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11.3: Age of Discovery

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    Source: CK-12

    A Prelude to the Age of Discovery

    European medieval knowledge about Asia beyond the reach of Byzantine Empire was found in partial reports, often obscured by legends, dating back from the time of the conquests of Alexander the Great and his successors.

    In 1154, Arab geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi created a description of the world and world map, the Tabula Rogeriana. There were reports of great African kingdoms beyond the Sahara, but the factual knowledge was limited to the Mediterranean coasts since the Arab blockade of North Africa precluded exploration inland. Knowledge about the Atlantic African coast was fragmented and derived mainly from old Greek and Roman maps based on Carthaginian knowledge, including the time of Roman exploration of Mauritania. The Red Sea was barely known and only trade links with the Maritime republics, the Republic of Venice especially, fostered a collection of accurate maritime knowledge.

    A prelude to the Age of Discovery was a series of European expeditions crossing Eurasia by land in the late Middle Ages. Although the Mongols had threatened Europe with pillage and destruction, from 1206 on, the Pax Mongolica allowed safe trade routes and communication lines stretching from the Middle East to China. A series of Europeans took advantage of these to explore eastwards.

    From the 8th century until the 15th century, the Republic of Venice and neighboring maritime republics held the monopoly of European trade with the Middle East. The silk and spice trade, which also involved incense, herbs, drugs, and opium, made these Mediterranean city-states phenomenally rich. Spices were among the most expensive and demanded products of the Middle Ages, as they were used in medieval medicine, religious rituals, cosmetics, perfumery, as well as food additives and preservatives.

    Source: CK-12

    Marco Polo

    Marco Polo (1254-1324) was an Italian merchant traveler from Venice whose travels are recorded in Livres des merveilles du monde, a book which did much to introduce Europeans to Central Asia and China. Marco Polo was not the first European to reach China, but he was the first to leave a detailed chronicle of his experience. This book inspired Christopher Columbus and many other travelers.

    The Transfer of Culture and Knowledge

    The Italian trade routes that covered the Mediterranean and beyond were major conduits of culture and knowledge. The recovery of lost Greek classics (and, to a lesser extent, Arab advancements on them) following the Crusader conquest of the Byzantine heartlands, revitalized medieval philosophy in the Renaissance of the 12th century. Humanist scholars searched monastic libraries for ancient manuscripts and recovered Tacitus and other Latin authors. The rediscovery of Vitruvius meant that the architectural principles of Antiquity could be observed once more, and Renaissance artists were encouraged to excel the achievements of the Ancients, like Apelles.

    Established Trade Routes

    In the 13th century, much of Europe experienced strong economic growth. The trade routes of the Italian states linked with those of established Mediterranean ports and eventually the Hanseatic League of the Baltic and northern regions of Europe. The city-states of Italy expanded greatly and grew in power to become de facto fully independent of the Holy Roman Empire. Apart from the Kingdom of Naples, outside powers kept their armies out of Italy. During this period, the modern commercial infrastructure developed, with double-entry book-keeping, joint stock companies, an international banking system, a systematized foreign exchange market, insurance, and government debt. Florence became the center of this financial industry and the gold florin became the main currency of international trade.

    An Agrarian Revolution

    The decline of feudalism and the rise of cities influenced each other. For example, the demand for luxury goods led to an increase in trade, which led to greater numbers of tradesmen becoming wealthy, who, in turn, demanded more luxury goods. This change gave the merchants almost complete control of the governments of the Italian city-states, which further enhanced trade. One of the most important effects of this political control was security. Those that grew extremely wealthy in a feudal state ran the constant risk of running afoul of the monarchy and having their lands confiscated. The northern states also kept many medieval laws that severely hampered commerce, such as those against usury, and prohibitions on trading with non-Christians. In the city-states of Italy, these laws were repealed or rewritten.

    The Age of Discovery

    The Age of Discovery started in the early 15th century with the first Portuguese discoveries in the Atlantic Archipelagos and Africa, as well as the discovery of America by Spain in 1492, and the discovery of the ocean route to the East in 1498. A series of European naval expeditions across the Atlantic and still later the Pacific continued until the 18th century.

