European Voyages of Discovery

Figure 1.--The most famous of the great voyages of discovery has to be Columbus' First Voyage to the Americas (1492). The aertist here is accurate. The first landing was somewhere in the Bahamas where he encountered very primitive Narive Americans. This is clearly an early drawing, but we are not sure who drew it and when.

The great European voyages of discovery of the 15th and 16th centuries were fundamentally economic enterprises. They were conducted by the European countries of the Atlantic coasts to establish direct trade contacts with China and the Spice Islands (Indonesia) that was being blocked by Byzantium/Venice and the Arabs. At the time, trade in silk, porcelin, and spices from the East carried over the Silk Road had to pass through Turkish, Arab, Byzantine, and Italian middleman, making them enormously expensive. The crusaders failed to break the Islamic wall separating still primitive Europe from the riches of the East. Circumventing the land Silk Road and the sea Spice Route would have profound economic consequences for Europe and the world. The ballance of power would shift from Eastern to Western Europe and eventualkly to northern Europe. Two nations led the early explorarions in the 15th century--Spain and Portugal. These two countries pioneered the sea routes that would lead Europeans to Asia and the Americas, but the Dutch, English, and French were to follow in the 16th century.

Silk Road

For nearly two millenia, the Silk Road was a key element in the world econonomy. The history of the famed Silk Road is one of many instances in which clothing and fabrics have played a major role in human history. The story of the silk road is one of military adventures and conquest, adventuresome explorers, religious pilgrims, and great philosophers. While it is silk which is often, naturally enough, most strongly associated with the silk road, the flow of ideas and religion as an almost unintended aspect of the flow of trade may have been one of the most significant impacts. Of course most of the people who traversed the silk road were not great thinkers, but common tradesmen who transported their merchandise at great risk for the substantial profits that could be made. They moved cammal caravans over some of the most hostile terraine on the planet. The Silk Road tranversed deserts, mountains and the seemingly endless Central Asian steppe. Some of the great figures of history are associated with the Silk Road, including Alexander the Great, Marco Polo, Genghis Khan, and Tamerlane. Merchandice may have moved over the Silk Road as early as the 5th century BC. The Silk Road is believed to have become an established trade route by the 1st century BC and continued to be important until the 16th century when more reliable sea routes were established as a result of the European voyages of discovery.

Spice Route

The Spice Route was the other great trading route of the Ancient and Medieval worlds. Spices were carried on the Silk Road also, but the main source of spices was well south of China, the Spice Islands (Indonesia), India, and the Malabar (East African) coast. India was at the center of the world spice trade. It is no accident that Indian food is known for its spices. Spices were carried to India from the Spice Islands, sometimes by sea routes. Spices included cassia, star anise, cloves, coriander, nutmeg, mace, and others. The most vluable spice was pepercorns. These spices as well as Indian Indian and Africa spices were then brought by sea to the Middle east by Areab traders. Finally Venetian or other Italian vessels were bring the spices to Europe. Rivalry for the sea routes monopolized by Veniceincreased the importance of the overland Silk Road. Finally Portuguese sailors in the 15th century established direct contact with the source of spices, undercutting both the Arabs and Venetians.

Alexander and the Greeks

The riches of the East were well known to the Greeks. Alexander the Great had persued his conquests into India. When Alexander died, his generals soon divided his empire. Egypt was one of the richest prizes and Egypt was tus governed by Greek pharoes, the best known being Cleopatra. Alexandria in Egypt would become the center of geography and science, until Ceasar burned the great library. Hippalus, a Greek-Egyptian explorer, was active in the 1st century BC. Building on the carography available at the time, Hippalus discovered a new route to India. Instead of hugging the Arabian, Hippalus sailed accross the Arablian Sea directly to India. It was a shorter route and avoided the depredations of pirates and loical lords along the coast and could take advantage of the seasonal winds. Greek merchants are believed to have also crossed the Bay of Bengal to reach Southeast Asia. Whether any actuall reached China is unknown. The geographic knowledge acquired by the Greeks was compiled in the 1st century AD. by the great astronomer of Alexandria--Ptolemy .


