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Exploration before the late fifteenth century was largely limited to land travel. To be sure, ships were used on the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean trade routes for centuries, but they were linked up to land routes through Persia, Arabia, northern Africa, or central Asia on the Silk Road.

Eager to eliminate Muslim middlemen and discover more efficient trade routes to Asia, the Portuguese and their Iberian rivals, the Spanish, set out to sea. Advances in navigation, ship-building and the development of gunpowder weapons allowed for increased sea travel. These “floating empires of the wind” soon controlled major shipping routes in the Indian Ocean, Indonesia, and the Atlantic Ocean.

The increase in European trade encouraged by the formation of the Hanseatic League and the Crusades spawned a search for new, efficient trade routes on the seas. Portugal led the way because it was strategically situated near the coast of Africa, had long-standing trade relations with Muslim nations, and, most important of all, was led by a royal family that supported exploration (King John I of Portugal’s most famous son was Prince Henry the Navigator). In 1488, Portugal financed a voyage by Bartholomew Dias who rounded the tip of Africa (which became known as the Cape of Good Hope). In 1497, Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope, explored the east African kingdoms, and then went all the way to India, where he established trade relations.

Shortly thereafter, Spain, which had recently been unified under Isabella and Ferdinand, wanted in on the action. As you well know, in 1492 Christopher Columbus convinced them to finance a voyage to reach the east by going west. While those who were educated understood that the earth was a sphere, few people understood how large it was. Despite the fact that some scholars had accurately estimated the earth’s size, most people, including Columbus, thought it was smaller. As a result, Columbus thought that China and India were located where the American continents are. He sailed, found Cuba and the islands that came to be known as the West Indies, and the exploration of the Americas was underway.

By 1494, Portugal and Spain were already fighting over land in the newly found Americas. To resolve their differences, the two countries drew up the Treaty of Tordesillas, which established a line of demarcation on a longitudinal (north-south) line that runs through the western Atlantic Ocean. They agreed that everything to the east of the line belonged to Portugal; everything to the west belonged to Spain. The western side was enormous (they had no idea how enormous at the time) so Spain became a mega-power quickly. Brazil happened to lie to the east of the line, which is why modern-day Brazilians speak Portuguese instead of Spanish.

Soon, England, the Netherlands, and France launched their own expeditions. These seafaring nations competed with each other by rapidly acquiring colonies and conquering new lands. The cost and risk associated with these explorations made it necessary for explorers to rely on the backing of strong and wealthy states. In addition, merchants wanted protection for their trade routes, which could also be acquired through allegiance to a particular sovereignty. Colonialism and the expansion of the trade routes contributed to the rise in nationalism and the development of strong monarchies.

A quick list of other explorers

· Amerigo Vespucci—He explored South America on several trips around 1500; realized that the continent was huge and not part of Asia; America was named for him.

· Ponce de Leon—In 1513, he explored Florida for Spain in search of the fountain of youth.

· Vasco de Balboa—In 1513, he explored much of Central America for Spain; laid sight on the Pacific Ocean.

· Ferdinand Magellan—In 1519, he sailed around the tip of South America to the Pacific Ocean for Portugal. He made it as far as the Philippines, where he died; his crew continued, however, and became the first to circumnavigate the globe.

· Giovanni da Verrazzano—In 1524, he explored the North American coast for France.

· Sir Francis Drake—In 1578, he became the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe.

· John Cabot—In 1597, he explored the coast of North America for England.

· Henry Hudson—Beginning in 1609, he sailed for the Dutch, looking for a Northwest Passage to Asia. He explored the Hudson River and made claims to the area for the Dutch.

And Now a Word from Our Sponsors

Why, all of a sudden, were so many explorers sailing around the globe? Why didn’t this happen sooner? In the late fifteenth century, innovation was combined with determination to apply new technologies to political and economic goals. In addition to advanced mapmaking techniques, theAge of Exploration was brought to you by the following fine products:

· The Sternpost Rudder—Invented in China during the Han Dynasty, the sternpost rudder allowed for better navigation and control of ships of increasing size. How did it end up in the hands of the Europeans? Trade, of course.

· Lateen Sails—These sails, invented during the early Roman Empire, allowed ships to sail in any direction, regardless of the wind. This was a huge improvement to ships that were dependent on the wind, especially in the Indian Ocean waters, where monsoons kept ships docked for long periods of time. Once these sails were used regularly on the Indian Ocean routes, they quickly became standard on transatlantic voyages.