    The Age of Discovery is sometimes regarded as a bridge between the Middle Ages and the Modern era as well as a contemporary of the Renaissance. European overseas expansion

    • led to the rise of colonial empires
    • created contact between the Old and New Worlds as a wide transfer of plants, animals, foods, human populations (including slaves), communicable diseases, and culture occurred. This action is also referred to as the Columbian Exchange between the Eastern and Western hemispheres.
    • allowed the global mapping of the world, resulting in a new world-view and distant civilizations acknowledging each other

    Source: CK-12

    Atlantic Exploration (1415–1488)

    Henry the Navigator took the lead role in encouraging Portuguese maritime exploration until his death in 1460. Since Europeans did not know what lay beyond Cape Bojador on the African coast. Henry wished to know how far the Muslim territories in Africa extended, and whether it was possible to reach Asia by sea to reach the source of the lucrative spice trade. A Portuguese attempt to capture Grand Canary, one of the nearby Canary Islands, which had been partially settled by Spaniards in 1402 was unsuccessful and met with protestations from Castile. At around the same time as the unsuccessful attack on the Canary Islands, the Portuguese began to explore the North African coast. Bartolomeu Dias reached the Cape of Good Hope and entered the Indian Ocean in 1488. 2.

    Indian Ocean explorations led by Vasco da Gama (1497–1542)

    Ten years later, Vasco da Gama led the first fleet around Africa to India, arriving in Calicut and starting a maritime route from Portugal to India. This action paved the way for the Portuguese to establish a long-lasting colonial empire in Asia. The route meant that the Portuguese would not need to cross the highly disputed Mediterranean nor the dangerous Arabian Peninsula, and that the whole voyage would be made by sea. In addition, the Indian spice routes helped the Portuguese Empire improve its economy. These spices were mostly pepper and cinnamon at first, but soon included other products, all new to Europe. After reaching Brazil, explorations proceed to southeast Asia, having reached Japan in 1542.

    American continents

    Christopher Columbus

    In the early modern period, the voyages of Christopher Columbus initiated European exploration and colonization of the American continents. Christopher Columbus was a navigator and an admiral for Spain who made four voyages to the Americas, the first being in 1492 which resulted in the "discovery of America" from a European point of view. Portugal had been the main European power interested in pursuing trade routes overseas, however soon Spain and other European kingdoms sent expeditions and established colonies throughout the New World. They converted the native inhabitants to Christianity and built large trade networks across the Atlantic which introduced new plants, animals, and food crops in both continents.

    Columbus needed someone to fund his voyage, so he went to the king of Portugal, John II, who immediately declined. Then, he turned to Queen Isabella of Spain who reluctantly funded him, as well as extended the title "Admiral of the Ocean Sea". On September 6, 1492, he departed San Sebastián de la Gomera for what turned out to be a five-week voyage across the ocean.

    First Journey--Columbus visited San Salvador in The Bahamas (which he was convinced was Japan), Cuba (which he thought was China) and Hispaniola (where he found gold). Land was first sighted at 2 a.m. on October 12, 1492 aboard the La Pinta. While on land, he observed the people and their cultural lifestyle. In January 1493, after founding the settlement of La Navidad, he left 39 men and set sail for home by way of the Azores. Columbus was received as a hero in Spain. He displayed several indigenous persons and what gold he had found to the court, as well as the previously unknown tobacco plant, the pineapple fruit, the turkey, and the hammock.

    "The First Voyage", chromolithograph by L. Prang & Co., published by The Prang Educational Co., Boston, 1893. Imaginary scene of Christopher Columbus bidding farewell to the Queen of Spain on his departure for the New World, August 3, 1492. Source: CK-12

    Second Voyage (1493-1496)--Before he left Spain on his second voyage, Columbus had been directed by Ferdinand and Isabella to maintain friendly, even loving, relations with the indigenous people. In February 1495, Columbus disobeyed the Queen and enslaved five hundred and sixty people. The slaves were shipped to Spain. Two hundred died during the route back to Spain, and half of the remainder were ill when they arrived. After legal proceedings in the Cortes, some survivors were ordered released and returned to their American homeland.

    Third Voyage (1498-1500)--According to the abstract of Columbus' journal made by Bartolomé de Las Casas, the object of the third voyage was to verify the existence of a continent that King John II of Portugal claimed was located to the southwest of the Cape Verde Islands. On May 30, 1498, Columbus left port with a fleet of six ships. From August 4 through August 12, 1498, he explored the Gulf of Paria which separates Trinidad from mainland Venezuela. He then explored the mainland of South America and described these new lands as belonging to a previously unknown new continent, but he pictured it hanging from China.

    Fourth Voyage (1502-1504)--Columbus made a fourth voyage, nominally in search of a westward passage to the Indian Ocean. He spent two months exploring the coasts of Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, before arriving in Almirante Bay, Panama on October 16, 1502. On the way back, his ships sustained damage in a storm off the coast of Cuba. Unable to travel any farther, the ships were beached in St. Ann's Bay, Jamaica for a year. Help finally arrived in 1504, and Columbus and his men sailed to Spain.

