Chapter 14 Beginnings of Revolutionary European Civilization, 1300-1650

Section 4 A New Spirit of Exploration

The questioning spirit of the Renaissance owed much to the growing contacts between Europe and the wider world. Since the time of the Crusades, Europeans had been increasingly exposed to the riches and luxuries being produced far to the east in China, India, and the spice islands of Southeast Asia. With their appetites whetted, Europeans became determined to find direct access to the new commodities of the East without having to go through the Islamic world that dominated all overland trade routes. By the end of the 1400s, new developments in technology made such a search possible not by land but by sea. A new era of exploration had begun. Explorations in turn stimulated further developments in technology, as well as opening up Europeans’ conceptions about the nature of the world in which they lived. As they became ever more aware of new lands and peoples, a new spirit of adventure and discovery became a major aspect of the emerging revolutionary European society-even as it undermined all the old certainties of life that had shaped the European worldview during the Mediaeval period under the tutelage of the Church.

The European “Age of Discovery”

As humanists were rediscovering the classical world, Europeans were also beginning to learn more about their own world. In many ways the Renaissance was simply an internal reflection of a new external spirit of discovery that began to emerge in Europe in the early 15th century. The causes of this spirit of discovery were complex, but they all seem to have been influenced by events occurring in Asia. There, in the middle of the 14th century, the collapse of the Pax Mongolica ushered in a period of chaos and instability. Two aspects of the collapse particularly affected Europeans: the disruption of the overland trade routes to China and India; and the resumption of Islamic expansion under the Ottoman Turks.

The importance of trade. Perhaps the most constant aim of European exploration was the search for new routes to the fabled treasures of “the Indies,” a term that included China, Japan, Southeast Asia, and India. The Crusades had introduced Europeans to many new products from these countries. The rich spices of Asia, such as pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves were useful not only in flavoring but also in preserving foods in an era without refrigeration. Other goods such as gold, silk, and ivory were also highly valued and in great demand. These commodities came primarily from the East or Africa. During the Pax Mongolica, ideas and technology also flowed easily from east to west.

            During the 1200s and 1300s Italian merchants from Venice and Genoa had established a virtual monopoly over trade between Europe and the eastern Mediterranean. After the Crusaders’ conquest of Constantinople, Venice had also taken over the internal carrying trade of the Byzantine Empire. The merchant republic had even established outposts and colonies as far away as the shores of the Black Sea. The coming of the Ottomans put an end to Venetian expansion, although trade continued. Increasing warfare and higher taxes imposed by the Ottomans, however, drove up costs.

            Some Western European merchants adopted the Italian idea of joint-stock companies to mount their own expeditions. The English Levant Company, for example, began to trade directly with Islamic ports in the eastern Mediterranean. Merchants from other countries, such as the Netherlands, also sought ways to bypass the Venetian-Ottoman bottleneck, but such ventures proved extremely expensive. Only governments had the necessary resources to carry on overseas exploration. In the 15th and 16th centuries, as strong national monarchies emerged in Western Europe, they began to subsidize their merchants' efforts to find new routes to the fabled treasures of the "Indies."

Fears of Islam. While the search for cheaper trade routes provided a constant stimulus to European exploration, religious fervor, fears of invasion, and simple curiosity also played major roles. During the 13th and early 14th centuries, a few hardy European travelers like Marco Polo, had been able to travel directly to China and India under the protection of the Great Khan. Accounts of their travels generated intense curiosity about the fabulous civilizations they described. Marco Polo's account, for example, was the most widely read book in Christendom. After the Mongol collapse, however, the revival of Islamic power under the Ottomans created an effective barrier to direct European contact with the East.

            The growing threat of the Ottomans, who captured Constantinople in 1453, encouraged many Europeans to look eastwards for potential allies. Since the mid-13th century papal envoys had been sent eastward hoping to convert the Mongols and forge an alliance with them against Islam. In 1287, Arghun, the Mongol ruler of Persia, had actually sent an ambassador of his own back to Europe offering to become a Christian in exchange for help against the Muslims in Syria.

            Arghun’s death prevented such an alliance, but it encouraged later Europeans to hope that others might respond. Tales began to circulate in Europe about a Christian monarch called Prester [Priest] John, who ruled a great kingdom somewhere beyond the Islamic world. If only they could get around the Ottomans, many Christians believed, they might be able to establish contact with Prester John or other Christian rulers and finally destroy Islamic power. Even more, they would be able to carry Christianity itself to the rest of the world.

