Age of exploration

Old map 1720

Late Middle Ages is the heyday of such trading powers as Genoa and Venice. Thanks to bigger and bigger fleets Europeans travel further and further and starts new documented Age of exploration. Along with the development of trade with the Mediterranean countries in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, there was also cultural exchange with the countries of the Middle East. The main trade routes by water route lead to Alexandria and Tripoli, to the Byzantines and the Black Sea ports.

Thanks to the existence of trade routes such as the Silk Road through the Byzantine, Syrian and Egyptian markets, valuable raw materials from the Far East have been imported. The most important of them were fabrics: silk and cotton, precious raw materials – gold and silver, as well as spices such as ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon and pepper. The rare network of commercial roads and the use of two-wheeled carriages made land transport much more expensive than sea transport.

Historical background and causes of Age of exploration

The cultural development of the beginnings of the Renaissance allowed the medieval thought to open to the works of ancient Greek thinkers who lived in the 5th century BC. They proved that the Earth is a sphere. Unfortunately, during the Middle Ages, works of such antiquity celebrities as Ptolemy were forgotten. Only later Arabic translations of Greek writers found the fertile ground of thinkers of the renaissance era, fueling the idea of ​​great geographical discoveries.

Only three well-known continents were represented on medieval maps: Europe, Africa and Asia. The dry areas of North Africa effectively limited further recognition of this continent. However, the reign of the Arabs and Mongols in the Asian territories effectively cut off the contacts of Europeans with the Far East countries, and especially India, from which most of the Silk Road’s goods came.

Thanks to such merchants and travelers as Marco Polo and his relationship with a long-term trip to India in the form of “Describing the World”, European culture learned about the existence of other countries such as China and awakened in Europeans the imagination and desire to explore unknown lands. In Europe, for centuries, there have been stories about possible existence of Kingdom of Priest John, somewhere in Asia or Africa, who could become an ally in the fight against Muslims.

Development of sailing techniques

Thanks to the growing knowledge of sailing and the development of a new ship construction – a 15th century caravel – it was possible to navigate the oceans more accurately. The rectangular sail used for sailing with the wind was additionally used with triangular Latin sails (borrowed from Arab sailors), enabling sailing in the diagonal direction to the direction of wind on the open sea, and the already existing compass, astrolabe, quadrant and log. Introduction of new navigational instruments such as the Jacob’s Holy Cross (from the beginning of the 16th century), and in later times the sextant (in 1731) made sailing on the oceans easier. The inhabitation by the Portuguese and Spaniards on the borders of the Mediterranean and Atlantic world favored the use of sailors’ experiences both from the Mediterranean and from the North. It gave them a greater chance of new geographical discoveries.

The beginning of the Age of exploration

The first sailors who sailed a little further west of the coast of Africa were the Genoese and reached the Canary Islands. Beginning from 1402, the conquest of the archipelago began, led by the French and Castilian knights, and lasted until 1496. In 1415, almost twenty thousand Portuguese soldiers commanded by King John I won the Ceuta located in front of Gibraltar. The goal of the Portuguese people was to continue the holy war with Arabs and dominate over ever larger areas of influence.

Portuguese discoveries in Africa

From the beginning of the fifteenth century, the activities of Prince Henry the Navigator, the father of Portuguese fleet and early great geographical discoveries, full-blooded crusader and organizer of expeditions, enabled sailors to discover the next western islands and the eastern coasts of Africa farther south.

Prince Henry took an active part in the establishment of the University of Lisbon and the school of cartography and astronomy in Sagres (considered the first maritime academy in the world). Nautical maps were collected and copied and navigational instruments were improved. He told the captains of the ships to keep accurate deck books with all the details of their travels, and in return gave them financial and scientific support.

In 1420, the Portuguese discovered Madeira, and soon the Azores archipelago. Madera immediately after settling began to supply Portugal with huge amounts of wood used to build an ever-larger fleet. Sugar cane was another very valuable material from Madeira. Sugar production on the island brought huge financial benefits, and in the year 1472 alone it produced 180 tons.

It took many years for Portuguese sailors to find a way to circumnavigate the Cape Bojador, in which the winds change rapidly to the south-west, carrying ships to the middle of the Atlantic. The Portuguese have ventured and developed a maneuver known as volta do mar (circumnavigation of the sea) consisting in surrendering to winds and sea currents to the west to later make a return using the opposite winds leading in the right direction.

The social structure of the Iberian countries was fulfilled by the nobility in the tenth part, which was a remnant of the medieval wars between Christians and Muslims. Additionally, the plague prevailing in the mid-fourteenth century decimated the poorest social layer and caused a decrease in the rents paid to the nobility.

In 1444, the Portuguese reached Cape Verde at the western end of the Sahara. Since then, in large quantities, they have brought gold and slaves to the country. It ignited the desire for profits and wealth in the minds of many noble families. Therefore, there were plenty of people willing to finance expeditions and other great geographical discoveries, which paid off with significant profits.

