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Lecture 2: The Age of Discovery

Resources for the Study of the Age of ExplorationIntroduction -- The mid-to-late 15th century has quite rightly been called the AGE OF EXPLORATION and Discovery. It was an age in which European sailors and ships left the coastal waters of the Old World and embarked on their adventure on the vast "green sea of darkness." First, Portuguese ships, then Spanish and finally, in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, British, French and Dutch ships set out to discover a world, a world they originally called the Other World, but eventually called the Mundus Novus -- the New World.

The costs were minimal but the risks were high. Whole continents were discovered and explored. However, despite the fact that history textbooks have, until quite recently, always glamorized this age of European exploration, there is one series fact we need to consider. That fact is this: Europeans found native populations wherever they landed and their first task was to befriend them. After this initial period came to an end, that is, after gold and silver was discovered among the natives, the age of European exploitation began. In this way, exploration turned to exploitation. One example says a lot: during the second voyage of Columbus in 1494, and while at Hispaniola, one of his captains collected 1500 Indians and held them captive. Five hundred were taken on board Spanish ships and 200 died at sea. Others were treated cruelly by the Spanish -- the first armed conflict between Indians and Europeans occurred in March 1495. So strong were the Spanish that the Indian population of Hispaniola was nearly destroyed. Of a population of 250,000 in 1492, barely 500 remained alive in 1538, just over forty years later.

Why did Europeans take to the Ocean Sea? What made the civilization of the Renaissance turn to discovery? Something drove Europeans out of their native lands in order to contact other lands. I would suggest that there are four basic motives. The first motive was perhaps the willingness or the courage to learn and understand other cultures. This idea naturally follows from what we accept as fundamental to the Renaissance in general -- a willingness to experience and observe as much as possible (see Lecture 1). In other words, man's curiosity was a prime motive to know as much about the world as possible. A second motive or explanation for this age of discovery was religious in origin. In this respect, the age is also connected to the idea of the Crusades of the 12th and 13th centuries. There was evident throughout Europe a religious desire to save souls, and the myth of PRESTER JOHN was extremely persuasive. Prester John was supposedly a powerful king of a legendary Christian nation in the east. It was popularly believed that Prester John had ordered all Christians to join him in a holy war against the infidels. There was no Prester John, nor was there any Christian kingdom to the east -- it was a myth. But Europeans believed that Prester John was real, a living fact in the age of discovery. After 1415, Portuguese explorers were told to search for Christians on the African coast but they found none.

A third motive was economic. Western Christendom felt itself to be shrinking and decaying at a time when Islam seemed to be enlarging its domain. Europe was exposed to attacks from the infidel east. Europeans also knew and agreed that the Far East was rich in luxuries. They knew this in their daily lives - -they assumed that these luxuries were in the East, just waiting to be taken by those adventurous and courageous enough to make the voyage. It was the Spanish who embraced the simple desire for gold and silver. Europe had scant resources in precious metals and the economy itself needed gold and silver. A final motive was political, economic and cultural in nature. We tend to speak of imperialism when we observe nations conquering other lands and the 15th century was no exception. As naval technology advanced, and as Europeans settled down to the notion that there was a much larger world at their disposal, they naturally made the attempt to colonize foreign lands. After all, the ancient Greeks and Romans had already done so. Perhaps it was now Europe's turn to create an empire.

Most of the explorers had the immediate task of finding a direct route to India and the Far East in order to obtain spices such as pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cloves. There are over 250 varieties of spices native to the East, some are specific to one island or region alone. In 1291, two sailors from Genoa, Doria and Vivaldo, sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar trying to get to India -- they were never heard from again.

There were, of course, many obstacles to success in ocean navigation. Geographical knowledge of the world was obviously not what it is today, or even three hundred years ago. According to the ancients, only certain parts of the world were inhabited by men, the rest was barren of life. It was also commonly believed that Africa and Malaysia were connected so that the Indian Ocean was landlocked. Another important obstacle was simply the danger of ocean travel itself. The oceans were inhabited by dragons and sea monsters and there were great holes in the sea where ships would simply disappear. There was also the problem of wild natives, cannibals, reefs and shoals, unmapped waters, running aground and storms. Conditions on board ship were far from ideal. In 1521, Magellan recorded that:

we were three months and twenty days without refreshment from any kind of fresh food. We ate biscuit which was no longer biscuit but its powder, swarming with worms, the rats having eaten all the good. It stank strongly of their urine. We drank yellow water already many days putrid. We also ate certain ox hides that covered the top of the yards to prevent the yards from chafing the shrouds, and which had become exceedingly hard because of the sun, rain and wind. We soaked them in the sea for four or five days, then placed them for a short time over the hot embers and ate them thus, and often we ate sawdust. Rats were sold for half a ducat apiece, and even so we could not always get them.