    Legacy--Columbus died in Valladolid, Spain, on May 20, 1506, at around the age of 54. The success of Columbus's first voyage touched off a series of westward explorations by European seafaring states who sought to exploit the New World's riches; build trade networks and colonies; and through the Indian Reductions practice relocate, use the labor of, and attempt Christian conversions of the native people.

    Columbus and other Iberian explorers were initially disappointed with their discoveries. Unlike Africa or Asia, the Caribbean islanders had little to trade with the Spanish ships. Thus, the islands became the focus of colonization efforts. During this time, pandemics of European diseases such as smallpox devastated the indigenous populations. Once Spanish sovereignty was established, the Spanish focused on the extraction and export of gold and silver.

    Spanish Conquest of the Aztecs

    According to some historians, the conquest of the Aztec Empire was one of the most significant events in world history. The Spanish authorized expeditions or entradas for the discovery, conquest, and colonization of new territory, using existing Spanish settlements as a base. Into this fray jumped Hernándo Cortés. Not only had Cortés never commanded men in battle, but the men on his expedition had never seen combat before. However, there was a whole generation of Spaniards who participated in expeditions in the Caribbean.

    Hernándo Cortés Source: CK-12

    Despite some early battles between the two, Cortés allied with the Aztecs' long-time enemy, the Confederacy of Tlaxcala, and arrived at the gates of Tenochtitlan on November 8, 1519. This group became increasingly dangerous and unwelcomed guests in the capital city. In June 1520, hostilities broke out, culminating in the massacre in the Main Temple and the death of Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II. The Spaniards fled the town on July 1, an episode later characterized as La Noche Triste (the Sad Night). Returning 1521, they lay siege to Tenochtitlan and eventually destroyed the great city. Simultaneously, the Aztecs suffered from a smallpox outbreak that killed between 10 and 50% of the population.

    The Aztec Empire ceased to exist with the Spanish final conquest of Tenochtitlan in August 1521. The empire had been composed of separate city-states that had either allied with or been conquered by the Mexica of Tenochtitlan. These entities gave tribute to the Mexica while maintaining their internal ruling structures. This policy continued under Spanish rule. The fall of the Aztec Empire was the key event in the formation of New Spain, which would later be known as Mexico.

    To reward to Spaniards who participated in the conquest, the Spanish crown authorized grants of native labor in particular indigenous communities via the Encomienda. The indigenous were not chattel slaves bought, sold, or removed from their home community, but the system was one of forced labor. The Spanish system was actually built on pre-existing patterns. Due to some horrifying instances of abuse against the indigenous peoples, Bishop Bartolomé de las Casas suggested importing black slaves to replace them (he later repented when he saw the even worse treatment given to the black slaves).

    Nevertheless, Aztec culture survives today. Modern-day Mexico City is built on the site of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. There are still 1.5 million people who speak the Aztec language of Nahuatl, and part of the Mexica migration story appears on the Mexican flag.

    Spanish Conquest of the Incas

    Spanish conquistadors led by Francisco Pizarro and his brothers explored south from what is today Panama, reaching Inca territory by 1526. In search of gold, they found riches in the Inca Empire. With superior technology, military tactics, and the introduction of new diseases, the Spanish defeated the Inca in 1572.

    After the fall of the Inca Empire, many aspects of Inca culture were systematically destroyed, including their sophisticated farming system. Spanish colonial officials used the Inca mita corvée labor system for colonial aims, sometimes brutally. One member of each family was forced to work in the gold and silver mines. The foremost of which was the titanic silver mine at Potosí. When a family member died, which would usually happen within a year or two, the family would be required to send a replacement.

    The effects of smallpox on the Inca empire were even more devastating. Beginning in Colombia, smallpox spread rapidly before the Spanish invaders first arrived in the empire. The spread was probably aided by the efficient Inca road system. Within a few years, smallpox claimed perhaps as much as 60% to 94% of the Inca population with other waves of European disease weakening them further. Smallpox was only the first epidemic. Typhus (probably) in 1546, influenza and smallpox together in 1558, smallpox again in 1589, diphtheria in 1614, measles in 1618 – all ravaged the remains of Inca culture.

    Columbian Exchange

    After Columbus’ arrival in the Americas, the animal, plant, and bacterial life of these two worlds began to mix. This process was called the Columbian Exchange. By reuniting formerly biologically distinct landmasses, the Columbian Exchange had dramatic and lasting effects on the world.

