Age of Exploration Background Information


Western Europe on the eve of exploration
Western Europe in the 1400s was a lively place. Changes were happening in politics, in the economy, in religion, and in knowledge and thought.  Trade was very important, especially trade with the East. Europeans wanted Eastern luxury goods and, above all, spices. The long trip (overland, or by sea and then land) from the Far East was dangerous and expensive. Italian city states that controlled this trade, like Venice and Genoa, became very wealthy. Countries like Spain and Portugal wanted a share of the trade. They began to look for other, all seeing routes to the East.

The way people lived in Europe began to change in the 1400s, too. Trade was part of this. It was a kind of chain reaction.

1.       Crusaders return

2.       Demand for Eastern goods grows

3.       Manufacturing grows

4.       Towns grow as serfs move in to provide labor

5.       Market for food, cloth, manufactured goods grows as towns grow

6.       More serfs move to towns to provide more labor; towns grow more 

Strong central governments
Political systems in Europe change during the 1400s. The Black Death of the 1340s helped to break down feudalism, which strong central governments replaced. 

European countries with strong central government became stable.  Business and trade expanded, and nations became wealthy. They could support fleet of ships and armies. Their national pride was increasing. They began to look across the seas, where they might increase the power and wealth. They might also find precious metals there - gold and silver - to make into currency to pay for their trade. 

The Renaissance
Another big change was taking place in Europe during the 1400s, the Renaissance. This was a major cultural and intellectual movement that changed the way European people thought and looked at the world. Scholars rediscovered the classical texts of Greece and Rome, including Ptolemy's studies of geography. Medieval thinkers had accepted knowledge was proclaimed by God and spread through church teachings. But Renaissance thinkers took an individual, fact-based approach to knowledge. People questioned old assumptions and myths, including old geography fables. Individual thoughts and actions became valued. People's imaginations were fired, and they wanted to learn more about themselves, nature, religion, science and the world. Soon they were to learn that the world was more than they ever had imagined. 

European exploration
The great voyages that took place during the Renaissance were the results of events that were already occurring during the last days of the Middle Ages. The result was that Europe would become the most powerful continent in the world for hundreds of years to come.

Throughout Europe, in the latter part of medieval era, kings were busy building their governments and countries. Kings and queens had to control the barons and nobleman who wanted more power. These kings and queens of your made sure the laws were followed. Because things were orderly and laws were made, businessmen could get rich and enjoy the rewards of their work. In return, the rising middle class of Europe wanted to have a part in the riches and power. They joined forces with the ruling houses and offered support in the form of money to the royalty, who always seem to need more. With everyone working together in this way, trade and business grew and succeeded. Cities that haven't been doing so well all of a sudden begin to grow by leaps and bounds. Trading for goods was quickly replaced by money and buying, and as people began to make more money, they wanted the luxuries and goods of the East.

The Europeans knew the East very well because of the Crusades and the journeys of Marco Polo. Those who could afford the high prices had already tasted enjoyed the luxuries that China and India could offer. There was a great desire for the silks, spices, porcelains, and other Eastern delights. The prices charged for the goods, though, were shocking, and Europe wanted to find a Jew route directly to the East so they could buy the goods themselves for less money. This hope drove the Atlantic nations to set many ships sailing into the ocean to reach the Far East by a direct water route. It was Europe's greed and desire for the luxuries of the East that set events in motion.

There is no doubt that the voyages of Columbus and da Gama had a strong effect on Europe. It took the Europeans only a few years to realize that there was a whole New World to conquer in the West. The Portuguese discovery of an all-water route eastward around Africa to India and China created a direct link to the riches and luxuries of the Orient.

In the West were new lands to conquer; in the East where the old. Many brave people were willing to face their fears and the inherent dangers of exploration to shape the great empires that would soon rule most of the world. For many conquistadors (conquerors), adventurers, and those looking for riches, the 16th century was a great time to be alive. There were no limits on what could be done, and there was a world to explore.

