Age of Exploration
The Age of Exploration, or the Age of Discovery, saw an assertion of European power that hadn’t been seen since the time of the Crusades. Lasting from the 1400s until roughly the early 1600s, this era witnessed new European exploration of territories in Africa, Asia, and the Americas via the major oceans of the world. It was a time of technological innovations and yearning for expanded trade—and the nations of Europe had the resources, as well as a helpful geopolitical context, for launching expeditions to areas of the world little known to them or not known to them at all. The resulting interactions between cultures—both peaceful and violent—would shape European civilization and launch some of the most powerful colonial empires in history, with the newly explored and conquered territories used as arenas for imperial wars but also for cultural exchange and even cultural mixing.
The new European urge for exploration that arose in the early 15th century had actually arisen from the embers of the old European rivalry with the Turks and Arabs from the time of the Crusades. The Turkish conquest of the Byzantine Empire in the 15th century, which culminated with the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, progressively cut off almost all traditional European access by sea to lucrative trading routes with North Africa, the Middle East, and really all of Asia. Italian city-states, including Venice, retained indirect links with this trade through agreements with the Ottomans, but the newly formed national monarchies of Western Europe were largely shut out and wanted in on the action. Portugal, under Prince Henry the Navigator—himself a former Crusader—launched the Age of Exploration. Looking for a way to threaten the hegemony of Muslim rulers in North Africa, he sponsored a series of expeditions to explore the entire continent of Africa, with the ultimate goal of taking over the trade in gold and ivory that was then being conducted between Guinea (in central Africa) and the Arab rulers in the north. His plan was to re-channel the trade via the Atlantic Ocean to Portugal.
As his nickname suggests, Henry took an active interest in navigation and the technological advances that could realize his ambitions. These ambitions were made possible by the abundance of learning brought on by the Renaissance, which saw scholars across Europe rediscover the accomplishments and findings of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Among these rediscoveries of the Renaissance were the works of Ptolemy, who had proposed the Earth as round and had divided it into latitude and longitude. These works and others allowed for advances in navigation, which Henry helped import and introduce.
So, with Henry’s assistance, the Portuguese adopted a system of celestial navigation then used by Arab sailors, deploying quadrants and astrolabes to calculate direction from the stars while at sea. Why was this revolutionary? It freed navigators from using what were called portolan charts, which required finding direction by hugging coastlines and ports of call. And enhancing the efficiency of this celestial navigation was the dry magnetic compass, an improvement over earlier versions of the magnetic compass, which European sailors were already using widely in the 1400s.
Longer journeys required ships suited to the task, and advances in shipbuilding allowed for improvements in sail designs and sea craft that were more durable. Combined with the improvements in navigational instruments, these innovations opened up entire oceans to exploration. Europeans now had a navigation system that didn’t tether them to coastlines, and they also had ships that could travel fast over the vast Atlantic Ocean while withstanding the battering waves and strong winds.
There was yet another innovation that would prove crucial, and that was the Portuguese discovery over the course of the 15th century of the two main currents and trade winds of the northern and southern parts of the Atlantic Ocean. The discovery was important because it would allow the Portuguese explorers to deploy their ships effectively, to travel around Africa in the open sea while avoiding disruptive winds and currents closer to shore.
Prince Henry’s Portuguese expeditions proceeded quickly. Three Lisbon-sponsored voyages near the coast of Africa took place between 1434 and Henry’s death in 1460—by which time the Portuguese had conquered the Madeira Islands and the Azores. Five more Portuguese naval journeys followed through to 1487, with discoveries coming in rapidly: in 1482 Diogo Cam discovered the Congo River, and in 1488 Bartholomew Diaz reached the Indian Ocean. The continent of Africa was larger than the Portuguese had thought, but their sights were now set farther afield – on India and its lucrative trade. That trade was controlled mainly by Turkish-Muslim rulers, and European explorers got busy thinking of how to enlist their services with European-Christian royals, who had a material interest in accessing that trade and capturing some of its profits for themselves.
A Genoese explorer named Christopher Columbus entered the scene with a radical alternative: instead of continuing to crawl eastwards around the coast of Africa to reach India, he proposed setting out westwards, across the full distance of the Atlantic Ocean. However, with Portugal’s King John II already committed to further expeditions towards India via the African routes, the royal government of Lisbon rejected him.
Yet Columbus found a willing audience in Madrid, where Ferdinand and Isabella of Castile and Aragon—the rulers of Spain—eventually agreed to support his scheme. Having just recently ended seven centuries of Muslim rule in Spain, the new Spanish monarchs found themselves at the head of a country that was ethnically diverse, abundantly wealthy, and intellectually sophisticated, thanks in no small part to the work of the Arab and Berber rulers who had come before them. With the nation of Spain just newly minted, under the Catholic banner of the Spanish sovereigns, Columbus set out in 1492. Using Portuguese-discovered currents and trade winds, he crossed the Atlantic and landed in the Bahamas, believing he had landed in the western part of India, calling them the “West Indies.” Subsequent expeditions got underway after this sensational discovery, and the Spanish colonization of the New World was on.
In their rivalry with Spain, the Portuguese weren’t slacking. Vasco da Gama sailed past the southern tip of Africa in 1497, which he renamed the Cape of Good Hope, and subsequently reached Calcutta. In 1500, another Portuguese fleet embarked for Calcutta under the command of Pedro Álvares Cabral, who after turning southwestwards off Africa on the advice of da Gama, discovered Brazil. The Portuguese followed up these gains with the establishment of East Asian trading settlements in Malacca in 1511 and Macau in 1557. By the 1560s they were in Japan.