· The Astrolabe—Sailors used this portable navigation device, developed in the Hellenic world around 150 B.C.E., to help them find their way. By measuring the distance of the sun and the stars above the horizon, the astrolabe helped determine latitude.

· The Magnetic Compass—Borrowed from the Chinese, who developed it during the Han Dynasty, the magnetic compass traveled west through trade with Arabs and allowed sailors to determine direction without staying in sight of land.

· Three-Masted Caravels—These large ships employed significantly larger lateen sails and could hold provisions for longer journeys in their large cargo rooms.

To be sure, many of these inventions existed prior to the fifteenth century, but so much of history is about timing. In the late fifteenth century, these inventions had converged on one continent, a continent that was fiercely competitive about trade routes, newly wealthy, increasingly organized under strong leaders, and racing with the innovation and imagination of the Renaissance. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: The events of this time period are so interrelated that you can’t separate them. The era needs to be understood as one giant glob of inseparable, indistinguishable forces.

The New World: Accidental Empire

Although Columbus failed to locate gold or spices in the Americas, the next generation of Spanish explorers found great wealth in the Aztec and Inca Empires.

In 1519, Hernan Cortes landed on the coast of Mexico with a small force of 600 men. He found himself at the heart of the Aztec Empire, which you read about in the previous chapter. As you might recall, the Aztecs used the conquest of neighboring communities to secure humans for religious sacrifices. Many of these neighboring states loathed the Aztecs and were more than willing to cooperate with the Spaniards. Cortes alternatively subjugated or slaughtered those that were not.

Cortes, aided and guided by the resentful neighbors, first approached the magnificent Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan on horseback. Horses were as yet completely unknown in America (and in fact were introduced to the continent by Spanish conquistadores).Montezuma, the Aztec ruler, at first mistook Cortes, with his pale skin and horse legs, for a god. He sent a gift of gold to appease this new deity, but unfortunately for the Aztecs, this offering only fueled the appetite of the new conquerors. Because the Spaniards’ sole motivation for exploring the New World was to acquire gold and spices, the Spanish didn’t hesitate to seize Montezuma and begin a siege of Tenochtitlan.

Disease: The Ultimate Weapon of Mass Destruction

Although the Aztecs resisted the occupation and fought to rid their capital of the invaders, the Spanish had incredibly powerful weapons on their side, including diseases such as smallpox. These infections were completely new to the Americas, thanks to their geographic isolation prior to Europeans’ arrival, and quickly decimated the Aztecs, who had no natural resistance to them. The combination of disease, superior weapons, and assistance from Aztec enemies reduced the native population of the region from well over 20 million in 1520 to fewer than 2 million by 1580. Because so many of the deaths occurred in the first few years, the Spaniards were able to seize control of the empire by around 1525.

A similar fate met the Inca Empire. In 1531, Francisco Pizarro set out in search of the Incas with a tiny force of 200 men. Disease, superior weapons, and help from enemies quickly destroyed what little resistance the Incas could mount. By 1535, Pizarro was in control of the region.

Contrast Them: Expansion in the Americas versus Empire-Building Elsewhere

We’ve talked about a lot of empires that expanded into far-reaching territories: the Romans, the Mongols, the Muslims, and the Macedonians, for example. In each of these cases, the empires either allowed existing cultural traditions to remain intact, or converted the existing population to their way of doing things, forcibly or not. By contrast, in the case of the Americas, the existing populations were largely wiped out. In addition, huge numbers of people moved in, far outnumbering the number of natives that survived. Even the Mongols, who didn’t hesitate to wipe out communities in their paths, didn’t totally supplant the native populations the way the Europeans did in the Americas. Never before had an empire moved into such a vast territory that was so unpopulated (or, more accurately, depopulated). All of the other empires had to merge with, convert, or be converted by the existing populations. In the Americas, the Europeans created two new continents strictly in their own image.

The Encomienda System: American Feudalism

Once Spain established a foothold in the New World, thousands of Spaniards arrived to build a new colonial empire. The colonial society was a hierarchical organization. At the top were the peninsulares, the select group of Spanish officials sent to govern the colonies. Below them, thecrillos or creoles, were people born in the colonies to Spanish parents. Because they weren’t born in Spain, they were looked down upon by the Spanish monarchy and were consequently barred from high positions. Yet, because they were the children of Spaniards, the creoles were educated and wealthy, and after many generations, they were able to organize and demand recognition. They later became the leaders of the independence movements (more on that in the next chapter). Below the crillos were mestizos, those with European and Native American ancestry, followed by the mulattos, those with European and African ancestry. Finally, there were the native Americans, who had little or no freedom and worked on estates or in mines.

