The Age of Exploration

Spices | Sailing Technology | Spain | Line of Demarcation | Natives
Stock Companies | Other Explorers | Conclusion

The Renaissance led directly to the Age of Exploration. Italy dominated the Mediterranean. Other European powers envied the Venetians and Genoese their leadership position in trade with the East. It was a lucrative trade that originated on the far side of Asia and came through Arab traders of the Middle East. Other Europeans wanted to get a piece of this action. Their imagination was further excited by the travels of a gentleman from Italy named Marco Polo who had seen the wonders of the East and co-authored a popular book about his experiences. The Portuguese were the first power to determine that there might be a better way to these Asian markets than the long, arduous caravan routes over land. They understood that it was far less expensive to transport goods by sea. A route might be far longer by sea; nevertheless, it could be vastly more lucrative. Although the huge continent of Africa was in the way, the Portuguese believed it could be gotten around. With the encouragement and financial support of Prince Henry the Navigator Portuguese sailors began to work their way down the coast of Africa, and in the process found that by establishing "factories" (really trading stations) along the coast they could turn a profit that would finance further exploration.

Spices Spur Sailors

But what was it that the Portuguese were after? The answer: Spices such as cloves, vanilla, cinnamon, and pepper that could not be grown in Europe. Some were produced on only a few islands in the Indian or Pacific oceans. Tea was another delicacy craved by the Europeans. Whoever could control the trade of these items would become rich. A single successful trade voyage to the orient would bring back untold riches.

Sailing Technology

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Before the 1400s such voyages were nearly impossible. Weather conditions on the ocean made sea travel extremely hazardous. High winds and storms could easily destroy ships large enough to carry a cargo. The other problem was navigation. How could sailing masters find their way around on an endless sea pushed by capricious winds and unseen currents? Technology during this period finally allowed European sailors to face these hazards. A sturdy ship called the caravel was invented, with multiple masts that could take advantage of whatever wind was available. Use of the compass allowed navigators to determine basic direction. Just as important as the compass, the sextant could measure the angle of an astral body from the horizon. This allowed navigators to solve half the problem of fixing a position at sea. Now a good navigator could at least determine vessel's latitude. (It would take several centuries before exact longitude could be determined.)

Spanish Exploration of the New World

Queen Isabella

The year 1492 was an auspicious one for Spain. For much of the last several hundred years, the Moslems had controlled parts of the Iberian Penninsula upon which she was situated. Two Spanish monarchs, Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, united through marriage and policy, determined to reconquer territories lost to Muslim expansion. The subsequent wars became known as the Reconquista. These wars absorbed tremendous resources from Spain, so that while Portugal was exploring the coast of Africa, her neighbor was fighting battles. This was one reason Spain was reluctant to gamble on a proposed voyage by Columbus to seek a new route to China. Yet in 1492 the Spanish completed the Reconquista by taking the southern city of Granada. Suddenly resources were available. A spirit of optimism was in the air. Spain tallied up the cost and found that sending three ships on a voyage into the unknown was about as expensive as entertaining a foreign dignitary for a few weeks. They had seen the benefits from exploration accruing to the Portuguese. Queen Isabella decided to take a chance on Columbus.

Columbus, with three ships, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria famously sailed west to find the Far East. Columbus made four voyages. In the course of them, he never reached China or Japan. However, he ran smack into lands previously unknown in Europe. He claimed them for his patron Isabella, the Queen of Castile. Publication of his discoveries sparked a race for colonies in this New World that lasted for the next two centuries.

Line of Demarcation

Suddenly, instead of being behind in the exploration race, the Spanish had the lead. The Castilians sent out conquerers and explorers called conquistadors, including Balboa, Cabeza de Vaca, De Soto, Pizarro, and Ponce de Leon. They claimed for Spain large regions of North and South America as well as the Caribbean Islands. Early Spanish and Portuguese exploration was so successful that the Pope divided up the unexplored world between the two Catholic nations. The boundary between them was called the Line of Demarcation. Later the two powers got together and agreed to the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) which moved the line to the West. This allowed Portugal to have part of Brazil. An additional boundary was drawn on the other side of the world through the Pacific. Although they did not cooperate, the Spanish and Portuguese stayed out of each other's way.

