Lecture 28: The Age of European Exploration, 1500 - 1800

What historians have dubbed the European Age of Exploration is the single most important world historical process that we will discuss this semester. Europe’s exit from its tiny peninsula in search of better access to Asian spices turned the entire ancient world on its head. Both the European arrival in the Indian Ocean and the encounter with two new continents whose existence had been unknown to the ancient world changed the Old World’s basic economic, political, and cultural arrangements. In this lecture we will consider what these changes meant historically.
Let us begin with the end of the Old World. You will recall from previous lectures that medieval Europe’s attempt to regain the Holy Land was rebuffed by the Islamic world by the end of the thirteenth century. From there, Europeans turned inward, competing with each other in both economic and political terms. The result was a general rise in economic prosperity across the Continent, as well as an increase in political competition. By the end of the fifteenth century, Europe’s first “states” began to emerge, and each state strove to develop an efficient apparatus for taxing its people and for turning the proceeds into war machines. The resultant rise in Europe’s ability to project power would have been important mostly to the Ottomans, since they were engaged in a centuries-long battle for predominance with the western powers, except for one key change: the improvement in European shipping. That Europeans learned to make war was important in a regional sense. That they also learned to send their people around the globe in sturdy ships became important for the world.
Europeans had a long maritime tradition, as their ships plied the Mediterranean, the North Sea, and the Baltic for centuries. The contact with Islam, beginning in the seventeenth century, however, brought a quickening to Europe, as its people learned new things from their Muslim rivals, such as the use of the compass. (The compass had been invented in China during the T’ang or Song dynasties, before making its way westward.) In addition, Europeans made constant advances in ship design and building that allowed the Continent to surpass the Islamic world.
The rise of European North-South trade meant that ships had to sail the Atlantic Ocean, which is a very rough body of water, especially in comparison to the Mediterranean. The Atlantic is extremely cold, windy, and its waves punishing. As a matter of necessity, Europeans soon learned to make tough ships that could withstand the roughest of seas. The advances included strengthening the hulls and learning new methods for make strong sails, as well as developing new methods of rigging sails to ships. For example, Europeans learned to use both square and triangular (lateen) sails together, which meant not only that they translated wind more effectively into motion but also that ships could now sail into the wind. Moreover, they also learned to add masts, which made ships faster, and they added tail rudders, which made them more maneuverable. (The Chinese originally invented the tail-mounted rudder, too.) In addition, Europeans also made advances in navigation, as they developed something called the cross-staff, which allowed them to make rough measurements of the angle of the stars to the horizon. As a result, Europeans could get a rough idea of their latitude. This advance combined with all the others I have noted to made European sailors the best in the world, and soon they struck out into the oceans. Already in 1291, a ship sailed from the Italian port city of Genoa in the hope of finding a passage around Africa. The voyage failed, but other adventurers soon followed.
The Age of European Exploration began in Portugal. Why Portugal? Early-modern Portugal had a unique combination of advantages and disadvantages that encouraged its people to sail the seas. Portuguese soil is not exactly rich, and the corresponding limits encouraged the Portuguese to exploit the sea. By the late 13th century the Portuguese were traveling far and wide in the Atlantic in search of food and trade. The Portuguese translated their open-ocean experience into a new ship design called the Caravel. This ship was sturdy, maneuverable, and well armed, which made it possible for intrepid adventurers to sail further from home in search of trade and booty.
The Portuguese soon pushed their advantage in the maritime sphere. Already by the 14th century they encountered the Azores and the island of Madeira. In the 15th century they re-discovered the Canary Islands, which had once been known to the Romans. The Spanish would later conquer and colonize this new territory. During the 15th century, Portuguese ships crept along the African coast. Many of the most important voyages were sponsored by Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal (1394-1460), who was the architect of the grand strategy to outflank the Middle Eastern powers by sailing around them. Henry never sailed anywhere, but he was greedy for gold and by 1415, under his sponsorship, the Portuguese had already stolen the port of Ceuta in Morocco, which they used as a staging point for other voyages. Later, the Portuguese established a trading post in Ghana on the West African coast, where they traded horses, leather, textiles, and metal items for gold and slaves. By 1488, Bartolomeo Dias had rounded the Cape of Good Hope, before turning back. This discovery then opened yet another ocean to Portuguese exploration.
