The Age of Exploration Overview
The Age of Exploration focuses on the European discovery and exploration of new lands from 1400 to 1800. During this time, Europeans learned about – and sometimes destroyed – other civilizations. Europeans colonized and spread their culture in the Americas. They also formed colonies in India, Africa, and Asia. The European explorers opened new trade routes and took over old ones. They charted seas and rivers, and mapped lands that they never knew existed.
The Golden Age of Exploration began in the 1400s. At that time, Europeans were trying to find a way to reach the East, the source of spices, silk, cotton, and precious gems. Up to this time, they had depended on Arab traders for these goods. By finding a way to get the goods themselves, Europeans would be able to avoid paying high prices to the Arab traders. Europeans also wanted to open new markets for their own trade goods, find natural resources and gold and claim new land.
In the 15th century, Europeans did not have a clear idea of where the land of riches they knew as “the East” was or how to get there. They could not follow the known land routes to the East, such as the one traveled by Marco Polo two centuries before. The Ottoman Turks and the Mongols had conquered the lands between Europe and China. These Asian peoples would not let Europeans pass through their territory. For this reason, Europeans set out to find an ocean passage to the East, at a time when very few seamen had ever sailed out of sight of land.
Spain and Portugal were nations that looked out on the Atlantic Ocean, not inward to the smaller and more peaceful Mediterranean Sea. These nations were ready to venture into the Atlantic and find a route to the East at the same time that new ways of building ships, navigation, stable governments, wealthy kings and queens and growing populations made such voyages possible.
Portugal’s Prince Henry the Navigator was the first to send sailors into the unknown waters of the Atlantic. Henry the Navigator founded a navigation school and sponsored expeditions to find the southern tip of Africa. While the expeditions advanced a little farther south each year, note of Henry’s sea captains had sailed around Africa by the time of his death in 1460. Not until 1488 did the Portuguese sea captain Bartholomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope, the southernmost point of Africa. Shortly after, the Portuguese reached India by taking this route and took control of the trade routes in the Indian Ocean. Other European nations raced to find different routes to the East, trying to get places first and control trade routes. Mercantilism dominated competition between European countries, each looking for more territory and gold.
Christopher Columbus, an Italian navigator, needed to find sponsors willing to finance his exploration. He approached the rulers of several nations with his idea of reaching the East by sailing west. Finally, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain agreed to pay for his expedition. He set out from Spain and after a ten-week journey, reach the Bahamas on October 12, 1492. Although Columbus thought he was in China, he still claimed the land for Spain. Columbus made three more voyages across the Atlantic. He explored more of the New World on each voyage, but through it all he remained convinced he had reached some part of the Orient, if not China.
While Columbus thought he had found China, Spanish adventurers realized that he had opened up a “New World.” Ruthless men called conquistadors, the Spanish name for conquerors, raced to the Americas, intent on finding riches. Using their guns and gunpowder, the conquistadors tortured and murdered natives, stripping their cities of gold and silver. The Spaniards also forced the Indians to work in mines or on plantations as slaves.
The Spanish explored the interior of North and South America in their search for more gold. They made it to present-day California and Kansas and discovered the Mississippi River. Missionaries who wanted to spread Christianity among the natives often accompanied the conquistadors. The Portuguese, who claimed Brazil, explored the Amazon and, like the Spanish, began to establish plantations and forts.
Thirty years after Columbus first crossed the Atlantic, Spain did find a route to the East by going west. Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese captain sailing for Spain, led the first expedition that circled the globe. He left Spain in 1519. Only one of Magellan’s five ships and seventeen of his 260 officers and men survived the three-year voyage. Magellan himself was killed during a battle with natives in the Philippines.
By the end of the 16th century, Spain had become less powerful. Its sources of gold in the Americas had dried up and England had destroyed its fleet of ships in an historic battle between the two countries. Portugal was too small to defend all the territory it claimed. The Spanish and Portuguese New World holdings did not yet interest other European nations, but the Dutch and the English sailed into the Indian Ocean and began to establish their own colonies there. They sailed from the Spice Islands to other parts of the South Pacific. The influence of each country’s contact with these cultures is still evident today in their languages, religious beliefs and governments.
French, English and Dutch expeditions searched for a way to Asia by way of a northwest passage through northern North America and a northeast passage along the arctic shores of Russia. Although ice blocked their way to Asia, the French, English, and Dutch began trading with Russia and claimed much of North America for themselves. These European nations also set up colonies in the New World.
By the end of the 18th century, the map of the world had changed greatly. The world was much larger than many 15th century explorers had ever realized. [pic][pic]