Fueled by commercial rivalry with Portugal, the Spanish exploration of the New World pressed deeper. Columbus eventually would oversee three additional voyages of exploration to the newly discovered continents—on his fourth voyage, exploring the coasts of Honduras and Panama. In 1499, an Italian merchant named Amerigo Vespucci explored the coast of the southern continent, and on a map in 1507, gave the New World the name “America.” By the mid-1500s, Hernán Cortés had conquered Mexico and Francisco Pizzaro had conquered Peru for Spain. Fueled by an adventurous population of emigrants, many of whom were recently converted Muslims, the Spanish colonization of the conquered territories proceeded quickly and brought in enormous wealth for the new Spanish Empire. The Spanish expansion kept going, spurred by jealousy over Portuguese gains in India, Malaysia, and China. Utilizing the knowledge gained by Magellan, a Spanish expedition sailing from Mexico under Miguel López de Legazpi conquered the Philippines in the 1560s.
Spain’s takeover of the Philippines solidified one of the most powerful effects of these explorations—a global system of trade routes linking the Americas, Asia, Africa, and Europe. With the establishment of far-flung trading networks connecting different colonies with the mother countries, European governments began to reap enormous profits, reducing the need for additional exploration. From Europe came horses, cows, and sheep, and from the Americas came not only gold and silver but also tomatoes, cocoa, tobacco, potatoes, and corn, while from India, China, and Japan came tea—enriching merchants, governments, and the dining tables of Europeans.
The science of cartography also improved immensely, due to these explorations. The Portuguese and Spanish explorers created the first nautical maps, which showed not only land formations but also ocean currents. These more detailed types of maps helped accelerate the pace and scope of subsequent explorations during the age, since they were tailored to the needs of navigators. In 1569, a Flemish cartographer named Gerardus Mercator produced the first world map on a flat linear projection drawn correctly to scale, which, because it enabled more efficient seagoing navigation, became a standard in mapmaking – known as the Mercator projection.
Though the Portuguese and Spanish had been first in the new wave of European exploration, the Dutch, English, and French didn’t take long launching their own colonial ventures abroad, looking to profit by sailing the routes that had been opened through Iberian blood, sweat, and money. The English government hired Italian explorer John Cabot in the late-15th century, who reached modern-day Newfoundland in 1497. Other explorers enlisted by the English and French governments followed suit, focusing on laying claim to territories that were outside the Spanish sphere of influence and thus able to challenge that influence. Much of these initial inroads were in North America. Henry Hudson mapped the island of Manhattan in 1609, and by that time the English Virginia Company had laid colonial claim to an area near the Chesapeake Bay. The French entered the colonial game in North America in 1608, when Samuel de Champlain founded Quebec City. The Dutch weren’t far behind, setting up a trading post in 1624 in what would become New York City. Meanwhile, in the Pacific Ocean, by the early 1600s, the Dutch had begun exploring what would become known as Australia.
Rivalry with Muslim rulers for trade routes had spurred all of this exploration in the first place, and while this rivalry made the ensuing colonization quite aggressive, the conquests were not all massively bloody and in certain instances were the results of collaborations between Europeans and indigenous peoples. Cortés fought a war to win Mexico by recruiting indigenous allies against the Aztecs—forming a coalition army that reached into the hundreds of thousands. Pizarro achieved his conquest of the Inca lands in South America mainly through barefaced treachery and slaughter, but nonetheless, he recruited the help of 40,000 Incans to accomplish the task. In the Philippines, however, the Spanish takeover proceeded relatively peacefully.
Though the Age of Exploration led to high-handed treatment of local populations, resulting in deaths from war, disease, and overwork on a large scale—over 200,000 Aztecs died in Cortés’s siege of Tenochtitlan, for instance—cultures of the different civilizations were also genuinely shared and even fused throughout the age. Though many native inhabitants of the Americas were initially enlisted as slaves for their Spanish rulers, the Spanish government had abolished these slave-labor grants by 1543, and with them the entire institution of Native American slavery in the Spanish Empire. A negative effect, however, was the rise of the Atlantic slave trade, which funneled black slave labor from Africa mainly to plantations in the Americas to squeeze profits to the fullest.
But thanks to the globalized networks of commercial exchange opened by the age’s explorers, Europeans, Africans, Asians, and Americans became careful observers of each other’s cultures, broadening their intellectual horizons in the process: in the mid-1500s, Portuguese merchant-explorer Fernão Mendes Pinto visited China and wrote of the Chinese Empire’s rigorously enforced specializations within different commercial sectors; and during the late 1600s, Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora, a mixed-race Mexican scholar, used the resources available to him under Spanish rule to research and write on the ethnic origins of the original inhabitants of Mexico. These written commentaries on cultures were in a sense intellectual explorations, made possible by the naval and land explorations of the age.
Let’s end with a review question to see how much you remember:
By 1600, the Age of Exploration had resulted in all of the following except
- The conquest of the Aztec Empire in Mexico by an expedition led by Hernán Cortés.
- Adoption of a grid-based map system tailored for navigation, known as the Mercator projection.
- The establishment of a French settlement at Quebec City.
- The opening of Spanish trade routes that brought tomatoes and cocoa from the Americas to Europe.
Thanks for watching, and happy studying!