The Romans were not great sea explorers. They were mnot seafarers at all until they had waged war on Carthage. They found they needed a navy the fight the Cathebgians in the First Punic War. They emerged from that War as the dominsant naval power in the Mediterranean. There was some coastal Atlantic trade along the Atlantic coast, but there were no major exporatioins beyond the known Roman world. The Roman navy was primarily active in the Mediterranean and the geography there was well known. They did of course launch a cross-Channel invasion of Britain and sailed around the island to determine its dimensions. There were no great voyages west or extensive voyages south along the coast of Africa. And despite the conquest of Egypt, there were no voyages into the Indian Ocean.

The Dark Ages (5th-6th century)

With the Barbarian invasions of the Western Empire in the 5th century overwealmed the weakening Roman defenses. The fall of Rome meant the onset of the Dark Ages. The cosmography of the ancient Phenicians, Greeks, and Romans was lost to the Western world. Medieval cartographers believed that only the Mediterranean could be safefully navigated. The Barbarian German tribes were interested in conquering the Roman Empire although thry did cross the Straits of Gibraltar to conquer Roman North Africa.

The Irish (6th and 7th centuries)

Located on the perifery of Western Europe, Ireland played a key role in the preservation of classical literature during the Dark Ages. St. Patrick began christening the Irish in the 5th century. The Irish then began to Chritenize Britain. Although little is known about their seafaring capabilities, it clearly was of some importance. St. Columba established a monastery on the island of Iona, on the Scottish coast (563) which palyed a key role in Chritianizing the Picts. There are legends of St Brendan traveling out into the Atlantic. Actual historical information is sketchy, but the Irish almost certainly reached the Orkneys, Faeroes, and Iceland and perhaps other Atlantic islands as well.

The Arabs (7th century)

The Arabs exploded out of the Arabian desert on the Near East in the 7th century. Christian vessels could not reach the Red Sea nor would the Arabs/Turks allow Christain traders to travel overland to the East. They insisted that Christain traders in Europe use Islamic intermediaries.

The Vikings (9th and 10th centuries)

The Viking began raids on England in the 9th century and seized Scottish islands. Voyages further into the Atlantic follwed, to Iceland, Greeland, and North America. A permanent settlement was established in Iceland. The most important Viking explorers was Erick the Red and his son Leiv Eriksson. Norwegian-born Eirik Thorvaldsson, known as Eirik the Red, sailing from Iceland explored and colonized southwestern Greenland (986). He name this largely ice covered island Greeland to attract settlers, His son, Leiv Eiriksson, became probably the first European to reach North America. Little accurate data from the extensive Viking voyages, however, ever appeared on European maps.

The Crusades (11th-13th centuries)

The crusaders failed to break the Islamic wall separating still primitive Europe from the riches of the East. The Crusades are the series of religious wars launched by the Medieval kingdoms of Euroope during the 11th-13th centuries to retake the Hollyland from Islamic rulers. Christian pilgrims after the Arab conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries had to travel through Islamic lands to venerate the great shrines in Jeruselum and other Biblical sites in the Holy Land. In addition the Ottoman Turks were increasingly encroaching on the Eastern or Byzantine Empire. The Turks apparently preyed upon Christian pilgrims. Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus, perhaps concerned about the plight of the pilgrims, more likely seeking allies against the Turks, wrote to a friend Robert, the Count of Flanders, in 1093. He recounted the alegeded atrocities inflicted on the pilgrims by the Turks. Count Robert forwarded Comnenus' letter to Pope Urban II. Pope Urban like Emperor Comnenus perhaps concerned about Christian pilgrims, more likely seeing a political opportunity, decided to promote a military crusade to seize the Holy Land from the infidel Turks. European Christians at the time were locked in intractable dynastic wars in England, France, Italy, and other domains, destabilizing large areas of Europe. The Pope sought to redirect the fighting to an infidel adversary. Pope Urban's crusade, the First Crusade, was launched in 1095.