            Although the Venetians were most directly affected by the Ottoman threat, they themselves did not seek alternative routes to the East. Despite growing conflict, Venetians were able to continue trading with the Islamic world so long as they paid tribute to the Ottoman sultans. In addition, although they had developed vessels capable of carrying cargo directly up the west coast of Europe to the great port of Antwerp, these cargo ships were not well suited to long voyages out of sight of land. Italian traders had no incentive to develop ships capable of sailing around the Islamic world. In their efforts to break the Italian monopoly, however, other European countries did have the necessary incentives.

Advances in Technology

Whatever their reasons for exploring, without new developments in technology, particularly in transportation, Europeans would not have gotten very far. During the later Middle Ages and Renaissance, however, they proved especially good at combining different ideas and tools in new ways to produce new technology and new uses for old technology. These skills were important in developing the ships and navigational techniques suitable for sailing the open oceans of the world. Although many of their discoveries were based on Chinese and Muslim inventions, Europeans proved more flexible in their application of such technology.

            The primary stimulus to technological development was war. Warfare, especially after the introduction of gunpowder, opened a whole new range of problems for inventors and scholars. One of the most important technological advances was the development of cannons. Although the Chinese had been the first to discover how to make gunpowder, and even to manufacture crude cannons, Europeans carried the new technology many steps further.

            Ironically, Europeans learned how to make better cannons as a by-product of casting larger and larger church bells to call people to prayer. Casting bells required the development of better metallurgical, or metalworking, skills. As Europeans improved their metallurgical skills, they also realized that they could modify the bell shape to make cannons. By 1500, European cannons had changed the nature of warfare. They had also contributed to advances in many other areas.

            Gunners needed to know how much gunpowder it would take to hurl a cannonball a particular distance in order to be effective at knocking down city and castle walls. This meant they also had to be able to figure the trajectory, or arch, a ball would follow, as well as how to measure distance accurately without being able to step it off. Such requirements led naturally to new developments in mathematics, especially trigonometry, which was primarily concerned with measuring distances. The need to measure distance, as well as to spy on enemy movements, also led to the development of telescopes and new surveying instruments.

            The same principles and instruments that were being developed for war on land were also useful at sea. As early as 1100, navigators had learned how to make a compass, a magnetized needle that would point north. During the Renaissance they obtained the astrolabe from Muslims. This instrument allowed sailors to measure the distance of the sun and stars above the horizon. Using simple trigonometry, these measurements could then be used to calculate latitude, or how far north or south of the equator they were, and what course they should follow to reach their destination.

            Developments in mathematics highlighted the importance of intercultural contacts in the changes being made in European civilization. Although advances in mathematics developed in response to new problems in Europe itself, they were only really possible after Europeans had first adopted the new Arabic numerals from the Islamic mathematicians who had picked them up in India. These and other advances in technology adopted from the Islamic world in the 15th century made European exploration possible.

            Perhaps the most important technological developments were in ship-building. In 1400 ships built in Arabia, China, and India were far superior to European vessels. Italian sailors, for example, were used to the enclosed waters of the Mediterranean. Their ships, usually shallow-draft galleys driven by oars and a single large square sail, were not suited to heavy seas, particularly if they sailed out of sight of land. Before an alternative sea-route could be found, improvements would have to be made in seafaring technology. In the 15th century Portuguese shipbuilders began to make just such improvements by borrowing ideas from the Islamic world and combining them with ideas of their own.

            From Muslims the Portuguese adopted the lateen sail, a triangular sail that could be trimmed to take advantage of the wind no matter what direction it blew from. In particular, lateen sails made it possible to sail into the wind without using oarsmen. To combine the new sails with their own square sails, which were still better for sailing with the wind behind them, they added extra masts. They also made the hulls of their ships deeper and wider. This made them more stable in the rough waters of the open Atlantic Ocean and provided more space for carrying cargo. Finally, they improved steering by shifting the rudder of these new ships, which were called caravels, from the side to the stern.

            The final touch to all these developments came with the combination of cannons and the new ocean going ships. By deepening and widening the hull, and using heavier timber construction, ship builders had made their new vessels capable of withstanding the recoil from cannon fire. At the same time, improved metallurgical techniques allowed European gunsmiths to cast smaller, lighter cannon that could still deliver tremendous firepower. It only remained to mount the new cannons on the new ships. The Portuguese were the first to do so in the mid-15th century, and thereby gained a decisive technological superiority over all their rivals.

