Age of Exploration
The Age of Exploration or Age of Discovery was a period from the early 15th century and continuing into the mid 17th century, during which European ships traveled around the world to search for new trading routes and partners to feed burgeoning capitalism in Europe. Some sought to spread Christianity. Some were in search for trading goods like gold and silver, spices and other rarities. In the process, Europeans encountered peoples and mapped lands previously unknown to them. Among the most famous explorers of the period were Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Pedro Cabral, John Cabot, Juan Ponce de Leon, Bartholomew Diaz, Ferdinand Magellan, Willem Barents, Abel Tasman, Jacques Cartier, Samuel de Champlain, Willem Jansz, Giovanni da Verrazano and Amerigo Vespucci.
The Age of Exploration was rooted in new technologies and ideas growing out of the Renaissance. These included advances in cartography, navigation, firepower and shipbuilding. Many explorers wanted to find a route to Asia through the west of Europe. The most important development was the invention of first the carrack and caravel in Iberia. These vessels evolved from medieval European designs with a fruitful combination of Mediterranean and North Sea innovations and the addition of some Arabic elements. They were the first ships that could leave the relatively passive Mediterranean and sail safely on the open Atlantic.
The prelude to the Age of Exploration was a series of European expeditions crossing Eurasia by land in the late Middle Ages. While the Mongols had threatened Europe with pillage and destruction they also unified much of Eurasia creating trade routes and communication lines stretching from the Middle East to China. A series of Europeans took advantage of these to explore eastwards. These were almost all Italians as the trade between Europe and the Middle East was almost completely controlled by traders from the Italian city states. Their close links to the Levant created great curiosity and commercial interest in what lay further east. The Papacy also launched expeditions in hopes of finding converts, or the fabled Prester John.
The first of these travelers was Giovanni de Plano Carpini who journeyed to Mongolia and back from 1244–1247. The most famous voyage, however, was that of Marco Polo who traveled throughout the Orient from 1271 to 1295. His journey was written up as Travels and the work was read throughout Europe.
These journeys had little immediate effect, however; the Mongol Empire collapsed almost as quickly as it formed and soon the route to the east became far more difficult and dangerous. The Black Death of the fourteenth century also blocked travel and trade. The land route to the East was always to be too long and difficult for profitable trade and it was also controlled by Islamic empires that had long battled the Europeans. The rise of the aggressive and expansionist Ottoman Empire further limited the possibilities for Europeans.
In China, from 1405 to 1433 a large fleet of Zheng He traveled to the Western Ocean (the Chinese name for the Indian Ocean) seven times. But this attempt did not lead China to global expansion.
- Boorstin, Daniel J. The Discoverers (1983) excerpt and text search
- Parry, J.H. The Age of Reconnaissance: Discovery, Exploration, and Settlement, 1450-1650 (1982) excerpt and text search