Portugal’s big moment came on 8 July 1497, when Vasco da Gama left Portugal with four armed ships. After rounding the Cape of Good Hope, he headed to India, where he traded for spices, especially pepper, ginger, and cinnamon. It is said that when he arrived on the Malabar Coast the locals asked him, through local Jewish merchants who served as interpreters, what he wanted in their land. His answer: Christians and spices. The Iberian desire to outflank Islam now affected life in the Indian Ocean. Da Gama returned there four years later, though this time with a war fleet. It was inevitable that war would break out between local Arab merchants and the Portuguese interlopers. In the ensuing hostilities the Portuguese distinguished themselves through their barbarity. Since they were officially fighting the “infidel,” no atrocity was too awful to comprehend, and Portuguese forces sacked and burned cities, executed prisoners en masse, and in some cases mutilated other prisoners by cutting off their ears and noses before sending them back to their people. The end result of the war was the establishment of new Portuguese trading posts at Goa and Aden in the Red Sea in 1501. By 1509, Portuguese traders were active in Malacca. Thereafter, they moved into China and New Guinea.
Portugal’s economic success changed Europe’s economy. The effect on the spice trade was almost immediate, as by 1504 prices in Lisbon were 1/5 of those in Venice. Over the next decade twelve spice fleets left Lisbon every year for India, and by 1550, the Portuguese had built over 50 trading posts around the globe that they used to transfer goods between Europe and the rest of the world. Portuguese success was so great that it could not be ignored, as between 1500 and 1550 half of Europe’s pepper supply passed through Portuguese hands. Unfortunately for the Portuguese, their market dominance did not last long, as both the English and the Dutch soon learned to build better ships and guns. Already during the late sixteenth century these powers began to steal from the Portuguese what the latter had only just stolen from others. The subsequent wars would have great ramifications for European history, not the least of which was the production of the documents fundamental to modern international law. It is not well known, but the Dutch legal theorist Hugo Grotius began his career as a theorist by defending the Dutch right to keep whatever its sailors could steal from the Portuguese.
Spain, another Iberian power also became a major explorer, though it followed a different path to the oceans than did the Portuguese. We will begin by looking back. In 711, Muslim armies crossed from Morocco into Spain and within a century occupied most of the Iberian Peninsula, with the native Spanish powers clinging to a few northern outposts. Over the next seven centuries, the Spanish powers engaged in a vicious fight to regain what they saw as lost territories, and in 1492 the last Muslim kingdom in Granada fell to Spanish forces. The victory in Granada freed Spain to begin a program of exploration of its own. However, since the Portuguese had already been busy in Africa and India, the Spanish believed that it was better to outflank them by finding a way to China.
The emerging Spanish rivalry with Portugal is the essential context for understanding the famous voyage of Christopher Columbus to the New World. Columbus was a Genoese adventurer who had read a good deal of the ancient literature on geography and astronomy. He was, therefore, familiar with the ancient arguments that the earth was, in fact, round. Based on his studies, he calculated that the world was 17,000 nautical miles around and that the entire Eurasian landmass comprised about 270 degrees of longitude. Hence, Japan should have been around 2,500 nautical miles to the west of the Canary Islands. In fact, Japan is 10,000 nautical miles away from the Canaries and two new continents lay in between.
Columbus first sought support for his planned voyage from the Portuguese. However, since they already dominated the new routes around Africa, they had no incentive to offer support. Columbus then went to Isabella of Castile and pitched his case. Isabella saw the possibilities in going around the Portuguese and offered him three ships for the voyage. Although the support was less than he had hoped for, Columbus accepted the ships and set sail. On 12 October 1492, he arrived in what is today the Bahamas and sailed around in search of gold, though he never did find any. He did return later, however, and this time with 17 ships and 1500 workers, whom he deposited on the island of Hispaniola, which now comprises Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Although he is considered the European discoverer of the New World, Columbus never truly understood what he had supposedly found.
The Spanish, however, soon understood that this was a New World and set about stealing everything they could find in it. We must understand that Spanish exploration and its resulting empire differed sharply from the Portuguese model. Whereas Portugal wanted trade, Spain wanted colonies. Moreover, these colonies existed solely for the benefit of the mother land, which meant that economic activity was never about trade but expropriation. This difference in attitude explains much of the later brutality toward the native populations, though we should not forget the religious foundations of Spain’s later behavior either. Having just finished expelling a large population of dark-skinned, non-Christian peoples from their territories, the Spanish now had an entirely new population of dark-skinned, non-Christian peoples on their hands. The results were tragic.
