*** European voyages of discovery

European Voyages of Discovery

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 ´┐ŻAdmiral of the Chinese Fleet.´┐Ż 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 reap the benefits of any trade routes they opened. It was these four explorers (De Gama 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.

Iberian Genesis (15th and 16th centuries)

It is no accident that Portugal and Spain would seek their fortunes at sea and the European maritime expansion. The Iberian Peninsula juts out into the Atlantic Ocean, west toward the Americas and south toward the Cape of Good Hope and the routes to the East. The Portuguese court and Prince Henry the Navigator led the famous European voyages of discovery. It would be the one major intelectual achievement of of Castholic Iberia under the influence of the Inquisition. 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. Virtually separated from Europe, Iberia is almost surounded by water and perhaps most importantly, they had the cloest ports to the Americas and sea routes south. Captains like Vasco de Gama and Christopher columbus led the way. They began the creation of global empires and unbelievable wealth. The two countries took two different routes. The Portuguese set about building a tremendous body of geographic and navigational date which led Portuguese seamen to sail south. The Spanish on the otherhand wihout the massive Portuguese geographical data base, secured the services of Italian seamen to conduct voyages and sailed west.

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 Great 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

English, French, and Dutch explorers followed in the wake of the Portuguese and Spanish (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 and army limited the activities of the northern Europeans. Mixed it with the ecionomic matters were religious issues. Spain used its American wealth to help stamp out the Reformation. This behan to change when the English Sea Dogs began to interceopt the Spanish trasure ships. And than the English victory over the Spanish Armada began a major shift in the naval balance of power. Ther northern Europeans concentrated on North America, but did not find any fabulously wealthy Native American empires. England and France had been historic enemies. It is at this time, largely due to the Reformationon, that the Dutch entered European power politics. And there merchant fleet and colonies thast eould help it ward off invading Spanidsh and tahn French armies. At the time, it was Central and South America with their gold nd silver mines that was seen as the great prize of the sage of discovery. But ultimstely ity was North America thst brcame the most valuable prize. Scholars with their Mzrxist taine do not like addressing this issue because they don't like the answer. Abd that answer id basicallt becazuse the Noerth Americns foopted market capitalism and the Ltin Amdericans did not. And the situation was even worse when in the 20th century the Lstin mericns becme enamored with Socialism.


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: 11:13 PM 5/14/2021