them with only a handful of men. Once Spanish suzereignancy was established the main focus became the extraction and export of gold and silver.

In 1519, the same year that Cortez's army landed in Mexico the Spanish crown funded the expedition of Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese. The goal of the mission was to find the Spice Islands by travelling west, and thus placing them in the Spanish sphere. The expedition was a success and became the first to circumnavigate the world upon its return three years later.

Decline of the Portuguese monopoly

Portuguese exploration and colonization continued despite the new rivalry with Spain. The Portuguese became the first westerners to reach and trade with Japan. Under the King Manuel I the Portuguese crown launched an audacious scheme to keep control the lands and trade routes that had been declared theirs. The strategy was to build a series of forts that would allow them to control all the major trade routes of the east. Thus forts and colonies were established on the Gold Coast, Luanda, Mozambique, Zanzibar, Mombassa, Socotra, Ormuz, Calcutta, Goa, Bombay, Malacca, Macau, and Timor. The Portuguese also controlled Brazil, which had been discovered in 1500 by Pedro ?vares Cabral and lied partly on the Portuguese side of the global "divide" set at Tordesilas.

Portugal had some trouble expanding its empire inland, however, concentrating mostly on the coastal areas. Overtime the nation proved to be simply too small to provide the funds and manpower sufficient to manage such a massive venture. The forts spread across the world were chronically under manned and ill-equipped. They could not compete with the larger powers that slowly encroached on their empire. The days of near monopoly of east trade were numbered. Portuguese hegemony in the east was broken by Dutch, French and British explorers, who ignored the Papal division of the world. In 1580 the Spanish King Philip II became also King of Portugal, as rightful heir to the Crown after his cousin Sebastiao died without sons (Philip II of Spain was grandson of Manuel I of Portugal). The combined empires were simply too big to be kept unchallenged, and to resist those challenges.

Some of Portuguese possessions were lost or circumscribed, particularly in the West Africa, the Middle East and the Far East that were mostly surrounded by British and Dutch colonies. Bombay was given away to the British as a marriage gift. The colonies where the Portuguese presence was effective, like Macau, East Timor, and Goa, Angola and Mozambique, as well as Brazil remained in Portuguese possession. The Dutch attempted to conquer Brazil, and at one time controlled almost half of the nation, but were eventually rebuffed.

Northern European involvement

The nations outside of Iberia refused to acknowledge the Treaty of Tordesillas. France, the Netherlands, and Britain each had a long maritime tradition and, despite Iberian protections, the new technologies and maps soon made their way north.

The first of these missions was that of the British funded John Cabot. It was the first of a series of French and British missions exploring North America. Spain had largely ignored the northern part of the Americas as it had few people and far fewer riches than Central America. The expeditions of Cabot, Cartier and others were mainly hoping to find the Northwest passage and thus a link to the riches of Asia. This was never discovered but in their travels other possibilities were found and in the early seventeenth century colonist from a number of Northern European states began to settle on the east coast of North America.

It was the northerners who also became the great rivals to the Portuguese in Africa and around the Indian Ocean. Dutch, French, and British ships began to flaunt the Portuguese monopoly and found trading forts and colonies of their own. Gradually the Portuguese and Spanish market and possession share declined, the new entrants surrounding many of their most valuable possessions (like Hong-Kong next to Macao). The northerners also took the lead in exploring the last unknown regions of the Pacific Ocean and the North-American west coast, which was in the Spanish part of the Tordesillas divide. Dutch explorers such as Willem Jansz and Abel Tasman explored the coasts of Australia while in the eighteenth century it was British explorer James Cook that mapped much of Polynesia.

Effect on Europe

The effect of the Age of Exploration was unprecedented. For millennia it had been the Mediterranean economy that had been the continent's most vibrant and regions like Italy and Greece had thus been the wealthiest and most potent. The newly dominant Atlantic economy was controlled by the states of Western Europe, such as France, Britain, and Germany, and to the present they have been the wealthiest and most powerful on the continent.

Following the period of exploration was the Commercial Revolution when trans-oceanic trade became commonplace. The importance of trade made it so that traders and merchants, not the feudal landowners, were the most powerful class in society. In time in Britain, France and other nations thus bourgeoisie would come to control the politics and government of the nations.

End of the Age of Exploration

The age of exploration is generally said to have ended in the early seventeenth century. By this time European vessels were well enough built and their navigators competent enough to travel to virtually anywhere on the planet. Exploration, of course, continued. The Arctic and Antarctic seas were not explored until the nineteenth century. It also took much longer for Europeans to reach the interior of continents such as North America and Africa than it did the coasts.

List of Explorers

Pictures of Explorers

Pictures of Explorers (http://


  • Carlo Cipolla, European Culture and Overseas Expansion
  • Daniel O'Sullivan, The Age of Discovery
  • J.H. Parry, The Discovery of the Sea
  • Boies Penrose, Travel and Discovery in the Renaissane: 1420-1620

See also: Pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact


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