    The Flow from East to West: Disease

    When the first inhabitants of the Americas arrived across the Bering land bridge between 20,000 and 12,000 years ago, they brought few diseases with them. Why? For one reason, they had no domesticated animals, the original source of human diseases such as smallpox and measles. In addition, as they passed from Siberia to North America, the first Americans had spent years in extreme cold, which eliminated many of the disease-causing agents that might have traveled with them. As a result, the first Americans and their descendants, perhaps 40 million to 60 million strong by 1492, enjoyed freedom from most of the infectious diseases that plagued populations in Afro-Eurasia for millennia. Meanwhile, in Asia and Africa, the domestication of herd animals brought new diseases spread by cattle, sheep, pigs, and fowl.

    Soon after 1492, sailors inadvertently introduced these diseases — including smallpox, measles, mumps, whooping cough, influenza, chickenpox, and typhus — to the Americas. People who lived in Afro-Eurasia had developed some immunities to these diseases because they had long existed among most Afro-Eurasian populations. However, the Native Americans had no such immunities. Adults and children alike were stricken by wave after wave of epidemics. In the larger centers of highland Mexico and Peru, many millions of people died. On some Caribbean islands, the Native American population died out completely. In all, between 1492 and 1650, perhaps 90 percent of the first Americans had died.

    This loss is considered among the largest demographic disasters in human history. By stripping the Americas of much of the human population, the Columbian Exchange rocked the region’s ecological and economic balance. Ecosystems were in tumult as forests regrew and previously hunted animals increased in number. Economically, the population decrease brought by the Columbian Exchange indirectly caused a drastic labor shortage throughout the Americas, which eventually contributed to the establishment of African slavery on a vast scale in the Americas. By 1650, the slave trade had brought new diseases, such as malaria and yellow fever, which further plagued Native Americans.

    The Flow from East to West: Crops and Animals

    The introduction of new crops and domesticated animals to the Americas did almost as much to upset the region’s biological, economic, and social balance as the introduction of disease. Columbus and his followers brought the familiar food grains of Europe: wheat, barley, and rye. They also brought Mediterranean plantation crops such as sugar, bananas, and citrus fruits, which all had originated in South or Southeast Asia.

    When it came to animals, the Native Americans borrowed eagerly from the Eurasian stables. The Columbian Exchange brought horses, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, and a collection of other useful species to the Americas. Before Columbus, Native American societies in the high Andes had domesticated llamas and alpacas, but no other animals weighing more than 100 lbs (45 kg) or were suitable for domestication. So, while Native Americans had plenty of good food crops available before 1492, they had few domesticated animals. The main ones, aside from llamas and alpacas, were dogs, turkeys, and guinea pigs.

    Of all the animals introduced by the Europeans, the horse held a particular attraction. In the North American Great Plains, the arrival of the horse revolutionized Native American life, permitting tribes to hunt the buffalo far more effectively. Several Native American groups left farming to become buffalo-hunting nomads and, incidentally, the most formidable enemies of European expansion in the Americas.

    Cattle, sheep, pigs, and goats also proved popular in the Americas. Within 100 years after Columbus, huge herds of wild cattle roamed many of the natural grasslands of the Americas. Wild cattle, and, to a lesser degree, sheep and goats, menaced the food crops of Native Americans, notably in Mexico. Eventually, ranching economies emerged, based variously on cattle, goats, or sheep. The largest ranches emerged in the grasslands of Venezuela and Argentina, and on the broad sea of grass that stretched from northern Mexico to the Canadian prairies. Native Americans used livestock for meat, tallow, hides, transportation, and hauling. Altogether, the suite of domesticated animals from Eurasia brought a biological, economic, and social revolution to the Americas.

    The Flow from West to East: Crops and Cuisine

    America’s vast contribution to Afro-Eurasia in terms of new plant species and cuisine transformed life in places as far apart as Ireland, South Africa, and China. By the time Columbus had arrived, dozens of plants were in regular use, the most important of which were maize (corn), potatoes, cassava, and various beans and squashes. Lesser crops included sweet potato, papaya, pineapple, tomato, avocado, guava, peanuts, chili peppers, and cacao, the raw form of cocoa. By the late 20th century, about one-third of the world’s food supply came from plants first cultivated in the Americas.