The Spanish desire for money combined with their religiously-inspired indifference to create massive oppression and enslavement in the New World. One example is the brutal exploitation of local populations in the famed Potosí silver mines in Peru. This model would be followed throughout the Spanish territories, because the Spanish state needed bullion to fight its ever growing list of enemies. This included the French, the Dutch, the English, and Protestants everywhere, as in 1517 the German monk Martin Luther had sparked a religious revolution on the Continent. It was American gold and silver that fought the Protestants on the Continent throughout the sixteenth century and paid for the ill-fated invasion of England in 1588.
Spain’s need for money was not, however, the only force at work in the New World. There were two others. One the one hand, the economic opportunities that beckoned called a host of Spanish adventurers to the New World, where they stole every bit of land they could acquire. These conquistadores were in search of anything that would make them rich and they created an exploitative system of land tenure whose outlines were still present in the nineteenth century. On the other hand, the Catholic Church, which had been more than happy to justify acts of brutality against Iberia’s Muslim residents, now saw the New World as an enormous pool of new souls for the church. The church brought an important tension into the new empire. Although it supported Spanish conquest, because the people directly affected were not Christian, once the locals converted, it became the church’s responsibility to protect them against the most brutal forms of exploitation. As the sixteenth century progressed, the church served as an important restraint on the worst excesses of the conquistadores. (This is the environment in which the Friar Bartolomeo de las Casas wrote his critical works.)
Spain’s arrival in the New World had many long-term effects, and none was more important for world history, or more brutal, than the population shift that came with colonial exploitation. First, the Spaniards almost wiped out the local population. This was due, in part, to the brutal treatment of the locals by their conquistador overseers. More important, however, was the spread of Old World diseases to which the indigenous peoples had never been exposed. Among these diseases, small pox was the worst, and some historians estimate that up to 90% of the local population may have died as a result of its rampage. Second, with fewer workers available locally, it became necessary to import them from elsewhere. Thus, began the involuntary transplantation of large numbers of Africans from their home Continent to the New World. By 1560, over 100,000 people had been sold into slavery in Africa and were shipped across the Atlantic. This massive movement of peoples was made possible by Portugal’s wresting of the slave trade from Muslim slave traders, though the Portuguese soon lost control of this trade to the Spanish, who in turn lost it to Dutch and the English. By the mid-1620s, with the rise of Dutch shipping, perhaps 400,000 people had been sold to slavery and sent to the New World. Overall, historians estimate that between 10 and 12 million people were forcibly removed from their African homes and sent to the New World.
The Portuguese and Spanish experiences merely mark the early stages of what became a massive European project to explore, to understand, and to control the world. Between 1499 and 1502, another Italian adventurer named Amerigo Vespucci became the first European to see the massive South American Continent. (Both the continents took their name from Amerigo.) In 1513, a Portuguese named Vasco Nuñez de Balboa became the first European to see the Pacific Ocean from the American side. He named this body of water the Pacific, because its waters seemed to be much more peaceful than the nasty Atlantic. True Pacific navigation began, however, with another Portuguese named Ferdinand Magellan. Magellan was convinced that it was possible to reach Japan from the New World, and set out to find the way. In 1520, he discovered a Southwest Passage around Chile and Argentina that is now called the Straits of Magellan. This was a terrible voyage, as the supplies ran out and the crew was forced to survive in rats and water-soaked leather. Everyone got scurvy, and twenty-nine crewmen died. In 1521, Magellan reached what is today called the Philippines, where he and 40 more of his crewmembers died. The crew’s surviving members bought cloves from the natives and returned to Europe via India and the Cape of Good Hope. Magellan had set out with five ships and 80 men. Only one ship returned, and with only 18 people on board. Though inauspicious, this voyage was the official beginning of European exploration in the Pacific.
Given the potential loot involved, it was only a matter of time before other European states got involved in exploration, trade, and expropriation. The Dutch and the English soon surpassed both the Portuguese and the Spanish in their naval abilities. The reasons behind their relative rise were two-fold. First, both countries developed better ships. Second, both also developed better ways of raising capital to finance trade, as unlike in Portugal and Spain, it was private investors that put of the money to finance exploration and trade. In 1600, for example, the English founded the English East India Company, which pooled resources to finance the construction of trading posts and shipments. This distributed the risk among many investors, which encouraged more people to invest their money in new enterprises. The Dutch did something similar in 1602, with the founding of the Dutch United East India Company. The initial profits from these ventures were huge, as European demand for exotic spices and other products remained strong throughout the century.