Portuguese and Spanish Explorations

Portugal was uniquely situated to begin the great age of European overseas exploration. Located on the Iberian Peninsula, the tiny kingdom was divided from the rest of the peninsula by mountains along its eastern border. To the west it looked out to the Atlantic Ocean. Southward lay the African continent, a source of numerous valuable commodities, especially gold.

            Although initially part of the Spanish kingdom of Castile, by the 14th century Portugal had been independent for several hundred years. Like the Christian kingdoms of northern Spain, however, the Portuguese too struggled against the forces of Islam that still ruled the southern portions of the peninsula. Both the religious struggle against the Moors and the process of internal unification and maintaining independence from Castile contributed to an independent crusading spirit among the Portuguese.

            As they finally consolidated their rule over the entire western region of the peninsula, the Portuguese began to look beyond their borders, both south and west. In 1415, the third son of King John I of Portugal, Prince Henry, persuaded his father to send a Portuguese army across the straights of Gibraltar at the western end of the Mediterranean to conquer the Muslim city of Ceuta in Morocco. It was a natural extension of the crusading spirit that had fuelled the Christian re-conquest of Portugal itself. After all, Henry argued, all of North Africa had been Christian for centuries before being overrun and conquered by Muslims during the period of the Arab conquests in the 7th century A.D. Christendom was simply now finally reclaiming its own. However the Portuguese tried to justify themselves, however, in fact the prince had pushed his country into a new era of European exploration and expansion.

            Although he never ascended the throne, Prince Henry became the moving force in Portugal's spectacular rise to world power. His ambitions were to carry the Christian crusade across the sea to the Muslims of Africa, and at the same time to gain direct access to the African gold trade that was dominated by Muslim traders. Both these ambitions could only be accomplished by sea power. Consequently, the prince devoted his life to improving Portugal's navy. According to tradition, he established a school of hydrography, or the study of sailing, at Sagres, in southern Portugal. There he assembled experts in shipbuilding and navigation. He became known as Prince Henry the Navigator.

            Under Henry’s inspiration, by 1418 Portuguese explorers had begun to make short voyages westward into the Atlantic and southward along the coast of Africa. To the west they began to settle the islands of the Azores and Madeira, where they grew corn and sugarcane. To the south they now began to advance from cape to cape along the west African coast. Despite their new technology, however, travel on the open sea remained dangerous and often terrifying to the sailors. One eyewitness account bears vivid testimony to the perils of seafaring in this era:

". . . four galleys were provisioned for several years, and were away three years, but only one galley returned and even on that galley most of the crew had died. And those which survived could hardly be recognized as human. They had lost flesh and hair, the nails had gone from hands and feet...They spoke of heat so incredible that it was a marvel that ships and crews were not burnt."

Undaunted by such perils, the Portuguese pushed ever further down the African coast. As they went they established bases along the coast from which to trade with local African peoples. By the 1480s they had reached the Guinea coast, and established direct contact with the inland source of gold. Still they pushed on, hoping now to find a route to the Indies.

            In 1487 the Portuguese explorer, Bartholomeu Dias (), caught in a storm, accidentally sailed around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa. Although his weary crew forced him to turn back the Portuguese had now found their way into the Indian Ocean. For the next ten years they concentrated on establishing themselves along the east African coast. When word came that Spain had begun to follow Portugal's example, however, by sending a small fleet directly west across the Atlantic Ocean to reach China, a new urgency fueled Portuguese expeditions.

            In 1497 Vasco da Gama sailed to India and returned to Portugal two years later with a shipload of jewels and spices. King Manuel immediately sent out another expedition to set up permanent trading posts in India. On the outbound voyage this expedition sighted the coast of Brazil and claimed it for Portugal before sailing on to India. Although the captain of the expedition, Pedro Cabral, lost half his ships before he returned to Portugal in 1501, he brought enough riches in spice to pay for the entire expedition several times over.