To run the empire, the viceroys, who were appointed governors of each of the five regions of New Spain, established the Encomienda System, which was sort of like a feudal system. The system provided the peninsulares with land and a specified number of native laborers. In return, the peninsulares were expected to protect the natives and convert them to Christianity. Shocked at the treatment of some of the natives, Christian missionaries appealed to the viceroys, emperor, and the Catholic Church to improve the natives’ lot. Some in the empire agreed that reform was needed, but disastrously, the reform that was viewed as most important was the need for more workers. They agreed to reduce the strain on the natives by bringing in new workers for the hardest jobs. Those new workers were African slaves. Not only was this a cruel and ironic way to solve the problem (relieve the burden on one group of victims by creating a second group), it ended up not improving the lot of the natives. Within a few decades, both slaves and natives were at the bottom of the social structure, and neither had significant rights.

The African Slave Trade: The Love of Money at the Root of Evil

Even before transatlantic voyages began, Europeans had begun exploiting a system of slavery that already existed in Africa. While many African tribes and nations practiced a form of slavery by requiring prisoners taken in battle to serve their captors for a period of time before being eventually released (when their captors judged that prisoners’ honor, lost in battle, had been restored by their service), Europeans traded guns and other goods to African leaders in exchange for their surplus slaves but did not understand (or chose to ignore) the custom of eventual release. By the mid-fifteenth century, the Portuguese were also capturing slaves while exploring the coasts of Africa. When the plantations (and mines) of the New World demanded more labor, the money-hungry empire builders knew where to go. And so began a forced migration of people that would forever change the fate of millions of lives and the history of the New World.

Some African rulers cooperated with the slave trade, while others protested, but they were in a difficult position—as demand for the transatlantic slave trade increased, Europeans became increasingly ruthless in their methods, kidnapping Africans in their own raids or pitting groups against one another through control of the weapons trade. Kings and other leaders faced the choice of cooperating with the Europeans or seeing their people seized or slaughtered. So the slave trade expanded. Africans were rounded up, forced onto ships, chained together, taken below deck, and forced to endure the brutal Middle Passage to the Americas. By historians’ best estimates, at least 13 million Africans were taken from the continent and carried to the New World; approximately 60 percent went to South America, around 35 percent to the Caribbean, and about 5 percent to North America. Along the way, some suffocated from the hot, unventilated conditions below deck, others starved or died from outbreaks of disease, and yet others were killed attempting revolt or jumped overboard to their deaths, preferring suicide to the dishonor of slavery. Based on slave traders’ existing records, historians believe average mortality rates were around 20 percent, though some voyages lost a much larger portion of their human cargo. Those that survived the journey were taken to the auction blocks, sold into slavery, and forced to work in plantation fields or in mines until their deaths, as were their children and their children’s children.

Focus On: Demographic Shifts

The demographic changes of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were, in a word, huge. The Aztecs and Incas were wiped out. Huge cities were depopulated. Europeans moved by the hundreds of thousands. Africans were forced to migrate by the millions. Cities in Europe swelled as the feudal system evaporated and urban, middle class merchants lined their pockets with the fruits of trade and empire. By 1750, the continents of Europe, Africa, North America, and South America were unrecognizable from their 1450 portraits.

The Columbian Exchange: Continental Shift

One consequence of the Spanish and Portuguese empires in the New World was what became known as the Columbian Exchange—the transatlantic transfer of animals, plants, diseases, people, technology, and ideas among Europe, the Americas, and Africa. As Europeans and Africans crisscrossed the Atlantic, they brought the Old World to the New and back again. From the European and African side of the Atlantic, horses, pigs, goats, chili peppers, and sugar cane (and more) flowed to the Americas. From the American side, squash, beans, corn, potatoes, and cacao (and more) made their way back east. Settlers from the Old World carried bubonic plague, smallpox, typhoid, influenza, and the common cold into the New, then carried Chagas and syphilis back to the Old. Guns, Catholicism, and slaves also crossed the Atlantic. Never before had so much been moved across the oceans, as ship after ship carried the contents of one continent to another.

The American food crops (cassava, corn, peanuts, and potatoes) that traveled east made population increases possible throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa. Urban populations and commercial interests grew throughout Europe and led to increased cultivation and enclosure of land. With increased cultivation came increased use of previously rural areas. Despite some threat of famine, shortages due to a long cooling period or “little ice age,” and out-migration, overall the trend throughout much of northern Europe was that of a growing population.