English commercial interests and political jealousies were deeply enmeshed in further exploration. Already in 1553, for example, English ships discovered the White Sea and began trading with a Russian settlement at Archangel. From 1577 to 1580, the English adventurer and pirate Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe. The English and soon the French also began exploring and colonizing that part of North America that later became the United States and Canada. Already in 1498, England sent the Italian explorer John Cabot to examine the area that would later be know as New England. In 1607, the English founded their first successful settlement, Jamestown, in what is now the State of Virginia. The first slave ships dropped of their human cargo in 1618. Further to the north, a Frenchmen named Jacques Cartier first explored what later became Canada through a series of voyages up the St. Lawrence River. There are important distinctions between the French and the British model of exploration and settlement. The French sought trade only, especially in valuable animal skins. The English, however, wanted to found self-sustaining communities that would provide their own defense and engage in trade. This difference in strategy was a key reason behind the ultimate British victory in North America, as local British settlements grew stronger and more prosperous over time, while French trading posts stagnated.
There was, however, more to the Age of Exploration than the charting of the Pacific and the settlement of the New World. Though often forgotten, Russian exploration in Siberia and in what later became Alaska was just as important in reshaping how people viewed the world. In order to understand how Russian exploration came about, we need to consider Imperial Russia in terms of world history. During the sixteenth-century the Mongol Empire in the east began to break up in to separate states. In addition, Ottoman power in the south also began to wane. At the same time, the Russia state also grew stronger and was able, as a result, to begin moving south and east. In 1552, Ivan IV’s troops took the city of Astrakhan on the Caspian, which opened the region to almost three centuries of Russian aggression. To the east, in 1581 an expedition funded by the Stroganov family headed into the wilderness to set up trading posts and to bring back furs. This trade made the Stroganovs extremely rich and pulled ever more Russian settlers eastward.
The Russian settlers that headed east encountered a variety of indigenous tribes. Some of the tribes simply acquiesced to Russian control. Others, however, fought to maintain their independence. In 1642, for example, there was a great uprising in Yakut that was only put down after forty years of fighting. It is estimated that 70% of the local population was killed as a result. Trade then led to further exploration, as the Russians soon encountered the Pacific from the other side. From 1725 to 1730 a Dane in Russian employ named Vitus Bering sought a northeast passage to Europe. Instead, he encountered a place that is now called Alaska. Russian traders soon followed, seeking skins and other natural products. Alaska remained a Russian territory until 1867, when U.S. Secretary of State Henry Seward negotiated its purchase from the Russian government for $ 7.2 million, which amounted to about 2 cents per acre. Of course, no one asked the people who actually lived there what they wanted. In the United States the deal was ridiculed as Seward’s Folly, or Seward’s Icebox. American attitudes changed with the gold rush and, later, the discovery of oil there.
It is also important to recognize that the Age of Exploration extended right through the eighteenth century, as various Dutch, French, and English explorers sailed around the world, charting new waters and seeking new territories to exploit. Abel Tasman, for example, encountered the islands of Fiji and Tonga in the first half of the seventeenth century. He is, however, most important historically for having been the first European to sail completely around an island that now carries his name, Tasmania. He was also the first to suggest that Australia was a large island, though he really had no idea how large it was. The Portuguese had long believed that a great southern territory existed, calling it terra australis incognita. Today it is called Australia. In this context, two eighteenth-century explorers are worthy of note. First, Captain James Cook, who began his career exploring the parts of Canada that Britain had stolen from France, before heading into the Pacific. Cook made three famous voyages in the South Pacific and was the first to chart both New Zealand and Australia fully. Second, is Louis-Antoine Bougainville, who became the first Frenchman to circumnavigate the globe in 1769. In 1764, he founded a colony on what is today the Falkland Islands. The French ceded this territory to Spain in 1767. In 1833, the British threw out the Spanish. In spite of Argentina’s subsequent efforts to expel them, the British are still there.
Now, let us consider the Age of Exploration’s broader effects and significance from a world historical perspective. First, the Age of Exploration put two worlds into contact that had known nothing of each other for millennia. Second, Europe’s exploitation of the New World changed the economic system of the Old World, giving a decisive advantage to the Atlantic powers. The Middle East and Asia’s relative decline cannot be understood fully without reference to these broad changes. Third, the New World was decimated by contact with the old one, as the introduction of strange diseases nearly wiped out the indigenous population. Fourth, the discovery of the New World set in motion a massive population shift the likes of which the world had never seen. Some of this was due to voluntary migration, but most of it was due to the extension of traditional African slaving patterns to the New World, with devastating results for the victims of this increased trade. The Old World and the New were now one, and we still feel the effects of this change today.