            Portugal's movement eastward soon brought it into a confrontation with Islamic forces, which still dominated Indian Ocean trade. In 1509 Portuguese ships armed with cannon defeated a much larger Muslim navy at Diu, off the west coast of India. This battle established Portuguese military supremacy in the Indian Ocean. In 1510 they conquered a small section of southwest India and established their eastern headquarters at the port of Goa. Over the next several decades they also established bases in China, Japan, and in the Moluccas, or Spice Islands. Enormous wealth in spices, precious metals, silks, and teas poured into Portugal from these trading posts in Asia and Africa.

            Meanwhile, Portugal’s success had inspired her Iberian neighbor. Spain too became eager to establish new trade routes to Asia, and to carry the Christian crusade to new lands. In 1486, Christopher Columbus, a Genoese merchant-turned-mapmaker and navigator who had settled in Portugal, approached King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella with plans for a new route to Asia.

            On the basis of faulty assumptions and calculations, Columbus had become convinced that the circumference of the earth was small enough to permit a ship sailing due west from the Canary Islands to reach the Indies in a few months. Unable to afford his own ships, he had first approached the Portuguese Court with his plan. On the advice of his own experts, however, who ridiculed Columbus’s calculations of the distance he would have to sail, King John II had declined to underwrite such an adventure. Now Columbus hoped the Spanish monarchs would finance an expedition that would prove his point. The stubborn visionary soon found a patron in the Spanish Queen, Isabella I.

            Isabella was born in 1451 in the small town of Madrigal Spain. She was only three when her father, the king of Castile, died. For most of her childhood, Isabella lived a lonely life of virtual exile with her mother and her brother Alfonzo, on the order of their stepbrother, Enrique, who had succeeded to the throne. As they grew older, however, Enrique ordered that Isabella and her brother be brought to the royal court, where they would be taught proper values. At the age of 18, Isabella, who was now Enrique's heir, married Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Aragon. In 1479 both inherited their thrones, and thus united the two most powerful kingdoms in Spain.

            As a queen in her own right, Isabella ruled equally with her husband. She had to agree before Ferdinand could declare war, and all official documents had to be signed by both rulers. Immediately after gaining the throne, the new king and queen were challenged by a war with Portugal and a rebellion among their own nobles. After successfully defeating both challenges, they turned their attention to conquering Grenada, the last Muslim kingdom in Spain.

            It was while they were preoccupied with the war against Granada that Columbus, with flawlessly bad timing, approached the Spanish monarchs for help. Predictably, they declined for the moment – but Isabella was intrigued by the idea. On her insistence, Columbus’s plan was put before a committee of experts for evaluation. As had already happened in Portugal, so too in Spain the experts eventually rejected the project on the grounds that Columbus had grotesquely underestimated the distances involved. Nevertheless, the Queen remained his supporter and patron.

            In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella finally achieved the conquest of Granada. Even as they celebrated their victory, Columbus renewed his plea for funds. Now, on the advice of her treasurer, and despite the findings of the council of experts, Isabella finally decided to grant Columbus’s request and to finance part of his expedition.

            In August Columbus set sail from Palos Spain with three small ships, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. On October 12, 1492, he and his exhausted crew landed on a small island that they claimed for Spain and named San Salvador. In 1493 Columbus returned to Spain thinking he had indeed found the way to India. He called the inhabitants of the land he had discovered "Indians." Columbus wrote to Isabella suggesting how Spain should deal with the Indians: 

"I have to say, Most Serene Princess, that if devout religious persons knew the Indian language well, all these people would soon become Christians. Thus I pray to Our Lord that Your Highness will appoint persons of great diligence in order to bring the Church such great numbers of people. . ."

Soon after Columbus returned to Spain, new expeditions set out to trade in the newly discovered territories and to Christianize the natives. By the time of Isabella's death in 1504, Spain was on the way to building a huge overseas empire.

            As other explorers prepared to sail west after Columbus, Spain and Portugal began to quarrel over who had the right to take control of overseas territory. Inspired by the crusading spirit, both countries assumed that they had a moral right to impose their will on non-Christian countries. To prevent bloodshed between the two Christian nations, in 1493 Pope Alexander VI drew an imaginary line on the globe dividing the world into two parts. All new territories east of the line were to belong to Portugal; all territories west of the line would belong to Spain.

            Columbus went to his grave believing that he had discovered the Indies. Other explorers, however, were not so sure. Amerigo Vespucci () for whom the Americas were later named, claimed that the land Columbus had found was not India, but in fact a "New World." In 1513 a Spanish explorer named Vasco Núñez de Balboa strengthened Vespucci's claim by crossing the Isthmus of Panama and discovering a great expanse of water, which he called the Pacific, or "peaceful" Ocean. In 1519 a Portuguese navigator sailing for Spain named Ferdinand Magellan proved beyond any doubt that the New World was separate from Asia.