And, of course, none of the explorers really knew where they were going!

What was necessary for travel on the open ocean was courageous men, a steadfast leader and strong ships. There were technological necessities as well. The chronometer, which measures longitude, was not available until the 18th century. The astrolabe, which measures latitude, was known to the ancient Greeks, and had been improved in the 15th century. The magnetic needle, or compass, came to Europe from the Arab world in the 12th century. Lastly, there was a need for more accurate maps and skilled mapmakers. One had to know how to map and chart what they had seen and the 15th century saw profound developments in the art and science of cartography.

The Portuguese -- In 1419, Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460), the son of King Joăo of Portugal, began to subsidize sailors, mapmakers, astronomers, shipbuilders and instrument makers who were interested in discovering new lands. Although these men were mostly Italian, there were also many Jews, Muslims, Germans, Scandinavians and Arabs who came to Prince Henry's court. They were all united in their desire to find a way around Africa to India. These sailors did not succeed but they were successful in advancing down the west African coast, where they began to open a rich trade in gold and slaves. In 1444, 200 slaves were brought back to Portugal. In 1488, the Portuguese captain, Bartholomeu Dias (c.1450-1500), returned to Lisbon after having sailed to the east coast of Africa, passing the Cape of Storms, later renamed the Cape of Good Hope. Dias probably would have reached India had his crew not mutinied and forced him to return to Portugal. In the 1490s, Vasco de Gama (c.1460-1524) also rounded the Cape of Good Hope and ventured as far as the Indian Ocean. His voyage took two years but when he returned to Lisbon in 1499, the holds of his ships were swollen with spices from the East. Portuguese ambitions were at their peak by 1500.

Over the next twenty-five years, Portugal built an empire that remained entirely dependent on sea power. Rather than colonize its new territories, Portugal set up trading depots from West Africa to China, and made little attempt to conquer these lands by force. Despite one incident in which de Gama wrecked vengeance on CALECUT (Kozhikode) in 1502, the Portuguese set up military outposts with the sole task of protecting their investments. By the 16th century their wealth increased as they became the major importers of luxuries and spices from the East. Their expansion was sustained by the political and economic revival that was spreading throughout Europe at the time and also by competition with other nations. Although wealth flowed into Portugal, it was really northern Europe that was to benefit from Portuguese domination of the spice trade in the Spice Islands of Ceylon and Indonesia. Between 1501 and 1505, the Portuguese sent 7000 sailors to the east on voyages that were largely underwritten by Flemish, German and Italian bankers and other investors. Over time, Antwerp replaced Lisbon as the European center of the spice trade. The Portuguese were eventually to make greater gains in the accidental discovery of Brazil in 1500, than they did through the spice trade in the Far East. It also must be considered that Portugal faced outward toward the unknown waters of the Atlantic, away from the classic centers of European civilization, and to the south, lay Africa, a great untamed continent. So, it was natural for the Portuguese to ride the first wave of the age of exploration.

The Spanish -- It was the Spanish who rode the second wave of expansion and exploration, but unlike Portugal, Spain founded its empire on conquest and colonization, and not trade. Perhaps the most important of the Spanish endeavors was that of Christopher Columbus (1451-1506).

Columbus was born at Genoa, the son of a family of woolcombers. At the age of fourteen he went to sea, fought in several battles, and around 1470 was shipwrecked and reached the shores of Lisbon on a plank. As early as 1474, he conceived the idea of reaching India by sailing west. Three years later he sailed one hundred leagues beyond Thule and probably reached Iceland. Having voyaged to the Cape Verde Islands and Sierra Leone, he began to seek a patron for his intended voyage of exploration. He applied to John II of Portugal and Henry VII of England but was refused both times.

Columbus was then referred to Ferdinand V (1452-1516) and Isabella I (1451-1504) of Spain (both Ferdinand and Isabella were known as la Católica, the Catholic). His plans were rejected by their board of advisors but after reconsideration and seven year's time, they were accepted by Ferdinand and Isabella in April 1492. A contract was drawn up on April 30, a contract which specified that Columbus would be designated the Admiral of the Ocean Sea. The contract also stated that Columbus would have control of all the lands he founded and 10% of all the riches. These rights were to be guaranteed and inherited by him and his family forever. He would also be admitted to the Spanish nobility.