Mongol Empire (13th-14th centuries)

The Mongol Conquests of the 13th century established a huge empire whicg in the 13th and 14th century improved Western access to Chinese technology and luury goods. As the Mongol Empire declined, Arab and Muslim jingdoms in central Asia again acquired control over this trade. This reduced Western accessc to China and increased prices. Thus the Western European kingdoms desired to improve access to spices and Chinese goods. Improving maritime technology provided a way of established contacts with China thatthe Arabs could not block.

Marco Polo (13th century)

The Silk Road played a major role in Medieval history. Marco Polo was the most famous Westerner to travel the Silk Road, reach China, and return. He was a boy when he began his remarable journey. Chinese goods were known to the West, but China itself was unknown and Polo's account was seemibly so fantastic that he was at first not believed. It is well he began as a boy. His journeys through Asia extended for 24 years. He traveled further and farther east than any of his predecessors. He not only traveled beyond Mongolia to the unknown realm of China, but he became a confidant of Emperor Kublai Khan (1214-1294). After traveling throughout China he retuned to Venice where he wrote the greatest travelogue ever compiled. Marco Polo's life appears to be so incredible that it belies belief. Some historians are skeptical about Marco's accounts, especially because of certain aspects of Chinese life that are not mentioned as well as obviously erronious observations. Marco's accounts are, however, so detailed and many much of it verifiably accurate that his account overall seems generally accurate. His book not only makes for fascinating reading, but was to have a profound impact on Europe.

Chinese Treasure Fleet (1405-33)

Less well known than the European exploers is Chinese Admiral Zheng He (1371-1433) who commanded a great Chinese fleet during the early pahse of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Zhenh He just decadeds before the Portuguese tentatively inched south along the western coast of Africa, sailed a great fleet as far west as the Persian Gulf and the eastern coast of Africa. His fleet dwarfed not only the fleets of the early European explorers, but the exceeded that of the comboned fleets of the Euroean nations in the early 15th century. His fleet had 27,870 men on 317 ships, and was staffed with clerks, interpreters, soldiers, artisans, doctors, carographers, meteorologists as well as sailors. Zheng was a ethnic Hui Muslim boy from in Yunnan province (southwest China) whose grandfather and father had traveled overland to Mecca. He grew up speaking Arabic as well as Chinese, and acquired considerable knowledge about the world and its geography and customs. As a boy he was a friend of a Chinese prince who became emperor and made his friend “Admiral of the Chinese Fleet.” The emperor in 1405 chose Zheng to command the largest naval expedition in history up to that time (1405) Zheng during the next 28 years commanded seven fleets (1405-33). The Chinese reacted very differently to their contact with the West than the West was to react to China. After Zheng's seventh voyage, the emperor ordered the costly fleet dismantled and China concluded that there was little the West offered that was of interest or value.

Eastern Mediterranean

The great European voyages of discovery of the 15th and 16th centuries were fundamentally economic enterprises. They were conducted by the European countries of the Atlantic coasts to establish direct trade contacts with China and the Spice Islands (Indonesia) that was being blocked by Byzantium/Venice and the Arabs. At the time, trade in silk, porcelin, and spices from the East carried over the Silk Road had to pass through Turkish, Arab, Byzantine, and Italian middleman, making them enormously expensive. Even before the fall of Byzantium (1453), Venice had managed to dominate the trade routes of the Eastern Mediterranean and held a virtual monoploy on the spice trade. This resulted in great profit and wealth for Venice. Merchants from all over Europe had to buy the wares of the Indies from Venetian merchants. Circumventing the land Silk Road and the sea Spice Route would have profound economic consequences for Europe and the world.