            Magellan sailed west from Spain, around the tip of South America and on into the Pacific. He was killed in a skirmish with natives on the Philippine Islands. Only one of his five ships completed the voyage eastward back to Spain, but by 1522 members of Magellan's crew had become the first Europeans to circumnavigate, or sail a complete circle around the globe. The path now lay open for the nations of Europe to trade and build empires around the world.

Northern European Explorations

While Portugal and Spain looked west and south for new routes to the Indies, in northern Europe merchants looked first to the northeast, through the Baltic Sea and Russia. It was a natural choice. The revival of trade during the Middle Ages had led to increasing commercial development in northern Europe as well as in the Mediterranean. Northern merchants carried not silks and spices but more mundane items, such as furs, timber, wax, salt, and grain. By the early 15th century a loose association of merchant-controlled cities on the Baltic coast of Germany, known as the Hanseatic League, held the same kind of monopoly in the Baltic and North Sea routes that the Italian city-states exercized in the Mediterranean.

The “Northeast passage”. Just as Portugal and Spain tried to find new routes east to avoid the Venetian-Muslim monopoly, so northwestern European countries, especially England and the Netherlands, began to look for ways around the Hanseatic League. At the same time, as the Reformation disrupted normal trade between the northern Protestants and souther Catholics, northern merchants also began to dream of using a northeeastern land and sea route to make direct contact with China. Soon they began to challenge the League by sending their own expeditions through the Baltic and the North Sea.

            In 1553, for example, about two hundred English merchant adventurers pooled their resources to establish “The Merchants Adventurers of England for the Discovery of Lands, Territories, Isles, Dominions and Seignories Unknown.” Receiving a royal charter, they decided to concentrate on establishing a northeastern route to China. Since this meant going through Russia, they became known simply as the English Muscovy Company.

            As the Muscovy Company soon discovered, expeditions of exploration were risky ventures. No single merchant could afford either the ships or the men. In 1553, for example, the Company outfitted three ships under the command of Sir Hugh Willoughby, a soldier of some fame but with no knowledge of the sea. Missing their designated landfall, Willoughby’s vessel and one other had to winter off the coast of Lapland, where they became icebound. The next spring Russian fishermen found the bodies of all on board both ships frozen solid.

            Meanwhile, however, the third ship, commanded by the expedition’s navigator, Richard Chancellor, landed at the chosen spot, Archangel, and then traveled south to the court of Ivan IV in Moscow. There Chancellor obtained the Muscovite ruler’s permission to trade in Russia. Chancellor himself was lost three years later when his ship, bringing the first Muscovite ambassador to England, Osep Nepeja, foundered off the coast of Scotland. Chancellor’s replacement, Anthony Jenkinson, went back to Russia, and then on by land to the Caspian Sea and Bokhara in Central Asia. Eventually he arrived at the Persian court. Trade proved impossible at the time, however, since Persia was at war with the Ottomans.

The “Northwest passage”. As it became clear that there was no easy northeast passage to the Indies, English, French, and Dutch explorers turned their attention instead to the northwest. They too wished to increase their national wealth as Spain and Portugal had done. At first, therefore, they treated the newly discovered continents as an obstacle to the real objective, the Indies. Explorers financed by the English and French kings eagerly sought a supposed "Northwest Passage" around the "New World" to India and China.

            Such ventures were largely organized by means of the new joint-stock companies that had first been developed by Italian merchants. Frequently, however, senior members of the government, sometimes even the monarchs themselves, contributed to the expeditions in expectation of enormous profits. To guarantee a monopoly on any trade they might develop, such companies sought Royal Charters.

            As they realized that such passages did not exist, however, the northern European nations turned to other means of making the new discoveries pay off. English and Dutch ships, for example, often raided Spanish and Portuguese trade in the Caribbean and southern Atlantic, along what became known as the Spanish Main. Further north, English, French, and Dutch explorers began to lay claim to land in the new western continent for themselves and their masters in Europe. If they could not reach the riches of Asia, perhaps they might yet find gold and silver in the Americas. A new era of European expansion and colonization was about to begin.