Two key products of the Columbian Exchange were sugar and silver. Sugarcane roots had arrived in the Caribbean from India with Columbus, who saw an opportunity to monopolize a profitable crop in a new environment. Sugarcane production resulted in the development of plantations throughout the Spanish colonies and an increased need for enslaved or forced labor once the Native populations of the islands declined. The results of the plantation system were brutal, dangerous labor and a transformation of the natural landscape.

The Spanish also monopolized the world’s silver market from the mines they controlled in Mexico and in the Andes Mountain of Peru. This industry also resulted in a harsh system of forced labor: the previously mentioned encomienda. Like the sugar plantations, early silver mining depended on Native labor until that grew too scarce to make a profit, when labor shifted to African slaves provided by Portuguese traders.

More importantly, Spanish control of Latin American silver opened doors in Ming China. Spanish access to the Philippines, China and the Pacific Ocean trade routes made the world a much smaller place.

The Commercial Revolution: The New Economy

The trading, empire building, and conquest of the Age of Exploration was made possible by new financing schemes that now form the basis of our modern economies. Though many elements had to come together at once for the new economy to work, timing was on the side of the Europeans, and everything fell into place.

First, the church gave in to state interests by revising its strict ban on what are now standard business practices, like lending money and charging interest on loans. Once banking became respectable, a new business structure emerged: the joint-stock company, an organization created to pool the resources of many merchants, thereby distributing the costs and risks of colonization and reducing the danger for individual investors. Investors bought shares, or stock, in the company. If the company made money, each investor would receive a profit proportional to his or her initial investment. Because huge new ships were able to carry unprecedented cargoes, and because the goods were often outright stolen from their native countries, successful voyages reaped huge profits. A substantial middle class of merchants continued to develop, which in turn attracted more investors, and the modern-day concept of a stock market was well under way.

These corporations later secured royal charters for colonies, like the Jamestown colony in Virginia, and funded them for business purposes. Even when they didn’t establish colonies, monarchies granted monopolies to trade routes. The Muscovy Company of England monopolized trade routes to Russia, for example. The Dutch East India Company controlled routes to the Spice Islands (modern-day Indonesia).

Increased trade led to an early theory of macroeconomics for the nations of Europe. Under the theory of mercantilism, a country actively sought to trade, but tried not to import more than it exported; that is, it attempted to create a favorable balance of trade. Trade deficits forced dependencies on other countries, and therefore implied weakness. Of course, one country’s surplus had to be met with another country’s deficit. To resolve this dilemma, European countries were feverish to colonize. Colonies gave the mother country raw resources (not considered imports because the mother country “owned” them), while creating new markets for processed exports. To further aid the effort, monarchies promoted domestic industry and placed tariffs on imports from competing empires. As you’ll see in the next chapter, once the Industrial Revolution was under way, mercantilism really took off.

It shouldn’t be surprising that mercantilism fostered resentment in colonies. The colonial resources were shipped back to Europe while the colonists were forced to pay for products from Europe. Add taxes, and you’ve got major resentment. You already know that the American Revolution was in part due to colonial fury over this arrangement. One by one, beginning with the America, European colonies revolted against the abuses by the unforgiving mercantilist economies of the European powers.

Oh Yeah … Remember Asia?

Recall that the original Portuguese explorers were trying to figure out a short cut to India and China. Once they stumbled upon a couple of continents along the way and began wiping out native civilizations, building empires, and forcibly transporting millions of Africans to do hard labor, they forgot the original purpose of their exploration. In time, European explorers, armed with bottomless resources of energy and greed, remembered and pursued the East.

Asian colonization didn’t really get rolling until the nineteenth century, so that will be covered in the next chapter. From the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, however, the Europeans managed to establish trade with the Asian empires, although it was more limited than they would have liked due to Asian protectionist policies and the difficulty of travel.

After making their way around the Cape of Good Hope, the Portuguese set up a trading post in Goa on the west coast of India. They also gained control over the Spice Islands by establishing naval superiority in the Straits of Malacca. In less than a century, however, other European powers coveted Asian riches. The Dutch, under the backing of the newly formed Dutch East India Company, conducted deliberate raids on Portuguese ships and trading posts. In the seventeenth century, the Dutch became the biggest power in the spice trades. Meanwhile, England and France set up trading posts in India.

As for China and Japan, both empires severely limited trade with the Europeans. Throughout this time period, the two Asian empires couldn’t have been more unlike their European counterparts. They were highly isolationist. Not only did they not go out and try to find the rest of the world, they also pushed the rest of the world away when it came to find them. You’ll read more about China and Japan in the next section.

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