Expanding European Knowledge

The account of Marco Polo with actual descriptions of Cathay (China) and the Spice Islands fueled a desire by Eurpdeans to establish direct trading links. At the same time Europeans by the 14th century had significantly imroved their navigational and ship building skills. The astrolabe helped mariners determine latitude. (Longitude proved a much more difficult undertaking. The magnetic compass permitted mariners to determine which direction was north. Great improvements were made in maps. Here Portuguese cartographers played a key role. Europeans also made great strides in shipbuilding. Large capacity ships called galleons were adopted. Powered by sail and woth large holds, they greatly reduce the cost of transporting good over distances. These developments permitted Europeans to begin to make voyages of substantial distances and the goal was to reach the East to develop direct trade contacts with China. Many of the advances were made by the Itlalian mariners of the eastern Mediterranean. The wealth of Venice and the other Italian trading states funded important navies and thus seafaring skills including navigation. They also funded academic endevors like geography and map making, It is no accident that the three most important figures in the earliest voyages of discovery were Italians (Christopher Columbus, Giovani Caboto, and Amerigo Vespucci). Each of these men were born virtually at the same time (1449-53) and only about 100 miles of each other (Florence and Genoa). One historian even suggests that Columbus and Cabot may have collaborated with each other [Boyle] Each of these important explorers were almost certainly influenced by Paola Toscanelli--"the sage of Florence". He urged enterprising explorers to sail west to reach the riches of Marco Polo's storied Cathay. Toscanelli had carefully calculated that Cathy was within an easy sail of Western European ports. He was right about the direction, but as he used Ptolemy's flawed calculation, he was serious wrong about the distance. Another Greek geographer, Eratosthenes, actually had a roughly accurate cakculation. Perhaps this error was fortuitous. Columbus and Cabot may have had second thoughts if they had know of the true distnces involved. While the Italians had the geographic and navigational knowledge, given where their ports were located, it would be the western European countries of the Atlantic that would finance the great voyages of discovery. And the great explorers needed a royal dispensation. This was because without a royal charter and protection, there would be no way for them to rise the needed funds or reep the benefits of any trade routes they opened. It was these three explorwrs (Columbus, Cabot, and Vespucci) who were at the heart of Europe's outreach, one of the primary developments which moved Europe out of the Medieval era and ino our modern age.

Iberia (15th and 16th centuries)

The voyages of discovery would lead to a monmentous shift in the European balance of power from Eastern to Western Europe and eventually to northern Europe. Two nations led the early explorarions in the 15th century--Spain and Portugal. These two countries pioneered the sea routes that would lead Europeans to Asia and the Americas. Geography is a poweful factor in history. Vuirtually separated from Europe, Iberia is almost surounded by water and perhaps most importantly, they had the cloest ports to the Americas. It was thus no accident that both Portugal and Spain would seek their fortunes at sea. The two countries, however, took two different routes. The Portuguese set about building a tremendous bidy of geographic and navigational date which native Portuguese seamen sailed south. The Spanish on the otherhand wihout the massive Portuguese geographical data base, secured the services of Italian seamen to conduct voyages west.


The accumulating knowledge of geopgraphy and improvements in shipbuilding and navoigation led Prince Henry and King John II of Portugal to seek a route to the Indies through the still largely unknown Atlantic. Portuguese mariners began sailing south along the coast of Africa. Information provided by travelers was refined by explorers who began to sail south along the African coast. Each voyage added to the accumulating data and gradually improving maps and charts. The Portuguese eventually reached the equator (1471). One unaswered question of history is just how much Portuguese navigators knew. Some historians argue that it was the Portuguese who first discovered the America, landing in Brazil. Even a cursory study of the may suggests that Portuguese saemen sailing south must have stumbled on the buldge of Brazil where it juts out ibnto the South Atlantic. Unfortunately we will never know as the famed Portuguese archive was lost to fire. We do know, of course, that Bartholomeu Dias reached the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa (1486), showing that Ptolemy was wrong about the possibility of a sea route to Asia. Vasco da Gama reached India (1498). Portugal was thus the first European nation to reach India, the Indies, and China. Soon after Columbus first reached Ameruica, Pedro Alvares Cabral (1467-1520) discovered Brazil (1500). Gaspar Corte Real sailed to North America and although he founded no colony helped to found a flourishing fishery. Ferdinand Magellan (1480?-1521) served in the forces of the Portugese crown involved in military campaigns in India and the Spice Islands (1508-12). Magellan conceived of reaching the Spice Islands (Indonesia) via the Atlantic, but King Emanuel was uninterested, causing Magellan to renounce his Portuguese citizenship.


