Spices were originally brought to Western Europe by land routes, but because of a lack cargo space and extremely long travel times the prices were very high. The advantages of ships were that they had much larger cargo capacities and were faster than caravans. The obvious solution to get cheaper spices was to carry them by ships.
Portugal under Henry the navigator was the first country to find a water trade route to Asia. In 1488 Portuguese ships, led by Bartholomew Dias, sailed south down the coastline of Africa, then east around the Cape of Good Hope, and finally north into the Indian Ocean, proving that the Indian Ocean was accessible by sea. They claimed Mauritius in 1505, Sumatra in 1509, and Malacca and the Spice Islands in 1511. They protected these trade routes with a chain of fortified all the way from Goa in India to Macao in China.
The Portuguese also explored across the Atlantic and claimed Brazil in 1500. The Spanish, who were jealous of the Portuguese success in the Spice Islands, were furious at the Portuguese exploring the Americas. The Spanish had begun their exploration of the Americas with Christopher Columbus' discovery of Hispaniola in 1492. To prevent conflict between Spain and Portugal Pope Alexander VI authorized the treaty of Tordesillas, which split the world outside of Europe between the Spanish and the Portuguese along a north-south meridian approximately 1000 miles west of the Cape Verde islands off the west coast of Africa. This was about a third of the distance between the Cape Verde Islands and the islands discovered by Christopher Columbus on his first voyage. The lands to the east would belong to Portugal and the lands to the west to Spain. The treaty was approved by Spain (at the time, the Crowns of Castile and Aragon), July 2, and by Portugal, September 5, 1494. The Treaty of Saragossa or Treaty of Zaragoza, was signed on April 22, 1529.
The Portuguese's problems with the Spanish over their spice routes had ended, but they soon had problems with the Dutch and the English. Both Holland and England began to claim territories in Asia on the mainland and the islands. These claims would later result in English control over India and Dutch control of the Spice Islands, which later became the Dutch East Indies.
Freed from competition with the Portuguese the Spanish quickly expanded their exploration of the Americas. In 1520 Hernando Cortez seized the Aztec empire in Mexico. By 1530 permanent settlements were established in Cuba, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia, and Venezuela. In 1532 Francisco Pizarro seized the Incan empire in Peru. In September of 1513 Vasca Nunez de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama from the Caribbean Sea and reached the Pacific Ocean. The Spanish historian Oviedo tells this story, "having gone ahead of his company, climbed a hill with a bear summit and from the top of that summit saw the [Pacific Ocean] he fell upon his knees to the ground and gave great thanks to God for the mercy He had shown him, in allowing him to discover that sea."
Only months before Balboa's discovery, Afonso de Albuquerque of Portugal reached the Pacific Ocean by sailing east from the Spice Islands to the Banda Sea, where the Indian and Pacific Oceans meet. So the Spanish and Portuguese both reached the Pacific Ocean within months of each other but on opposite sides of it.
Discoveries of the North American continent had begun centuries before with the Viking voyages from Norway. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries explorers arrived from Spain, England, France, and Holland. Jacques Cartier explored the Saint Lawrence...