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Age of Discovery

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Background Information

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History of geography
  • Graeco-Roman
  • Chinese
  • Islamic
  • Age of Discovery
  • History of cartography
  • Environmental determinism
  • Regional geography
  • Quantitative revolution
  • Critical geography

The Age of Discovery or Age of Exploration was a period from the early 15th century and continuing into the early 17th century, during which European ships traveled around the world, often in search of new trading routes and partners to feed burgeoning Europe. They also were in search of trading goods such as gold, silver and spices. 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, 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, firepower and shipbuilding. Many people wanted to find a route to Asia through the west of Europe. The most important development was the invention of first the carrack and then caravel in Portugal. These vessels evolved from medieval European designs with a fruitful combination of Mediterranean and North Sea designs and the addition of some Arabic elements. They were the first ships that could leave the relatively placid and calm Mediterranean and sail safely on the open Atlantic.

Exploration by Land

The pintle and gudgeon rudder contributed significantly to the success of European seafarers

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 (although land routes from Han Dynasty China to the Roman Empire existed beforehand, see Silk Road). 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 converts, or the fabled Prester John.

The first of these travelers was Giovanni de Plano Carpini who journeyed to Mongolia and back from 1241–1247. The most famous traveler, however, was Marco Polo who wrote of journeys throughout Asia from 1271 to 1295 in which he described being a guest at the Yuan Dynasty court of Kublai Khan. His journey was written up as Travels and the work was read throughout Europe. In 1439, Niccolò Da Conti published an account of his travels to India and Southeast Asia. In 1466-1472, a Russian merchant Afanasy Nikitin of Tver described travels to India in his book A Journey Beyond the Three Seas.

These journeys 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 to 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 the Europeans.

Exploration begins in Portugal

The Fra Mauro map (1459) in Venice, provided one of the first practical descriptions of Europe, Africa and Asia.

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 of 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. The eastern trade routes were controlled by the Ottoman Empire after the Turks took control of Constantinople in 1453, and they barred Europeans from those trade routes. 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 maneuverable. 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.

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, both becoming 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 bringing slaves and gold were controlled by the Muslim states of North Africa, long rivals to Portugal and Spain. 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. In the bull Romanus Pontifex the trade monopoly for newly discovered countries beyond Cape Bojador was granted to the Portuguese.

Within two decades, the barrier of the Sahara had been overcome and trade in slaves and gold began in what is today Senegal. Progress continued as trading forts were built at Elmina and São Tomé e Príncipe became the first sugar producing colony. In 1482 an expedition under Diogo Cão made contact with the Kingdom of Kongo. The crucial breakthrough was in 1487 when Bartolomeu Dias rounded (and later named) 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.

The Cantino planisphere (1502), one of the oldest surviving Portuguese nautical charts, showing the results of the explorations of Vasco da Gama's to India, Columbus' to Central America and Pedro Álvares Cabral's to Brazil. The meridian of Tordesillas, separating the Portuguese and Spanish halves of the world is also depicted

Portugal's rival Castile had been somewhat slower than its 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 Castile won. It was not until the union of Aragon and Castile 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 conquered the Moorish kingdom of Granada, that had been providing Castile with African goods through its tribute, and they decided to fund Christopher Columbus' expedition that they hoped would bypass Portugal's lock on Africa and the Indian Ocean reaching Asia by travelling west.

Columbus did not reach Asia, but rather found a New World, America. In 1500, the Portuguese navigator, Pedro Álvares Cabral also discovered the land that is today called Brazil. The issue of defining areas of influence became critical, being 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 eastern South America (Brazil). The Spanish received everything west of this line, territory that was still almost completely unknown, and proved to be mostly the western part of the American continent plus the Pacific Ocean islands.