The marriage of Ferdinand V of Castile and Isabella I of Aragon essentially united the Iberaian peninsula, except Portugal, into a Spanish monarchy (1479). The last Moorish city, Granada fell (1492). With the Moors at last defeated, the Spanish could turn their energies into naval expansion, but were behind the Portuguese in this area. Genonese navigator Christopher Columbus is the most renowned of all the great explorers. He sailed west under the banner of their most Cathlolic magesties Ferdinand and Isabella, hoping to reach the Indies (1492). The voyage was intensely debated by Spanish authorities. Knowledgeable people did not believe that the world was flat. Many did believe that the world was so large that the crews of ships sailing west would perish before reaching Asia. Columbus of course found America, although it was not until his third voyage that he began to realize that he had found an entire new continent. Nuñez de Balboa reached the Pacific over the Istmus of Panama (1513). Charles I commissioned Magellan to find a passage through the Americas to the Spice Islands. Magellan sailed from Seville (1519) and explored the Plate estuary (1520) before crossing into the Pacific through the straits at the tip of South America now named for him. He claimed the Philippines for Spain, but was killed there (1521). One if his ships managed to return to Seville, completing the first circimnavigatiin of the world (1522). Conquistadores Hernado Cortes and Francisco Pizarro conquered the Aztec and Incan civilizations, laying claim to great wealth and a vast colonial empire for Spain. Although at first disappointed with their new lands, the conquest of the Aztecs and Incas brought vast quantities of gold and silver flooding into Spain and through Spain the rest of Europe and had an enormous impact on the still largely feudal European economies. Many other new products were brought back to Spain. One of these, the humble potato, had an even more profound impact than the gold and silver. Coronado and Ponce de León expanded the Spanish claim to North America as well.

Treaty of Tordesillas (1494)

Columbus' voyage and claims created the possibility of conflict and war between Spain and Portugal (1492). The initial Portuguese concern was to protect their monopoly on the trade routes they had developed to the East around Africa. Only as the dimensuions of Columbus' discoveries began to emerge that land boundaries became an important issue. Some hiostorians speculate that the Portuguese had discovered Brazil before Columbis' voyage, but was keeping it secret. The issues involved with territory and trade threatened to break the already tenuous peace between the Iberian monarchs, Spains Ferdinand and Isabella ans Portugal's King João II. Portugal had led the maritime outreach, but Spain was a muvh lsrger country and coveted the riches being returned to Portugal. Pope Alexander VI, the notorious Rodrigo Norgia, stepped in to maintain the peace. The Pope's answer was a bull "Inter cetera divina" dividing the world known and unknown between the two countries (1493). The pope drew an imaginary line running north and south through the mid-Atlantic, 100 leagues (480 km) from the Cape Verde islands. Spain could claim land to the west and Portugal to the east. The Portuguese began to realize that the pope's line gave Spain the entire New World. They insisted on renegotiating the line with Spain. The result was the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494). The Treaty established a new line 370 leagues (1,770 km) west of the Cape Verde Islands. This still left most of the New World to the Spanish, but as the geography of the New World was still largely unknow, this was not yet apparent. One historian writes, "With the stroke of a pen, [Pope Alexandr VI] created an imaginary line diviing the world .... Spain and Portugal affirmed the papal decrees of the Inter Caetera in the treary signed in the Spanish town of Tordesillas in June 1494. But they moved the line of demrcationbetween the Spanish and Portuguese zones of influence several hundred kilometers further wst. This placed an as-yet to be discovered Brazil in the Portuguese half of the world, as well as protected Portugal's African trade routefrom any European competition. The world was now officially divided." [Bown] The Portuguese who settled in Brzail gradually moved west over the line, but because this was into areas of little importance to the Spanish, there was little conflict. The historical impact, however, is that inspite of the Treaty, Brazil today represents half of the South American continent.