The fall of Constantinople

In the 15th century, the Ottoman Empire was increasing its influence in the area of ​​present-day Turkey, conquering Constantinople in 1453. This significantly limited the flow of goods from the Far East. The growing demand for spices, textiles, precious raw materials and all kinds of perfumes and balms resulted in a significant increase in their prices. It was necessary to find other trade routes bypassing expensive intermediaries.

Spanish Reconquista

In 1469. there was an agreement between the largest kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula: Castile and Aragón. The Spanish Reconquista against the Arabs lasted until 1492. until the fall of Granada. Four years later, thanks to the support of the French knighthood, the Spaniards mastered the Canary Islands, gaining a good reloading and departure base for oceanic expeditions.

Completion of the Reconquista for a significant part of the nobility meant a loss of social status, as the profits from the cultivation of an expensive role due to the climate were incomparably smaller than the income of war. Only investments in overseas expeditions allowed the nobility to maintain their social status and live a high level of life.

Another reason why the expeditions were organized was the expansion of the Catholic church’s influence in the world, because the liberation of the Iberian Peninsula from the Arabs did not mean the end of the struggle against Islam. Therefore, the knights willingly took part in expeditions looking for new livelihoods.

The circumnavigation of Africa by Portuguese

From the information provided by the merchants and travelers of the Silk Road it was possible to deduce that there is a lot of water on the eastern side of Africa, and thus a discoverable route to India. In 1488, Bartholomew Diaz, head of the next deep-sea expedition, flows around the southern coast of Africa. However, the crew’s rebellion prevents him from continuing his journey through the waters of the Indian Ocean. On the way back he discovers the southernmost point of the African continent – the Cape of Good Hope.

Discovery of America by Columbus

According to the theory of the sphericity of Earth, the Italian sailor Christopher Columbus after careful study of maps and works from the collections of Henry the Navigator to which he had access through a favorable marriage found that the road to India is not as long as it may seem and for years developed the concept of reaching India west.

His efforts to obtain funds for the expedition from the Portuguese King John II were rejected because the council of geographers and cartographers recognized that such a concept of reaching India is unlikely. In addition, the Portuguese have been developing their projects to reach India by sailing Africa with the great success of the discovery of the Cape of Good Hope. Stubborn Columbus moved his efforts to the court of the Queen of Spain, Isabella I of Castile.

He waited for the positive answer to complete the reconquest in 1492. Recruiting the crew was not a simple matter at all. Those who have long sailed on the water knew the problems of life on the ship (storms, scurvy). Rather local raiders and people without work reported for the expeditions, for whom the expedition was a life-saving one. Of these, mainly sailors, there was a 120-person crew, which a few months later Christopher Columbus took on three ships in the west.

The discovery of America gave him the title of Admiral and manager of the newly discovered lands. Columbus was convinced he had come to India. The ships with gold and tobacco flowed from New Land to Spain. However discovered islands (San Salvador, Haiti, Cuba and Jamaica) as it turned out later were not so rich in gold. Columbus’s actions contributed to the collapse of local communities, and mismanagement and bad management were the reason for his imprisonment during the third expedition in 1498.

The equipment of the ships for the second and third expedition of Columbus was to be prepared by the Italian merchant Amerigo Vespucci based in Seville. In the years 1497-1504 he made four research expeditions as a naturalist and cartographer. The first two in the service of the King of Spain, and the next in the service of the King of Portugal. His poignant descriptions of the newly discovered continent published on the old continent allowed him to gain popularity greater than Columbus himself. He was the first to recognize that discovered lands are a new continent and that is why they were called America from his name. Vespucci explored the coast of Venezuela, reached the mouth of the Amazon and La Plata as well as the coasts of Patagonia and South Georgia.

The distribution of influences after great discoveries

The discovery of Columbus and other sailors under the flag of the Kingdom of Spain and Portugal threatened an outbreak of conflict between the Iberian kingdoms over domination of overseas areas of influence. To avoid this, in 1494. the Treaty of Tordesillas was concluded, which determined the spheres of influence of both countries: their limit was set by the meridian running at 1,200 nautical miles west of the Cape Verde Islands. The newly discovered geographical areas located to the west of the meridian belonged to the Spanish crown, and to the east were Portuguese property. Discovered by accident in 1500. Brazil through Pedro Cabral, driven by unfavorable winds, located east of the dividing line was in the share of Portugal.

Vasco da Gama route to India

In 1497, Portugal is organizing another daring expedition to India. The command is entrusted to Vasco da Gama, who after a long journey arrives in 1498 to the city of Kozhikode – a seaside trading center in India. As the Portuguese people later learn, maintaining a new trading point is not a simple matter, where the sea is dominated by Arabs. Therefore, they organize further expeditions aimed at eliminating any competition and possible threats on new trade routes. It was thanks to more agile caravans armed with artillery.