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, small bodies of Spanish conquistadors, with large armies of allied natives, managed to conquer them. The most notable amongst the conquered nations were the Aztec empire in Mexico (conquered in 1521) and the Inca empire in modern Peru and Ecuador (conquered in 1532). During this time, pandemics of European disease such as Smallpox devastated the indigenous populations, helping greatly in the conquest. Once Spanish sovereignty was established, the main focus would eventually become the extraction and export of gold and especially silver, though other goods were also traded.

In 1519, the same year that Cortez's army landed in Mexico the Spanish crown funded the expedition of Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese (it was not an uncommon practice in those pre-nationalistic times for the various seafaring countries to employ experienced navigators from other countries - usually Portuguese or Italians). The goal of the mission was similar to Columbus' goal: to find the Spice Islands by traveling west, thus placing them in the Spanish sphere. The expedition managed to cross the Pacific Ocean and reach the Spice Islands, and was the first to circumnavigate the world upon its return three years later, though Magellan died in the Pacific, leaving the Spaniard Juan Sebastián Elcano the task of completing the voyage. The expedition was a failure in the sense that its route was impractical. The Strait of Magellan was too far south and the Pacific Ocean too vast. It was not a realistic alternative to the Portuguese route around Africa. The Spanish were able to establish a presence in the Pacific, but not based on Magellan's voyage. Rather, a cross-Pacific route was established, by other explorers, between Mexico and the Philippines. The eastbound route to the Philippines first sailed by Alvaro de Saavedra in 1527. The westbound return route was harder to find, but was eventually discovered by Andrés de Urdaneta in 1565. For a long time these routes were used by the Manila galleons, thereby creating a trade link joining China, the Americas, and Europe via the trans-Pacific and trans-Atlantic routes.

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 a scheme to keep control of 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 Álvares Cabral and was partly on the Portuguese side of the global "divide" set at Tordesillas.

Portugal had difficulty expanding its empire inland and concentrated mostly on the coastal areas. Over time the nation proved to simply be too small to provide the funds and manpower sufficient to manage and defend such a massive and dispersed venture. The forts spread across the world were chronically undermanned and ill-equipped. They could not compete with the larger powers that slowly encroached on its empire and trade. The days of near monopoly of east trade were numbered. In 1580 the Spanish King Philip II became also King of Portugal, as rightful heir to the Crown after his cousin Sebastião died without sons (Philip II of Spain was grandson of Manuel I of Portugal). The combined empires were simply too big to go unchallenged. The Dutch, French and English explorers ignored the Papal division of the world. The principle of a free seafaring trade was justified in the concept of Mare Liberum by the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius. During the 17th century as the Dutch, English and French established ever more trading posts in the east, at the expense of Portugal, the wealth gained added to their military might while Portugal's weakened as it lost trading posts and colonies in West Africa, the Middle East and the Far East. Bombay was given away to the English as a marriage gift. Some, like Macau, East Timor, 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 occupied territory, but were eventually defeated.

Northern European involvement

The nations outside of Iberia refused to acknowledge the Treaty of Tordesillas. France, the Netherlands, and England 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 (1497) was that of the English expedition led by the Italian, John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto). It was the first of a series of French and English missions exploring North America. Spain put limited efforts into exploring the northern part of the Americas as its resources were fully stretched by its efforts in Central and South America where more resources had been found. In 1525, Giovanni da Verrazzano became the first recorded European to visit the East Coast of the present-day United States. The expeditions of Cabot, Jacques Cartier (first voyage 1534) 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 colonists 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 English ships began to flout 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 being next to Macau). The northern Europeans 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 English explorer James Cook who mapped much of Polynesia.

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 east coast of Australia was first explored only in 1770. Arctic and Antarctic seas were not explored until the 19th century. It also took much longer for Europeans to explore the interiors of continents. Africa's deep interior was not explored by Europeans until the mid to late 19th and early 20th centuries, due to a lack of trade potential in this region, and to serious problems with contagious tropical diseases in sub-Saharan Africa and the then powerful Muslim Ottoman empire in the north. Colonialism declined in the 20th century.

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