/Users/Steve/Documents/Websites/historyguide/images/columbus.jpgOn Friday, August 3, 1492, Columbus set sail on his first voyage in command of the Santa Maria and attended by two smaller ships, the Pinta and Nina. His whole squadron consisted of little more than 120 men. After thirty-three days at sea, Columbus sighted Watlings Island in the Bahamas. He then visited Cuba and Hispaniola, where he planted a small colony of forty men (Navidad), and then set sail for Spain. Fortunately, we have the JOURNAL of Columbus, which offers valuable insights into his first trans-Atlantic voyage. He entered the Spanish port of Palos on March 15, 1493 and was received with the highest honors of the court.

He sailed on a second voyage on September 25, 1493, this time with twenty ships (the trans-Atlantic passage lasted twenty-one days), and on November 3, sighted Dominca in the West Indies, and by the end of the month, he had discovered the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. He returned to Navidad only to find that the fortress he had left in 1493 lay in ruins and the men all dead. In April 1494 he left the West Indies in search of a route to China. He reached Cuba, but after hearing of an island that contained vast quantities of gold he sailed south and landed at Jamaica. After a hostile welcome from the natives, Columbus left for Cuba but faced with shoals, he gave up the quest and decided to return to Spain. In poor health, Columbus set sail on March 10, 1496, with two ships and returned to Spain on June 8.

The third voyage of Christopher Columbus began with six ships on May 30, 1498. Three ships sailed for Hispaniola while the other three, captained by Columbus, went on a mission of exploration. This voyage resulted in the discovery of Trinidad and Margarita. He eventually arrived at Santa Domingo on the island of Hispaniola on August 19, 1498. There he found the colony in turmoil. This time it was his own colonist who had led a revolt against his administration. Francisco de Bobadilla (d. 1502) was appointed as royal commissioner, Columbus was arrested, and in October 1500, he was sent home to Spain in irons.

On May 11, 1502, Columbus made his final voyage with four ships and 140 men. It was to be a voyage of continual hardship as constant storms and hostile Indians beleaguered Columbus and his tired crew. Although he was able to traverse the coast of Central America south to Panama. Columbus returned home on November 7, 1504. He died at Valladolid, Spain, on May 20, 1506. There is much controversy regarding his ultimate resting place, his body having been exhumed many times over a period of centuries.

Other Spanish discoveries followed those of Columbus. On September 1, 1513, Vasco Nunez de Balboa (1475-1519) left the Spanish settlement of Santa Maria de la Antigua with 200 men and a thousand Indians and crossed the isthmus of Panama. Three weeks later, Balboa climbed to the peak of a mountain, and saw the "South Sea." Four days later, he  reached the Pacific Ocean and claimed all lands that it touched for Spain. And in 1519, the Portuguese sailor, Ferdinand Magellan (c.1480-1521), left Spain with five ships. He threaded the straits of Cape Horn at the tip of South America and reached the Pacific Ocean. He was killed during an expedition at Zebu in the Philippines on April 27, 1521, but his ship, the Victoria, returned to Spain with eighteen crew members, on September 6, 1522, thus completing the first circumnavigation of the globe (a Genoese sailor's journal is available).

In 1519, Hernando Cortés (1485-1547) set out to conquer the Aztec civilization of Mexico. His army consisted of 550 troops, 250 Indians and twelve horses. After a series of battles lasting more than a year, the conquistador Cortés brought Central and parts of South America under Spanish control and domination. His success was partly the result of obtaining allies from tribes that the Aztecs had conquered previously. Another reason for Cortés quick success was the superiority of European technology in small arms and artillery. By 1522, Cortés controlled a territory that was larger than that of Spain itself. But the human cost was immense -- in a period of thirty years, the Aztec population had been reduced from 25 million to 2 million people. This pattern of cruelty was repeated wherever Europeans landed. For instance, in 1531, Francesco Pizarro (1474-1541) conquered the Incan Empire of Peru. Gold and silver flooded back to Spain, especially after the huge silver deposit at Potosi was discovered. 

The Spanish government established in the New World a pattern of political administration common back in Spain. Representatives of the throne were sent to administer the newly won empire and to impose centralized control. The native populations were treated cruelly by these governors and for the most part, the Spanish government remained totally indifferent to native traditions, customs and laws. The interests of the Spanish crown were basically to convert the natives to Christianity, extend Spain's power over its lands and to gain at least some portion of profit.

The gains of overseas exploration of the New World were immense. Gold and silver flooded into Europe, especially into Spain and ultimately into the hands of Italian and German bankers and merchants. Economic conditions seemed to be improving and the population was increasing. But with this wealth came poverty as investors and businessmen sought to take advantage of their new found wealth. The other gain was the simple fact of an awareness of new parts of the globe. This discovery of the New World as well as its exploration appeared at an opportune moment. For here was Europe sagging in its economy and its political power fragmented. If the Age of Discovery did anything, it restored the self-confidence of Europe, and in turn, Europe rediscovered itself.

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