A map showing the Line of Demarcation

Treatment of the Natives

Much is made of the cruelty of the colonizers to the native inhabitants during this time period. It is true that native populations were exploited economically and devastated by disease. Yet it should be noted that the Europeans who conquered the Americas were no less cruel to any other Europeans they happened to meet on their voyages or even peoples they happened to subject in Europe itself. It is also a fact that various tribes were just as cruel to each other. The world at this time was still a place not so very far removed from a Hobbesian state of nature. Yet from Spain and elsewhere there were moderating influences, including Queen Isabella herself who always insisted that the native populations be treated as her own subjects. Also a Spanish cleric, Bartoleme de las Casas, wrote books, and lobbied the Spanish government on behalf of the natives.

Why were the Europeans able to so effectively over-run huge native empires and powerful Indian tribes, including the Aztec, the Inca, and the Iroquois? The answer, of course, is two-fold. First, the diseases incidentally carried by Europeans were far harder on the native populations than the diseases they gave back to the Europeans. But more importantly, the Europeans had vastly superior technology in weapons, tactics, and maneuverability. This technological advantage allowed small numbers of Europeans to overcome huge native armies. Ultimately, it was guns, horses, and dogs that allowed Cortez to conquer the Aztecs. But it was also a corrupt Aztec society that crumbled in the face of Cortez's attack which included allies among surrounding tribes that had been subject to the cruelty of Aztec domination.

The Role of Stock Companies in Exploration

At first the Spanish expeditions did not show very much profit, but soon silver mines were discovered. Then gold began to pour into Spain from Mexico City and the conquered Inca Empire. The Portuguese struck it rich with their attempts to go around Africa when Vasco Da Gama not only rounded the Cape of Good Hope, but in 1498 reached Calcutta India where his ship took on a cargo of spices. These successes interested other nations in exploration. The British were especially keen. They financed several expeditions to the New World and even trade missions to Russia by setting up stock companies. These companies, with multiple investors using excess capital paid explorers and colonists to venture overseas. This divided risk among many investors and ensured a vetting of expeditions. Projects were less likely to be undertaken unless they could show a reasonable likelihood of success.

England, France, and Holland

The Line of Demarcation set by the Treaty of Tordesillas was pretty much ignored by other nations. England got in the colonization game as early as she could and set up colonies on both sides of the line. It began with small expeditions by John Cabot and Henry Hudson. Sir Walter Raleigh endeavored to set up a colony in what is present-day North Carolina, but failed. John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake attempted to take advantage of the Spanish colonies, first by trade and then by outright plunder. Soon the English began to set up colonies in the Caribbean and North America, especially at Plymouth in New England and Jamestown in Virginia. They also moved into India. Meanwhile in the early 1600s the French under Champlain were busy constructing a colony in present day Canada called New France. Champlain was an able administrator and diplomat. Through his efforts New France became one of the few colonies that got along well with the native population. Holland founded New Amsterdam, which would later be taken by the English to become New York. However, the ambitions of the Dutch lay elsewhere. They eventually took over the Portuguese possessions in the East Indies and also colonized South Africa.


At this time, mercantilism was the prevalent economic philosophy. The idea was that a store of gold and silver is what made nations rich. It would not be until Adam Smith wrote the Wealth of Nations that people came to realize that gold was like any other commodity and only worth anything because it was useful as a medium of exchange. The wealth of a nation was truly comprised of its ability to produce goods and services that people wanted. The mercantilist misconception led to nations being very protective of the trade in their colonial empires. It also meant that the Spanish focus on gold and silver ended up allowing their empire to stagnate and then erode. Meanwhile the English diversified and their colonies flourished.

The Age of Exploration and the subsequent colonization of much of the world was an ongoing project for several hundred years. Islands were still being discovered in the late 1700s. Actual colonization did not end until the last few countries in Africa gained their independence from European powers in the 1960s. The significance of all this activity is that European culture and technology was suddenly spread throughout the world. Events occurring in Europe could affect events around the world and vice versa. In fact one of the great wars of the 1700s (the Seven Years War) was sparked by a young American officer (George Washington) in the backwoods of Virginia confronting some Frenchmen in a fort. The world was suddenly a much smaller place.


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The Renaissance

Age of Exploration

The Reformation

The Scientific Revolution

Thirty Years War

The Development of the English Constitution under the Stuart Kings

French Absolutism and Louis XIV

Peter I and the Modernization of Russia

Rise of Prussia and Austria

The Enlightenment

The French Revolution

The Age of Napoleon

Concert of Europe


Industrial Revolution

Liberalism, Socialism, and Marxism

The Unification of Italy and The Unification of Germany

The Age of Imperialism

Causes of the First World War

World War I: the Great War

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