    Within 20 years of Columbus’ last voyage, maize had established itself in North Africa and perhaps in Spain. It spread to Egypt, and from there to the Ottoman Empire, especially the Balkans. Its journey continued eastward, appearing in China by the 16th century. By the 19th century, it became an important crop in India. Maize probably played its greatest role, however, in southern Africa. In late 20th-century South Africa, maize grew in two-thirds to three-quarters of the region’s cropland.

    Despite maize’s success, the humble potato probably had a stronger impact in improving the food supply and in promoting population growth in Eurasia. The potato had little impact in Africa, where conditions did not suit it. But in northern Europe, the potato thrived, especially in Ireland. After 1750, Scandinavia, the Low Countries, Germany, Poland, and Russia also gradually accepted the potato, which helped drive a general population explosion in Europe. This population explosion may have laid the foundation for world-shaking developments such as the Industrial Revolution and modern European imperialism. The potato also fed mountain populations around the world, notably in China.

    In contrast, the animals of the Americas have had very little impact on the rest of the world, with the exception of the turkey. Wild animals have done better. Probably after the 19th century, North American muskrats and squirrels successfully colonized large areas of Europe. Some animals were deliberately introductions introduced into Europe, such as raccoons fancied for their fur. However, no species introduced from the Americas revolutionized human affairs or animal ecology anywhere in Afro-Eurasia. In terms of animal populations as with disease, the Americas contributed little that could flourish in the conditions of Europe, Africa, or Asia.

    The Rise of the Slave Trade

    Europeans did not introduce slavery to Africa. As African rulers rose and fell, their political opponents, people of high social status, and their families were sold to promote internal political stability. Poor people were sold to reconcile debts owed by themselves or their families. Chiefs sold people as punishment for crimes. Gangs of Africans and a few marauding Europeans captured free Africans who were also sold into slavery. Domestic slaves were resold and prisoners of war were sold. Africans themselves carried out the capture and sale of other Africans for enslavement — few Europeans actually marched inland and captured slaves themselves.


    As the slave trade continued, more and more wars broke out between African principalities. Whatever the causes of these wars, they produced prisoners of war that supplied slave factories along the West and West Central African coast.

    The fighting between African societies followed a pattern. Wars weakened the centralized African governments and undermined the authority of associations, societies, and the elders who exercised social control. Conflict brought about a loss of population and seriously compromised indigenous production of material goods, cash crops, and subsistence crops. Indeed, 17th Century Capuchin monks reported that the Angolan Ndongo slave catchment area was rapidly becoming a wasteland as countless people died in war, were exported as slaves, or fled slave-catching warriors.

    Both winners and losers in the African wars came to rely upon European trade goods. Eventually, European money replaced cowrie shells as a medium of exchange. At the same time, Europeans increasingly required people in exchange for trade goods. Once this stage was reached, African society had little choice but to trade human lives for European goods and guns — guns that had become necessary to wage wars for further captives in order to trade for goods upon which the African society was now dependent.

    The effects of the trade on African civilization and culture were devastating. African societies lost kinship networks, agricultural laborers, as well as artisans and craftsmen along with their knowledge of textile production, weaving and dyeing, metallurgy and metalwork, carving, basket making, potting skills, etc. Ironically, these expertise and skills were brought to the New World as part of the slave trade.

    Middle Passage

    The Africans who had been stolen from their homes were placed onto ships that took them to South America, the Caribbean, or North America. This trip across the Atlantic Ocean was known as the Middle Passage. Conditions for the captured men, women, and children aboard the ship were horrible. Up to a thousand people would have to survive for two to five months largely below deck, in quarters so tight that they could barely move. Besides being unbearably cramped, the deck had no ventilation, windows, or way to dispose of waste. Disease was rampant. Food was limited. Violence and torture were common. Those who did survive the Middle Passage were sold at auction upon arrival in their new country. These formerly free people were now enslaved, the property of another person.

    Slavery in the New World

    The first Africans in America arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, as indentured servants in 1619. (Indentured servants were laborers who were under contract, or indenture, to work for another person for a set number of years.) When the contract expired, the laborer was free. Later, Africans brought to America arrived as slaves. Slaves were laborers who had no contract or rights and had to work for their owners for their entire lives.

    According to some laws, if a person’s mother was enslaved, then that person was also enslaved. The United States banned the importation of slaves from Africa in 1808. Slavery would remain legal until the end of the Civil War in 1865.

    The Africans who were brought to the Americas hundreds of years ago overcame many difficulties. Thanks to their contributions and to those of their descendants, the American continent is the richer.

    Attribution: This page has been modified from CK-12: 5.4 Europeans Conquer the New World

    11.3: Age of Discovery is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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