The Great European Age of Exploration

in the 15th century was an exciting place to be. All sorts of goods from exotic places such as China and India were landing up in the markets of Spain, Italy, England and even as far north as Ireland. One could get almost anything for a price (generally a steep one).

Europeans loved the spices and silks of the East but to get them, they had to wait months (sometimes even years) for them to arrive via the long-established trade routes collectively known as the Silk Road. What made this worse was that at the time, Muslim peoples such as Turks, Arabs and Persians controlled most of these routes. Given that medieval Christian Europe was generally not on friendly terms with the Muslim East made, transport of such goods was made all the more complicated and expensive.

Map showing some possible Silk Road routes
These luxuries and the exotic lands from which they came from fueled a voracious European appetite for such goods. However, European expansion into these areas was blocked on land by hostile Muslim empires, the Mongols or natural barriers like the sea.

The Travels of Marco Polo

Painting from an old manuscript depicting Marco Polo traveling the Silk Road to China

For many in the West, China was an unknown and legendary land. Few Europeans west of the Ural Mountains had ever been there, let alone knew much about it. One of the earliest and most famous individual explorers to venture so far east was the Venetian merchant Marco Polo.

Marco’s father and uncle were merchants who had already traveled all the way to China via the Mongol Empire to see the riches of the East for themselves. Quite impressed with what they saw, the two returned to Venice after nine years with stories of the wonders that existed far beyond Europe. A few years later they embarked on a second trip, this time taking the 17-year old Marco along with them.

Marco Polo with his father and uncle in Bukhara, a city and Silk Road hub in today’s Uzbekistan

It took the trio three and half years to reach their intended destination, the palace of the Great Kublai Khan. Marco stayed behind for another 17 years and became a loyal and trusted confidant of the Great Khan. It was during this time that he traveled around much of Asia, marveling at nearly everything he saw.

Marco Polo

Have his fix of the East, the 30+ year old Marco returned to Venice in 1295. However, things in his beloved city had changed. Venice was at war with the Italian city-state of Genoa, and Marco was captured by a Venetian ship while at sea. He was taken prisoner and held in a cell where he met a certain Rustichello. The two formed a friendship and Marco told Rustichello stories of his adventures in the East, which the latter wrote down.

Route traveled by Marco Polo

When news of Marco Polo and his travels spread, most people were quite skeptical and assumed that he had fabricated a great deal of what he saw. It was only centuries after Polo’s death, when Europeans actually visited many of the places he had described, that the veracity of his tales were accepted by many.

The Portuguese Start the Fire

Prince Henry the Navigator

The Portuguese were really the first nation during the Middle Ages to seriously start exploring the world outside and around the European continent. The man who is credited with this is Prince Henry of Portugal, a.k.a. Henry the Navigator. Using the seaside town of Sagres as his base, Prince Henry set up an exploration center and invited some of the leading experts in navigation and shipbuilding of his day to conglomerate there. With all of these bright minds together along with Prince Henry’s discipline and professionalism, the Portuguese were able to improve existing navigation and charting techniques, along with building faster and more technologically advanced ships. One of these types of vessels was the caravel, a ship that combined European hulls with Arab-style sails. These enabled the caravel to better withstand the rough seas around the coasts of Africa as well travel farther distances from shore.

Caravel on old Portuguese currency

The early successes of Portuguese sailors was inspiring. In 1434, the Portuguese sailor Gil Eannes successfully navigated around Cape Bojador, what is today part of Western Sahara. This area was originally thought to be too dangerous for ships to pass. Many even believed that the cape marked the very edge of the world. However the success of traveling beyond the cape motivated the Portuguese to sail even further along the African coast and by 1460, they had traveled as far as modern-day Sierra Leone.

The next great navigational milestone came in 1488 when the Portuguese explorer Bartholomew Dias reached the southernmost tip of Africa, the Cape of Good Hope. Dias wanted to go further but his crew refused, and it wasn’t until 1497 that the explorer Vasco da Gama sailed around the recently-discovered Cape of Good Hope and landed in the fabled country of India. This completely changed the game because now, European ships could bypass the dangerous land routes controlled by Muslim rulers and trade directory with India and the other lands of the East.

vasco da Gama arriving on the shores of India

Along with knowledge and satisfying their curiosity, the Portuguese also profited from their ventures. While bringing back gold, spices, dyes and other prized goods, they also started a trade that would prove to be one of the most horrid and despicable legacies of the European nations for centuries to come: slavery.

