The Age of Exploration Overview 

The age of expiration focuses on the European discovery and exploration of new lands from 1400 to 1800. During this time, Europeans learned about (and sometimes destroyed) other civilizations.  Europeans colonized and spread their culture in the Americas.  They also formed colonies in India, Africa and Asia.  The European explorers opened new trade routes and took over old ones.  They charted seas and rivers and mapped lands that they never knew existed.

The Golden Age of Exploration began in the 1400s.  At that time, Europeans were trying to find a way to reach the East, the source of spices, silk, cotton and precious gems.  Up to this time, they had depended on the Arab traders for these goods.  By finding a way to get the goods themselves, Europeans would be able to avoid paying high prices to the Arab traders.  Europeans also wanted to open new markets for their own trade goods. 

In the 15th century, Europeans did not have a clear idea of where the land of riches they knew as “the East” was or how to get there.  They could not follow the known land routes to the East, such as the one traveled by Marco Polo two centuries before.  The Ottoman Turks and the Mongols had conquered the lands between Europe and Cathay – the European’s name for China.  These Asian peoples would not let Europeans pass through their territory.  For this reason, Europeans set out to find an ocean passage to the East, at a time when very few seamen had ever sailed out of sight of land. 

Spain and Portugal were nations that looked out on the Atlantic Ocean, not inward to the smaller and more peaceful Mediterranean Sea.  These nations were ready to venture into the Atlantic and find a route to the East at the same time the new ways of building ships made such voyages possible. 

Portugal's Prince Henry the Navigator was the first to send sailors into the unknown waters of the Atlantic.  Henry the Navigator founded a navigational school and sponsored expeditions to find the southern tip of Africa. He sent out ship after ship into what was called the “Sea of Darkness.”   While the expeditions advanced a little further south each year, none of Henry's sea captains had sailed around Africa by the time of his death in 1460. Not until 1488 did the Portuguese sea captain Bartholomeu Dias round the Cape of Good Hope, the southernmost point of Africa.  Shortly after, the Portuguese reached India by taking this route and took control of the trade routes in the Indian Ocean.   Other European nations had to seek different routes to the East.  

Christopher Columbus, an Italian navigator, approached the rulers of several nations with his idea of reaching the East by sailing west.  Finally, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain agreed to pay for his expedition.  He set out from Spain and, after a 10 week journey, reached the Bahamas on October 12, 1492.  Although Columbus thought that he was in China, he still claimed the land for Spain. Columbus made three more voyages across the Atlantic. He explored were the New World on each voyage, but through it all he remained convinced he had reached some part of the Orient, if not China. 

While Columbus thought he had found China, Spanish adventurers realized that he had opened up a “New World.”  Ruthless men called conquistadors, the Spanish name for conquerors, raced to the Americas, intent on finding riches. The conquistadors tortured and murdered natives as they stripped their cities of gold and silver.  The Spaniards also forced Indians to work in mines and on plantations.  

The Spanish explore the interior of North and South America in their search for more gold. They made it to present day California and Kansas and discovered the Mississippi River.  Missionaries who wanted to spread Christianity among the natives often accompanied the conquistadors.  The Portuguese, who claimed Brazil, explored the Amazon and, like the Spanish, began to establish plantations and forts. 

Thirty years after Columbus first crossed the Atlantic, Spain did find a route to the East by going west.  Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese captain sailing for Spain, led the first expedition that circled the globe.  He left Spain in 1519.   Only one of Magellan’s five ships and seventeen of his 260 officers and men survived the three-year voyage.  Magellan himself was killed during a battle with natives in the Philippines. 

By the end of the 16th century, Spain had become less powerful.  Its sources of gold in the Americas had dried up and England had destroyed its fleet of ships in a historic battle between two countries.  Portugal was too small to defend all the territory it claimed.   The Spanish and Portuguese New World holdings did not interest any other European nations, but the Dutch and the English sailed into the Indian Ocean and began to establish their own colonies there.  They sailed from the Spice Islands to other parts of the South Pacific.  

French, English, and Dutch expeditions searched for a way to Asia by way of the Northwest Passage through northern North America and Northeast Passage along the arctic shores of Russia.  Although ice blocked their way to Asia, the French, English, and Dutch began trading with Russia and claimed much of North America for themselves.  These European nations also set up colonies in the New World.  

Sailing up the St. Lawrence River and through the Great Lakes, the French were able to venture deeper within the North American continent than the English or Dutch.  French fur traders explored the inland wilderness.  In 1673, a fur trader named Louis Joliet and a Jesuit priest named Jacques Marquette were the first Europeans to canoe most of the way down the Mississippi River.  In 1682, Robert Cavelier La Salle reached the Mississippi Delta and claimed to entire Mississippi Valley for France. The French claims blocked of England from colonizing the interior of North America. 

The other nation that made claims in North America was Russia.  Only 50 miles of water separate Russian-held Siberia from Alaska. The Russians were also searching for ocean routes to China and India. The Russian czar sent Vitus Bering to learn if Asia and North America were joined by land. He discovered to Bering Strait in 1728, proving that the two continents were separated by water. Russians soon crossed the strait and set up fur-training ventures in Alaska, which Russia claimed as its own.  

By the end of the 18th century, the map of the world of changed greatly. The world was much larger than many 15th-century explorers had ever realized. In the 1400s, Europeans could not have dreamed of the new lands and peoples they would come across over the next three centuries.




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