The Native American Civilizations

By an accident of history, efforts to reach the east brought Europeans in contact with the Native American people of the New World. The three best known civilizations (Maya, Aztec, and Inca) are contempraneous with Medieval Europe. There were civilizations that were ancient at the time these and other civilzations florished. Teoteauacan was an ancient ruin at the time of the Aztec. While the chronology of the Maya, Aztec, and Inca are fairly well developed, the dating of the early civilizations and the early history of human settlement of the Ameriucas is a matter of some controversy. The Native Americans civilizations of the New World are unique in that they developed in isolation from the other great world civilizations. Some of the great Old World civilizations had extensuve contacts. Others had only minimal contact, but contact neverheless. The contact with the Europeans beginning in 1492 was in many ways to Native Americans like visitors from outer space would seem to our modern world.

The Great Armada (1588)

English audacity and technology at sea laid the groundwork for the Royal Navy and command of the seas. Sir Francis Drake, Sir John Hawkins, and the other "Sea Dogs" bedelved the Spanish treasure fleet with Queen Elizabeth as a secret partner. The English then formed overseas trading companies and very modest colonization attempts were made in the Caribbean and North America by Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Sir Walter Raleigh. The long conflict with Spain was rooted in an English hunger for Spanish treasure and a commercial and maritime rivalry, but Philip II's desire to destroy the Reformation in the Netherlands and England was also a very important factor. This struggle culminated in Philip's decession to build a Great Armada. Spain in the 16th century was the preminent international power. The Spain as a result of the Reconquista had buily a powerful military capability. Spain and Portugal at the time had colonized or claimed of the known world and huge quantities of gold and silver flowed into Spain from its American colonies. This enabled Spain to build the huge navy needed to maintain its colonial dominions. Phillip was a devout Catholic and determined to destroy the Protestant Revolution in his domanins in the Netherlands and to do the same in England. The depredations of the Sea Dogs had convinced him that he must act against England. War with England broke out (1585). The English raided Spanish colonies (Cape Verde, Santo Domingo, St. Augustine, and others). Philip built at great cost an "Invincible Armada" of 125 ships. Even before the Armada was completed, an English force led by Drake raided Cadiz and destroyed many vessels--one of the most brilliant naval feats in British history. Drake characterized the strike a "singing the king oif Soain;'s beard". Philip kept building vessels. The strateg was to sail the Armada into the English Channel, destroy the small English fleet, and link up with the Duke of Parma's army already deployed in the Spanish Netherlands to destroy Protestant Reformation there. The Armada would then be used to ferry the Duke's army across the Channel to England where it would march on London and seize the Queen. England would then be brought back to the True Faith at the point of Spanish swords. The Armada was placed under the command of the Duke of Medina Sedonia, a nobelman of limited naval experience. The Armada sailed in late May 1588 and reached the Southwest coast of England (July 19). Limited engagements were fought by Lord Howard and Francis Drake who commanded the English fleet. The more manueverable English vessels harassed the Spanish, using superior cannonery to damage several vessels and actually capturing one vessel. The Armada anchored at Calais, but found that the Duke of Parma and his army was not yet there. The English set fire-ships at the Spanish (July 28). Little actual damage was done, but the Spanish scattered to avoid the preceived danger. The principal engagement occurred at Gravelines and in an 8-hour running engagement, many Spanish ships destroyed or damaged (July 29). The Commander of the Armada, the Duke of Medina Sedonia, fearing defeat decided not to invade and return to Spain. The prevailing winds forced him to take a northerly route into the North Sea and around Scotland and Ireland. The English pursued the Spanish for 3 days, but returned to port when they exhausted their ammunition. Much more damage, however, was done by storms in the North Sea andd floundered in the coasts of Scotland and Ireland. Only a small number of Spanish ships managed to reach Spanish ports. The destruction of Philip's Grreat Armada was a pivital turning point in history. Spanish naval power was ebbing despite the flow if gold and silver from the Americas. Britain was beginning its rise as a great naval power.

Northern Europe

The English, French, and Dutch followed the Portuguese and Spanish in the 16th century. There appeared little interest among northern Europeans in dangerous voyages out into the Atlantic--until Spanish treasure ships began returning from America laden with gold and silver. Other northern Europeans noted the Portuguese ships returning from the East with valuable cargoes of spices, silks, porcelins, and other products. Throughout the 16th century there was a growing desire to share in this rich overseas bounty, but the power of the Spanish fleet limted the activities of the northern Europeans. This changed with the English victory over the Soanish Armada and a shift in the naval balance of power.