In the early 16th century, the Portuguese mastered key ports along the route from the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean: Alfonso de Albuquerque (Portuguese conquistador) conquered the island of Ceylon in 1506, Ormuz in the Persian Gulf in 1507, Goa in India in 1510, and further to the east of Malacca on the Malay Peninsula in 1511, from where European sailors reached China in 1516. and Japan in 1542. In 1517. The Turks are conquering Egypt and are trying to rule over the Indian Ocean at the same time. The Ottoman fleet appeared in these waters in 1538. but it was only a demonstration of strength, not an open war for influence.

In the mid-16th century, the Portuguese ships defeated the fleet of Turkish galleries, at the same time proving who controls the eastern waters. Shiploaded with spices, plants, precious metals, porcelain, perfumes and rare species of wood came to Portugal. The Portuguese Crown controlled trade by charging 25 to 50% of profits from imported goods. The Portuguese state for pepper, ginger or wood introduced a European monopoly and their purchase was possible only through the House of India in Lisbon. The gentry and rich families eagerly invested in trade expeditions, even though medieval superstitions prohibited them from doing business.

Expedition of Ferdinand Magellan around the Earth

Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese sailor in the service of the Crown of Spain, lived in the conviction that the Spice Islands can be reached not only by sailing east but also in the opposite direction. He was determined to do so, whether for his native Portugal or another flag. In 1517, when he was 37 years old, he was allowed to be interviewed by the King of Spain, Charles I (Emperor Charles V).

The young ruler, after listening to the plan, was charmed by the prospect of the possibility of trading in spices without engaging in a conflict with Portugal. Therefore, he allocated significant funds for the implementation of the Magellan plan, which set off on the expedition on August 10, 1519. commanding a fleet of five ships: “Victoria”, “San Antonio”, “Concepcion”, “Santiago” and the flagship “Trinidad”. During his journey, Magellan discovers the Magellan Strait, the Mariana Islands and the Philippines. Unfortunately, he is killed by a reckless attack on the island of Mactan. Only the commanding “Victoria” Juan Sebastián Elcano comes back to Spain with a dozen or so exhausted sailors.

Magellan himself did not manage to circumnavigate the whole globe, but he had other, very significant merits. Through his expedition, the strait connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific was discovered and two galaxies were identified, which were named after Magellan the Great and the Small Cloud of Magellan. He also had a big impact on the time zones, because he discovered that depending on the direction of movement he lost or gained one day (International Line of Change Date) and most importantly confirmed the fact that the Earth is round.

Expeditions of the English and French

Italian sailor Giovanni Caboto also known as John Cabot sailing under the English flag for King Henry VII was sent on an expedition to discover the sea route to Asia. During his trip in 1497. he chose the North-East direction and swam to the shores of North America discovering New Funland and Labrador. His expedition gave guidance for the next English expeditions, and the discovery gave grounds for the King of England to colonize the discovered areas.

In 1534. Jacques Cartier, a talented French sailor, set off on an expedition that aimed to reach Asia and discover gold and other precious metals. It took twenty days to cross the ocean. After this time, he reached Newfoundland, the Gulf of St. Lawrence , the Magdalen Island and to the Island of Saint Edward. He establishes his first relationship with the Indians, believing he has reached China. After two consecutive expeditions, Cartier used the name Canada to describe the newly discovered areas to which France was entitled.

Results of great geographical discoveries

The treaty between the two colonial empires of Spain and Portugal (signed in Zaragoza in 1529) spoke about the division of the world into two spheres of influence. The inflow of gold and exotic goods caused rapid economic development in colonial countries. That is why England, France and the Dutch joined this race. Thanks to expeditions, Europe will get to know new plants, ie coffee, tea, potatoes, tobacco, cocoa, maize or tomatoes, which has changed the eating habits of the population. Unfortunately, the newly discovered civilizations of Indians: Aztec, Maya and Inca fell under the influence of conquistadors and the slave trade increased. Christianization of new territories and cultural exchange came. In a word, the benefits were one-sided for explorers and not for the civilizations discovered.


Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus

Italian sailor, traveler and navigator. Captain of an expedition of three ships: “Santa Maria”, “Nina” and “Pinta” under the Castile flag in search of the western sea route to East Asia. It was the first expedition in the history of modern geographical discoveries that reached America on October 12, 1492.

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Christopher Columbus

Ferdinand Magellan

Portuguese sailor in the Spanish service, discoverer and sea traveler. On September 20, 1519, he set out from Spain on the western route, that is through the Atlantic Ocean, to the Spice Islands in the Malay Archipelago. He died on April 27, 1521, killed by the inhabitants of the island of Mactan in the Philippine Archipelago. His expedition first circumnavigated Earth.

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