Columbus and the Discovery of the Americas

Not to be outdone by their Portuguese neighbors, the Spanish Crown decided to get into the game and funded their own seafaring expeditions. What is interesting is that Spain’s claim to fame is really due to the ideas and determination of an Italian from Genoa, Christopher Columbus.

By the time that he first arrived in Portugal in 1476, the young Columbus was already an experienced seaman. Columbus though had some crazy ideas for his day, one of which was that it was possible to reach India and the Far East by sailing West across the Atlantic Ocean. This of course was heresy. In Columbus’ day, the Catholic Church had been teaching since its inception that the world was flat. While some of the more scientifically-bent elites of the day did postulate that the world may indeed be round, this had never been proven. Columbus, a true believer the spherical nature of the world, took his argument of a westward passage to India to the Portuguese court. Unable to convince the King to lend him the necessary ships and crew for such a voyage, Columbus decided to try his luck in the court of Spanish sovereigns Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. They also politely refused to sponsor his voyage.

Christopher Columbus at the court of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. Painting by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze.

Undeterred, Columbus went about looking for other sponsors to fund him. Slowly but surely, other influential people began to see things his way. Not only did they believe in the possibility of a western route to Asia, but they were also intrigued by the potential of both profitable trade and the opportunity to spread Christianity across the world. With the help of some of his new friends, Columbus returned to the Spanish court and this time was able to convince Isabella and Ferdinand to lend their support. They offered him three ships and the crews to man them.

On September 6th, 1492, Columbus and crew set sail from the Canary Islands on the Niña, Pinta, and the Santa Maria. The journey was long and arduous with the crews of all three ships fearing that the longer they spent at sea, the greater the chance of starvation or falling off the edge of the world into an unknown abyss. In fact, the crews of all three ships were just about to mutiny when on October 12th, land was sighted. Alas, Columbus’ theory had been vindicated; he had found India!

Columbus arriving in the Americas

Or had he? Columbus believed until his very last day that he had indeed discovered a western route to the “Indies” as he called them. The truth though is that he arrived in the Caribbean on an island most likely in the Bahamas. The people that he called “Indians” were not from Asia but undiscovered (at least to Europeans) indigenous peoples. Two big mistakes right there.

It must also be noted that while such a discovery was great for Spain and the rest of European civilization, it ultimately brought death and destruction to many of the peoples who had been living in the Americas for thousands of years. While initially Columbus returned to Spain as a hero, his popularity began to wane as word of his unacceptable behavior got out. With all of the indiscriminate killing, rape and torture of the native population, you’d wonder just how the United States could have designated a holiday for such a gruesome character. In the end, Columbus somewhat got what he deserved. He died poor in 1506 with barely a peso to his name.

Columbus was not a nice guy…kind of a %@*& actually.

Other European Nations get into the Game

Pedro Álvares Cabral discovers Brazil

The one thing that Columbus and Spain did do was to start a race to discover and gobble up as many new lands as possible. In the following centuries, other maritime powers (Portugal, Great Britain, France and the Netherlands) all launched multiple expeditions to get in on a piece of the action.

Portugal discovered Brazil in 1500, a land that would become the basis of their empire in the Americas. They also were the primary European power in Asia, setting up trading posts and colonies in India (Goa), Macau (China) and throughout much of western Africa.

The newly-independent Dutch nation also launched their own expeditions and in 1601 formed the Dutch East India Company, an organization that would eventually become one of the most powerful commercial enterprises in the world. Their empire spread to what is today Borneo, Indonesia, India and also parts of the Americas.

French expansion into the Americas mostly occurred during the 15th century when they settled in what is today eastern Canada and the areas around the St. Lawrence River. Eventually, they also expanded further into the plains region of North America and secured possessions in the Caribbean.

Sir Francis Drake being knighted by Queen Elizabeth I

The British got into the colonial game much later, not really making any significant discoveries of their own. Their success though came from conquering the territories that had already been discovered by others, most notably the Spanish. The most famous Englishman during this era was Sir Francis Drake. In 1577, Drake and his crew were the second to circumnavigate the globe, plundering as many Spanish ships as they could along the way. In fact he obtained so much treasure during his voyage that ultimately, Britain was able to pay off all of its debts and even have a little on the side to fund profitable new colonial ventures.

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