The first important English explorer was Giovanni Caboto (1450-98), better known as John Cabot. He was Genoese. (Note the importance of the Genoese. As Venice defeated Genoa and limited its maritime commerce, many Genoese like Cabot and Cloumbus sought their fortunes in other countries.) Cabot set up as a merchant in Bristol. Soon accounts of Columbus' voyages reached England. Cabot with his navigational skills was commissioned by King Henry VII to explore the New World and find a passage to the Indies, the famed Northwest Passage. Cabot found Cape Breton Island off modern Nova Scotia and claimed it for England (1497). He explored the coast of Greenland in a second expedition (1498). The English watched in envy while Mary was queen, her husband was Phillip II of Spain. With the accession of Princess Elizabeth, however, this changed. Queen Elizabeth secretly authorized privateers to prey upon Spanish treasure ships and in the process not only seized important quantities of gold and silver, but accumulate increasing information about navigation and ocean seafaring. The English Sea Dogs (Drake, Hawkins, Raleigh, and others) were the bane of Philip's existence. Sir Francis Drake (1545?-96) was the greatest English explorers and one of its preminant naval heroes. Drake received his early training from Sir John Hawkins, a realative and participated in the raids on Spanish shipping. On one f thse fraids, Drake led a small party accross the Istmus of Panama for his forst view of the Pacific Ocean (1572). Queen Elizabeth, depite the fact England was at peace with Soain, approved and helped finance a secret expedition to target Spanish colonies along the Pacific coast of South America (1576). The Pacific at the time a virtual Spanish lake. Drake attacked Spanish cities from Chile north to Mexico and became known as El Drago. Drake and the Golden Hind reached Plymouth having curcumnavigated the globe (1580). The Spanish issued stinging diplomatic protests, but Queen Elizabeth knighted him. Not only were the English plundering his treasure fleets, but they were Protestants and Elizabeth was taking the English church in a decidedly Protestant direction. Philip's response was the Great Armada described above. The defeat of the Armada (1588) opened the way for more intensive English exploration and the founding of colonies. Henry Hudson (?-1611?) made four voyages if discovery primarily aimed at finding the Northwest Passage. On his third voyage (1609) he explored along the coast of North America 150 miles up what is now known as the Hudson River. On his fourth voyage abord the Half Moon (1610) Hudson still searching for the Northwest passage found what is now known as Hudson Bay where his crew mutined and Hudson and his son are believed to have perished.


The rich North Atlantic fisheries played an important role in early French explorations. French navigator Jacques Cartier may have sailed to to the waters off Newfoundland as part of a fishing fleet in the early 1500s. He may have also been involved with Giovanni de Verrazano's expeditions. King Francis I commissioned Cartier to find the Northwest Passage (1531). Cartier with two small ships and 61 crew members. After reaching Newfoundland, he discovered the Magdalen and Prince Edward islands and the Gaspe Peninsula, claiming them for France. before returning home. Cartier’s accounts of his expedition created great interest in France and inspired many young men to persue their fortunes un North America. Francis I ordered a second expedition (1535). This time Cartier sailed up the St. Lawrence River founding Mont Real now known as Montreal. Rene-Robert LaSalle (1643-87) sailed to Canada to persue the enormously profitable fur trade (1666). Indians accounts of two great rivers (the Ohio and the Mississippi) intrugued him especially the possibility that one might flow into the Pacific. He began his search in 1667 and pusued it for sevral years without success. After returning to France, King Louis XIV granted him land and a trading post he opened made him one of the most powerful man in Canada. LaSalle returned to France again (1679) and Louis XIV approved an expedition to find and explore the Mississippi River. LaSalle sailed through the Great Lakes claining them for France and then lead a small excpedition down the Illinois River in canoes to the Mississippi River. They canoed the Mississippi River, but found it flowed into the Gulf of Mexico rather than the Pacific (1682). LaSalle claimed the Great Lakes and Mississippi Valley for France.