Many new technologies were invented during the Renaissance. During this time, cannons were built, better navigational tools were invented and improved, and stronger and safer caravels and galleons (types of ships) were built. Renaissance men had the know-how that made it possible for Europe's conquerors to travel to foreign lands and overcome unprepared natives who didn't know what was coming.

Throughout the 1500s and 1600s, the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French, and English divided the world among themselves. Many of the conquerors and travelers didn't survive the long distance it took to reach and conquer new lands. Some lost their strength and were beaten by a more powerful enemy. In these new lands, only the strongest would survive.

Only Africa remained to be conquered in the later half of the 19th century. By the beginning of the 20th century, there wasn't much left; places such as the lands near North and South Poles or the few exotic islands in the Pacific Ocean were the only places that haven't been conquered. This age of exploration was also the beginning of the Age of Imperialism (rule by a foreign country). Many European nations built empires that stretched to the far reaches of the earth. All of a sudden, many parts of the world were no longer a mystery. The blank spots on maps and charts were being filled in, and the true shape of the world we live in was revealed. 

Reasons to explore
There were two major reasons why Western European explorers set sail during the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. 

The first reason was to meet the needs of people living in Europe at that time. Europeans needed metals, spices, and silk. They needed metals for making coins because their existing gold supplies were running low. They needed an ample supply of coins for trade and other transactions that increased wealth. They needed spices more than just to flavor foods. Spices also helped preserve food. This was important mainly because there was no refrigeration. Finally, royalty and members of the merchant class needed silks for clothing and other goods.

Europeans set sail on sea routes through the Mediterranean Sea to Constantinople and Arabia. These European merchants brought leather, and iron goods to the markets on the East Coast of the Mediterranean Sea. There, they met merchants from the Far East. The eastern merchants had traveled over land routes (Silk Road) from China through Turkestan and Persia to the Mediterranean. They brought spices, jewels, and silks from the Far East.

The overland trip had always been very dangerous. However, trade routes became worse is holy wars rage between Muslims and Christians. Both religions claimed ownership of Jerusalem. European sent Christian knights and armies to the area to fight against Muslim Turks. (These wars were called the Crusades.) In the end the Muslims conquered the Christians and seized the eastern ports of the Mediterranean. Traders and merchants could no longer use the trade routes across Asia to China. With the land routes unavailable, the Western European countries needed to find new water routes to the Far East.

The second reason was a religious one. Christian Europeans believed that it would please God if they caused “infidels” (non-Christians) to convert to Christianity. It was not just the church that promoted conversions. Explorers knew that most governments of Western Europe countries supported this goal, two. Therefore, explorers often used the promise to spread Christianity as a reason to support exploration. 

Exchange of ideas and a famous prince
The age of discovery may not have of all that haven't been for an exchange of new ideas and a famous prince. The Muslims brought to Europe the understanding of mathematics developed and Arabia. They also studied the writings of ancient Greece, Persia and Arabia. They rediscovered the astrolabe. This was an instrument invented by the Greeks to measure the altitude of the sun and stars. Europeans used astrolabes for navigation on their exploration voyages. They could determine their relative location in the open ocean.

The famous prince was Prince Henry of Portugal. In 1415, he visited Africa. There he saw gold, silver, and other riches. To make Portugal wealthier, he realized he needed to find ways to reach Asia by a water route. When he returned home, he started navigational school. There, sailors learned how to use all the navigational tools needed to set the course of the ship. They learned to use the compass to find direction. They learned to use the cross staff and astrolabe to find a position at sea. His school was a success. It was also critical to the success of many voyages.

With seaworthy ships and skillful mariners, the countries of Europe were well equipped to sponsor voyages of exploration. By the end of the 1400s, Europeans were ready for the excitement, adventure, danger, and achievements that we call the age of discovery. But, at the same time, Native Americans were unaware of events across the Atlantic in Europe. They were not ready for the devastating effects of their future encounters with European explorers.




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