The Dutch

Beginning in the mid-16th century the Dutch became a major coimmercial and maritime power, becoming the financial center of Europe. This became possible with the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588) and Spain's failure to supress Protestantism in the northern provinces of the Spanish Netherlands. Dutch explorers active uinnthe early 17th century included Duyfken, Gulden Zeepaert, Hartog, Houtman, Leeuwin, Pelsaert, Pera/Arnhem, Pool, Tasman, Vyanen, and Zeewulf. Hudson's third voyage was in part finaced by the Dutch (1609). The Dutch acquired an overseas empire which included New Amsterdam (New York), Caribbean islands, the Netherlands Indies (Batavia, Sumatra, and other islands), Cape of Good Hope, Ceylon (ousting the Portuguese), and Malacca (also ousting the Portuguese).


Trade may have been the principal motivation for the great explorers. It was certainly not the only motivation. Religion is a hard to quantify factor, but it is surely an important factor. It became an important factor in the Americas, at least with the Spanish and Portuguese. It was less important with the English, in part because the English came as settlers. One factor that is often not noted by American historians is the the still major struggle between Western Crisendom and the Muslim World, by the the 15th century this meant primarily, but not exclusively the Ottoman Empire. The Papacy and the Catholic monazrchs of southern Europe saw trade routes yo the East as not only a source of wealth, but as partof the struggle with the Ottomans and the Muslim world.

Historical Perspective

Historical depictions of the great explorers have varied over time. For many years they were depicted as towering figures as historiand focused on their accomplishments and empire buildding . Gradually after World war II as comonialism has come to be seen in negative terms and historians have focused more on how the great explorers and their country men treated the people they encounteed, the reputation of the explorers has suffered, none more than Columbus who brutalized the Caribbean peoples he conquered. Mmany modern writers are prone to use 21st century values in evaluating the great explorers. Here a destinction has to be made between the America wear Europeans found essentially stone age people and Asia where they encounterec more culturtally advanced people. In the Americas the Europeans moved conquest and colonization. The approach in Asis different. There is no doubt that the Europeans were ruthless and judged by modern standards they can be condemned. But ruthless as they were, they were not barbaric pilligers like the Mongols. Their primary motivation in Asia was trade. They did not have an interest in conquest or the military capability to actually conquer. Trad required security. And the European explorers encounterdc trade routes that literally swardmed with Muslim pirates intent on either seizing ships or lrvying tribute. Muslim piracy continued to be a problem even in the Mediterranean until well into the 19th century. Modern readers familiar with Somali pirates will understand the huge problem the early navigatirs faced.) Thus following the voyages of discovery, the various countries found that they needed well-armed vessels as well as secure port settlements that could seve as both markets as well as bases to serve as supply points and ports of refuge. The Europeans also encountered Oriental potentates who desired to benfit from the trade. To extract the maximum benefit from the Europdeans, the Chinese and other oriental rulers tended to insist that the Europdeams limit their activities to specufied coastal ports. Here customs duties could be more easily enforced and the activities of the foreigners monitored. One unintended consequences of this system was the development od a system of extrterritorial privliges for the Europeans.

Cabin Boys

HBC like to highlight the role children played in historical events, a topic that is often lacking in historical studies. Part of the ship's compliment for the many voyages of discovery and other voyages were cabin boys. They were youths acting as servants to the captain, cook, or others on the ship. Often their fathers prevailed upon the captain to take them to learn o be seamen. They were essentially aprentice seamen. The age of the boys varied over time. At the time of the voyages of discovery quite young boys might be cabin boys, boys a young as 9 years old, althugh this was commony at the disgression of he captain. The boys common begn as servants to the captsain or officers, but were gradually given varied asssignments,


Bown, Stephen R. 1494: How a Family Feud in Medieval Spain Divided the World in Half (2011).

Boyle. David. Towards the Setting Sun: Columbus, Cabot, Vespucci, and the Race for America (Walker & Company, 2008), 421p.


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Created: September 23, 2003
Last updated: 9:06 AM 1/9/2013